Tagpolitics

reconsidering “evangelical”

Once more about this word “evangelical.” A number of organizations, of various kinds, around the country are rejecting the label, for reasons laid out my by friend and colleague Tommy Kidd here. This has been coming for a while. Last year I offered my defense of the term and my desire to “steal it back” from those who have appropriated and abused it; it has, after all, a long and noble history.

But now I’m starting to wonder whether I can steal it back. As I mentioned the other day, I’ve received a good many responses to my recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, and it’s interesting how many of them center on my description of myself as an evangelical Christian. There seems to be general agreement — among correspondents who aren’t likely to agree on much else — that being an evangelical means supporting Trump or at least Trumpism, despising all perceived cultural elites, making our public schools repositories of “Judeo-Christian values,” and so on. The only thing missing from all those descriptions is any sense that being an evangelical has something to do with the evangelion.

I look at these emails and think about the time it would take to address all the misconceptions; then I reflect on how pointless such an endeavor would be. Because what is my (historically-grounded) position against the whole world of social media? By what means might the term “evangelical” be restored to some genuine meaning? Beats me. I’d like to steal it back, but I may be forced to let it go.

In almost all democratic countries today, the ruling party appears rudderless, spiritless, bereft of ideas; energy may be found only in opposition.

politics

Politics is the art of living together and being ‘just’ to one another — not of imposing a way of life, but of organizing a common life. The art of peace; the art of accommodating moralities to one another.

— Michael Oakeshott, in a notebook

guides to the current moment

This is just a placeholder for a future, more-properly-thought-out reflection: since last November’s election I’ve noticed, in posts and articles trying to understand and explain the current American social disorder,  two figures assuming a prominence in our public discourse that they haven’t had in a while (if ever). One, invoked mainly but not exclusively on the right, is René Girard; the other, invoked mainly but not exclusively on the left, is Hannah Arendt. Now, for what it’s worth, I’m #TeamArendt all the way — I think Girard’s work is almost totally worthless, having, as Joshua Landy has demonstrated, roughly the same evidentiary foundation as Scientology — but what I’m really interested in is the rise of these two figures, among all that people could invoke, to explain the American scene today. That’s fascinating in itself.

litmus tests and revulsion

In trying to explain to National Review why she doesn’t apply a religious litmus test to judicial nominees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein in fact revealed that she does indeed have a litmus test. She says, “I have never and will never apply a religious litmus test to nominees — nominees of all religious faiths are capable of setting aside their religious beliefs while on the bench and applying the Constitution, laws and Supreme Court precedents.” But she is worried about an article Prof. Amy Barrett in which she acknowledged that situations might arise in which a Catholic judge’s faith commitments were at odds with what the law declares.

So Feinstein’s litmus test for nominees like Amy Barrett is this: Are your religious beliefs weak enough that you can effortlessly “set them aside”? The same logic was at work when Sen. Dick Durbin denounced Barrett for using the term “orthodox Catholic”: “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” he demanded. (“Are you now or have you ever been … ) And again when, a few months ago, Bernie Sanders challenged Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, about his views on soteriology — a branch of doctrine that has no possible bearing on public service.

What all these lines of senatorial questioning have in common is an open revulsion towards people for whom religious belief is consequential. It doesn’t really matter what you think the consequences are, or whether they bear on your job in any way: if you simply think that your religious beliefs matter, that is sufficient to bring you under suspicion.

And again, the form the suspicion takes is that of revulsion, revulsion tending towards outrage. It is hard to tell how much of the revulsion is performative and how much heartfelt, but of course the performative eventually becomes heartfelt. As Bertolt Brecht teaches us, “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” And in any case the claim, explicit or implicit, that religion matters is easily perceived as a challenge to those who don’t think it matters, or (more likely) who have never really thought about whether it does, and that is provocative. So look for much more of this kind of response in the years to come.

The Democrats’ religious tests for public office

I write, as a university president and a constitutional scholar with expertise on religious freedom and judicial appointments, to express concern about questions addressed to Professor Amy Barrett during her confirmation hearings and to urge that the Committee on the Judiciary refrain from interrogating nominees about the religious or spiritual foundations of their jurisprudential views. Article VI of the United States Constitution provides explicitly that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This bold endorsement of religious freedom was among the original Constitution’s most pathbreaking provisions. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), holding that the First and Fourteenth Amendments render this principle applicable to state offices and that it protects non-believers along with believers of all kinds, is among the greatest landmarks in America’s jurisprudence of religious freedom. Article VI’s prohibition of religious tests is a critical guarantee of equality and liberty, and it is part of what should make all of us proud to be Americans.

By prohibiting religious tests, the Constitution makes it impermissible to deny any person a national, state, or local office on the basis of their religious convictions or lack thereof. Because religious belief is constitutionally irrelevant to the qualifications for a federal judgeship, the Senate should not interrogate any nominee about those beliefs. I believe, more specifically, that the questions directed to Professor Barrett about her faith were not consistent with the principle set forth in the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause.

Christopher Eisgruber, President of Princeton University. Given that Senators Feinstein and Franken are, in this regard, following the pattern established earlier this year by Senator Sanders, it seems that it is rapidly becoming SOP among Senate Democrats to impose religious tests on candidates for public service, with the idea that those who hold traditionalist religious beliefs are ipso facto unfit for office. I would like to think that responses like that of President Eisgruber will restrain the explicitness of the Dems’ bias against commonly held religious beliefs, but I doubt that any such pressure will be effective. Who would ever hold Feinstein, Franken, Sanders et al. accountable? But even if the more vocal Senatorial opponents of traditional religious beliefs learn to hold their tongues, they won’t soften their bigotry. They’ll just learn to disguise it a bit.

nothing to see here

A crack reporter for the Los Angeles Times will later write that they were arrested for charging the police, which couldn’t be less true. A Berkeley cop tells me they were arrested for their own safety (and weren’t charged). When I catch up and reach the police line, the cops won’t let me past to follow my subjects. My reportorial dispassion has worn thin. I yell at the police for doing nothing, for standing by while two men could’ve been killed. One cop tells me there’s a thin line between solving one problem and being the cause of more, as though they’re afraid to offend antifa. I am sick at what I just witnessed. Angry, even. I wheel around on some protesters, asking them if they think it’s right to beat people down in the street. “Hell yeah,” says one. I ask them to cite anything Joey has said that offends them, as though being offended justifies this. A coward in a black mask says: “They’re f—ing Nazis. There’s nothing they have to say to offend us.”

All around me, good non-antifa liberals go about their business, pretending none of this has happened, carrying “Stand Against Hate” signs. There’s the sound truck with preachers in clerical garb, leading a “Whose streets/our streets” chant. There’s the gray-haired interdenominational “Choral Majority” singing peace songs: “There’s no hatred in my land / Where I’m bound.” I want to vomit on the Berkeley Peace Wall.

Matt Labash. You know the fable that when some European explorer (in some versions it’s Columbus, in others Magellan or Captain Cook) arrived on strange shores the natives simply could not see the ship — it was so far outside their engraved world that it was invisible to them? That’s how many leftists behave when sefl-styled “antifa” thugs assault people they falsely claim to be Nazis. Those good liberal folk may just lift their “Stand Against Hate” signs imperceptibly higher but otherwise march right along as though absolutely nothing is happening.

