The Warmth of Flowers

We are having a power outage here at the moment.  I have been going back and forth on the question of whether I should write a little note about Little Dorrit.  I get used to the power of Charles Dickens’ language, especially in his descriptions of social and political hardship.  And then I forget that he can we as sweetly charming as anyone, as he is in this passage.

Here is the context.  Arthur Clennam, the principal character,  has always been rich and now, suddenly, he is poor and is living in the Marshalsea debtors prison, where Amy Dorrit (Little Dorrit) has lived her whole life until she recently became rich.  Being suddenly poor and dishonored is hard and it makes Arthur ill and barely cogent.

One day, this happens to him.

Beside the teacup on his table, he saw, then, a blooming nosegay: a wonderful handful of the choicest and most lovely flowers.  Nothing had ever appeared so beautiful in his sight.  He took them up and inhaled their fragrance; and he lifted them to his hot head, and he put them down and opened his parched hands to them as cold hands are opened to receive the cheering of a fire.

I like each piece of that.  I enjoyed “inhaling the fragrance;” I enjoyed “lifting them to his hot head;” I enjoyed “opening his parched hands to them.”  That one is my favorite and I want to return to it.

But more than anything I like the order.  “Inhaling the fragrance” is something anyone could have written.  I could have written it.  “Lifting then to his hot head” is surprising.  It isn’t that the flowers are cool; it is that they are beautiful.  Being beautiful, they are therapeutic to his head.  But even that does not prepare us for “opening his hands to them.”  Especially not parched hands.

Dickens is drawing here on a very common experience.  Your hands are cold and you find a fire or even a warm surface and you open your hands to it, multiplying the surface of the skin the warmth can reach.  Everyone has done that.  But Clennam opens his hands to the beauty of the flowers.  Multiplying the skin surface does not address this question or make sense of the response.  Yet we do understand it.

The flowers do nothing for his hands open that it would not do closed.  We could say that he opens his heart to the flowers, and in doing that opens whatever he can.  He opens himself to the flowers and his body follows his lead.

It’s just beautiful writing and I have been enjoying it.  Tonight, I am enjoying it in a blackout.

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The Battle for the Soul of the Rs

A lot of discussion recently has focused on what is being called “the battle for the soul of the Republican party.”  By that, “Trump” or “not-Trump” is seen to be the battle line.  That’s not what it looks like to me.

I would like to start with the question of whether the Republicans want to be a party at all.  Some do; some don’t.  A party is a government of sorts.  A party is a candidate to be THE government and if enough people choose it, they will be.  But a party has a CEO of some sort. [1]  It has legislative functions, whose work we see in the party platform.  It elects delegates to the convention where the nominee is chosen and the platform adopted.  It is all very regular and equitable.  The candidate who hopes to be chosen as a convention delegate competes with others with similar hopes; whoever gets the most votes wins.

A party is defined by its procedures, not by its loyalties.  It is, in that respect, like a government.

But a commitment to procedure does not come naturally to us.  The heart of democracy is “fair, frequent, and competitive elections,” but none of those come naturally to us.  “Fair” does not; “frequent” does not; “competitive” does not.  During most of our history as a social species, we lived in small groups bound together by loyalty to a leader, however chosen.  That…is what is “natural.”

Being governed by someone you don’t even know is not natural.  Allowing “good people” and “bad people” equal access to the ballot box is not natural.  Counting their votes equally is not natural.  And, of course, accepting an electoral result you don’t like is not natural.  For the Republicans, it may no longer be possible.  That’s really what the struggle is about these days. [When I first saved this, I believed it was the true Trump coat of arms.  Now they tell me that the banner says “Never Concede,” so it probably is not the true coat of arms.  It is funny, though,]

In a democracy that operates by competition between parties, allowing the winner of the competition to govern is necessary.  Those of us who live in such a political system need to find a way to transcend what is most natural to us and to trust the outcome of the competition.  You can see that struggle and that achievement in the concession speeches of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mitt Romney, and John McCain.  You can see its glaring failure in the failure of Donald Trump to make a concession speech at all.  He was not able to transcend the limitation that is most natural to us—tribalism—and accept democracy.

What do you have when you cannot affirm democracy?  You can’t have a party.  At most, you can have a person-centered organization, something like a clan or like the old mob.  And if the nation has, where its two major parties used to be, one clan and one party, you  cannot have bipartisan competition.

