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Sunday 4 May 2014

Humor, Memes, and the Historical Roots of Inequality

Be warned that today, I'm going to ramble all over the place.

The News and Internet Memes

There are some items reported in various news media that seem to live lives far longer than what their inital value may warrant. This idiocy of mountainous coverage of mole hill news often appears to be the product of the dreaded "slow news day." Some of it is merely the churn of 24/7 news-on-demand where Andy Warhol's apocryphal 15 minutes of fame means that reporters and editors are obliged to create a metaphorical 24 hrs/0.25 hrs = 96 new news items per day. In a world with such a demand for the latest and greatest news items, it's no stretch to see that some of those 96 daily items of "news" will end up being mostly trivial coverage of mole hills to the detriment of reportage of mountains.

One can certainly find trivial news and its mockery aplenty. Small town newspapers abound with such items as:

"12:47 p.m.-- A resident of High Street reported that someone came into house while she was gone, shaved her dog and took her cell phone charger" (1)

Items like this often live far longer than is justified simply because they are humorous to just about anyone other then the soul who made the original report and now live long lives on the internet, passed in unnumbered Facebook and Twitter "shares." I have to wonder if the persistence of this particular item lives on because it evokes that episode of the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog where the Fred, the deranged barber pursued just about everyone but Muriel to give them a buzz cut (2).


The reduction of trivial though funny happenstance into memes on the internet has become as cliche as "all your base are belong to us" (3). The celebration and perpetration of the humorously trivial in the news by such venues like no doubt will be the subject of many anthropology and sociology dissertations for years to come. Sometimes it's not even the churn of news that sends such unimportant items into perpetual orbit on the internet. Back in 1994, back when web pages were really in their infancy, Compuserve still existed, USENET newsgroups were the rage and one could buy "Internet in a Box," someone passed a mimeographed page of church bulletin bloopers around in choir practice at my church in St. Louis. This venerable collection has since found its way onto the internet where one can find its several permutations on many church related blogs and websites (4, 5) where can one discover such gems like:

"Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please come early."


"The sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on the Water. The sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus."

Spreading harmless humor on the internet might arguably be one of the best uses. It is tempting to say that the proliferation of needless and trivial news might one of the worst, but it is not in comparison to the truly criminal uses of the net such as fraud, con jobs, sexual stalking of minors, and the like. In a world where every amateur blogger can pursue delusions of being a real journalist, items like

"Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation"

don't seem so bad.

Mountains from Mole Hills due to Politics

There are some items pursued in the news media that while newsworthy, do garner attention far beyond their worth. The Keystone XL Pipeline is one such item. Given the reality that there are hundreds of pipelines transporting both raw and refined fossil fuel products, the stink over the Dept of State Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline is unbalanced. Why this one pipeline and not others? Frankly, all pipelines present some risk of leakage, and while dilbit crude from tar sands is a bit nastier than light crude, any given natural gas pipeline is vastly more dangerous. A simple internet search on natural gas pipeline accidents vs. liquid fossil fuel pipeline accidents will bear this out.

I believe the persistence of this item in the news is likely that the Keystone project has become an example, a scapegoat target of environmental activists who object to not just one pipeline, but all pipelines and all activities related to products derived from tar sands. By deriding one project, they believe they are able to cast aspersions on all similar projects. While there are few unbiased websites detailing the Keystone XL Pipeline project; a half-way decent chronology of the project and opposition is up on Wikipedia and a relatively neutral examination of pros, cons and claims can be found at the reputable (6).

Frankly, given a choice between scaremongering about Keystone like

"this pipeline could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources and jeopardize public health" (7)

and a recirculated church bulletin blooper like

"At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What Is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice"

it's easy to see why many people eschew political dead horse beating on the news for laughs over the inanity of monorail cats (8)

Leonhardt's New York Times Article of 4 May 2014

Well, sooner or later, I am obliged by my own self-imposed rules for this blog to discuss someone being wrong on the internet, regardless of the appeal of church bulletin bloopers like

"The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday."

Today's subject is an article in the New York Times Magazine on a subject that really should have died weeks ago, namely the publication of Professor Thomas Piketty's book Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The article is by New York Times journalist David Leonhart with the title of "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable" (9)

New York Times Magazine articles are often pages and pages long, though there's often something in every one that's good. For example, I remember first reading about the murders, forgeries, and prosecution of the now infamous Mark Hoffman, in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. In contrast to the usual land and in-depth articles that usually grace the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Leonhardt's piece was really short, less than a page. The gist of it is that Leonhardt didn't grok all of Piketty's math on inequality trends so he called Piketty and asked him to explain. Piketty obliged.

Leonhardt then sums up some of Piketty's main points, namely that wealth inequality is growing, and has been getting worse with time and with the introduction of the tools and technology of modern productivity. According to Leonhardt's take on Piketty, wealth inequality was not as bad back in the pre-industrial days of agriculture because the basis of wealth, i. e. land, was static. With the introduction of modern tools and technology, that is not longer the case: the means of creating wealth, i.e. tools and technology, has been increasing since the industrial revolution and this results in both the creation of more wealth and more wealth inequality.

Granted, as I said in an earlier blog post, I have not read Piketty's book and probably will not do so until I can score an inexpensive copy. So I don't know what Piketty really said vs. what Leohardt thinks he said - though given that he actually bothered to call Piketty, I'm willing to give him more credence than a lot of other articles I've seen on Piketty's book. So on top of everything, you have to rely on my understanding of what Leonhardt said Piketty said, which may or may not be accurate - but Leonhardt's article is short so if you're interested, go read it for yourself.

What's important here is Leonhardt's statement based on Piketty's book that the wealth inequality gap is increasing and has been been doing so since the transition from agrarian to modern industrial societies. He goes on to say that such a trend is not inevitable and that Piketty's now infamous solution is to redistribute some of that wealth through a universal excess wealth tax. Given how much I don't like economics, church bulletin humor looks better by the second in comparison.