Reflecting on all the social and political chaos of the past week, journalists are asking — I see many of them asking — what effect the anger about his comments on Charlottesville, his alienation from the GOP congressional leadership, the departure from his employ of Steve Bannon, have on Trump’s agenda. Will he be able to carry out his agenda? — the assumption being that such trivialities as repealing Obamacare and building a wall along the Mexican border are somehow intrinsic to the President’s agenda. Donald Trump’s actual agenda is to own our mindspace, so the answer to the question is Yes. Trump wants to be the face before all eyes, the name on all lips. That is all. There is nothing else, there has never been anything else, there never will be anything else. His agenda is going wonderfully, thank you so much for asking.

the NYT’s rhetoric of authority

This Vulture profile of Michiko Kakutani is a little too inside-baseball for me — perhaps because Kakutani was never going to review one of my books — but there’s one thing I want to call attention to:

You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” “She became the official voice of the Times,” says a book editor. “She stopped writing what felt to me like criticism and started making pronunciamentos.”

The implication here is that the tendency towards pronunciamento is a personal trait of Kakutani’s, and I’m sure it is, but it is also a function of the self-image of the Times as the official arbiter of all that is good and right — which means that the paper is happy to allow that tone to manifest itself in all sorts of ways throughout the paper.

Take for instance this review by Beverly Gage of Mark Lilla’s new book on liberalism. At one point Gage writes, “He disparages Black Lives Matter as ‘a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,’ … This is a shame, because he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together.” Note that Gage does not ask whether the political strategy of Black Lives Matter is flawed, or even inform us why Lilla thinks it is. Such things simply are not said: to note that he said it is sufficient for refutation.

This is the classic voice of the NYT, its serene rhetoric of unquestioned, unquestioning, and unquestionable authority. And if you hold the right views, as Gage appears to, then the making of pronunciamentos (even pronunciamentos by implication or suggestion) is actually preferred to the making of arguments.

the post-Christian culture wars

In his great book God’s Long Summer, Charles Marsh demonstrates that the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South was largely an intra-Christian dispute. From the sainted Fannie Lou Hamer to Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, to the “white moderates” Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about his his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” all parties involved articulated their positions in reference to Christian scriptures and some broader account of the Christian Gospel.

How far we have come. As Joe Carter explains,

As many conservative Christians on social media can attest, the alt-right seems to have a particular disdain for gospel-centered Christianity. (For examples see here, here, here, and here.) Some on the alt-right (such as Vox Day) claim that Christianity is a “foundational pillar” of the movement. But what they mean by Christianity is often a heretical form (Day rejects the Trinity) a racialized version of the faith (e.g., the Kinist movement), or “religion as culture” (Spencer says he is both an atheist and a “culture Christian.”). The true religion of the alt-right is white identitarianism, which is why the SBC accurately considers it an “anti-gospel” movement.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, it’s pretty clear — see for instance this excellent report by Emma Green — the the Black Lives Matter movement is also largely post-Christian, with little interest in and occasional hostility to the African-American church, which BLM activists often see as weak and ineffective — or simply irrelevant.

It wasn’t that long ago that Andrew Sullivan was denouncing “Christianist” movements as a threat to our republic — something I debated with him here and here, even getting him to admit that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “left Christianist” and to that extent problematic. (Andrew’s response has been moved here.) For Andrew in 2011, the “Christianist takeover” of the GOP was complete.

Again: how far we have come. And in a very short time.

Ross Douthat once said to people on the left that if they hated the Religious Right, they should just wait to see the Post-Religious Right. We all saw it in Charlottesville yesterday. When political movements paid even lip service to the Christian Gospel, they had something to remind them of commandments to forgive, to make peace, to love. There were stable moral standards to appeal to, even if activists often squirmed desperately to evade their force. I am far more worried about neo-Nazis than BLM — as you should be too — but when people confront one another, or confront us, who don’t know those commandments, or have contempt for them, the prospects for the healing of this nation don’t look very good. I don’t know what language to use to persuade a white nationalist that those people over there are their neighbors, not vermin to be crushed with an automobile.

the mystery of Google’s position

Google’s position could be:

  • All studies suggesting that men-taken-as-a-group and women-taken-as-a-group have measurably different interests or abilities are so evidently wrong that any attempt to invoke them can only be indicative of malice, bad faith, gross insensitivity, or other moral flaws so severe that the person invoking them must be fired.
  • At least some of those studies are sound, but the suggestion that such differences could even partly account for gender imbalance in tech companies like Google is so evidently wrong that any attempt to invoke them can only be etc. etc.
  • At least some of those studies are sound, and very well may help to account for gender imbalance in tech companies like Google, but saying so inflicts so much emotional harm on some employees, and creates so much internal dissension, that any attempt to invoke them can only be etc. etc.
  • We take no position on any of those studies, but fired James Damore because of other things he said.

I think those are the chief options. Sundar Pichai’s memo emphasizes emotional harm inflicted — “The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender” — without ever weighing in on the validity of any of the studies Damore’s memo cites. And Pichai says that “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it” — but he doesn’t spell out what he thinks was fair and what unfair.

I think the third option above is the most likely, with the fourth the next-best candidate, but I seriously doubt that Google will get much more specific. Their goal will be to create a climate of maximal fear-of-offending, and that is best done by never allowing employees to know where the uncrossable lines are. That is, after all, corporate SOP.

It’s going to be really, really difficult to get reliable information about what happened here and why it happened, not just because Google will want to be evasive, and will be encouraged by its lawyers to be evasive, but also because, as Conor Friedersdorf pointed out, the misrepresentations of and straightforward lies about Damore’s memo are pervasive: “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.”

life among the crackheads

Damon Linker:

After six months of unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure, and credible evidence of a desire to collude with a hostile foreign government to subvert an American election, President Trump’s approval rating is astonishingly high — with something between one-third and two-fifths of the American people apparently liking what they see and hear from the White House. They approve of the constant ignoble churn and presumably want it to continue. This is the kind of politics they prefer.

Damon is precisely right about this, and of all the elements of Trumpworld that might make a sane person worry, this is right at the top of the list. I have no quarrel here with those who supported Trump reluctantly, out of the belief that however bad he might be, Hillary would’ve been worse; I want to talk about people who like a demeaned and diminished public sphere, who enjoy taking to social media to spread contempt and mockery and hatred, and who applaud when others of their political tribe do the same (even if they cry out in outrage when people of the Other Tribe do the same thing).

There’s been a great deal of discussion over the past eight months or so about who’s most to blame for this situation, but I want to waive all such questions. I want instead to look forward.

In order to do that, I believe we need to look right past the gleeful haters. Basically, they’re crackheads: wholly addicted to their cheap and nasty drug of choice. They’re not hopeless — I’m a Christian, I don’t do hopeless — but you can’t count on them for anything constructive. If there’s a crack house in your neighborhood and you’re trying to build some kind of community, you don’t go out of your way to invite the crackheads to your meetings. You don’t hate or reject them; if they happen to show up, you welcome them in, and you gently encourage them to note and heed the rules of polite discourse; but you don’t try to drag them to the meetings.

You don’t try to drag them because you’re practicing containment: you may not be able to eliminate the crack house, or turn it back into a decent family home, but you want to do everything you can to make sure that no more houses in your neighborhood become refuges for crackheads, because crackheads can do a lot of damage to the houses they inhabit. In fact, you’re holding these meetings to help the families in the neighborhood take care of the place, take care of each other, keep the neighborhood an actual neighborhood rather than a row of crack houses. And the healthier your neighborhood, the better you’ll be able to help the crackheads, show them a better way to live; because they’re sad figures, after all, far more to be pitied than despised. They just can’t be allowed to dictate the condition of the neighborhood.

Our public sphere is an old neighborhood with a few social-media crack houses in it. And if you’re spending a significant amount of your time fighting with people on Twitter or Facebook or even in the comments sections of websites that still have comments sections, then you’re a crackhead, which means that you’re a danger to yourself and to your neighbors. Sorry, but the first step to getting better is always to admit that you have a problem.