That’a what “the struggle for the soul of the Republican party” is about.  Some Republicans what to return to their former status as a party; others want to continue their recent practice as a clan.  Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, the newly elected Congresswoman from Georgia has aid that the presiding officer the the House should be shot in the head.  Speaker Pelosi got her office by overseeing the election of more Democrats than Republicans in the House and then being chosen by the Democrats in the House to be their leader.  Assassination and the threat of assassination played no part in it at all.  The Democrats are a political party.

Today, the Republicans in the House have to decide whether there really are lines you cannot step over and still be a member of the party.  If it were a clan, we know that there would not be any such limits.  In a clan, you owe complete loyalty to the clan leader [2]  You do not owe any duties at all to your opponents (enemies) or the the processes that would define democratic competition.

Think what that means for party platforms.  No recent American party platform has endorsed white supremacy, Christian supremacy, or nativism.  If the Republicans aspire to return to their former status as a political party, they are going to have to draw some limits for the behavior of their members.  As natural as it might be to call for the assassination of a member of the Democratic party, the Republicans cannot allow it.  Free speech, as a right of every American, doesn’t cover it.

When President Trump was asked about the QAnon sympathies of candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, he said she sounded like a woman who loved her country.  That worked for him as a quip, but consider it as a substitute for democracy.  So…I believe that America truly is a white Christian country and because of my love for my country, I call for the deportation of any non-white or non-Christian citizens?  Really?  In a political party, there are things that “love of country” really does not excuse.  And I haven’t even gotten, yet, to Rep Greene’s allegation that California’s recent wildfires were kindled by a Jewish-controlled laser operated from space.

So I would say that there is not currently a “struggle for the soul of the Republican party.”  I would say that the struggle is about whether the Republicans want to be a party at all.  They were not, under Trump, but there are apparently a lot of Republicans who would like to be a party again and that is what the struggle is about.

[1]  The Chair of the DNC or the RNC is the CEO in the absence of a President (or recent former President) of that party.

[2]  The clan metaphor occurred to me several years ago when I was in Scotland and discovered that there is a Clan Donald.  I said to the guide who told me that, “Yes, in America we are learning more about it every day.”


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Forensic Pathology and Bible Study

Since the COVID pandemic hit Portland, I have been doing  unusual amounts of two things: teaching Bible study courses and watching forensic pathology shows on TV.  Eventually, the one had to start affecting the other, and that is what this essay is about.

One of the first I got really hooked on was Silent Witness.  Amanda Burton plays Sam Ryan, a pathologist who is forever at odds with the police.  The police have a really good idea what the pathologist might discover that would strengthen their case.  Dr. Ryan has to keep her own focus very sharp and has to defend herself against the pressure from the police.  If she does that successfully, she will find what is there and not find what is not there, no matter how convenient it might be for the police.

It’s hard to do.  The pathologist is always making judgments about how much bruising there is, by comparison with what might be expected, given the other evidence.  The core temperature determines the time of death, which is crucial for establishing the alibi of some and destroying the alibi of others.  And in the midst of all these people and their legitimate interests to care about, Dr. Ryan has to make the best judgment she can.

The police are always saying something like, “Was this bruise made by a baseball bat?” and Dr. Ryan is always having to say that the bruise is consistent with the kind of bruise that a baseball bat would make.  Or a pipe.  Or a pool cue. “Consistent with” is a good deal less than “caused.”  The police tend to prefer “caused.”

The Bible studies I have been teaching have reacquainted me with all kinds of reasons to find, in a text, things that “need to be there.”  If I am the forensic pathologist in this modest little allegory, the people who are urging me to find something are the police.  They know what their case needs and they want to be sure I find it.  I’ve noticed two flavors of such demands.  The first is what I call “the journalistic fallacy;” the second,” the theology constraint.”  

The Journalistic Fallacy

The heart of this demand is the notion that the biblical accounts we are studying are accounts of what actually happened.  The accounts we have, in other words—the resistance provided by Israel’s judges, the exploits of the prophets, the ministry of Jesus, the growth of the church—were composed by people who were there and who are trying to give us a factual account of what they saw and heard.

I don’t look at it that way.  The sequence I follow can be easily seen in this phrasing: who said what to whom and why?:  Placing this sequence of questions onto a gospel account, I would ask what writer (A) wrote what text (B) with what audience (C) in mind and hoping to achieve what purpose(D)?  For example, I would argue that Matthew (A) identified the scribes in Herod’s palace as “scribes of the people” (B) in the gospel he wrote for his congregation composed of Christians with Jewish and also with gentile backgrounds (C) in order to inculpate the Jewish people in their opposition to Jesus (D).

