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Tagpolitics

hostages

This from Andrew Sullivan is the single best metaphor I have yet seen about what it’s like to live in Trump’s world:

Sometimes I think it’s useful to think of this presidency as a hostage-taking situation. We have a president holding liberal democracy hostage, empowered by a cult following. The goal is to get through this without killing any hostages, i.e., without irreparable breaches in our democratic system. Come at him too directly and you might provoke the very thing you are trying to avoid. Somehow, we have to get the nut job to put the gun down and let the hostages go, without giving in to any of his demands. From the moment Trump took office, we were in this emergency. All that we now know, in a way we didn’t, say, a year ago, is that the chances of a successful resolution are close to zero.

how change happens

There’s a general principle that underlies yesterday’s posts about the Catholic Church’s current problems, and it’s this: The more time people spend on social media, the more prone they become to recency bias, and especially the form of recency bias that inclines us to believe that what has just happened is far more important that it really is.

Everyone everywhere is prone to recency bias, but I think we are more prone to it than any society in history because our media are so attentive to the events of Now, and we are so immersed in those media that anything that happened more than a week or so ago is consigned to the dustbin of history. The big social-media companies function as what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia, and the result is that we lack temporal bandwidth. Unless we work hard to cultivate that temporal bandwidth, we won’t have the “personal density” to resist the amnesia-producing forces that make us think that whatever happens today is more important than anything that has ever happened.

Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump. Trump knows perfectly well that his audience’s attachment to the immediate is so great that he can make virtually any scandal disappear from the public mind with three or four tweets. And the very journalists who most want to hold Trump accountable are also the most vulnerable to his changing of the subject. He’s got them on a string. They cannot resist the tweets du jour.

This tyranny of the immediate has two major effects on our political judgment. First, it disables us from making accurate assessments of threats and dangers. We may, for instance, think that we live in a time of uniquely poisonous social mistrust and open hostility, but that’s only because we have forgotten what the Sixties and early Seventies were like.

Second, it inclines us to forget that the greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.

And so we float on, boats with the current, borne forward ceaselessly into an ever-surprising future.


I write these words on the day following the death of Senator John McCain, and I find myself thinking about one particular moment in McCain’s long and varied career. When he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, having been so deprived of food that his weight dropped to 105 pounds, having been beaten regularly, having been thrown into solitary confinement, he one day found himself offered the possibility of freedom. His father had recently been named Commander of the U.S. forces in the Vietnamese theater, and his captors understood that releasing the young man would likely be a public-relations boon for them, an open declaration of their magnanimity. McCain refused — unless the men who had been captured with him were also released with him. This demand went unmet, and McCain not only remained in prison, he was also subjected to intensified beatings and torture so severe that for the rest of his life he would be unable to lift his arms over his head (as was often noted, he always had to have someone around to comb his hair, because he couldn’t). He waited another five years for his release.

All of which leads me to a thought, and a question. Several decades after McCain’s torture a man who had taken great care to avoid serving in the military, and who indeed had never done an hour’s work of public service, denied that McCain was a hero, mocked him for having been captured, cited McCain’s experience as proof that torture “works” — and in spite of such monstrous perversion of spirit was elected President of the United States with the overwhelming support of the very people most likely to say that they “support our troops.” How did this become possible?

The answer is: Gradually and then suddenly. We all saw the “suddenly.” But we have not thought nearly as carefully, as rigorously, as we should about the “gradually.” It’s too late to avert Trump, of course. But we damn well better be asking ourselves what else is happening gradually that will spring upon us with shocking suddenness if we don’t develop more temporal bandwidth and personal density. And do it now.

populist leaders and the defiance of norms

After the release of the Vigano letter detailing Pope Francis’s rehabilitation of Cardinal McCarrick, people started saying, “I don’t see how Francis can survive this” or “This will mark the end of Francis’s papacy.” It’s precisely the same sort of thing that people say when yet another revelation about Donald Trump comes out, or yet another member of his inner circle is convicted of a felony.

And yet there is no plausible path for Trump to be removed from office — congressional Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they will stick with him through thick and thin, and even a Democratic Senate won’t have enough votes to get him tossed out — and no path at all for Francis being forced to resign.

I think the assumption that many people make about both men is that they can be brought to heel by the force of political norms — that they will see, or those associated with them will see, that the violation of important norms makes their position unsustainable. But as I wrote 18 months ago,

Like Donald Trump, Francis makes dramatic and apparently extreme pronouncements which send the world into interpretative tizzies. When he says things like “Who am I to judge?” Catholics who support him effectively say that he should be taken “seriously but not literally” — just as Trump supporters say about their man. Both men generate massive, thick fogs of uncertainty.

Like Donald Trump, Francis cuts through political complications by issuing executive orders and blunt power grabs, as when he dismissed the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta and is seeking to replace him with a “papal delegate” under his own personal control, a move of questionable legality.

Like Donald Trump, Francis is an authoritarian populist: he bypasses institutional structures and governs by executive order, but believes that there can be nothing tyrannical about this because he is acting in the name of the people and is committed to “draining the swamp” of his institution’s internal corruption.

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry. Moreover, when people see the sheer size of the institutions at which they’re so angry, they despair of any real change happening, and are content with listening to leaders who channel their own frustration.

General contempt for our institutions, government and church alike, makes them too weak to enforce their norms, which first enables corruption — the kind of corruption American Catholic bishops and members of the Congress of the United States are guilty of — and then produces populist figures who appear to want to undo that corruption. But the institutions are too weak to control the leaders either, so those leaders are empowered to do more or less whatever they want to do. This is the case with Trump, who will surely last at least until the 2020 election, and also, I think, with Francis, who will probably last until he dies or chooses like his predecessor to resign.

Moreover, since neither Trump nor Francis is interested in doing the work needed to repair their corrupt institutions — they don’t even have any incentive to do so: the ongoing presence of “swamps” is what lends them such legitimacy as they possess — all the products and enablers of corruption are safe. This is why the American bishops who spent decades enabling and hiding sexual abuse are probably feeling pretty good about their prospects right now.

 

P.S. I wonder if the people who expect resignations or discipline of corrupt leaders tend to be old enough to remember stronger institutions, and more effectual norms, than the ones we have now.  Or perhaps they have participated in strong institutions. Younger people, and those whose experience with institutions has reinforced a belief in their weakness and inconsistency, don’t even bother to demand what seems to them clearly impossible.

saving America from exploding Cadbury bars

“What do you do for a living?” the supervisor asked.

I knew this question was coming. I detest this question. I know from experience that if I tell CBP up front that I’m a civil rights lawyer, they’ll let me go in a flash. As a general rule, I don’t — because it’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get equal treatment under the law. I travel internationally six to eight times per year, and it doesn’t surprise me to get stopped at least half of those times. Every time I mention I’m a lawyer, they release me immediately. Funny how that works — they know they’re illegally profiling me because of my name, skin color or religion.

Qasim Rashid

Re: the previous post, I often wonder whether the people who claim to reject proceduralism

(a) believe they can win and win forever;

(b) don’t have that confidence but are so miserable under the current regime that they’d rather blow it up than allow it to stay alive — like Tolkien’s Denethor, if they can’t have things the way they prefer they will have nought; or

(c) deep down inside, don’t think they can blow it up, don’t think they can even put a real dent in it, but love the posture of radicalism.