More Reactions to Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Maybe I shouldn't be running on at the keyboard here over a book I haven't even read yet, but the ridiculous obsessing over Piketty's book for the last month is really getting to be a bit much. Granted, a lot of the reaction to the book has to do with conservatives having a cow over the obvious Marxist leanings which are explicit in the book. After all, words like communist, Marx and wealth redistribution are enough to give any American Cold War vet the heeby geebies. McCarthy must be rolling in his grave!

The Economist has published a rather nice little commentary on the reaction to Piketty's book and its longevity thus far in the press because, frankly, it's just a book on economic theory (10). One could make a case that Piketty's book is really just a mole hill that's gotten mountain-status coverage in certain media venues because it contains buzz words and economic proposals that are contrary to American cultural norms of red bashing. American supply-side and monetarist economists, political conservatives, and their political supporters, many of whom probably can't even discuss Marx vs. Lenin vs. Stalin vs. Trotsky vs. Adam Smith, are apt to react to such words that have more to do with political camp than with true economic evaluation. Okay, I concede that I might not be entirely fair in my estimation of the general knowledge of American conservative rank and file.

For a book on ecomonic theory which is full of the kind of economic arm-waving math that I personally have little patience for, I find the reaction way out of whack. Piketty's book in his native French was published in France a year ago and hardly made any waves in Europe. An academic French economist wrote a review for a left-leaning publication in France that criticized the work for not being, well, more to the left (11)! As I noted in my first blog post on Piketty's Capital, the current reaction over the English language publication of this book has more to do with one's politics than with the actual book itself (12).

Just like the treatment of some of the trivial news items on slow news days, the coverage in the English-language press to Piketty's Capital is a mountain in reaction to a mole hill of a book.

Have you ever read the anti-federalist responses to the Federalist Papers? When we read the Federalist Papers or read about them in American History classes, the 85 different articles making up that work look like a coherent collection of essays in favor of the U.S Constitution. What we don't learn, or learn and then forget, is that the Federalist Papers were not a coherent, planned and crafted seamless set. Each of those "articles" was really an editorial in a late 18th century newspaper, published in various cities by different authors over a period of two years (1786-1787). As these articles were printed, rebuttal editorials by anti-federalist opponents were also being published in the early American post-Colonial press (13). The give and take was hardly give and take; the exchange between the two groups was heated and often polite to the point of nastiness. Even accusations of wanting to reestablish some kind of monarchy or tyranny were leveled against the Federalists as well as predictions of robbing the individual states of their sovereign power through the economic evil of one unified monetary supply for all the States. Some of the other anti-federal accusations were just as off the wall.

Some of the exchanges in the modern press in this country remind me at times of the spats in the newspapers of post-Colonial early America between the Federalists and their anti-federal opponents. Tea Party true-believers and "the government is the problem" "starve the beast" Reaganoid conservatives sound a bit like those old anti-federalists to me at times.

Someone Was Wrong on the Internet?

Now that I've rambled from French left-leaning newspapers, the U.S. Constitution, shaving dogs and church bulletin bloopers, I should probably explain what it is about Leonhardt's article that makes it a worthy target of this blog.

First, Leonhardt's title for his article does not actually match the content of his article. His title conveys that wealth inequality itself is not inevitable. The body of the article states that the trend of ever-increasing wealth inequality is not inevitable, and that this is one of the main arguments of Piketty's book and also the basis for Piketty's wealth tax proposal as a means to reverse that very trend.

So what so wrong with that?

To begin, the title is misleading and also, it's wrong. Wealth inequality is an intrinsic feature of civilization. Hierarchy and social stratification are a feature of the Civitas. You don't have one without the other because agriculture, the defining act of any so-called "civilized" state, requires organization and specialization. Where you have organization and specialization, you will have social stratification and hierarchy creation, which lead to the unequal allocation of wealth across social classes.

The transition between primitive societies and the creation of the Civitas - or "civilization" occurs at the hunter-gatherer to agrarian transition. To support these very broad statements, I will now appeal to the work of one of the most prolific and respected encyclopedic historians ever, Will Durant.

Based on studies of Amerindians, Eskimoes, Samoans, Borneans, Amazoneans, Cittagong Indians and tribal cultures where land was not something anyone owned, where crop gathering was supplemental to hunting and organized agriculture did not yet exist, Durant pointed out that the means for survival were shared and differences in personal wealth were trivial. He labeled such societies as being truly communistic both in regard to food and to land. He also considered the members of these societies to be egalitarian though primitive, uncultured, and somewhat lazy. Yes, he really did said lazy, which makes sense for something written in the 1930s, which is when he wrote the passages I'm currently looking at (14). He had no knowledge of Sackett's famous (infamous?) study that settled the hunter-gatherer vs. agricultural work debate that raged for almost 50 years, showing that people do less work and have more leisure time in hunter-gatherer societies compared to agrarian societies (15).

When I was reading Leonhardt's article, I noted Leonhardt's paraphrase of Piketty's idea that the static nature of pre-industrial society meant wealth inequality was more or less stable, namely:

"He suggested imagining a hypothetical village from centuries ago in which neither the population nor the economy was growing. Every year, the village produced the same amount of goods for the same number of people to divide — a reality that was typical before the Enlightenment, when material living standards and human longevity barely rose. (The peasants of the 15th century were not better off than peasants in ancient Rome.)"

