Rep. Steve King made a very confusing speech on Friday. It was confusing, first of all, because anytime a congressman starts talking about the development of faith and rationality since Moses and doesn’t stop talking for 27 minutes, people are going to be confused. Second, I just don’t understand how someone who so obviously believes in having an open mind and in thinking critically can be so inconsistent and nonsensical.

King was defending a comment he made earlier this week about undocumented immigrants, in which he seemed to suggest that most undocumented immigrants who came across the border as children were smugglers, and in addition, that they are all underweight and muscular from hiking through the desert with drugs. He’s been roundly excoriated for saying so, including by the speaker. In his speech on Friday, he laid out the  evolution of the freedom of speech over three millennia, suggested that his own freedom of expression was being restricted, and challenged his opponents to debate him on the merits:

We’re not going to say, ‘You can’t get together and talk about these things,’ because we know that in open public discourse and dialogue–what emerges from that are, we believe in this reason that we’ve inherited from the Greeks and other civilizations–that what will emerge is the most logical, rational policy. That’s what I’m advocating for, Mr. Speaker. I want the most logical, rational policy.

Greek rationality, he claimed, somehow depended crucially on Mosaic law. I have no idea what he’s referring to, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to object to that aspect of his argument or any of the other moments of historical revisionism in the speech. To summarize King’s thesis, then, exercising the God-given liberty to debate issues publicly and express oneself plainly is a duty, and it leads to optimal policy. I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. Yet if King believes it himself, then he should grant that others have an equal right to mock him when he says things that don’t make sense. That’s how we develop good policy in this country.

The congressman went on to complain that others are not thinking critically about immigration. “We send our kids off to school and sometimes they’re just taught a mantra, but they’re not taught how to take ideas apart and understand the components of them and put them back together,” he said. Let’s take King’s ideas on immigration apart and describe some of their components. To be fair, after listening to his speech, I do think his remark earlier this week was taken out of context to some degree. He honestly meant not to insult, but to convey concern for the welfare of children involved in smuggling drugs with his comments about their weight and musculature. He truly is worried about the danger to anyone trying to hike into the country illegally through miles and miles of wilderness. “That’s appalling to me, the death across the Arizona border,” he said on Friday.

Oddly, he thinks the best way to act on his abundance of compassion for those people crossing the border is to make doing so more difficult and dangerous for them. His proposals would force them into even more inhospitable and remote territory. The goal seems to be to make it as likely that they die of a gunshot wound as of thirst. The fence has, predictably, made the crossing much deadlier, and the obvious way to help any children who might be involved in a cartel’s smuggling operation would be to tear it down.

Also, I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone has suggested removing penalties for trafficking or limiting this government’s efforts to pursue the cartels in Mexico. King was conflating two separate legal issues when he claimed that the bill “would legalize those people.” Additionally, the fundamental argument of the Dreamers stands. Whether a child is brought over illegally by their parents or is a paid mule for a cartel, they aren’t culpable for that decision.

Finally, King said that many of them had carried 75 pounds of marijuana with them across the border when they immigrated illegally as children, which is impossible. Since King has defended this number, I’m very suspicious of his sources in the border patrol. Their agency obviously has everything to gain from exaggerating the problem, and the idea that cartels would rely in any significant way on children to carry their goods on foot through the desert doesn’t make much sense anyway, just from an economic perspective. (Luke O’Neil catalogues King’s other errors.)

The question at this point is whether King is worth debating. Why bother to analyze his arguments at all, since they’re so shoddy? For me, the fact that King fails to satisfy the basic requirements of rationality makes his defense of the project of reason very interesting, and a little disturbing. Admittedly, he is only one datum. Yet he is able to explain what you might call the standard model of how competing ideas should develop into shared beliefs and public policy in a free country, while simultaneously demonstrating in his own person the total failure of that model.

You also can’t just dismiss the guy as a reactionary extremist, either. For now, Congress depends on the consent of people like him to take any real action, meaning that the views of the conservative wing of the Republican Party are effectively determining national policy. Boehner might have scolded King for comparing Mexican kids’ calves to cantaloupes, but he has not said anything about bringing the bill to a vote, which shows you where the real power in the House G.O.P. caucus is. Likewise, it’s the deniers of climate change who continue to determine the federal government policy by barring action. King made his views on this issue clear three years ago:

There have been many times in the history of the planet that we’ve had higher concentrations of CO2 than we have here today. There are a couple of German engineers that took that theory apart and proved it wrong in a lab. I’ve read through that, but I’d have to go back to school for a half a year or a year to tell you I followed every bit of their rationale. But the presumption of the Greenhouse Effect is at least, from what I saw, was pretty convincingly rebutted.

This kind of reasoning is reprehensible, and it is leading inexorably to global catastrophe and loss of life. Since this reasoning rejects the product of the scientific process, it is also difficult to reconcile with the belief King articulated in the ability of a group of people, talking reasonably with another and offering evidence in support of their views, to describe the world accurately and choose the best course of action. (Here is the paper he’s referring to, which was not subject to peer review. Here’s a compilation of responses. To summarize them, without the greenhouse effect, it’s difficult to account for the fact that the earth isn’t as cold as the moon.)

Let’s look again at how King describes rationality. The archetype he cites is Jesus’ exchange with the authorities in John 18:

The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. …”

The author’s concern throughout this gospel is with the standards of evidence and testimony appropriate to proving who Jesus is. Before his death, Jesus begins to describe one such standard. When someone’s view of the world is transparent and declared publicly, there are plenty of opportunities for others to object if there are grounds for objection. A person demonstrates her conviction and earnestness by making her views known. Gerlich and Tscheuchner, King’s German engineers, failed to meet this standard when they did not submit their manuscript for peer review. If they had, there would have been an opening, as Jesus implies next, for confrontation, for give and take. “Why do you ask me?” he continues:

“Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had heard this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

Jesus offers up his divinity to the exchange of point and counterpoint. We tend to think of faith as not being something to subject to argumentation, but John’s Jesus claims otherwise. The passage explains in what sense King is able to claim that participating in public debate is a God-given liberty: for John and his contemporary readers, the appeal to someone else’s reason went together with Christianity as means of liberating yourself from the arbitrary rule of the powerful in the ancient world.

Small consolation for the millions of immigrants living undocumented in the country now, for whom power must now seem as arbitrary as ever. Despite espousing an entirely sensible view of rationality, King and the party he represents remain thoroughly and frustratingly irrational.

Maybe there’s a problem with the standard model. Maybe, even when people claim to be trying listen carefully to their opponents, their views are inevitably determined by economic interests or personal hatreds. Maybe that is Jesus’ message in John 18. It could be that rather than arguing for a standard of evidence based in transparency and mutual dialogue, Jesus wants to demonstrate how inadequate are the methods we use in this world are for separating true from false. That possibility raises the same question a despairing Pontius Pilate asks at the end of the chapter: “What is truth?”

You can watch King’s speech here.

Post filed under Commentary.

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