 

nostalgia for proceduralism

One of the classic critiques made against the liberal social order is that it is philosophically thin, characterized by an inadequate, narrow, limited account of human being and human flourishing. It effectively waives essential questions of what the human animal is and replaces those questions with a commitment to certain fixed procedures applied to all. These procedures, philosophical liberals believe, are the best preservers of peace in a highly plural society such as ours. This “liberal proceduralism” is most often associated with the work of John Rawls, but its pedigree goes back at least to Locke.

I have often joined in those critiques, and have been especially attracted to the anti-proceduralist arguments of Alasdair MacIntyre, but now that proceduralism is greatly weakened and perhaps dying, I am starting to miss it. Some time back Ross Douthat tweeted that if you thought you hated the religious right, wait till you see the post-religious right. Similarly, I thought I disapproved of the proceduralist liberal order, but that was before I met the post-proceduralist liberal order.

Here is a classic argument based on the assumption that we are living in, and that arguments can appeal to, proceduralism. It concerns no-platforming strategies by leftist protestors on university campuses, and here’s a characteristic sample of the substance and tenor of the argument:

If [students] are led to think that it is appropriate for them to shout down speakers whose views they dislike or that they find offensive, then, to act with intellectual integrity and in good faith, students would have to support people shouting them down when they express views that others find distasteful or offensive.

But protesters who shout down others without acknowledging that they too could be shouted down are acting without “intellectual integrity” and “good faith” only under the assumptions of proceduralism. And student protestors do not share those assumptions. For them, what matters is that their positions are correct and the positions of those they are shouting down are profoundly wrong.

Similarly, you often hear political pundits contend that Republicans act in bad faith when they cheerfully allow President Trump to behave in precisely the same ways that they fiercely denounced when President Obama did them, or that Democrats lack intellectual integrity when they protest behavior by the current President that they cheerfully embraced in the previous administration. These arguments too appeal to proceduralist norms in conditions where they simply have no force. Few of our politicians are willing to share a common set of rules and norms with those they are convinced will ruin the country if they get a chance (or are beholden for their seats to voters and donors who think that).

When Conan the Barbarian was asked “What is best in life?” he replied, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” Had you been there, would you have replied, “Now Conan, you need to think about how you’d feel if the tables were turned, and it was your women who wailed in lamentation”? I trust that the question answers itself.

Proceduralism depends on the belief that my fellow citizens, while often wrong, indeed in some cases profoundly wrong, can be negotiated with. It depends on the belief that, while a world made precisely in my image may not be in the cards, if I and my fellow citizens agree to be bound by a common set of norms, then we can probably negotiate a tolerable social order. It depends on the belief that people whose politics differ from my own are not ipso facto evil, nor do they need to be pushed to the margins of society or forced out of it altogether. When those stances are not in play — and especially when all sides agree that error has no rights — proceduralism withers.

And that’s why, though I agree that proceduralism is morally limited and metaphysically thin to the point of invisibility, I am already missing it. I can feel the nostalgia coming on.

the end of hypocrisy

Today, many critics on the right are noting that the New York Times is extending to Sarah Jeong gracious understanding that they refused to Quinn Norton, and that the Atlantic refused to Kevin Williamson. These critics then go on to accuse the Times, and the center-left journalism world more generally, of hypocrisy. 

Hypocrisy occurs in the presence of an agreed-upon standard which people in power — perhaps the power is only local — apply variously according to preference. If a standard helps someone I like, I’ll apply it to them; if it helps someone I don’t like, I’ll carve out an exception and say it doesn’t apply to my enemy. Thus I become a hypocrite. 

But as Stanley Fish pointed out decades ago, during the first round of political-correctness culture wars (ca. 1985-95), in this sense hypocrisy is simply what human beings do. According to the definition given above, it is virtually impossible to find non-hypocritical judgments. In his famous essay “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too” Fish describes John Milton’s famous celebration of free speech in “Areopagitica,” which commends “the virtues of toleration and unregulated publication in passages that find their way into every discussion of free speech and the First Amendment,” after which “Milton catches himself up short and says, of course I didn’t mean Catholics, them we exterminate.” Here’s the key passage: 

I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate . . . that also which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself. 

Beneath every commitment to free speech, Fish says, is this unspoken but essential question: “Would this form of speech or advocacy, if permitted to flourish, tend to undermine the very purposes for which our society is constituted?” If the answer is Yes, then that speech is unprotected by our laws. 

Supposed commitments to “free speech” and “fairness” and “equal access” and “inclusiveness” are always — always — smoke screens for some commitment that is both narrower and more fundamental. Fish summarizes it thus: 

Speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict. When the pinch comes (and sooner or later it will always come) and the institution (be it church, state, or university) is confronted by behavior subversive of its core rationale, it will respond by declaring “of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate,” not because an exception to a general freedom has suddenly and contradictorily been announced, but because the freedom has never been general and has always been understood against the background of an originary exclusion that gives it meaning. 

The general failure to understand this point leads to a pathology of thought that is extremely common but rarely acknowledged for what it is. You see it when people say that they’re all about empowering women’s voices, but of course pro-life women aren’t really women at all. You see when people who advocate for true freedom for black people in America say that a black person who supports Trump isn’t really black at all. You see it when Republicans call other Republicans RINOs. You see it when people say that Catholics who don’t support the Pope against ancient tradition aren’t really Catholic, and when others say that those who don’t support ancient tradition against the Pope are the ones who aren’t really Catholic. You see it when people want to celebrate the beautiful unity of Christianity, but those who don’t hold our views about sexuality aren’t really Christians at all. “Of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate.” 

I think this chasm between what one claims to stand for, who one claims to speak for, and one’s actual loyalties happens because most people have two conflicting desires: (a) to feel that they belong to a majority, they they speak for and with a great cloud of witnesses, and (b) to exclude and punish dissenters. It is very difficult to face the possibility — and it’s more than a possibility, it’s a certainty — that those two desires truly are irreconcilable, and that you’ll at some point have to choose one rather than the other. So it’s easier to pretend that there’s no choice to be made. This is how you get to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” 

For those of us observing such scenes, the best practice is simply to ignore what any institution says it stands for, and pay attention to its actions. The self-descriptions of institutions are meaningless, because, to borrow terms from William Butler Yeats, they tend to be either rhetorical or sentimental: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbor, the sentimentalist himself.” There is really no point in your calling attention to the hypocrisy of institutions in applying their professed standards. The lack of fit between their words and their deeds is inevitable, and precisely the same is true of the institutions you love and pledge your loyalty to.

The idea that you can somehow back an institution, or an individual, into a corner by drawing attention to that lack of fit is absurd. When has that tactic ever succeeded? The accused parties merely tweak their definitions to disguise the inconsistencies and resume their self-soothing. 