Reading this, I thought to myself that Piketty might be a brilliant economist, but he is no historian. In particular, I remembered a passage in Will Durant's first volume in his acclaimed History of Civilization series, a work which - like Gibbon's - is more than just a history. It was a passage that contradicted this view that the economic inequality of pre-modern agrarian societies was static and stable. It took me a little while to find it. You can read it for yourself and see why I contrasted it with Piketty vis a vis Leonhardt:

Perhaps one reason why communism tends to appear chiefly at the beginning of civilizations is that it flourishes most readily in times of dearth, when the common danger of starvation fuses the individual into the group. When abundance comes, and the danger subsides, social cohesion is lessened, and individualism increases; communism ends where luxury begins. As the life of a society becomes more complex, and the division of labor differentiates men into diverse occupations and trades, it becomes more and more unlikely that all these services will be equally valuable to the group; inevitably those whose greater ability enables them to perform the more vital functions will take more than their equal share of the rising wealth of the group. Every growing civilization is a scene of multiplying inequalities; the natural differences of human endowment unite with differences of opportunity to produce artificial differences of wealth and power; and where no laws or despots suppress these artificial inequalities they reach at last a bursting point where the poor have nothing to lose by violence, and the chaos of revolution levels men again into a community of destitution. Hence the dream of communism lurks in every modern society as a racial memory of a simpler and more equal life; and where inequality or insecurity rises beyond sufferance, men welcome a return to a condition which they idealize by recalling its equality and forgetting its poverty. Periodically the land gets itself redistributed, legally or not, whether by the Gracchi in Rome, the Jacobins in France, or the Communists in Russia; periodically wealth is redistributed, whether by the violent confiscation of property, or by confiscatory taxation of incomes and bequests. Then the race for wealth, goods and power begins again, and the pyramid of ability takes form once more; under whatever laws may be enacted the abler man manages somehow to get the richer soil, the better place, the lion’s share; soon he is strong enough to dominate the state and rewrite or interpret the laws; and in time the inequality is as great as before. In this aspect all economic history is the slow heart-beat of the social-organism, a vast systole and diastole of naturally concentrating wealth and naturally explosive revolution.

As I acquired more volumes of Durant's History of Civilization, initially from my father who had several first editions, and then later filling in the gaps from purchases at used book stores, I read them all. It is a theme, subtle but explicit throughout Durant's opus that the inequalities of wealth in pre-modern societies were anything but static and stable. Durant clearly saw a pattern of where the cruelty and/or greed of some elites in certain societies led to inequalities of wealth and privilege so unjustifiable that those with nothing to lose would rebel, sometimes to fail and sometimes to topple their rulers, redistributing wealth and not always equitably. He noted the pattern in the Spartan Helots revolts; the patrician-plebeian class war of the early Roman republic; the Gracchi, Jacobins and Russian Communists mentioned above; as well as the Jacqueries of 14th century France.

Durant saw cycles in history of recurring struggle between the haves and the have-nots. While his initial statements in this area of historical interpretation was limited to economics and did not account for the effects of religion and propaganda in co-opting and coercing the lower classes in their servitude, like in Ancient Egypt to build the Pyramids, his point was made about the patterns of wealth distribution and class warfare. One only needs to look at the historical records to know that wealth inequality was anything but stable and static in the pre-modern pre-industrial agrarian world. Piketty is right in the statement that wealth inequality has been growing since the industrial revolution and Durant agrees with that (16), but Piketty is wrong in considering the wealth inequality of pre-modern societies as a constant. The European peasants of 15th century were likely serfs and probably were much worse off than the free citizen peasant farmers of the Roman Republic of Antiquity, but probably better off than the chain-gang latifundia slaves of the late Roman Republic and Empire. The Devil is in the details.

Wealth Inequality in Perspective

The internet can trivialize even the most profound of great thinkers. There may be a lot more to Piketty than one can extract from too many politically-biased editorials commentaries; for now, however, just a small sampling of Durant's encyclopedic vision across the vast landscape of history is enough for all that internet drivel to seem rather flimsy and much ado about nothing. Frankly, given the bankrupt profundity of politically-motivated biased journalism on the internet, I think I much prefer my church bulletin gaffs:

"This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar."

References, on the casual side

  1., accessed 4 May 2014
  2., accessed 4 May 2014
  3., accessed 4 May 2014
  4., accessed 4 May 2014
  5., accessed 4 May 2014
  6., accessed 4 May 2014
  7., accessed 4 May 2014
  8., accessed 4 May 2014
  9. Leonhardt, D. (4 May 2014), "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable," New York Times Magazine, p. MM23, also, accessed 4 May 2014.
  10., accessed 3 May 2014
  11. De La Gasnerie, G. (18 Oct 2013), "Le manifeste inégalitaire de Thomas Piketty," Liberation,, accessed 3 May 2014: e.g. " il n’est jamais question de domination sociale et culturelle, de violence, de relégation, d’exploitation, d’aliénation au travail, de classes, de luttes, etc." To be completely honest here, I found out about this review from reading the Economist, namely in an commentary piece at, accessed 3 May 2014
  12., accessed 4 May 2014
  13. I had a collection of the Anti-Federalist Papers when I was in high school competing in the American Legion annual oratory competition on the Constitution. I got a lot of good material for my speeches from that book, though alas, I came in second in my state the last time I competed and never got to go to the National level of competition. But that collection of anti-federalist material really expanded my knowledge of the formation of the this country beyond anything I learned at school. You can find a decent selection of the sorts of anti-constitution editorials that were being printed in early US newspapers at (accessed 4 May 2014) if you'd like to see what sort of acrimony was in the air just before the Constitution was written and ratified.
  14. Durant, W. (1935, 2014), Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, NY: Chapter 2 Ther Economic Elements of Civilizations, part 3 Economic Organization.
  15. Sackett, R. (1996), Time, energy, and the indolent savage. A quantitative cross-cultural test of the primitive affluence hypothesis: Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
  16. Durant, Will (1935, 2014). The Complete Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Life of Greece, Caesar and Christ, Age of Faith, Renaissance, Age of Reason Begins, Age of Louis ... and Revolution, Age of Napoleon, Reformation (Kindle Locations 621-636). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
  17. Ibid, Kindle Locations 637-639

Monday 9 December 2013

Gush Lim-Blah and the Poop

Today's title was inspired by the ending to a now very dated satirical webcomic on Rush Limbaugh. A link to it is provided at the end of this blog post. There are so many forms of being wrong on the internet today that I have provided a list.