Anyway, we’re going to move ahead with our neighborhood improvement project without you. And here’s how we’re going to do it:

1) We have to make sure that we ourselves avoid crack like the plague that it is. So, Don’t fight on social media. Ever. It spreads the addiction to more and more of the community, so that you get situations like the one Scott Alexander imagines in this thought experiment:

Alice writes a blog post excoriating Bob’s opinion on tax reforming, calling him a “total idiot” who “should be laughed out of the room”. Bob feels so offended that he tries to turn everyone against Alice, pointing out every bad thing she’s ever done to anyone who will listen. Carol considers this a “sexist harassment campaign” and sends a dossier of all of Bob’s messages to his boss, trying to get him fired. Dan decides this proves Carol is anti-free speech, and tells the listeners of his radio show to “give Carol a piece of their mind”, leading to her getting hundreds of harassing and threatening email messages. Eric snitches on Dan to the police.

As Freddie deBoer recently wrote, we’re living on a planet of cops — or, if I may stick with my metaphor, we’re in a crack house of cops. So let’s sneak out quietly and leave the crackheads to their mutual recriminations.

2) We have to teach our children. No matter how commonplace, how normal, smoking crack may seem to them, we have to work firmly, consistently, and patiently to make sure they understand what it really is. The same goes for the many other drugs they might use that don’t show their effects so publicly: porn may be more like certain of the mellower opioids rather than crack, but it can make messes of lives too, just in different ways.

I emphasize educating the young because I don’t see how you can draw people away from the crack of social media if they’re long-habituated to it. Again, I don’t say that they’re hopeless, but rather that you can’t count on them. You have to proceed without them. And you have to focus your attention passionately on the next generation, to do everything possible to keep them away from the Bad Thing. Even if it means taking away their smartphones — and I really mean that.

impairment

Trump hasn’t had a stroke or suffered a neurological disaster, and his behavior in the White House is no different from the behavior he manifested consistently while winning enough votes to take the presidency.

But he is nonetheless clearly impaired, gravely deficient somewhere at the intersection of reason and judgment and conscience and self-control. Pointing this out is wearying and repetitive, but still it must be pointed out.

You can be as loyal as Jeff Sessions and still suffer the consequences of that plain and inescapable truth: This president should not be the president, and the sooner he is not, the better.

Ross Douthat. The point could hardly be put more neatly, more accurately, and more depressingly.

the Old South and the New Left

The influence, which has not been sufficiently noted, of Southern writers and historians on the American view of their history has been powerful. They were remarkably successful in characterizing their “peculiar institution” as part of a charming diversity and individuality of culture to which the Constitution was worse than indifferent. The ideal of openness, lack of ethnocentricity, is just what they needed for a modern defense of their way of life against all the intrusions of outsiders who claimed equal rights with the folks back home. The Southerners’ romantic characterization of the alleged failings of the Constitution, and their hostility to “mass society” with its technology, its money-grubbing way of life, egoistic individuals and concomitant destruction of community, organic and rooted, appealed to malcontents of all political colorations. The New Left in the sixties expressed exactly the same ideology that had been developed to protect the South from the threat to its practices posed by the Constitutional rights and the Federal Government’s power to enforce them. It is the old alliance of Right and Left against liberal democracy, parodied as “bourgeois society.” 

— Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. This particular beat goes on, and on, and on, just in slightly different forms. 

conservatives and health care

In his influential “The Road to Serfdom,” the economist Friedrich Hayek argued that the state should “assist the individual in providing for those common hazards of life” — among them poor health and unexpected accidents. And in his illuminating analysis of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism,the political scientist Henry Olsen uncovered some timely insights. “Any person in the United States,” Reagan said in 1961, “who requires medical attention and cannot provide it for himself should have it provided for him.”

These sentiments conflict with recent iterations of Republican health care reform. The “full repeal” bill is nothing of the sort — it preserves the regulatory structure of Obamacare, but withdraws its supports for the poor. The House version of replacement would transfer many from Medicaid to the private market, but it doesn’t ensure that those transferred can meaningfully purchase care in that market. The Senate bill offers a bit more to the needy, but still leaves many unable to pay for basic services. In the rosiest projections of each version, millions will be unable to pay for basic health care. This wasn’t acceptable to Reagan in 1961, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to his political heirs.

J. D. Vance

two minutes

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

civility rethought

What contemporary theorists of civility can and should take away from [Roger] Williams is his recognition of the inevitable disagreeableness of disagreement…. Faced with a heated disagreement, both participants and observers find it difficult to separate the condemnation of another’s position and contempt for her person. It’s precisely this difficulty that we call upon the virtue of “civility” to alleviate.

If we think all of the ethical work remains to be done by others, that our opponents alone are the uncivil ones, we are mistaken. As long as we are determined to trace every difference of opinion to some aspect of identity or perspectival privilege, we will continue to win arguments by proclaiming our own epistemic authority and to refute our opponents by impugning theirs. In the face of this politics of purity and the resultant proliferation of ad hominem, Williams reminds us that responses other than ostracism and outrage are possible, while providing a model of how coexistence and cooperation might work.

Teresa Bejan

universities under threat?

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

the mass defunding of higher education that’s yet to come – the ANOVA. I think Freddie is clearly right about this, and it’s interesting to think about why so many in the academic left are so oblivious to the disaster they’re courting, so convinced that a right-wing smackdown of public (and, as Freddie explains, also private) universities can’t happen. To some extent this is a sunk-costs phenomenon: people who have invested their careers in a particular narrative, and in a particular set of rhetorical strategies associated with that narrative, have a great deal of difficulty accepting the failure of that narrative. In this sense leftish academics are just like the True Believers in free enterprise who simply can’t accept that climate change is both real and dangerous: after all, such acceptance would require them to change their ways! Dramatically!

But I think the left has an additional trait that makes adjusting to reality even harder for them: the belief, deeply embedded in the whole progressive Weltanschauung, that social and moral progress is inevitable and irresistible. Every defeat, then, is a mere blip on the screen, or a bit of static  that momentarily disrupts the elegant music of enlightenment. The whole national government in the hands of Republicans? The great majority of state governments also in the hands of Republicans? No worries! This too will pass, and soon.

Well, we’ll see.

sandwiches

You learn a lot about people by noting what trivial things they obsess over, and today’s David Brooks column is a perfect example. Let me be really clear about this: people are freaking out about The Sandwich Bar Anecdote for one major reason, which is that they know the rest of the column is dead-on accurate and they’d prefer not to think about what it tells us about our social order.

But even The Sandwich Bar Anecdote itself isn’t bad — it makes a valid and important point, one that finds an analogue in the experience of many of us. Look at this post by Rod Dreher for some good examples, from his own experience and from some of his readers as well.

One Christmas I bought my parents the most expensive gift I had ever given them: a big basket of fruit and cheese and pastries and various other goodies from Harry & David. It arrived several days before I could get home myself, and when I arrived at their house I saw the basket sitting in a corner of the living room, removed from its box but unopened. They never did open it. They were pissed. They didn’t want to talk about it, but eventually it became clear to me that the basket was “fancy” in a way they thought totally inappropriate. “But it’s just fruit and cheese!” I said. “I can buy fruit and cheese at Kroger,” my dad growled. I started to explain that it was exceptionally good fruit and cheese, but then realized that that wouldn’t work: for one thing, it was the opposite of what I had just said (“It’s just fruit and cheese”), and for another, I knew that my parents would take any praise of the food in the basket as a criticism of the food they bought at Kroger. There was no way for me to win this one, so I just shut up. I expect they eventually threw the whole basket away without ever opening it.