It is better, then, just to pay attention to how institutions act and draw the conclusions the conclusions that are generally obvious. The New York Times has room for Sarah Jeong but not for Quinn Norton; the Atlantic has room for Ta-Nehisi Coates but not Kevin Williamson. Churches, universities, businesses all likewise define themselves through their inclusions and exclusions, their actions and inactions. If you’re not distracted by institutional self-descriptions, the math is rarely hard to do. 

political mistrust in the long term

Elizabeth Bruenig:

The gravity and legality of the two exercises in meddling differ, certainly. But they both operate to wound our faith in democratic legitimacy. It has gone this way before. It took several incidents, from Vietnam to Watergate to scattered episodes of civil unrest, to permanently damage American trust in government; but as distinct as each event was, they all fractured the same essential faith. We haven’t returned to consistent levels of pre-’70s levels of trust in 40 years, and I doubt this current civic unease will fade much sooner. 

This particular horror — Trump and his failures, whatever ridiculous thing he has said or done today, whatever international incident he causes on Twitter tomorrow, however authentic the next panic is — will pass. What will last is the frank revelation of a point that, while ugly and dark, is at least true: You really don’t have the choices you ought to in American democracy, because of decisions made without your consent by people of wealth and power behind closed doors. It’s possible to continue to participate in a democracy after that. But not with a quiet mind.

pronoun trouble

Political philosopher Jason Brennan on the case for epistocracy:

Here’s what I propose we do: Everyone can vote, even children. No one gets excluded. But when you vote, you do three things. 

First, you tell us what you want. You cast your vote for a politician, or for a party, or you take a position on a referendum, whatever it might be. Second, you tell us who you are. We get your demographic information, which is anonymously coded, because that stuff affects how you vote and what you support. 

And the third thing you do is take a quiz of very basic political knowledge. When we have those three bits of information, we can then statistically estimate what the public would have wanted if it was fully informed. 

There’s an intellectual habit, one very common to academics, at work in Brennan’s formulations that I’ve called attention to before, and you can get at it by noting his use of pronouns: We get your demographic information. You tell us what you want. You take the quiz, we administer and assess the quiz. We ask, you answer; you give us the information we require and we decide what to do with it, and how it should be interpreted. We’re running the experiment, you’re our experimental subject. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! 

Which means, of course, that none of us will ever have our vote discounted. 

As I’ve noted in a slightly different (but not altogether different) context, “There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power.” It’s enough to make a Franz Fanon disciple out of me. 

the point of the sword

Sarah Smarsh:

What my father seeks is not a return to times that were worse for women and people of color but progress toward a society in which everyone can get by, including his white, college-educated son who graduated into the Great Recession and for 10 years sold his own plasma for gas money. After being laid off during that recession in 2008, my dad had to cash in his retirement to make ends meet while looking for another job. He has labored nearly every day of his life and has no savings beyond Social Security.

Yes, my father is angry at someone. But it is not his co-worker Gem, a Filipino immigrant with whom he has split a room to pocket some of the per diem from their employer, or Francisco, a Hispanic crew member with whom he recently built a Wendy’s north of Memphis. His anger, rather, is directed at bosses who exploit labor and governments that punish the working poor — two sides of a capitalist democracy that bleeds people like him dry.

“Corporations,” Dad said. “That’s it. That’s the point of the sword that’s killing us.”

Trollope and Brexit

Trollope’s Phineas Redux, like the other Palliser novels, has a domestic plot and a political plot, and the political plot here spins out from the decision by Mr. Daubeny, the Prime Minister, to come up with a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England. (Daubeny is a stand-in for Benjamin Disraeli, who never did anything quite like this. But we’ll set aside the real-life correspondences for this post.) This a curious, indeed a shocking, decision because Daubeny is a Conservative, and the Conservative Party in the Victorian era was very much the party of the Church. How could be betray the very heart of his constituency this way?

The answer is that in the recent election his party lost their majority, and in ordinary circumstances it would be incumbent on him to resign. So he creates extraordinary circumstances. His idea, it appears — we are not privileged to know his mind — is that most of his own party will stand with him as a matter of disciplinary obedience, while the many Liberals who have long wanted disestablishment will vote with him across party lines. Thus, on the basis of this single bill-to-come — he hasn’t produced it yet, only announced his plan to — Daubeny can remain in his place as P.M.

Some Liberals are willing to join Daubeny; some, following their leader Mr. Gresham (= Gladstone), are determined to oppose him; some are uncertain. Those uncertain ones want to see the Church disestablished — and, by the way, not necessarily because they dislike the Church: some of the most devoted churchmen in England have long wanted disestablishment in order to free the Church to preach and teach the Gospel without political interference — but they do not believe that Daubeny would do the job properly. They suspect that anyone capable of acting as cynically as Daubeny does cannot possibly carry through the process of disestablishment in a competent and appropriate way.

All of which puts me in mind of Brexit. As a strong proponent of subsidiarity, I am temperamentally disposed to welcome any effort at devolution. I’d love to see Britain freed from accountability to Brussels — and, for that matter, Scotland freed from accountability to England. (I’m even open to the restoration of the Republic of Texas — but that’s a story for another post.) I will always seek to move in the direction of localism and will always be suspicious of institutional cosmopolitanism. I am therefore supportive of Brexit in principle.

But a Brexit designed and managed by these people? I don’t think so. They are more cynical than Mr. Daubeny and less — far less — competent. It’s a feeling I often have with the Trump administration as well: even on those relatively rare occasions when I think they have a good policy in mind, I simply don’t believe that they can carry out that policy honestly, fairly, and successfully. In politics, principle is important; but good principles can produce political disasters when implemented by buffoons.

Principalities, Powers, and BLM

Eugene Rivers:

For the most part, BLM activists – like the post-1965 SNCC activists, the Black Panther Party, and assorted other radical black groups before them – exhibit little interest in, or comprehension of, the larger lessons of history. This is because they lack the deep spiritual and moral insight that must be the grounding for any sustainable movement. Having rejected the God of their fathers, they have also rejected the fatherhood of God.

This philosophical rejection is an act of spiritual and cultural suicide. Failure to discern the demonic character of white supremacy limits these activists’ ability to understand the fight they are engaged in, and hinders their efforts to develop long-term strategies. They can only describe the sadistic violence they witness and never fully understand or conquer it, so long as they ignore its spiritual source.

More importantly, they fail to use the only means of combatting the demonic: intercessory prayer. Instead, they are easily sucked into the spirit of the demonic themselves as they resort to violence, anger, and hate – a failing less common in the BLM movement than in Antifa, though the danger applies to both.

The Atomic Theory of Human Life

To me, the most interesting and significant element of the opposition to Amy Coney Barrett is the inability of some of her critics to achieve even the most basic comprehension of the character of an organization like People of Praise. Many Americans are so thoroughly catechized into the Atomic Theory of Human Life — the belief that all significant life-decisions are properly made by autonomous monads, with only the State to set boundaries and provide a safety net — that a genuinely functional community, in which some of the burdens of decision-making are distributed throughout a network of people bound to one another by mutual affection, can only be seen as a “cult.”

why hospitality matters: ancient poetry edition

I’m looking forward to reading Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, though I will admit to being put off a bit by the intensity of some of the praise, which tends to give Wilson credit for something that Homer does and that is fairly represented in pretty much every other translation. (Thus Alexander Pope and/or William Brooke in 1726: “By Jove the stranger and the poor are sent; / And what to those we give to Jove is lent. / Then food supply, and bathe his fainting limbs / Where waving shades obscure the mazy streams.” Etc. etc.) That emphasis is in the poem, not the translation.

