That Veggie Tales Guy (2)

Here is the latest video on race by Phil Vischer. His original video and my comments about it can be found here.

There are a lot of problems, IMO, with this video even if you set aside the underlying worldview assumptions (much more on that below.) I'm not going to try to pick apart every single particular.

Phil is a very sharp guy, he's a professional media producer and story teller. What he does in this video, quite similar to his first video, is to first and foremost tell a story - cherry picking data that reinforces the story he wants to tell. In this case, Phil wants to tell a story about hopelessness.

In Phil's telling, the pathologies we see among the poor (e.g. family breakdown, drug abuse, etc.) are the result of hopelessness and that hopelessness is entirely an artifact of the economic conditions that prevail among the poor. The key point to make sure you get about his argument is that causality flows from poverty to pathology. In Phil's telling, poverty is never the result of bad behavior but only ever the cause of bad behavior.

If I were going to pick apart Phil's particulars, I might start with whether his propensity to attribute a uniform state of mind (i.e. hopelessness) to an entire racial demographic is even a legitimate way to think about the problem. It completely works if your goal is to elicit an emotional response, but it's highly dubious if you are really interested in understanding causality.

The second thing I would pick at is Phil's presupposition that poverty causes fornication. If that phrasing of Phil's argument felt kind of jarring when you read it, it might be because my rendering of Phil's argument is intentionally less cloaked in euphemism. No one can accuse Phil of not being smooth. And throughout the video, Phil smoothly averts our eyes from the moral agency of an entire race of human beings. By stating the moral implications more starkly, my own phrasing comes across as more provocative. But with all due respect to Phil's story-telling ability, "hopeless" is not how a guy, trying to convince a girl to have sex with him, is normally described.

We don't really learn much from Phil's video about whether the poor are really hopeless, and we certainly learn nothing about whether the observable social pathologies precede or follow their poverty. I find myself suspecting that what we really learn from Phil's video is that he himself would be inclined to feel hopeless were he in the same economic circumstance that he observes among the poor. Phil would probably be very surprised to discover that many of the people he is concerned about feel much less hopeless about their lives and choices than Phil does.

There are plenty of things to dislike about Phil's narrative, but mostly that's true if you assume that he's trying to make a rigorous empirical argument. What he's really doing is making an emotional appeal.

The more fundamental problem with Phil's story is the worldview, or lens, through which he suggests we understand the problem. In Phil's world, the moral choices of human beings should be understood entirely through the perspective of their quest for and accumulation of material things. I'm setting aside, for now, any consideration of whether the urban "poor" are really poor in any historical sense. When obesity is a problem among the "poor", it's likely that we've redefined the word "poor" in the 21st century. There's no question some of the people he's talking about are poor in a comparative sense (i.e. They have less material things than other people.) But that's an entirely different issue than the one Phil is concerned about.

Phil seems to have imbibed deeply from the well of modern superstition - the widespread belief, especially on the political left,  that our material circumstances determine our moral choices. Essentially he presents his narrative from the vantage point of belief in environmental conditioning - that we are programmed by our environment and our actions proceed from our programming. This point of view is more consistent with Freud than with the message of the bible.

From a biblical perspective, human beings are moral agents with a free will and are accountable for making right choices regardless of material or other environmental circumstances. The bible does not view human beings as creatures who can be programmed by their circumstances.

If Phil wants to understand the root causes of fatherlessness among the urban poor, he needs to develop an understanding of the underlying beliefs and ideas that animate the thinking of people who are making the kinds of choices that lead to producing children without fathers.

Anybody who is really interested in a first-hand exploration of these issues would do well by reading Theodore Dalrymple's book on the subject.

The other odd thing about Phil's worldview is his near obsessive belief that almost everything can be attributed to something the federal government is either doing or not doing. It's as if local communities, cultures, churches, families, and social service organizations don't even exist. In Phil's universe, everything we see is the result of either the malice or negligence of the federal government. Chuck Colson used to say  "When Jesus returns, he won't arrive on Air Force One". Phil would benefit from reconsidering the possibility that the U.S. federal government is not the magic mirror for understanding the world around us.  

I have no reason to think that Phil isn't genuinely concerned about the issues he is addressing. I'm not casting aspersions on his motives. I'm only pointing out that his story-telling ability exceeds his actual understanding. I suspect, though I don't know, that he doesn't have much first-hand experience or personal relationships with people who are exhibiting the kinds of pathologies he attributes to "hopelessness". At least, that's the way he comes across to me. He seems to have zeal without actual knowledge. That's unfortunate, because he can really tell a great story.

Written by

Keith Lowery

Follower of Christ. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Maker. Consumer of Data. Reader of Books. Writer of Code.