It didn’t have to be food: I could have bought them clothes they also thought “fancy” and they probably would have been equally disdainful. But I think food is generally perceived as sending especially strong signals — perhaps because it involves “consumption” in a completely literal sense. It is what you take into yourself, and while Jesus may have said that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him, not what goes in, for most people that’s an unnatural point of view. I will always remember in this regard Rod’s story about how disgusted his family were when he and Julie made bouillabaisse for them — even though pretty much everybody in Louisiana has eaten fish stew.

I didn’t buy my parents any more food for Christmas, and from then on when I shopped for them I shopped at Wal-Mart.

Brooks writes, “Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else.” This is true, and true in very important ways; and the intuition that such rules are always in play can make people uneasy or angry when they think such rules are being enforced against them. If you can’t acknowledge this you’re just being willfully blind.

on not being excluded from a stupid narrative

I wrote recently about not writing about politics, but I have been reminded this morning that such avoidance is more easily vowed than accomplished — and not because I’m tempted to crawl back into those fetid waters, but rather because the waters keep rising and contaminating the previously safe, dry ground.

Example: yesterday President Trump gave a bland, vacuous speech about Western values, the achievements of the West, blah blah blah — the kind of speech that politicians give all the time and that could have been given (with very few modifications) by Barack Obama — and now, as Rod Dreher points out, leftish people are freaking out over the secret alt-right dog-whistly meanings of the speech. Which means that if I want to comment here about the book I am currently reading, those comments — and probably the book itself — will be understood within the context of this ever-spreading and increasingly idiotic partisan wrangling.

Near the end of the post, Rod writes, “If standing against this kind of liberal insanity means I have to stand with Donald Trump, well, okay, I’ll stand with Donald Trump. I won’t like it, but at least Donald Trump doesn’t hate his own civilization.” Y’all know I love Rod, but I’m going to part company with him on this one. Donald Trump indeed does hate his civilization — or, more accurately, he despises it. He just doesn’t say he does. Like pitch, he defiles what he touches, and people obsessed by his every word, people whose hatred of him controls their minds, simply spread the defilement. It does not seem to occur to Trump’s most vocal denouncers that they are aiding and abetting his lust to own the world’s mindspace — and so helping him clinch his biggest real estate deal ever. His haters are his unpaid apprentices.

I will not choose between Trump and his haters. There are better ways to live, and the vital questions raised by the complex history (and even more complex inheritance) of the Western world extend far beyond this moment in electoral politics. Therefore “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one I have never asked to be a part of.” But exclusion from the narrative is much more easily wished-for than achieved.

against epistocracy 

Only those narrow few who benefit from today’s system of elite rule could possibly see such rule as a good thing, or contemplate its further entrenchment. For the rest of us, the old cliché about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others remains as true as ever. It is certainly preferable to epistocracy and oligarchy, which empower the most arrogant and least self-aware segment of society to make decisions about the lives of those whom they do not understand or care about. However dysfunctional our democracies may get, it will remain true that the people least qualified for power are those who are most convinced that they should have it.

— Nathan J. Robinson

enough already

I’m trying to make myself stop talking about politics, for the most part — I will make the very occasional exception for the two issues I am, personally and professionally, deeply invested in: religious freedom and higher-education policy. And even then I want to speak only after a waiting period in which others may be able to state my position more knowledgeably and wisely than I can.

As I explained to a friend earlier today, I’m taking this path (or hoping to) because I worry about the health of many of the good things that politics, properly speaking, exists in order to protect and nurture. I thus find myself remembering this famous letter from John Adams to Abigail, written from Paris:

I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelain, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.

We can be thankful that John Adams made that decision. But it is not a decision to which we should apply a categorical imperative, because if every person of his time had made the same choice, then several generations could have gone by without the production of Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain (and most of these are not the sorts of arts that are readily learned from the mere observation of existing examples). I worry about a society that has so lost the taste for such things that it will no longer know what it’s missing when they’re gone. I worry about a politics that has become an all-encompassing end in itself — an endless series of victories and losses and more victories and more losses — rather than a means by which, as Adams understood, room is to be made for pursuits far better than partisan disputation and maneuvering.

The best of the human order is damaged by these political obsessions. The artist who neglects his craft in order to agitate full-time will soon have no craft to exercise — or to pass down to younger artists. The scholar who abandons the archive for the protest march may return — if she ever does return — to find the archive abolished, its contents destroyed, because when the time of decision came there was no one present with the knowledge and love necessary to protect it. Auden once wrote in praise of those who forget “the appetitive goddesses” in order to take the momentous step of pursuing their own weird private obsessions:

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Likewise, there should be some people in our land unsure who the President is, wholly unaware of the latest legislative wrangle — even when such matters directly affect them — because they are absorbed in something else that they love, that they can’t help focusing on, that they can’t manage to turn aside from. I don’t know how many such people there should be, or whether you should join their company. But I strongly suspect that there ought to be more of them than Facebook and Twitter currently allow. And I want to be one too.

how not to headline a story on religious freedom

Earlier today I tweeted this:

Emma Green, the fine reporter who wrote the story (though not the headline), asked me to clarify, so here goes:

  1. That the story lede (the first sentence) is accurate will be seen from what follows.
  2. I called the dek (the description below the headline) “misleading,” but that is generous: it’s simply wrong. And Emma Green — who, again, is a superb reporter and rarely makes errors like this — gets it wrong in her story when she writes the source of the dek: “It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship.” No: it is not true government “must” provide money to a house of worship or to any other organization. The ruling, rather, is that if a state or local government says that it will provide money to organizations in return for providing certain services — in this case, the maintaining of a playground available to children throughout the community — then it cannot withhold that money from churches simply because they are churches. (The New York Times get it wrong in its headline too, and in the same way: “States Must Aid Some Church Programs, Justices Rule.”) I understand that you can’t squeeze everything into a headline, but the distinction between “governments must give money to churches” and “governments cannot exclude churches qua churches from projects for civic improvement” is not an especially subtle one.
  3. The idea expressed in the hed that this decision “Strikes Down a Major Church-State Barrier” is simply absurd. What is the “barrier” that existed before this ruling and if now gone? What does this ruling do to establish a state church? After all, the ruling applies equally to churches, mosques, synagogues, and atheist community centers: by what torturing of logic could such a ruling be said to establish a state religion? Just as the Civil Rights Act helped to enfranchise people of color without disenfranchising white people, so this ruling excludes prejudice against churches qua churches (in this one minor matter) without infringing on anyone else’s rights.

It is of course possible — Green goes into this possibility in her article — that people who do want to break down the barrier between church and state will be emboldened by this ruling to … I don’t know, do something secularists don’t like, I guess. But that has no bearing whatsoever on whether the ruling is a good one.  Nor do fears on that score eliminate that part of the First Amendment decreeing not only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” but also that it can’t make ones “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Trump and Constitutional Law

This is a great idea for a podcast: What the Trump presidency, with its manifold eccentricities, can teach us about Constitutional law. After all, on almost a daily basis the words and actions of the President raise some question about the powers and limits of the office.

The first episode takes off from Trump’s comment about Judge James Robart,  who blocked his first attempt at an executive order banning travel to the U.S. from six mostly-Muslim countries: Trump tweeted that Robart is a “so-called judge.” According to Elizabeth Joh, the con-law professor who co-hosts the show with Roman Mars, that tweet raises the question of judicial legitimacy, which leads her to describe the famous Supreme Court case Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, in which the Court ruled that President Truman did not have the authority to commandeer the nation’s steel mills to serve the needs of the military during the Korean conflict. For Joh, the really important point here is that Truman, though angered by the ruling, did not question it — he acknowledged and deferred to the legitimacy of SCOTUS.