It is a key theme in the Odyssey, though, and one that I often call particular attention to when teaching. This is the second major point at which the importance of hospitality to the stranger appears. Earlier, when Athena (disguised as Mentor) is escorting Telemachus around to see a bit of the world, they arrive at Nestor’s home at Pylos and are welcomed warmly and offered roasted meat and red wine and “deep-piled rugs” to sleep on — but when they come to the much grander home of Menelaus at Sparta they are greeted with considerable suspicion by one of Menelaus’s companions. Now, to be sure, Menelaus chastises the man for not being more generous, but Homer is showing us something here about the difference between a household that’s instinctively and naturally welcoming and, on the other hand, one where the welcome is grudging at best. Mentor wants Telemachus to learn the right way to live, and the right way to live requires hospitality to strangers.

When correcting his companion, Menelaus explains why: Could we have made it home from Troy, he asks, if people had not been hospitable to us? This was not a world, as I remind my students, in which you could drive up to a Holiday Inn and pull our your credit card. We do best when we extend a helping hand to those in need, not least because one day soon we could be among the endangered and dependent.

But the lessons of hospitality don’t come easily to those — like the suitors of Penelope, hanging out in Odysseus’s house and eating his food without earning a damned thing for themselves — who think that what they need will always be within reach. They are spoiled, arrogant, grasping; and in all these respects just the opposite of Nestor and his family, of the princess Nausicaa, and even of Odysseus’s poor old goatherd Eumaeus, who even in his poverty takes care of a man he thinks to be a ragged beggar, because “strangers and beggars come from Zeus.”

So be generous to the homeless because it’s the right thing to do; but if you’re not going to do it because it’s right, do it because someday you may need some generosity yourself. And if you don’t, you could end up like those suitors, whose end is — spoiler alert — not pretty.

when critique dissolves

From Ross Douthat’s column today:

But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.

This reminds me very much of an argument Paul Kingsnorth makes in his provocative Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:

We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’. What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the non-human world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

It is, in other words, an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet’. In a very short time – just over a decade – this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total – at the price of its soul.

“Sustainability,” then, is the magic word that allows the worldwide corporate-scaled environmental movement to become utterly comfortable with transnational capitalism. As Kingsnorth points out, the movement’s single-minded focus on reducing carbon emissions allows the energy companies to offer lucrative-for-them “solutions” to carbon-based “problems,” which may well lead to the utter despoiling of places that environmentalists used to care about preserving, even when that meant not sustaining our current levels of consumption. “Motorway through downland: bad. Wind power station on downland: good. Container port wiping out estuary mudflats: bad. Renewable hydro-power barrage wiping out estuary mudflats: good. Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.”

Environmentalism has made the same deal that (per Douthat’s argument) today’s American feminism has made. Both movements were scrupulously attentive to the depredations of transnational capitalism up to the moment when transnational capitalism said “We can give you stuff you want at no additional cost — to you, anyway.” Then the critiques dissolved.

the world of the deal

In Trump’s world, you fit into one of three categories. You may be a mark, you may be leverage, you may be a loser.

Trump wants to make deals, which means he wants to win deals. His understanding of deal-making is that someone fleeces and someone gets fleeced. It is his ambition to be the fleecer.

So you could be his mark, the one he wants to fleece. That’s what the American electorate was in the 2016 election. That’s what Kim Jong Un was recently, which is why Trump didn’t mind flattering him. (As a general rule, if Trump praises you that means he hopes to fleece you.)

Or you could be leverage, which is what the children in the Trump/Sessions detention centers are. They are not human beings, they are tokens or counters to be used to try to get a deal with the current mark, which is Congress.

But if you attempt in any way to impede the deal, or if you refuse to participate in it, or protest it, or even just call it what it is, you are a loser.

In Trump’s world there can be no compassion, no fairness, no justice, no truthtelling, no principles, no standards, no ethics, no convictions, no respect for others, no self-respect, no friends, no allies, no prudence, no thought for the future, no discernment, no wisdom, no religion, no humanity. Only deals. Only marks, leverage, and losers.

the whole of the law

Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a similar argument: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” 

But when Obama was president the relevant biblical passage wasn’t Romans 13:1, it was Acts 5:29. The goalposts have moved — and when there’s a another Democratic president and/or Congress, they’ll move again. Conservative Christians would never have countenanced electing a president who has been divorced — until Reagan came along. When Bill Clinton was president, character in the occupant of the Oval Office was everything; now it’s nothing, or, really, less than nothing. 

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them. The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning. Or summarize a Sunday-school story that they clearly don’t understand, as when they compare Trump to King David because both sinned without even noticing that David’s penitence was even more extravagant than his sins while Trump doesn’t think he needs to repent of anything. But hey, as a Trump supporter once wrote to me: “Now we are fused with him.” 

And that’s it, that’s the law, that’s the whole of the law

But I think Jeff Sessions actually knows that the position he and Sanders articulate is inadequate. In his statement he lets slip one dangerous word: “I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws. If we have them, then they should be enforced.” 

Ah, you shouldn’t have let that word sneak in there, Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.  It might lead people to ask questions, to wit: 

Start going down this road and you could end up sitting at your kitchen table trying to parse the way Martin Luther King Jr. distinguishes just and unjust laws in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” And we wouldn’t want that, would we? Better simply to say “Romans 13:1 says it, I believe it, and that settles it” — at least until the Democrats get back in power. 

unexpected moderation

Wesley Yang:

Peterson is virtually always more nuanced than the straw target his detractors have built out of his ideas. He uses the fact that the moods of both lobsters and humans are regulated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter that waxes and wanes in accordance with both creatures’ place in a dominance hierarchy to illustrate the point that the “problem of hierarchy is much deeper” than capitalism or any other set of human institutions. The claim is not that the continuity between our mental architecture and that of much older organisms does or should determine the way we organize society, but rather that it necessarily exerts a degree of influence on it, and constrains the set of viable ways of organizing our society. This modest claim should be self-evident to all but the most insistent denialist. Peterson acknowledges that inequality is a problem in that it causes society to destabilize when it moves past a certain threshold, and acknowledges the necessity of left-wing redistributive political movements — but is wary of left-wing doctrines that call for mandated equality, for the simple and very good reason that the grand experiments in mandated equality of the 20th century tended to be catastrophic. This does not mean that Peterson is a libertarian radical but a moderate conservative. He accepts nearly every facet of the status quo of 2014: he is on video explaining his acceptance of legal abortion, gay marriage, progressive taxation, the welfare state, and the Canadian socialistic healthcare system.

Anyone who listens to Peterson’s actual words without the intent of discovering in them the horrors they already believe that they will find there — i.e., without letting confirmation bias guide them by the nose — will discover that, in fact, his thinking on most discrete problems nearly always bends toward moderation.