Today's varieties of wrongness:

  1. Name-calling
  2. Ad hominem attacks
  3. Straw man arguments
  4. Lying with Statistics
  5. Smoke and mirrors word redefinition
  6. Ignorance of the facts

Willful self-congratulatory stupidity just makes me mad, especially when the target of that stupidity is good man taking a stand against the insidious and subtle evils of the modern world. You've likely seen this subject already in the news, but unlike real paid journalists, I just can't drop everything to write stuff in an optimally timely manner. Welcome to the world of amateur blogs.

Let's introduce the players in today's melodrama of being wrong on the internet. The representative of self-congratulatory stupidity, well known throughout the free world as the flag-bearer of anti-intellectualism, is none other than that paragon of bombasticism, Rush Limbaugh. And in the role of the good man is one of the world's foremost professional good men, Pope Francis.

Okay, I admit it. I just slammed Limbaugh with some name-calling. To split hairs, it's not an ad hominem attack unless I use someone's real and/or alleged character defects as part of my argument for why someone is wrong. I haven't done that and I'm not going to do that. The messenger is not the message. All I've done so far is express my dislike for Limbaugh by sharing my opinion that the pundit is as sharp as a marble as far as critical thinking is concerned, based on my personal experience of listening to his radio show. I find he's good to listen to when I'm trying to ward off fatigue on long-distance drives: I don't fall asleep at the wheel if I'm yelling at the imbecile on the radio!

Opening Salvos

For those of you following the news, it's pretty obvious that Pope Francis has been making a lot of smart and smooth moves as covered by the world's news media, which is even more impressive when you consider that just about every thing he's done shines with authentic sincerity. On November 24, he issued his first Apostolic Exhortation called Evangelii Gaudium. The title translates to Joy in or joy of the gospels. For those of you who remember your Latin, you know there isn't an exact one-to-one mapping between evangelii and gospels. The evangelii here refers to the four evangelists, i.e. the four authors of the canonical gospels; the term evangelii can be used to refer to them or to their works. It is in this latter context that the Pope has used evangelii, so the word carries a nuance that is lost upon translation into English. It's really a lovely title with all its Latin nuances, something that only the older generations of Catholics with their exposure to church Latin would pick up on without coaching or explanation. I sometimes feel a little sorry for younger Catholics who missed out on hearing Latin mass as children, who might be forgiven for thinking that Agnus Dei was a sister of Doris whose name had been misspelled. (You can take the gal out of parochial school but you can't take the parochial school out of the gal...)

I confess that I did not bother to read Evangelii Gaudium when it came out. I tried when I was younger to slog through the various writings of Pope John Paul II. For example, I do not doubt the value of John Paul II's catechism (1,2) when it came out, but in comparison to my old Baltimore Catechism, I find the latter is clearer and easier to use. Brilliant post-Vatican II theology is all well and good but your average parishioner needs explanations of doctrine that one can put on and wear for everyday use without struggling for an out-of-reach zipper. I didn't even bother reading Pope Benedict since Benedict is a modern Catholic theologian, and like most traditional modern Catholic theologians, the man is guilty of writing truly treacle-like prose.

My familiarity with Evangelii Gaudium is all Rush Limbaugh's fault. Maybe I shouldn't feel quite so vexed with the man since I would not have sampled Pope Francis's wonderful and simple prose without Limbaugh's extraordinary reaction to it. If you're feeling brave, you can sample Limbaugh's comments on Evangelii Gaudium here: (accessed 07 Dec 2013).

It's forgivable if you give up a third of the way through. Limbaugh repeats himself in a disorganized way; and if you've read the first ten paragraphs, you've really read the whole thing. You can actually listen to the show that this transcript is from since there are links on Limbaugh's website that let you do just that. Given that I didn't need to stay awake on any long-distance drives, I myself opted to read the transcript rather than listen to the recorded show.

Reading this wonder got to me. Even without looking at Evangelii Gaudium, I knew there were a number of things where Limbaugh was way off base. Here's an example: Pope Francis's condemnation of capitalism is no great first for the Catholic Church so why is Limbaugh going off the deep end over Pope Francis's version of this? Limbaugh never said boo back in 2007 when Pope Benedict said the same thing (3) about capitalism – and in a rather public way too. For more than a century, several popes have had unkind things to say about modern market capitalism and/or the exploitation of labor (e.g.: 3,4,5,6). This stance is hardly news to your attentive Catholic. What has changed is the Catholic condemnation of communism. One used to hear the Catholic condemnation of marxist communism and its descendents, leninism and stalinism, all the time. Then after John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (4) and the subsequent post-1989 collapse of communist governments, the Church's prominent and rather constant disapproval of communism evaporated with those governments' implosions.

Centesimus Annus was hailed as one of the great all-time critiques of communism, as great as Churchill's if not more so, and its author Pope John Paul II became the darling of the free world. So great was the Church's focus on communism that people missed John Paul II's critique of capitalism in that very same document. The Church's stand on soulless capitalism, the exploitation of labor and the cult of consumerism has always been there but the condemnation of communism drowned it out before the collapse of the iron curtain. Limbaugh's radio rant on the Pope got this wrong. Limbaugh notes what he calls a switch from Catholic condemnation of communism 50 years ago to a condemnation of capitalism today; however, he is ignorant of the facts since popes have been criticizing the abuses of capitalism since at least Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (6). By the way, Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical could be considered the template from which all subsequent papal pronouncements on communism and capitalism are descended, as it employed a rigorous scriptural basis through which it protested the excesses of unrestrained capitalism; urged the intervention of governments to regulate labor conditions and economic inequality; supported unions; and slammed all things with the taint of Marx. It's forgivable for most people not to know stuff like this, since after all, the fine details of what some pope said in an encyclical over a century ago is not everyday fare over breakfast; but for a professional pundit like Limbaugh, getting this wrong through an inability or disinterest in doing one's research is rather shoddy in my book. For someone like Limbaugh this is inexcusable since he can certainly afford to hire professional researchers to prevent this sort of foot-in-mouth blunder.