But that’s where the podcast ends, which I think is just the wrong place. The vital question that arises is: What if Truman hadn’t so deferred? What if he had said “I do too have this authority, and I’m sending in my people to take over and run the steel mills”? People talk loosely about Trump’s actions producing a “Constitutional crisis,” but that would be a Constitutional crisis. For law enforcement officials, and maybe even the Army, would have to decide whether to back the Court or the President.

Given the current President’s history of demanding that he get his way in all things, and his oft-expressed frustration (even in these first few months of his presidency) at having his will thwarted, something like that could eventually happen: that is, the Executive branch simply refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of one of the other branches and doing what it wants to do regardless of protests. So what, within the boundaries of Constitutional law, would happen then? I’d like to see the podcast play out some of those scenarios.

Hypocrisy? 

Darryl Hart says I have accused my fellow evangelicals of “hypocrisy” in voting for Trump. Well, no. I noted a major shift, from the 1990s to now, in the standards that most evangelical leaders use to evaluate the role of character in Presidential candidates: then it mattered a lot, and now it doesn’t matter at all. I think I document that pretty thoroughly.

Now, I do believe that people like William Bennett and James Dobson ought to explain what led them to change their minds so dramatically — a 180-degree reversal ought to be accounted for. But many of the people who voted for Trump in the past election didn’t vote in the 1990s, and if they did vote then may well have voted for Bill Clinton. So the question of changing standards doesn’t apply to them. My essay is concerned with one simple question: If character no longer counts, what does? And having explored that, I tried to make a defense of the value of bringing specifically Christian ideas into the general political conversation (a move that Rusty Reno thinks imprudent).

To Darryl’s claim that I “completely ignore” Hillary Clinton’s moral failings: I did indeed, because my essay is about how Christians who supported Trump evaluated his character. Those are not people who were ever going to vote for Hillary, any more than I would have.

goonery

It’s dismaying to see some conservatives defending or making excuses for Gianforte’s assault — I guess they haven’t been paying attention to the debate on campus, where conservatives have been trying to make the case that hearing speech you don’t like doesn’t justify violence.

Rich Lowry. Conservatives who make excuses for, or simply celebrate, what Gianforte did are merely playing the most common game in American politics today: The Rules Are Different For Us. I often wonder whether American respect for the rule of law, equally applied to all, is at a low-water mark. And not just the rule of law as such: for instance, people cheer the expansion of executive power when their party holds the Presidency, denounce it as the ultimate political evil when the other party is in the White House. At the rate things are going, the idea that there might be political and moral principles that transcend partisan affiliation will simply be dead in another decade.

the smell of strawmen burning

I enjoy talking with Rusty Reno — as I did just yesterday, here in Waco! — but he is, I have learned over the years, a frustrating person to argue with in print, because he doesn’t respond to what you write, but rather what he thinks you must have meant, or, worse, what he thinks someone of your type must inevitably mean.

Case in point: writing here in response to this article of mine, he writes:

Jacobs exemplifies the all-or-nothing approach to politics characteristic of Evangelicals. Seeking a theological voice in the public square, Evangelicals are tempted to discern direct divine warrants for their political judgments. This can lead someone to speak of God anointing Donald Trump to save our nation, and thus implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for anyone other than Trump. Alan Jacobs and other Evangelicals (Peter Wehner is a notable instance) are mirror images, describing Trump in ways approaching divine condemnation, implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for Trump.

In fact, more than half of my essay is devoted to a critique of the very “all-or-nothing approach” that Rusty says I exemplify. (Maybe he only read the parts of it that concerned him.) And here’s what I write in the conclusion to that essay:

What is required of serious religious believers in a pluralistic society is the ability to code-switch: never to forget or neglect their own native religious tongue, but also never to forget that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish. To speak only in the language of pragmatism is to bring nothing distinctive to the table; to speak only a private language of revelation and self-proclaimed authority is to leave the table altogether. For their own good, but also for the common good, religious believers need to be always bilingually present.

Does that sound like an “all-or-nothing approach” to politics? You could only say so if you weren’t paying attention — perhaps because you think you know what “Evangelicals” are like. (Rusty typically says “Evangelicals” the way Victorian civil servants said “Hottentots.” The first thing Rusty ever said to me, many years ago, was that a talk I gave — on a subject that did not touch on evangelicalism at any point — reminded him why he’s not an Evangelical. One of the chief themes of his essay seems to be that, while he supported Trump — vigorously — he didn’t do it for the reasons that Evangelicals did.)

On another matter: Rusty writes, “Christians have theological reasons for not theologizing their political judgments.” Whether that’s true or not depends on what Rusty means by the odd word “theologizing.” If he means that Christians have theological reasons for not making their public arguments in explicitly theological language, then he’s simply restating my claim that “religious believers in a pluralistic society” should remember “that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish.”

But I think he means by not-theologizing something like “not seeking a theocracy,” because from that point he goes on to denounce Christians who “expect the laws of our country to accord with the Sermon on the Mount” — though that is not a position I have ever held. Maybe he’s not even talking about me there, but if not, I don’t know who he is talking about. Does he think that’s the typical view of Hottentots? — I mean, Evangelicals? Hell if I know. All this is just orthogonal to the issues I raise, and the issues that matter. The whole essay, I’m tempted to say, consists of a smokescreen made from burning strawmen.

The sine qua non of this rhetorical strategy comes when Rusty sententiously declares that a post in which I said that I would vote for “the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson” in preference to Donald Trump is deficient in “analytic sobriety.” Can Rusty really be that completely humorless? I would ask him to take a post like that a little more seriously and a little less literally, but I think someone may have used that line before.

So I’ve written a few hundred words here and I still haven’t gotten to any of the really significant issues we could be debating, such as the difference between prudence and pragmatism, or Rusty’s rather astonishing claim that “Trump’s campaign came as close to the platform of European post–World War II Christian democracy as any American candidate for president has come in two generations.” This is what happens when someone ignores what has actually been argued in favor of a fantastical caricature, presumably because the caricature is so much easier to refute. I’ve got a list of seven other ideas Rusty attributes to me that I did not state and do not hold, but it’s too depressing even to contemplate going over those. Whenever Rusty takes the trouble to represent my views accurately, and respond to what I actually argued, I’m ready for a conversation. Until then: as William Blake said, “Enough! Or, Too much.”

“a benevolent green nationalism”

This, by Paul Kingsnorth from his new book, speaks for my politics about as completely as anything I’ve read in a long time:

Some of the new populists may hope they can sound the death knell of the green movement, but perhaps they can instead teach it a necessary lesson. What Haidt calls nationalism is really a new name for a much older impulse: the need to belong. Specifically, the need to belong to a place in which you can feel at home. The fact that this impulse can be exploited by demagogues doesn’t mean that the impulse itself is wrong. Stalin built gulags on the back of a notional quest for equality, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to make things fair.

The anti-globalist attack on the greens is a wake-up call. It points to the fact that green ideas have too often become a virtue signal for the carbon-heavy bourgeoisie, drinking their Fairtrade organic coffee as they wait for their transatlantic flight. Green globalism has become part of the growth machine; a comfortable notion for those who don’t really want much to change.