Reclaiming Jesus

This is a great statement, and I agree with every word of it. But how I wish it were possible for Christians to speak prophetically to the abortion regime in this country in the same way they can speak — so confidently, with such unity — to the evils of racism and sexism. I wonder if the subject even came up during the Ash Wednesday gathering that led to this statement. I suspect it did not, because I suspect that everyone there understood that abortion was an issue that would threaten their agreement on other points.

POTUS, tweetblocker

Maybe there’s some legal element I don’t understand, but this ruling seems wrong to me. Not that I don’t want to see the Donald discomfited in every way possible, but

  1. Twitter is a service provided by a private company, it’s not a public forum; and

  2. Blocking people on Twitter doesn’t impede them from saying whatever they want to say, and saying it on Twitter. I don’t see how anyone, including POTUS, has an obligation to listen to anyone and everyone.

a Communist and a Tory

Clive Wilmer on Ruskin:

This Toryism, comparable to that of Swift and Johnson and Coleridge, is based on a belief in hierarchy, established order and obedience to inherited authority. He detested both liberty and equality, blaming them, more than privilege, for the injustices he condemned. Only those who held power by right, as he saw it, could be moved by a sense of duty to serve and protect the weak. This is a side of Ruskin that is likely to confuse and even repel the modern reader, in particular the radical who finds his apparent socialism attractive. But in the nineteenth century political attitudes were not so neatly shared out between left and right as they are — or seem to be — today. Modern capitalist economics were then thought progressive, being associated with the expansion of personal liberty. A radical liberal like John Stuart Mill, who championed democracy and the extension of personal rights and liberties, was also an advocate of doctrines which can be blamed for the degradations of the workhouse (Utilitarianism) and the extremes of Victorian poverty (laissez-faire). By contrast, Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, famous respectively for the Factory Acts and the abolition of slavery, were high Tories. State intervention in the economy and social welfare policies belonged to the right, for the right believed in the duty of government to govern — to secure social order and administer justice impartially.

No political label quite fits Ruskin’s politics. Though he detested the Liberals, he was far from being a supporter of the Conservatives. His ‘Toryism’ was such that it could, in his own lifetime, inspire the socialism of William Morris and the founders of the Labour Party; and when he called himself a ‘conservative’, he usually meant a preserver of the environment — what we should call a ‘conservationist’. The truth is that, despite an exceptional consistency of view, throughout his life, on most matters of principle, his specific opinions changed and developed as he grew older. His attitudes to war and imperialism and the rights of women, for instance, oscillate wildly between reaction and radicalism; and he in effect concedes the ambiguity of his position when, in Fors Clavigera, he calls himself, with conscious irony, both a Communist and a Tory.

liberalism and democracy

This is very shrewd and thought-provoking from Adrian Vermeule:

Liberalism both needs and fears democracy. It needs democracy because it needs the legitimation that democracy provides. It fears, however, that its dependence on, yet fundamental difference from, democracy will be finally and irrevocably exposed by a sustained course of nonliberal popular opinion.

In this environment, the solution of the intellectuals is always to try to idealize and redescribe democracy so that “mere majoritarianism” never turns out to count as truly democratic. Of course the majority’s views are to count on certain issues, but only within constraints so tightly drawn and under procedures so idealized that any outcomes threatening to liberalism can be dismissed as inauthentic, often by a constitutional court purporting to speak in the name of a higher form of democracy. Democracy is then reduced to a periodic ceremony of privatized voting by secret ballot for one or another essentially liberal party, safely within a cordon sanitaire. In the limit, as Schmitt put it, liberalism attempts to appeal to a “democracy of mankind” that erases nations, substantive cultures, and the particularistic solidarities that are constitutive of so many of the goods of human life. In this way, liberalism attempts to hollow out democracy from within, yet retain its outward form as a sort of legitimating costume, like the donkey who wore the lion’s skin in the fable.

studies prove

Kevin Williamson:

Studies have a way of ceasing to be studies once they are taken up by politicians-in-print like Ezra Klein. They become dueling implements. Mary Branham of the Council of State Governments: “Evidence Shows Raising Minimum Wage Hasn’t Cost Jobs” vs. Max Ehrenfreund of the Washington Post: “‘Very Credible’ New Study on Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Has Bad News for Liberals” vs. Arindrajit Dube of the New York Times: “Minimum Wage and Job Loss: One Alarming Seattle Study Is Not the Last Word.” Much of this is predictable partisan pabulum. The study that confirms my priors is science. The study that challenges my preferences is … just one study. Our friends among the global-warming alarmists, embarrassed by the fact that every time Al Gore shows up to give a speech it turns out to be the coldest March day in 30 years, are forever lecturing us that weather doesn’t tell us anything useful about climate — except when it’s hot in the summer, or there’s a drought in California, or there’s a hurricane in Florida.

I am a registered “global-warming alarmist,” but Williamson is absolutely right about all this. 

How the Beijing elite sees the world

How the Beijing elite sees the world

The Chinese have developed a state system run by a technocratic elite of highly educated bureaucrats under party control. This is China’s age-old imperial system in modern form. The attraction that western-style democracy and free-market capitalism may have exercised on this elite has now withered. They stressed the failure of western states to invest in their physical or human assets, the poor quality of many of their elected leaders and the instability of their economies. One participant added that “90 per cent of democracies created after the fall of the Soviet Union have now failed”. This risk is not to be run.

All this has increased confidence in China’s unique model. Yet this does not mean a return to a controlled economy. On the contrary, as a participant remarked: “We believe in the fundamental role of the market in allocating resources. But government needs to play a decisive role. It creates the framework for the market. The government should promote entrepreneurship and protect the private economy.” One participant even insisted that the new idea of a “core leader” could lead to strong government and economic freedom. 

This is by no means an irrational take on the global state of affairs. I wish it were. 

“I like this God”

When years ago, I finished reading [John Crowe Ransom’s] God Without Thunder , I threw it aside, muttering that I would rather burn eternally in hell than submit to the will of such an arbitrary, not to say monstrous, God. But then, as an atheist, I am at liberty to indulge in such grandstanding. Were I in grace and in fear of the wrath of a God who proclaims himself ‘a jealous God,’ I would think again. Liberal (and liberationist) theology, in white or black, should warm every atheist’s heart. For if God is a socially conscious political being whose view invariably corresponds to our own prejudices on every essential point of doctrine, he demands of us no more than our politics require. Besides, if God is finite, progressive, and Pure Love, we may as well skip church next Sunday and go to the movies. For if we have nothing to fear from this all-loving, all-forbearing, all-forgiving God, how would our worship of him constitute more than self-congratulation for our own moral standards? As an atheist, I like this God. It is good to see him every morning while I am shaving.

Eugene Genovese in The New Republic (1992)

the sad compatibilist

Sohrab Amari writes in Commentary about two kinds of Christian response to the dominant liberal order, the compatibilists and the non-compatibilists: 

The “compatibilists” (like yours truly) argued that liberalism’s foundational guarantees of freedom of speech, conscience, and association sufficed to protect Christianity from contemporary liberalism’s censorious, repressive streak. The task of the believer, they contended, was to call liberalism back to its roots in Judeo-Christianity, from which the ideology derives its faith in the special dignity of persons, universal equality and much else of the kind. Christianity could evangelize liberal modernity in this way. Publicly engaged believers could restore to liberalism the commitment to ultimate truths and the public moral culture without which rights-based self-government ends up looking like mob rule.