What Pope Francis Really Said

At this point, it wouldn't be a bad idea to read Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation – or if you're pressed for time, just read chapter 2. It's the economics of chapter 2 that set off Limbaugh and a few others. You can check out Evangelii Gaudium here: (accessed 07 Dec 2013).

Reading chapter 2 of Evangelii Gaudium is a good idea, at least in terms of this blog post. The rest of the Pope's document deals not with economic ideas but with a critique of the internal structure of the Church and with appropriate vs. inappropriate faith-based behaviors for Catholics in the context of the modern secular and technologically-advanced world. To oversimplify the Pope's message outrageously, Pope Francis wants his Catholics to put down the Wii, the iPod and the smart phone and instead become engaged in the upfront face-to-face life of the Church and the ministry of all believers to those in need. One of his main points is that you need to follow in the footsteps of Christ, and that you can't do that if you're distanced from those in need by the isolation of our newly-born technological infrastructure; by the pursuit of wealth or material things; or by hiding behind the dogma, liturgy or bureaucracy of the Church.

The Pope was not at all speaking in theoretical terms. He did plenty of pointing fingers and serving up examples in Evangelii Gaudium. In one example, he is very specific in his criticism of armchair Christians who sit passively at comfortable distances from all forms of human trafficking and exploitation; he pulls no punch in calling such people complicit in the crimes and injustices that oppress the powerless and disadvantaged, and accuses them of having “blood on their hands” for doing nothing. In another example, he asserts that it is not enough to champion the unborn and their right to life without also responding to the disadvantages and hardships of their mothers, and to the unjust social conditions and lack of real workable alternatives that make abortion look like the simplest and easiest solution for unwanted pregnancy and the creation of broken and untenable families.

If you take the time to read Evangelii Gaudium, the global perspective of its author is clear by its end. The Pope invokes specific examples citing conditions in Africa, Oceania and Asia; he cites the failure of Western economic theory by name; and if you're up on your world affairs, you can hear the sounds of the collapsed economies and juntas of Central and South America screaming at you from between the lines. This is the first pope ever with his roots in the New World and the Third World – and those roots are definitely showing here.

What Limbaugh Got Wrong - A Partial List

Now it's a bit of a chore to slog through Limbaugh's disorganized ramblings to distill out his major criticisms of Evangelii Gaudium:

1. Limbaugh believes Catholic Church would not exist or thrive in its present form if it were not for some undefined quality of capitalism, i.e.:

“If it weren't for capitalism, I don't know where the Catholic Church would be.”

This is an interesting statement of Limbaugh's which is unsupported by any sources or real arguments. If you take a few seconds to think about it, the Roman Catholic Church was founded in the Roman Empire, a society whose economics for a half a millenium depended on slave labor, the influx of plunder from foreign conquests, and the economic rape of foreign provinces. After the fall of Rome in the West, the Church flourished for over a millenium under the feudalism, a system based on a form of slavery called serfdom and on wealth based on the finite resource of agricultural land.

Early forms of capitalism were introduced in the 16th century in Europe with the creation of the first stockholder companies, invented to fund the large capital requirements of overseas trade adventures to the East and West Indies, coastal Asia and the Americas. It is noteworthy that Spain, the largest colonizer of the Americas and Oceania, developed its colonies through initial direct investment by the crown followed by subsequent investment funded by plunder; and where colonial government was based on a hybrid feudal system which employed enslaved natives. Like Rome before it, the dominance and power of Spain declined as the influx of silver, gold and slaves from the colonies declined in the eighteenth century as South American mines were mined-out and land available to the crown for land grants vanished.

It is difficult to say when modern market capitalism really came to the fore but the 1776 publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations is as good a marker as any: Smith's take on free markets and the creation of wealth marks the decline of colonial mercantilism and ushers in the foundational ideas of modern economic theory. Smith recognized that in market-driven economies, wealth was not tied to finite resources like land, but rather that wealth was created through knowledge, investment, labor and market conditions. Using The Wealth of Nations as our sign post, this implies that modern capitalism based on theories of wealth creation has been around for a bit over two centuries. If we do the math, the Catholic Church has spent a huge 10% of its existence under modern capitalism. For a religion that has survived and often thrived under almost every form of government, including religion-hostile communism, Limbaugh's assertion that the Catholic Church owes its existence to capitalism seems somewhat suspect, especially when no sound argument to support the assertion was given. Saying that something ought to be doesn't make it so.

2. The Straw man argument about the Vatican and money.

Rush stated:

“I gotta be very careful.  I have been numerous times to the Vatican.  It wouldn't exist without tons of money.”

Maybe I should break these three sentences apart into smaller bites for analysis and critique; but I wanted to present them in their original arrangement to give the reader an idea of the incoherent presentation innate in this Rush Limbaugh transcript. Perhaps the first two sentences reflect Limbaugh's concern that the Inquisition may be after him. Maybe Limbaugh should stop making trips to the headquarters of a church to which he does not belong for fear that the papal secret police from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might disappear him. Maybe Limbaugh should be seeing some professional help for that paranoia of his. Certainly if Rush Limbaugh vanishes off the streets of Rome, we now have a good idea where to start searching for him...