What would happen if environmentalism remade itself – or was remade by the times? What might a benevolent green nationalism sound like? You want to protect and nurture your homeland – well, then, you’ll want to nurture its forests and its streams too. You want to protect its badgers and its mountain lions. What could be more patriotic? This is not the kind of nationalism of which Trump would approve, but that’s the point. Why should those who want to protect a besieged natural world allow billionaire property developers to represent them as the elitists? Why not fight back – on what they think is their territory?

comprehension

The conviction that everything that happens on earth must be comprehensible to man can lead to interpreting history by commonplaces. Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be.

— Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

“If the president continues to act in this way, we shall rapidly descend into a terrifying state of social dissolution. The rule of law will disintegrate,” says Robert Post, of Yale Law School. My question is: What does he mean by this? Society dissolved, the rule of law disintegrated — that sounds like Walking Dead stuff to me. Is what what he expects? Armed bands of criminals and vigilantes ruling the streets? And if not, then what does he expect? I genuinely have no idea what he means.

15 hours

Russell Berman tweets: “15 hours later, not one of the top 4 House Republican leaders have issued a statement on the president’s firing of the FBI director.” This expresses a commonly-held view — just as I write these words I see a post by Pete Wehner asking “Where is the Republican Leadership?” — but I wonder: When did we get on this schedule? That is, when did an overnight wait before commenting on a political decision become an unconscionable delay? I’m old enough to remember when people used to counsel their agitated friends to “sleep on it,” and maybe even seek the opinions of others, before making public statements or highly consequential decisions. Now anything but instantaneous response is morally suspect — at best. 

For the record: I harbor not the tiniest suspicion that the President is acting in good faith and with the best interests of the nation in mind. I am as sure as I can be that he made this decision the way he makes all of his decisions: on the basis of what he perceives to be his own self-interest. And I seriously doubt that anyone in Washington differs from me in this regard, whatever they might end up saying to the public. But I’m not making a point here about how we judge the President’s motives; I’m making a point about what seems to have become the standard expectation, at least among journalists and other people who are on Twitter all the time, for how quickly judgment should be expressed. And I’m not confident that it’s good for the body politic for politicians to be under pressure to make instantaneous statements. I’d rather that they take some time, seek counsel, sleep on it, and think it over

the absolutizing of fright

Farhad Manjoo:

In Silicon Valley, current events tend to fade into the background. The Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and every recent presidential election occurred, for the tech industry, on some parallel but distant timeline divorced from the everyday business of digitizing the world. Then Donald Trump won. In the 17 years I’ve spent covering Silicon Valley, I’ve never seen anything shake the place like his victory. In the span of a few months, the Valley has been transformed from a politically disengaged company town into a center of anti-Trump resistance and fear. A week after the election, one start-up founder sent me a private message on Twitter: “I think it’s worse than I thought,” he wrote. “Originally I thought 18 months. I’ve cut that in half.” Until what? “Apocalypse. End of the world.”

So by the end of 2017 the Earth will be a dead ball of rock spinning through space? Is that the idea? You reply, Obviously not. But if not that, then what?

I have the same questions about the notorious “Flight 93 Election” essay, which says “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” And also says, “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.” And also says, “we are headed off a cliff.” Later our pseudonymous author says that conservatives will be “persecuted,” will be “crushed,” and under a Hillary presidency America will be “doomed.” But what precisely is he talking about? It’s absolutely impossible to tell. He doesn’t give even a hint.

Under a Clinton presidency, would socially-conservative evangelical Christians like me have been fired from our jobs, driven from our homes, and sent to re-education camps? Would we have been forced to sign some sort of Pledge of Allegiance to the Sexual Revolution, under threat of imprisonment? What?

And if, now that we have a Trumpery presidency, the world won’t literally end, what exactly is it that Manjoo’s texter fears? A nuclear war that renders most of the planet uninhabitable? A further acceleration of global warming? Or a Handmaid’s Tale-style Republic of Gilead? What? Those are very different scenarios, and it would be nice to know just what we’re supposed to be terrified of.

(This absolutizing of fright reminds me of the expanding scope of disasters in superhero comics and movies: People will die! — no wait, a whole city will be destroyed! — A city? Small stuff. The planet will be vaporized! — A mere planet? The universe will disappear in a puff of smoke! — Just this universe? No: all the universes there are or ever were or ever will be! All gone! Save us, O mighty ones!)

Such escalation of rhetoric means the deflation of care. All this pearl-clutching disguised as apocalyptic prophecy is not only intellectually vacuous, it’s counterproductive. You scream long enough and people stop hearing you, you become just another element of the background noise. If you are concerned and want others to share your concern, tell us precisely what you think will happen, why you think it will happen, and how you think it will happen. Otherwise you are merely darkening counsel by words without knowledge.

on narcissism

Allen Frances writes:

Fevered media speculation about Donald Trump’s psychological motivations and psychiatric diagnosis has recently encouraged mental health professionals to disregard the usual ethical constraints against diagnosing public figures at a distance. They have sponsored several petitions and a Feb. 14 letter to The New York Times suggesting that Mr. Trump is incapable, on psychiatric grounds, of serving as president.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

This is surely a good cautionary word, but I have some questions, and the primary one is: How does Dr. Frances, who has not examined Trump and has probably never met him, know that Trump “does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder”? What empirical knowledge does he have about Trump’s distress or lack thereof? Frances claims that “Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it,” but surely it is possible for a person to cause and experience distress? It seems to me that if you can violate the Goldwater Rule by claiming that someone you have not examined definitely has a disorder, you can also violate it by claiming that someone you have not examined definitely does not have that disorder. Dr. Frances seems just as overconfident as the people whose letter he’s responding to.

What We’re Fighting For

If we choose to believe in a morally diminished America, an America that pursues its narrow selfish interests and no more, we can take that course and see how far it gets us. But if we choose to believe that America is not just a set of borders, but a set of principles, we need to act accordingly. That is the only way we ensure that our founding document, and the principles embedded within, are alive enough, and honorable enough, to be worth fighting for.

Phil Klay

dealing with lies

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie. Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups if Spicer tries to duck the plain truth. Do not allow them to move on to another question. Interviews with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists. This requires no particular courage. I think, in contrast, of those dissidents whose critical insistence on simple truth in plain language kept reality alive in the Kafkaesque world of totalitarianism. As the Polish dissident Adam Michnik once said: “In the life of every honorable man comes a difficult moment … when the simple statement that this is black and that is white requires paying a high price.” The price Michnik paid was years in prison. American journalists cannot risk a little access or a nasty tweet for the same essential civic duty?

— Andrew Sullivan: The Madness of King Donald. If this admirable and wholly proper strategy were to be widely followed, I predict that President Trump and his advisors and advocates will simply stop speaking to the press. Which would make somewhat more urgent the suggestion I moot in this little thought experiment.

judging judges

It has long been frustrating to me that the only criterion by which Americans — almost without exception — evaluate judges is: Did he or she make decisions that produce results I’d like to see? Virtually no one asks whether the judge has rightly interpreted existing law, which is of course what the judge is formally required to do. Americans — again, almost without exception — want judges to be politicians and advocates. The idea that a judge should strive to interpret existing law regardless of whether it does or doesn’t promote politically desirable ends never crosses anyone’s mind, and if by some strange chance it did, the person whose mind was so crossed would reject the proposal indignantly. Americans in this respect resemble toddlers and their own President: they evaluate everything in terms of whether it helps or hinders them in getting what they want.

This devaluation of interpretation amounts to a dismissal of the task of understanding: everything that matters is already understood, so the person who would strive to understand is not only useless, but an impediment to the realization of my political vision. To the partisan, the absence of partisanship is always a sin, and perhaps the gravest of sins.

Donald Trump wants to build a wall here

The Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park

a dialogue on punching

Frankly, I’m glad Richard Spencer got punched in the face, and I hope that happens to people like him every. single. day.