The latter camp — those who thought today’s aggressive progressivism was the rotten fruit of the original liberal idea — were more pessimistic. They argued that liberal intolerance went back to liberalism’s origins. The liberal idea was always marked by distrust for all non-liberal authority, an obsession with promoting maximal autonomy over the common good, and hostility to mediating institutions (faith, family, nation-state, etc.). Yes, liberalism was willing to live with and even borrow ideas from Christianity for a few centuries, the non-compatibilists granted. But that time is over. Liberalism’s anti-religious inner logic was bound to bring us to today’s repressive model: Bake that cake — or else! Say that men can give birth — or else! Let an active bisexual run your college Christian club — or else!

I have been for most of my career what I call a sad compatibilist: I have tried to describe and promote a model of charity, forbearance, patience, and fairness in disputation to all parties concerned, not because I think my approach will work but because I am trying to do what I think a disciple of Jesus should do regardless of effectiveness. In these matters I continue to be against consequentialism. For reasons I explain in that post I just linked to, I’ll keep on pushing, but it feels more comically pointless than ever in this age of rhetorical Leninism. (And by the way, if you weren’t convinced by the example I give, take a gander at some of the responses to Jordan Peterson that Alastair Roberts collects in this post.) 

Speaking of pushing, Amari concludes his post thus: “It is up to liberals to decide if they want to push further.” But as far as I can tell that decision has been made. There are two kinds of liberals now: the Leninists and the Silent — the latter not happy with the scorched-earth tactics of their confederates but unwilling to question them, lest they themselves become the newest victims of such tactics. The Voltairean [sic] liberal is, I believe, extinct. “Not only will I not defend to the death your right to say something that appalls me, I won’t even defend it to the point of getting snarked at in my Twitter mentions.” 

What I find myself wondering, in the midst of all this, is whether there is a different way to do sad compatibilism than the one I’ve been pursuing. Do I just keep on banging my head against the same wall or do I look for a different wall? I’m thinking about this a lot right now. 

more on “rhetorical Leninism”

When I wrote in a recent post about “rhetorical Leninism,” what did I mean?

I recently read Victor Sebestyen’s biography of Lenin, and one of the most striking elements of it was the consistency with which Lenin adhered to a particular strategy — a strategy which almost everyone around him believed was counterproductive, but which he never abandoned: Abuse, condemn, and denounce every person in every party other than yours, and do the same to the doubters or waverers in your own ranks. “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” — so Lenin famously cried, but for him the Mensheviks were the enemies of the people just as fully as were the social democrats like Kerensky and the most fervent supporters of Tsarist autocracy. For Lenin they were all the same. He who is not with us, and with us 100%, is against us and must be condemned. Again and again, people who considered themselves strong allies of Lenin and faithful adherents to his cause, expressed some minor dissent or critique and found themselves, to their great surprise, denounced and excluded, treated as though they were no different than the Tsarists. And for Lenin they weren’t. 

To some degree Lenin’s policy reflects human nature. We often get more upset when we feel that we’ve been betrayed, or simply not supported, by friends than when we’re attacked by known enemies. What’s distinctive about Lenin is his elevation of this emotional tendency into an absolute political and rhetorical principle. And guess what? It worked. It brought people into line. It kept the Bolsheviks together, and when all the other factions of Russian political life had splintered, Lenin’s party, though it was small and weak, was the only one able to fill the vacuum created by the fall of the Tsar, and so came to power. And stayed in power for seventy years. 

The Leninism of our moment is, as I have said, largely rhetorical, for which I suppose we should be thankful. But the real thing isn’t dead, and absolute itself most obviously in the White House, where anything except perfect loyalty to His Orangeness tends to meet with dismissal or, at best, internal isolation (hello, Jeff Sessions). The rhetorical element of the administration’s Leninism is left largely to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who faithfully imitates the style of her boss’s tweets. Now, the parallels are not perfect: Lenin was smart enough to insist, always, that he only cared about loyalty to the Cause, not to him personally, and this was a shrewd move — but one not available in Trumpworld, which manifestly has no cause or for that matter any principles other than self-aggrandizement. But the Leninist strategy is still doing hard work in the White House.  

The purely rhetorical Leninism of our moment is largely, it seems to me, a strategy of the political and cultural left and is deployed most forcefully, it seems to me, against the nearer rather than the further enemy. Michael Sean Winters is going to be far more viciously mocking of Ross Douthat than of a fire-breathing integralist trad, because Douthat’s epistemic modesty and willingness to treat his opponents as decent people arguing in good faith, who might even have a good point or two to make, just might incline some people otherwise sympathetic to Winters’s own liberalism to have second thoughts. This cannot be allowed, and therefore Douthat cannot be allowed to make a good point or two either. He has no legitimate concerns, no legitimate viewpoints, no legitimate arguments. Please move along, nothing to see here. 

Similarly, while there are plenty of real fascists out there, people might not think that Jordan Peterson, who holds plenty of recognizable liberal views, is dangerous, so: Fascist Mysticism! And since Charles Murray is pretty evidently no Richard Spencer: White supremacist! And the very idea that one should distinguish between what Murray wrote (or is thought to have written) in The Bell Curve and what he comes to campuses to talk about these days — I mean, come on. 

As I wrote in How to Think, we live in an age of lumping, and the general goal seems to be to create just two big lumps, the goats and the sheep, the Wrong and the Right. Which is great, I suppose, if you want to run a dictatorship. There is precedent. But sometimes I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live

When I see young people out there marching and demonstrating and making their voices heard on behalf of causes I already believe in, wow, does that give me hope for the future. There are few experiences in this vale of tears that lift my heart like watching the youth of our nation so vigorously confirming all my priors. Now, to be sure, sometimes they speak up on behalf of causes that I don’t believe in, in which case it’s totally pathetic how their parents and other authority figures so shamelessly use kids to promote their own agendas. But as long as those future voters agree with me, they’re a shining beacon for our nation. As I say every time their politics match mine: The kids are all right.

engagement 24/7

I’ve talked about this before, in bits and pieces, but just for the record: My wife Teri and I believe that our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to tend to the seamless garment of life — our understanding of which I’ve tried to describe in some detail here — and we try to back that up in various ways. Teri does more of this than I do: she tutors a middle-schooler who lives in poverty and a broken home, and has been supportive of Waco’s immigrant population. In addition to tithing to our church, we have contributed to Sandy Hook Promise and are members of the Nature Conservancy. But we also are strongly, passionately pro-life in the everyday use of that term, so we also support, among other like-minded organizations, Anglicans for Life.

All that by way of context.

Yesterday we were watching one of our favorite shows, The Starters on NBA TV, and to our surprise were treated to a little in-show infomercial for Planned Parenthood … and our hearts sank like stones. Now you may adore PP — and if so, there’s no need to tell me why, I’ve heard it all before — but just understand: in our view, there’s no nonprofit organization in America that does as much harm as PP. (The NRA doesn’t come within miles of it, though, speaking more objectively, it may be the only nonprofit that’s more controversial than PP). So we were no longer in the mood to enjoy funny banter about basketball; we turned off the TV, and may not watch the show again. Time will tell. We’re not the boycotting type, but that was a serious annoyance. 