Now about that last sentence: I think it's a no-brainer that the Vatican would not exist without a lot of money. Buildings and their decoration cost money to build, and the Vatican houses the headquarters of the world's largest faith community. Does Limbaugh think this is not the case? Many of the world's most-famous structures were built with the resources and labor of their respective faith communities: the Shinto Temple at Nara, the now-destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Hagia Sophia, the Acropolis of Athens, the Pyramids of Gaza, the Church of St. Peter on Vatican Hill, the Blue Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the cave temples at Petra... The list could easily fill pages. My question here is what did Limbaugh intend with this statement? That money is more important than God for the inhabitants of the Vatican and the church it represents? That the great monuments of faith are somehow sullied by the wealth used to build and maintain them? Even if Limbaugh the non-Catholic Christian subscribes to the abhorrence of idolatry that's a major theme of American Protestantism, how can he justify a condemnation of adorning the places and objects of worship by the faithful when such practices are described in the Bible itself? Neither Solomon nor Josiah nor Cyrus nor Ezra were condemned for lavishing riches upon the first and second temples in Jerusalem. God himself gave Moses a shopping list of expensive luxuries for the construction of the Arc. It's okay to spend a few bucks to glorify God and adorn his shrines on Earth, so say the scriptures.

Personally, I believe this utterance about money at the Vatican is an attempt by Limbaugh to introduce a straw man argument into his critique of Pope Francis's economic criticism of the modern market economies. How much money there is or was at the Vatican has nothing to do with what the Pope thinks about the soullessness and materialism of modern culture. But that's the beauty of the straw man argument in any debate or argument: it looks related to the matter at hand when in reality it is not.

3. Limbaugh mistakes a secondary report as a primary source.

Limbaugh takes an excerpt from a Reuters wire service article ( , accessed 06 Dec 2013) and uses it as the direct utterance of the Pope rather than the secondary source that it is. Worse yet, he picked it up out of the Washington Post, not realizing that the article was off a wire service. Limbaugh then attacks various expressions from the Reuters article on the assumption they were direct quotes from the Pope when it turns out that the Pope said no such thing. This would be humorous if it weren't so pathetic.

For reference, here's what Limbaugh quotes out of the Reuter's article:

Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as 'a new tyranny' and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality, in a document on Tuesday setting out a platform for his papacy and calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church. ... In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the 'idolatry of money.

I think it's worthwhile to compare the above excerpt from the Limbaugh transcript with the original article since the former is cheery-picked. It's instructive to see what got left out by Limbaugh:

(Reuters) - Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as "a new tyranny" and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality, in a document on Tuesday setting out a platform for his papacy and calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church.

The 84-page document, known as an apostolic exhortation, was the first major work he has authored alone as pope and makes official many views he has aired in sermons and remarks since he became the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years in March.

In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the "idolatry of money", and urged politicians to "attack the structural causes of inequality" and strive to provide work, healthcare and education to all citizens.

Okay, the second paragraph doesn't say anything about what the Pope wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, so dropping it isn't fatal in terms of content; however, leaving out the second half of the sentence in the third paragraph makes me wonder why Limbaugh didn't want to expose the Pope's call for politicians to address the very real problems of employment, healthcare and education in many countries around the world.

4. Limbaugh puts words in the Pope's mouth:

This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. Unfettered capitalism? That doesn't exist anywhere.”

Of course the problem here is that the Pope never said that. “Unfettered capitalism” is from the Reuters wire service article. In fact, if you bother to do searches on the text of Evangelii Gaudium, you will find that the Pope never once uses the word “capitalism” in his text. Not once!

It occurs to me that my point 3, mistaking secondary sources for primary sources, may be the same as my point 4, putting words into the Pope's mouth. It's a good day to split hair so go for it if you want to split this one.

5. Limbaugh does not demonstrate a basic understanding of the economic systems he discusses.

I'm not sure that “discuss” is the right word here for what Limbaugh does. Invoke? Mention? Throw out as pejoratives? I'm open to suggestions.

Limbaugh is correct in recognizing that there is no pure unregulated market economy based on the modern capitalistic concepts of wealth creation. That's not really saying much since there never has been a pure unregulated capitalistic economy anywhere in all of history. Such a thing is impossible, for the simple reason that as a bare minimum every modern market economy regulates at least its money supply. On the flip side, in his next breath, Limbaugh equates the Pope's non-quote about the evils of the unfettered capitalism with pure Marxism.

I have to wonder if Limbaugh knows what pure Marxism is or if he has ever tried to read and understand Marx. After all, if you don't understand the political and/or economic theory of the system that you oppose, then how do you know what it is that you're really against? The simple answer is that you can't. You have to know and understand your opposition in order to effectively oppose them. Calling a criticism of unfettered or unregulated capitalism an utterance of pure Marxism says to me that Limbaugh does not know what he's talking about. He displays no real understanding of what Marxism is, nor does he understand the differences between pre-Marx theories of socialism, communistic vanguardisms such as Leninism or Stalinism, and the many non-Marxist forms of socialism, theoretical or applied such as the theories of John Stuart Mill or the hybrid Doi Moi socialist market economy of Vietnam. If Limbaugh took the few hours it takes to understand the words he uses, he might not have said anything so stupid as equating criticism of capitalism with pure Marxism, assuming that this isn't just a cynical exercise of demagoguery on his part After all, if we take criticisms of unregulated capitalism and put them into the mouths of politicians and economists who made the same or similar utterances, we would have to label Teddy Rooseveldt, Dwight Eisenhauer, and Milton Friedman as persons all guilty of having pure Marxism coming out of their mouths.

I'm all ears, actually if Limbaugh could possibly discuss how the Pope's criticism of unregulated capitalism is the same as the two fundamental concepts of Marx's theories, that 1) the goods and services produced by a society be divided according to both the contributions and the needs of each individual; and that 2) political and economic systems evolve through time, moving beyond primitive systems like superstitious God-shackled feudalism and refining to more advanced forms like capitalism, followed by socialism and finally reaching a pinnacle in communism. Given that Limbaugh seems to know nothing substantial about non-capitalistic economic theories, since he never uses words like Marxism, communism or socialism in ways that might exhibit that knowledge, but rather since he uses these words only as interchangeable pejoratives, I have no expectation that he understands anything outside of the voodoo supply-side economics he espouses – and to be truthful, I have to wonder if he even understands that. The bulk of his utterances over the years seems to suggest that he does know the meanings of the terms he throws around with such disregard, and that he cynically does not care since accuracy and intellectual honesty would not serve his purposes of rabble rousing and demagoguery. Well, to be honest, that's my personal opinion of Limbaugh's purposes; your own take on what it is that Limbaugh hopes to achieve may vary.