Seriously? You’re okay with Americans using violence against their political opponents?

Absolutely not! But Spencer isn’t just a “political opponent,” he’s a guy spreading a message of hatred and exclusion.

But don’t you believe that freedom of speech should be allowed even for people who hold repulsive opinions?

The Constitution doesn’t protect hate speech!

Actually, it does.

Okay, fine. But even if such speech is Constitutionally protected, that doesn’t mean that we have to accept it. If we have to practice civil disobedience, as protestors did during the Civil Rights era, then we’ll do that and pay the legal price.

Well, the protestors who followed Dr. King practiced passive resistance. It was the followers of Malcolm X who pursued the “by any means necessary” strategy.

We need to think pretty seriously about what Malcolm had to say.

You realize, I hope, that many people, especially on the alt-right, will see acts like the punching of Spencer as justification for their taking the same kind of actions against people you like?

I don’t care what those freaks do.

Maybe you ought to care.

They would be totally unjustified in using violence against those of us who are just standing up for the rights of the marginalized. That ought to be obvious.

Okay. On a different topic, what do you think about Trump’s trade war? His push for protectionist laws and policies, like tariffs on foreign imports?

It’s absurd! Doesn’t he realize that if he does that those other nations will retaliate against us?

Exactly.

fighting

Kruse: Michael, in your book, and other places, too, he has talked about how much he enjoys fighting. And he certainly fought a lot of people throughout the campaign, and he hasn’t stopped fighting. From Meryl Streep to the intelligence community, he’s still picking fights. Do you think he is going to pick fights with leaders of other countries? In other words, is there any indication that he would be able to separate the interests of the country now from his own personal pique?

Blair: Zero.

O’Brien: Absolutely not. There will be no divide there.

— From an interview with Trump biographers in Politico. This seems incontestably true to me, and the most worrisome of the hundred or so worrisome things about Trump. As with toddlers — and Trump is emotionally a toddler — it’s difficult to know in advance what will trigger his rage. And as Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote recently, this temperament in Trump comes accompanied by a fascination with nuclear weapons.

Of all the American Presidents so far, Donald Trump is, beyond question, the least qualified to hold the office. Indeed, he possesses not one single qualifying trait. But it is his inability to control his temper when personally affronted that most clearly marks his utter unfitness.

Most of the people I hear from who are as hostile to the Trump presidency as I am want to make frontal attacks on him, and want their political representatives and other leaders to do so as well. I think that’s a bit like poking a sleeping skunk with a stick. (A skunk with access to nuclear codes.) I am hoping that Trump’s more powerful enemies and critics will show more emotional discipline than he does, and will realize the futility of playing his game by his rules. I am hoping for the creation of fences and funnels, relatively soft nudges of the new President away from danger and temptation.

But I don’t know who’s going to create those fences and funnels. My sense is that the GOP leaders like being in power so much that they’re more likely to imitate Trump than resist him — witness Rance Priebus not-so-subtly threatening a government ethics official for doing his job. That’s a page right out of the Donald’s book. Meanwhile, the left is continuing with its old traditions of preferring symbolic gestures and ideological purity tests to meaningful action. Together the left and right are doing their best to ensure that we’ll have eight years of Trump rather than four.

So where can I place my hope? I actually think there’s a good chance that Trump won’t want more than four years of the straitjacket of the Presidency. I can see — I am even tempted to predict — that three years into his term Trump will declare that he has set America firmly on the path to renewed greatness and is ready to turn the reins over to his trusty sidekick Mike Pence.

what Twitter does to journalism

Earlier today I tweeted: “Gap that needs to be filled: the journalism that journalists ignore while spending all day every day insulting each other on Twitter.”

I’m serious about this. I only follow one account on public Twitter (a truly vital one), but I had for some time a Twitter list called “Politics” that contained the accounts of some of the reporters I have the most respect for. I just deleted that list because all these people do is snark at each other and at commenters. They call each other names, they trade insults with random people who criticize them, they RT most such insults — basically, America’s political reporters think and act like sixth-graders. And they’re on Twitter all the time. You can’t learn a damned thing by following any of them — or any of the ones I know of, anyway.

Journalists are always saying that they have to be on Twitter because that’s where the information is. I think that’s bullshit. Twitter is where the childish bickering is, and that’s what seems to make journalists happy. I’m now going to begin my search for journalists who aren’t on Twitter, or are rarely there: those are the ones who are more likely to be doing some actual research and reporting.

fences and funnels

I haven’t said anything about American politics since the election, largely because I don’t think there’s much to say. I am simply waiting to see what a Trump administration will actually do, and how Congress and the judiciary will respond. Now that our President is a narcissistic ignoramus whose leadership team is comprised largely of people who share his belligerence and ignorance, plus a leaven of the most reflexively hawkish leftovers of the Bush era, I am hoping for fences and funnels: that is, the exercise by other branches of the government of their legal powers in ways that will limit Trump’s extravagances, and the gentle and subtle guidance of his administration towards constructive action. The creation and maintenance of such fences and funnels will require intelligence and subtlety on the part of the Republican Congressional leadership, which is why I am not hopeful.

Essentially, I am praying that people in our government who hold some power power and possess at least a little intelligence will impede Trump, will place enough obstacles in his way that he will be able to do minimal damage to the body politic, the national economy, and the international order during his time in office. Impede, delay, fence, funnel — these are the imperatives. And, please God, may this situation last no more than four years.

But I can’t imagine a situation in which political commentary could be less useful or relevant.

Brother Bill and those who scorned him

Annie Karni in Politico:

But in general, Bill Clinton’s viewpoint of fighting for the working class white voters was often dismissed with a hand wave by senior members of the team as a personal vendetta to win back the voters who elected him, from a talented but aging politician who simply refused to accept the new Democratic map. At a meeting ahead of the convention at which aides presented to both Clintons the “Stronger Together” framework for the general election, senior strategist Joel Benenson told the former president bluntly that the voters from West Virginia were never coming back to his party.

There are many things, good and bad, one might say about Bill Clinton, but the first thing should always be this: He is the smartest politician of our era — the most gifted one of my lifetime, so far, and the race isn’t even close. And the people running Hillary’s campaign thought they were so much smarter than him that they could dismiss his arguments “with a hand wave.”

It’s always hubris, isn’t it? The story of disasters like the Hillary Clinton campaign is always hubris. And the people at the heart of the story never know. That’s why the title of the article is “Clinton aides blame loss on everything but themselves.” Well of course they do.

The Bush/Clinton era in American political history is definitively over.

Reaganism is over.

It is easier to shame people out of admitting how they’ll vote than to shame them out of voting how they want to.

Clinton had no clear vision, no clear program, nothing positive to offer except a claim to competence — and yet the evidence suggested that she isn’t very competent.

If in the next four years a younger politician can take up the mantle of Bernie Sanders, we’ll have a barn-burner of an election in 2020.

I am not at all confident that Trump will want more than four years of being President, no matter how well or badly his term goes.

Nothing succeeds like success, so anyone hoping that the GOP leadership will act to restrain Trump is whistling past the graveyard. They’ll fall in line.

But I also suspect that Trump is too lazy and disorganized to bring about major change.

Therefore the changes that do come will surely be generated by the GOP leadership in Congress, not by the executive branch.

In the next four years we’ll find out just how powerful the Deep State really is.

There’s a lot of talk about Trump dominating the evangelical vote, but most of the enthusiasm for him came from people who call themselves evangelicals but don’t go to church. Church-going evangelicals stayed home in large numbers. However: people who call themselves evangelicals but don’t go to church are the future of American evangelicalism.