Later on I was thinking about my reaction, and recalled the recent absurd kerfuffle about that arose when some Fox News yammerer chastised NBA players for their political activism and told them to shut up and dribble. I asked myself: How am I any different? Am I not saying to The Starters, “Shut up and make basketball jokes”? 

I’ve been turning over the question in my mind, and I think there is a difference. As it happens, when players like LeBron James speak out about racism in America I almost always agree with them, but even if I didn’t, their views don’t alter my experience of the game they play. (The same is true of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, though I don’t watch the NFL. If I did, I could just wait until kickoff to turn the TV on.) Similarly, I don’t care whether the chef at my favorite restaurant has totally different politics than mine, nor am I interested in what charities he or she supports. 

But if that chef came out between the appetizer and the entrée to explain what charities she supports and to press me to support them too, I would be pretty pissed off (even if I supported those charities myself). If LeBron could call a time out in the middle of the third quarter, grab a microphone, and give the audience a lecture about Black Lives Matter, I would be seriously annoyed (even if I were a fervent supporter of BLM). 

So that was my problem with what happened on The Starters. I would never try to find out what charities the hosts of a show I watch supports or what their politics are, and if I happened to find out I wouldn’t stop watching the show. But for them to use show time to cheerlead for one of the most controversial, one of the most widely despised, nonprofits in America — that strikes me as a violation of the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience. And once that implicit contract is violated, then there’s no way to know whether or not it will become a regular feature — which is why I may not be watching the show again. 

But here’s the thing: what I have called “the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience” no longer holds, at least not generally. The infiltration of every corner of culture by politics, of every former site of pleasure by culture wars, is nearly complete now. I have no doubt that The Starters see promoting their politics on the show as a mark of seriousness, a mark of true virtue, and will therefore be pleased rather than chagrined by any pushback they get.

If you don’t want to be engaged in the struggle 24/7, your only refuge now — if you’re lucky — is your dreams. 

religion as politics, part 2

I get tired just thinking about what David French does here, which is to walk his way patiently through the cataract of vile twaddle that pours from the mouth of Jerry Falwell, Jr. But let me overcome my lethargy long enough to make two points and consider their implications.

Point the first: Jerry Falwell, Jr., though not a pastor and holding no advanced degrees in Bible or theology, graduated from two institutions founded by his pastor father for the express purpose of offering seriously Christian education: Liberty Christian Academy and then Liberty University. (JF Jr.’s college major was Religious Studies.)

Point the second: As is evident from the statements that French discusses in his post, Jerry Falwell, Jr. shows no evidence of having even the most elementary understanding of what the Bible says and what the Christian Gospel is.

The problem, as discerning readers will already have noted, is how to reconcile these two points. How could someone raised as Jerry Falwell, Jr. was raised, educated as he was educated, living as he now lives, say that Jesus “did not forgive the establishment elites”? Could he really not know that Jesus said of those establishment elites who killed him, “Father, forgive them”? And this is not an isolated incident. Quite often in recent months JF Jr. (like a number of other evangelical leaders) has made statements that clearly contradict some of the best-known passages in the Bible.

There are several possible explanations of this curious state of affairs:

  • The elder Falwell was so interested in building political power through his Moral Majority empire that he, and consequently those who worked for him, either ignored or dramatically de-emphasized all elements of the Christian Gospel that didn’t fit the political program, and JF Jr. is simply the heir of those priorities.
  • JF Jr. was  well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but never really paid that much attention because he was interested in other things, so now he just goes with the political flow In his subculture.
  • JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has found it convenient to lie about what he knows to be true in order to grasp some rag or tatter of political influence.
  • JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has found it convenient to lie about what he knows to be true because he believes that this will serve the Greater Good.
  • JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has somehow contrived to forget it because, deep down inside, he knows that if he remembers it he cannot be invited to the White House or be praised by members of the current administration.

There may be others, but these are the ones that occur to me now. Also, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In any event, it is, again, a curious state of affairs and one I wish we could understand, because if we grasped what really goes through the mind of someone like JF Jr. (or Franklin Graham) we would be better positioned to know how to address the manifest moral collapse of much of American evangelicalism.

religion as politics, part 1

Daniel Cox writes on FiveThirtyEight.com that

white evangelical Protestants may be neglecting their future. As a group, they’re drifting further away — politically and culturally — from the American mainstream…. Samuel D. James, writing in the journal First Things, argued, “You cannot boil down Christianity to the parts that you are unashamed to speak about in the presence of your intelligent gay neighbor or your prayerful lesbian church member.” James’s instinct to hold the line against prevailing winds may resonate with many, but if white evangelical Protestants want to continue to be a home for younger Americans, they may have to reconsider what parts of Christianity are non-negotiable.

This is what happens when a politics site writes about religion: it makes religion just one of the form of politics, in which you worry about voter share and expanding your base. That Christians might determine what to preach and teach, not by seeking conformity to “the American mainstream,” but rather by what they believe to be true, seems not to have occurred to Cox. But maybe it’s a possibility to factor in to one’s analysis. Just saying.

the horror of homeschooling

Damon Linker has a recommendation for dealing with the enormous social problem of homeschooling:

There can and should be greater oversight. As [Jeremy] Young suggests, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse and evidence that kids are actually being educated, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the children involved. Sure, the home-school lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of the Turpins to torture their kids undetected.

Excellent idea! But why stop there? Spousal abuse is surely a greater blight on our society than child abuse by homeschoolers, so I make this proposal: In households of married people, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse by one spouse of another, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the adults involved. Sure, some pro-marriage lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of men to beat their wives undetected.

Please don’t try to tell me that children can’t choose their parents while marriage is a voluntary arrangement that can be ended by either party. We know from long experience how many people, especially women, remain in profoundly abusive relationships because they fear something worse. As in sexual relations more generally, “consent” is a vexed concept.

Though perhaps you have another objection: my plan is unworkable. There are not, and could never be, enough state government employees to visit every household of married people. If so, you have a point. It is, I admit, far easier to direct the suspicious attentions of state power on tiny minorities of people whom you despise for cultural reasons than to address truly widespread social tragedies.

And in any case, the level of intrusion is so minimal, especially from the child’s point of view. Once a year or so, a stranger comes into your home and asks you to take your clothes off so he can see whether your parents have been hurting you, because if he decides they have been, then he’ll take you away to foster care and your parents will be arrested, almost as if they had allowed you to play alone at a playground. What could possibly go wrong?

(Am I unfairly generalizing about government employees on the basis of a few bad apples? Perhaps; but that’s not an argument you can make when you’re proposing a massive expansion of state power over all homeschooling families because of what the Turpins did.)

I confess that I speak as an interested party here, because my wife and I taught our son at home — in conjunction with a homeschooling co-op — from seventh grade through high-school graduation. And we did not do it out of conviction that public schools are intrinsically evil. We are products of public schools ourselves, throughout our entire education. We did it because he was relentlessly bullied over the course of an entire year, and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee did a damned thing about it. We did it because I myself had been relentlessly bullied for several years in elementary school — I was two years younger than most of my classmates and a very easy target — and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee had done a damned thing about that either, and after what I had been through I could not stand by and watch my once-happy son descend into sheer and constant misery.