There are a lot of people out there on the conservative side of American politics like Limbaugh who are unrestrained in labeling anything they don't like as Marxism or communism or socialism or unamericanism or liberalism; and the reality is that they are using these words as pejoratives in contexts well outside of their dictionary definitions. Frankly, this is a form of intellectual dishonesty which people like Limbaugh exploit and unfortunately, there is no way to prevent this abuse of words so long as the these merchants of cultural discord do not cross the legal line of committing torts of slander and libel. What I find most disturbing is that this cynical shifting of the meaning and usage of words isn't harmless. It actually is a rather effective tool in the practice of propaganda, one that was employed brilliantly by the Nazis, no less. I don't think I exaggerate here. I have several sources on my bookshelf that describe this practice. Two I would recommend are the comprehensive but sometimes difficult Inhumanities, by David Dennis (2012, Cambridge University Press) and the shorter, accessible and beautifully presented State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, by Susan Bachrach and Steven Luckert (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009).

6. Examples of Limbaugh's Pejoratives

Here's something interesting and germane from Limbaugh's radio transcript on the subject of what constitutes Marxism:

Now, by the way, in fairness to the pope and in fairness to the Catholic Church, I will admit that communism years ago was much easier to see and identify than it is today.  And the obvious evil that was communism was easy to see.  Soviet-sponsored communism, the gulags, the First World military with the Third World economy, the blustery behavior of Soviet Communist Party bosses, the constant Soviet expansionism into Cuba and Sandinista land and Nicaragua and everywhere. Communism today is much more disguised. Communism today, in large part, is the Democrat Party.  Communism today is in large part the feminist movement. Communism today is found in most of the AFL-CIO-type unions.  As such, it seems just a political point of view.  It's just an alternative political point of view.  It's just the Democrats, and it's a much tougher thing to identify and target, because it can be your neighbor.  It's not some foreign country easily identified as "the Evil Empire."  Communism has a much different face today.  Identifying it is, I think, much more difficult today and takes much more guts to identify it today than in the past. 

Apparently Limbaugh feels that he's above paying attention to what professional economists and political scientists define as different economic theories. Keynes, Mill, and Friedman all would have agreed on the basics of what constituted socialism or communism, or the different branches of capitalism and market economics, but Limbaugh can't be bothered with what the real experts think. According to Limbaugh, if you belong to the AFL-CIO, you're a communist. If you belong to the Democratic Party, you're a communist. If you support anything espoused by the feminist movement, you're a communist. Well, I'm not a member of the Democratic Party and I don't belong to any unions other than the one that's my marriage; but I do rather support equal pay for equal work for women, meaningful maternity leave (i.e., more than a week or two) and affordable child care for working women too, so I guess that makes me a communist in Rush Limbaugh's eyes since all three of those are foundation planks of the so-called feminist agenda. Well now - what a revelation! According to Rush Limbaugh, I must be communist! And here I thought I was an old fashioned William Simon-style Republican, but it turns out I've been mistaken all these years.

Sarcasm aside, the whole communist rant in this Limbaugh radio program transcript is rather sad and pathetic. And it's really another straw man construct on Limbaugh's part since I fail to see how inaccurately labeling unions and the democratic party and feminists as communists has anything to do with any substantive critique of the Pope's comments on economics. It's really lovely classic Limbaugh rabid-dog froth but as a critique communist and marxist name-calling lacks any true substance.

7. It's all about America – NOT.

As I've already mentioned, if you take the time to read Evangelii Gaudium – and it takes a few hours – you will definitely walk away with the knowledge that this is a document that has the whole globe and everyone one on it in its focus. You can't accuse Pope Francis of short sightedness or a lack of perspective from what he wrote here. He doesn't think small.

In contrast to the universality of the Pope's message, here's Limbaugh's take on who the Pope is addressing and why:

Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States.

Limbaugh then takes the next twelve paragraphs to discuss how the democrats, the liberals, the progressives and the socialists, who are all communists by the way, are doing everything to regulate, fetter, and control our great American economy, destroy small business, force Obamacare down everyone's throat, prevent anyone from following the American Dream (tm), prohibit anyone for building wealth, etc., etc., etc. He managed to work in some nonsensical statements about how trickle-down economics are the only valid and true economics, how anything else is the tool of the liberals who are the same as democrats who are the same as progressives who are the same as socialists who are not different from Marxists which is same as the communists whose only goal is to destroy the great economic engine of America and destroy everything worth having and working for. Limbaugh didn't manage to work into his rant how regulating American small businesses and the passage of Obamacare threaten mom, baseball and apple pie, but I think he would have if he could have figured out how. Well, okay, maybe not – especially since baseball has been ruined by unions, and unions are a tool of big labor, which is a branch of liberal leftist feminist progressive democratic party, which is run by Godless communists.

Yes, yes, yes...that funny odor you're smelling is the scent of sarcasm. It's so hard not to cave into sarcasm when trying to write intelligently about anything Limbaugh says or writes.

My point here is that Limbaugh criticizes the Pope for spouting “pure Marxism,” misquotes the pope on capitalism, and then dances an allamande to the left on how everything is really all about the left's liberal socialist machinations to destroy the capitalist economy of our great country. That's right, it's all about the United States.

It matters not that the Evangelii Gaudium covers the world with its inclusion of problems, issues and examples from the First World to Africa to Asia and everywhere inbetween. For Rush Limbaugh, it's always all about America, even when it isn't.