To people saying this election is “the last stand of white supremacy”: if y’all don’t get your act together, it may well be the third-from-the-last stand. A great many of those Trump voters are still going to be voting in 2028, and if they’re producing more children than you are….

looking ahead

If the political and media establishments were merely out of touch with much of the country, that would be one thing. But it’s worse than that. They presume to know, they presume to judge, and most astonishingly, they presume that this will work out at the voting booth.

Damon Linker is right. Right now my friends on the left are angry, bitter, disbelieving, and I don’t blame them. I’m shocked and awed myself, and believe the we have just elected the least qualified person ever put forth by a leading American political party.

But after a few days, or weeks, I hope self-reflection will kick in, and my friends on the left will get beyond simplistic denunciations — they hate women, they’re racists — and start to own some of their own responsibility, not just for Trump, but for a government that’s now entirely run by the GOP. They mocked people they didn’t have to mock; they supported policies that ran roughshod over people’s most deeply held beliefs; many of them treated everyone who disagreed with them with undisguised contempt. And they did all this because they felt that they stood for #Reason and #Data and #History — they were “on the right side of history” — they thought hashtags and cheap slogans were tools sufficient for the job of transforming America. Their smugness was titanic.

This morning my internet friend Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is a supremely decent person, remembers how troubled she was by George Bush’s election in 2004 — and, interestingly, shared that with her students, who I suppose all (all?) shared her politics — and reflects on how different this election feels: “In 2004, I felt that I might have a lot that I could teach. Today, I cannot help but feel like I have much, much more to learn.” If the majority of the people on the left take this attitude, then there will be a good chance for the renewal of their hopes, and for them to win over politically complicated people like me … should they want to.

And we are about to commence the season of recriminations. The election won’t end anything except a certain form of speculation; all the hatreds will simply find new points of focus. It’s pointless to talk about the election being “over.” Weren’t you listening to Rust Cohle? “Nothing’s ever fulfilled, not until the very end. And closure – no, no no, nothing is ever over.”

the bigger killer: Joseph Stalin or George W. Bush?

the invisible regime

Ross Douthat is trying this morning to bring some perspective to American liberals:

But the “open society” isn’t merely “experienced as” a regime; nor is it genuinely open. It is open to some ideas and some people that its predecessors were closed to, but newly closed to others. (In precisely the same way, people who talk about the value of “inclusion” are always including some formerly excluded groups while simultaneously excluding some formerly included groups. When you move the Overton window, the left and right sides of the frame shift together.)

Stanley Fish explained this long ago, in an essay I recommend to liberals willing to dispense with some of their illusions. The essay focuses on public education but is equally relevant to all public institutions. Read and heed:

The idea, then, is that the right kind of education, faithful to the First Amendment, gives you practice in making up your own mind about values and agendas, while the wrong kind of education captures your mind and binds it to values and agendas that go unexamined. The problem with this idea is that it is itself an agenda informed by values that are themselves unexamined and insulated from challenge. The name of the agenda is “free and open inquiry”; and despite that honorific self-description, it is neither free nor open because it is closed to any line of thinking that would shut inquiry down or route it in a particular direction. It is closed, for example, to most forms of religious thought (which it will stigmatize as dogmatic) or to any form of thought that rules some point of view — for instance, that the Holocaust did not occur — beyond the pale and out of court. To put it in a way that may seem paradoxical: openness is an ideology, in that, like any other ideology, it is slanted in some directions and blind (if not downright hostile) to others.

Now, to say that openness is an ideology is not necessarily to criticize it, much less reject it, but merely to deprive it of one of its claims. Openness (or free inquiry) may still be the ideology we choose, but if my analysis is right, we cannot choose it as an alternative to ideology. What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows serious discussion of that same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.

“the wisdom of repugnance”: a test case

In this post I want to connect my earlier post about what needs to be done to reclaim the term “evangelical” with my frequently-asserted hostility to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

In a well-known passage from The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis writes,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

If one side of this proper training is the delighted recognition of, and attraction to, the good, the other and equally necessary side is the instinctive recoiling from “the disgusting and hateful.” That second kind of response is what Leon Kass appealed to in his famous essay on “The Wisdom of Repugnance.”

I believe that the proper response of the well-former mind and heart to the very idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States is, to put it bluntly, revulsion.

It is possible, of course, to feel that revulsion and then decide that it needs to be mastered. That is what has happened to many Republican politicians who have supported Trump: they let their political ambitions (in the worst case) or political loyalties (in the best) overcome their revulsion. Consider the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, who as I write has just withdrawn his support for Trump, saying, “He is unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be President of the United States.” That formulation is so perfectly accurate that I can’t help thinking that Pawlenty has been saying it in his head for quite some time now but has only today been driven to say it out loud.

I have little respect for politicians who ever, at any point, endorsed Trump, and none whatsoever for those who have not denounced him by this stage of the game, but I understand why they might have careerist reasons for doing what they do. We will set them aside, reflecting that verily, they have their reward — or their punishment, as the case may be.

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

By the way, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton here because there is so little evangelical support for Hillary Clinton. She also offers much for us to be appalled by.

And I’m not even making the argument that an evangelical Christian should never in any circumstances vote for Trump. (Not today, anyway.) I am simply saying this: the fact that so many American Christians feel no revulsion at the thought of electing Donald Trump — this man so palpably “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” — as the leader of this or for that matter any other nation, but rather express great enthusiasm at the prospect, indicates not just a lack of knowledge but also, and more important, a lack of moral training. The immediate responses are missing or wrong.

There are many criteria we might apply to judge whether a given congregation (or for that matter denomination) is genuinely evangelical, here’s one of them: Is it raising up its people in such a way that they feel repugnance when confronted by truly repugnant ideas — like the idea of Donald Trump as leader of a nation?

What does a healthy response to the current controversy look like? We might turn to the editorial page of the Deseret News for an example. After incisively quoting Proverbs 29 (“when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”) they state quite straightforwardly their response to Trump’s sexual boasting: “What oozes from this audio is evil.”

My fellow evangelicals: listen and heed. Your very future depends on your ability to do so.

Trump and incommensurability

Dismayed by the recently announced list of “scholars and writers” supporting Trump for President, I sat down this morning to write a brief post explaining why I think supporting Trump is a very bad decision. But where to begin?

And then I thought: You all know who Trump is. You know that he’s a preening, vaunting, compulsively dishonest ignoramus with a mean streak a mile wide, whose only criterion for evaluating other human beings is: Do they like me? You are intelligent and well-informed. You can be under no illusions in these matters. And yet you not only will vote for Trump, you are warmly encouraging others to do the same.

Long ago Thomas Kuhn introduced into the history of science the concept of incommensurability: theories whose premises are so radically divergent that adherents of one theory simply cannot speak coherently and usefully with adherents of another. Alasdair MacIntyre would later, in After Virtue, apply this concept to debates in moral philosophy: “Every one of the arguments is logically valid or can be easily expanded so as to be made so; the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises. But the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another…. It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable.”

If an intelligent and well-informed person is not only voting for Trump but also advocating for him as someone who can “restore the promise of America,” then it is clear that our premises about politics — about what politics does, what politics is for — are so radically different as to be incommensurable. (Ditto our notions  of what “the promise of America” is.) It was MacIntyre’s hope in After Virtue and the books that succeeded it to find a way around or through the impasse of incommensurability in moral philosophy. Until someone can do the same for the politics of this current election, there is no possibility of my even having a meaningful conversation with the people who signed that document. And as another philosopher has sagely counseled, What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge – Jason Brennan | Aeon Ideas

The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge – Jason Brennan | Aeon Ideas

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