When people who cry out for mass surveillance of homeschooling families articulate some strategy for addressing the far, far larger problem of bullying in schools — I’ll even allow them to ignore spousal abuse — then I’ll believe that they care about the children. Until then, I’ll continue to believe that recommendations like Damon’s exemplify plain, straightforward bigotry against religious conservatives.


P.S. The Linker-Young argument is a classic example of what my friend Ashley Woodiwiss has called “ecclesial profiling.”

excerpts from my Sent folder: myth

I still think my analysis in that essay is useful, but I wrote it before what happened in Charlottesville, and long before Roy Moore’s Senate campaign, and if I were writing it now I’d write something rather different. I’d want to reckon with the counter-myths of covert or overt racism — in some cases plain old white supremacy — that affect life on campus even when the people involved don’t have any investment in university life and can, like Spencer, walk away after they’ve lit a few fires. My friend Chad Wellmon not only teaches at UVA but lives with his family on the Lawn, and when the neo-Klansmen stomped in with their tiki torches chanting their threats, you can imagine how his small children felt. But those people had no business on the grounds in the first place — they were supposed to be protesting the city of Charlottesville’s actions — they just wanted to intimidate, and since a public university is a public place, they could move freely into its space even when their only goal was to frighten.

Similarly, as I observed the Alabama Senate campaign I was struck by how completely Roy Moore’s supporters operated from within their own mythical core, how completely impervious they were to argument or debate (this is true of some of his opponents too, of course). My point is simply that these contests of competing myths happen throughout our society and the university can’t be isolated or protected from them. That is, we can’t fix the university-specific problems I pointed to without addressing some of the larger social issues. That people associated with a university would invite a hateful mythmonger like Richard Spencer to campus is a tragedy; but it’s a greater tragedy that someone like Spencer is a public figure at all. That’s not something that even the best university administration can fix.


(I might add that when people say that they want conservative ideas to be represented on campus and then invite Ann Coulter or Milo or Richard Spencer to speak, they have zero interest in ideas. They just want to spit in their neighbor’s soup.)

“folks”

David Von Drehle writes:

I say this with love: Folks in Alabama do loyalty and clan as well as anyone in America. That’s a virtue — up to a point. They would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace. But they hopped onto the shore when Moore asked them to strap in, and that ought to give pause to the polarizer in chief.

May I make a plea to journalists (and for that matter everyone else)? Don’t  say “folks” when you mean “white folks.” Ain’t a whole lot of black folks in Alabama would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace, and there are a lot of black people in Alabama. So let’s sort out our folks, shall we?

In yesterday’s election, 93% of black men and 98% — ninety-eight percent — of black women voted for Doug Jones. Meanwhile, 72% of white men and 63% of white women voted for Roy Moore — they weren’t hopping onto shore, they were riding right over the falls with their hebephile-in-chief. Now, in comparison to the previous election for that particular seat, which Jeff Sessions won with 97% of the vote, that’s some slippage. But I think we’d do well to consider than when offered a candidate who — I’ll set aside for now his romantic proclivities — when he was a judge regularly swept aside the law with contempt if it conflicted with his personal preferences, and who as a candidate openly longed for the good old days of slavery because back then “families were united,” two-thirds of white voters in my home state said: That’s our man. I’m not celebrating the good  judgment of those particular “folks.”

the poison of consequentialism

From this conversation:

Rebecca Traister: … the argument for keeping Clinton … was in part that the power he wielded could theoretically shore up or increase the very set of policies and protections that are supposed to ameliorate the gender-imbalanced conditions that make sexual harassment so pervasive, i.e., it was to some degree a compromise on a feminist issue designed specifically to further a feminist agenda. I don’t think there’s the same moral symmetry with Trump voters: that they’ll vote for a man who spews open racism or is accused of groping women specifically because they think that if elected, he’s going to strengthen defenses for women or for people of color; in some cases, the opposite. This week, Kellyanne Conway said that voters should pick Moore because he’ll help pass the tax bill. Is there a line of logic that says that voters upset about pedophilia charges should vote for the accused pedophile, despite their distress, because a lower corporate tax rate would lead to a systemic reduction of child abuse?

Ross Douthat: It’s not precisely the same, but many of Trump’s supporters framed it as “we’re compromising Christian values by electing a man who doesn’t live up to them, because that’s the only way in order to further a Christian agenda on abortion or religious liberty.” There’s some overlap with your view of how feminists thought about Clinton there.

You know what both of these arguments sound like to me? “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Or consider this story that Rod Dreher recounted the other day:

Back in 2002, I interviewed a Catholic woman who had been blackmailed by her confessor into having an affair with him, even though she was married. She finally broke down psychologically, and sought professional help from a psychiatrist who was known to be a faithful Catholic. (I interviewed him too, and he confirmed her account.) When she and her psychiatrist went to the local bishop (who is now dead, by the way), the bishop told her he had sent the priest away overseas (as he had — that I confirmed), and that if she pursued charges against the offending priest, or made his abuse public, then he, the bishop, would be forced to go after her publicly for her messy past.

She quoted him as saying, “I have to protect the people of God.”

Protect the people of God … by destroying this woman who is one of the people of God. As I have suggested in a different context, consequentialism poisons character.

As horrible as these revelations are about sexually predatory men at the highest levels of our culture, they serve as a reminder of what we Christians have been saying all along about the inevitable consequences of the sexual revolution. So even as we lament with the victims, we are, I think, justified in calling attention to the higher standards that we, at least, have held our male leaders …

Um … never mind.

free speech for me …

This is a really good evisceration by Jesse Singal of some recent leftist takes on free speech on campus — it is accurate, incisive, and (to me) compelling. But I don’t think it will be compelling to people who hold the views it criticizes. Here’s a passage, critiquing an article by Angus Johnston, that helps me to explain why:

Johnston is apparently uninterested in answering questions pertaining to this actual incident [At William & Mary] and how the law would view it from a free-speech perspective, so instead he swaps out a different, easier question: “Setting aside, you know, the well-defined legal aspects of this, what do I, Angus Johnston, think about it?” (For those who want to know more about the heckler’s veto, which as it turns out is a very interesting subject, Ken White has a very good explainer on his legal blog Popehat.)

And yet again, this sort of meandering shruggery leads us to a dark place: Johnston very much seems to be endorsing the view that on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech. This is a pretty bad opinion. Not to beat up too much on the South, but there are many southern campuses that would benefit greatly from more pro-choice speakers and events, and in Johnston’s model, it’s fine for the Campus Crusade for Christ to march in and protest these events until they get shut down.

Here is where Singal is wrong: Johnston’s view is not that “on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech”; his view is that when people whose views he endorses can muster the muscle to shut down an event, then that’s acceptable and even commendable. If a pro-life group were to use precisely the same tactics to shut down a pro-choice speaker, then Johnston would decry it as fascism and demand that the cops haul the offenders off to the hoosegow.

Remember: Error has no rights; righteousness has no boundaries.

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 by my 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.

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