I suspect if Botswana declared war on Maurentius over kiwi tarriffs, Rush Limbaugh would find a way to make it all about America.

8. Bogus Unemployment Statistics

There's a certain amount of satisfaction over nailing a pundit for lying with statistics. Rush Limbaugh has earned my awe for the most ridiculous off-the-wall fib using statistics I think I've ever seen. Now remember, this Rush rant is about the Pope spouting Marxism and unAmerican anti-supply-side economics, right? So here's the actual quote where Limbaugh lies using statistics.

We have a president who has attacked the structural causes of inequality, and what's he done?  He's raised taxes on the producers and the achievers for the express purpose of redistributing it.  All he's done is create massive debt.  He has destroyed jobs.  There are 91.5 million Americans not working in America today, 91.5 million not working.   All the while the president, 19 or 20 times, says that he's doing nothing but focusing on creating jobs, but he can't.  No government can create jobs, not in the private sector.

I really love how Limbaugh stays on topic. (Is that more sarcasm I smell?)

Now if I were to take to task every demonstrably incorrect thing Limbaugh has to say in this quote, I'd be busy for two to three thousand more words. There just isn't enough time in one's life to chase after every lunatic concept out of Limbaugh's mouth. Let me just address that unemployment statistic. I've already done one blog post on how the official government statistics on unemployment will always underestimate actual unemployment (7), something to be wary about for when politicians want to brag about the economy recovering from a recession or improving due to someone's stimulus or job creation legislation. Instead what we have here is Limbaugh arguing that the current president is responsible for 91.5 million American not working while claiming to be focused on job creation. Watch the number, folks: 91.5 million people are not currently working. This is a really beautiful lie because if you go and look at how people are not currently working today in America, you will discover that Rush Limbaugh did not lie. What he did, however, was not tell the whole truth in such a way that what he said was really quite dishonest. Now, 91.5 million is a lot of people, especially when you consider that the population of the United States is currently estimated at just under 320 million people (8). That 91.5 million people not working works out to be 28.5% of the country's population. That's a huge number as far as unemployment goes. And there's the catch. That 28.5% is not an unemployment rate. It's the total number of warm bodies who do not work, including babes in arms, retired folks, the chronically indigent, kids in school, convicts on death row, people who are counted in the official unemployment rate, the long-term unemployed no longer receiving unemployment compensation, the out-of-work self-employed who never were eligible for unemployment compensation, and those out of work who gave up looking after months to years of finding nothing. Given that Limbaugh did not say 91.5 million were unemployed – he used the term “not working” - then he didn't actually lie per se, but he sure didn't deliver the information in an honest manner, because that would show his insinuation about the job situation was unsupportable. If you go and look at the real unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (8), what you'll find is that both the official and unofficial unemployment rates have fallen every year since the official end of the recession in 2009.

It really is a beautiful lie, using a truthful statement to lead his audience to believe the exact opposite, an amazing work of art in prevarication.

Making an End to Limbaugh

I originally intended to say something about Limbaugh's really sorry rant on how millions of iPhones being made in China proved the validity and veracity of trickle-down economics; but in the wake of the Pope's eloquent critique of modern technological materialism, pointing out that Limbaugh completely missed the point just doesn't float my boat at this juncture.

Seriously, since it is obvious that accusing the Pope of Marxism is an exercise in demagoguery through the propagandized misuse of former real words as pejoratives, it probably wasn't necessary to go through all the trouble that I did to nail all the other problems with Limbaugh's rant on Evangelii Gaudium, like putting words in the Pope's mouth, mistaking an article off the Reuters wire service for a papal apostolic exhortation, willful ignorance of the history of published papal opinions on capitalism and communism, and demonstrating a lack of a basic generalist knowledge of economic systems. To be truthful, if I elucidated every problem Limbaugh has with the truth in this radio transcript, I would still be writing. I certainly would have had more spare time to spend on other pursuits if I had just skipped to the punch line about propaganda and pejoratives and left out all the other stuff – but it wouldn't have been anywhere near as fun.

I am hoping it will be a long long time before I feel the urge to detail why Limbaugh was wrong on the internet again. It's just too much work! Life is too short to waste of someone like Rush Limbaugh.

The Post Scriptural

Yes, the bad pun was intended.

Just because today's target was Rush Limbaugh, I went searching for a web comic I read years and years ago, back when people around Sacramento (where I lived at the time) could still remember Rush Limbaugh's annoying put-downs of the little farming town of Rio Linda from the time when he was just a local jerk on local talk radio. Well, the Way Back Machine at has most of the pages of this very early Patrick Farley (of Apocamon fame) web comic and if you're game for a good though dated jab at ole Rush and his talent on loan for God, you can find it at: (accessed 9 Dec 2013). Page 70 appears to be the only page that didn't load for me but all the other pages of this classic take-down of Rush Limbaugh are there. The artist, Patrick Farley, has done some wonderful stuff. Out of all his early stuff, done when he was a kid in high school and college, Rush Eats Everything is the one piece I wish he would put back up on his website, If you decide to check out the Electric Sheep Comix site, I highly recommend his delightful take of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine meets Pokemon, the unfinished but still worthy Apocamon, at (accessed 9 Dec 2013).

Brief and Sloppy Citations

  1. John Paul II. (1979). Catechesi tradendae. Vatican: Holy See , -ii_exh_16101979_catechesi-tradendae_en.html (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. Ed., 1995, USCCB Publishing, ISBN 978-0385479677, 846 pp. (I have to confess that my first edition personal copy is in a box somewhere in storage and that the citation here is one I found online for the 2nd edition.)
  3. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  4. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  5. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  6. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  7. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  8. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (2013). FRED (“Federal Reserve Economic Database”) (Android version 1.0.3, January 30, 2012) Mobile application software retriev... (Data accessed 08 Dec 2013).