Now as someone who reads a lot of biblical scholars, I know that every single link of that chain can be challenged; but I like it because it focuses so narrowly on what the passage says.  And when the author announces that his purpose is conversion or reassurance, we emphasize that over simple description.  That’s why we ask about the purpose of the passage and the audience.

The Theology Constraint

The mistake the journalists make is to treat symbolic accounts as if they were factual accounts.  The theology constraint begins on the other side.  There is a point of theology that matters a great deal.  That is why we are sure that this passage—the one we are considering today—does not undermine that claim and in fact supports it completely.  The theological claim defines the area of possible meanings.  The passage could mean anything that falls inside, but it could not mean anything that falls outside. And this is an understanding we bring with us as we begin to study the passage.  It is, in the most literal sense, a prejudice.

Christology is an area where this difficulty often shows up.  People with a very high Christology, people, that is,  who need for Jesus to be fully equivalent to God the Father during his the earthly ministry, will have trouble with some scriptures.  They will refuse to accept passages that presume some weakness in Jesus.  “Surely the passage can’t mean that,” they say, “because they Jesus would be less that God.”  That’s why I call it a constraint.

This is the approach taken by the police in my forensic pathology allusion; there has to be some remnant of poison in the system because otherwise, how can we argue that his wife poisoned him?

I start at the other end.  What does the passage say and, as nearly as we can work it out, why?  The theology will take care of itself.  The passage needs our best efforts.


This whole comparison starts with the forensic pathology shows.  They make the work of the pathologist central and come very close to aligning it with equity, truth, and beauty.  If the shows were designed from the standpoint of the police, we would find pathologists with impossibly high standards for a diagnosis, clearly impeding the cause of justice.   I know I have cheated a little by making my approach—don’t draw any conclusions the text will not support—the star of the show, but I haven’t cheated very much and putting truth before law enforcement seems like a good risk.

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The Diamond Dogs

I like institutions.  

I admire people who can call institutions into being.  I have tried it myself from time to time and I know it isn’t always easy.  Knowing how hard it is, my heart goes out to Ted Lasso, (on the Apple + app) who, though fictional, it as good as they come at institution building.

Here is a description I have cribbed from Frank Hearn [1]

” lnterdependencies are established in the activities carried out by people who depend on one another for the achievement of valued goals”

And, as Hearn says later. 

lnterdependencies must be attachments which invoke personal obligation to others within a community of concern.

In Season 1, Episode 8, “The Diamond Dogs,” Ted creates an institution on the spot.  You can watch him do it—both Phase 1 and Phase 2—by looking for “Ted Lasso Diamond Dogs” on YouTube. Choose the 4:56 version.  But read this post first.

Ted has, for reasons we need not go into here, “lady problems.” To deal with them, he calls
together a very odd collection of “friends.” [2]  Going clockwise around the picture and skipping the first person who is “it” at this session of the Diamond Dogs, you see Nate, Higgins, Coach Beard, and Ted.  Nate was the equipment manager when Ted got there; Higgins was the completely subordinated servant of the owner of the club, who was deeply hostile to Ted at first; then there is Coach Beard, whom Ted brought with him to England from Kansas; and Ted.  These are the Diamond Dogs.

Nate came up with the name and Ted recognized instantly that it was perfect.Now that is a moment to treasure. 

I am a member of a Bible study group at my church; the group has the extremely odd name, “2 Dudes and a Bible.”  Here is how we got that name.  A friend of mine was dissatisfied with the group we had both been attending.  It was not serious at all about studying our scriptures. [3]  And my friends said, “Why can’t there be a real Bible study.”  I said, “There can be.  Let’s start one.”

I talked to the Director of Christian Education about it.  She thought it was a great idea, but if she was going to reserve a room in the church for us, she would have to have something to call us.  It had not occurred to either my friend or me that we would have to be called anything, so I hadn’t thought about it at all.  The Director, in a moment of frustration, burst out, “Well we can’t just call it 2 Dudes and a Bible!”

The name hung in the air between us.  As I think back on that moment, I picture the two of us looking at it, at the name, suspended in the air over her desk like a thought balloon.  I think we both knew as the sounds of the name sank in that it would be—would have to be—the name of the group.  There are nine of us now, but we are still 2 Dudes and a Bible.  Like the Diamond Dogs

So although Ted Lasso is a master of institution-creation and I just had a lucky break, I do know how to celebrate his achievement, which is today’s topic.  So the Diamond Dogs were created in Phase 1.  In Phase 2, Roy comes to the coach’s office with “lady problems.”  Coach says he knows just what to do and dials up the Dogs.  They all come in in a matter of moments, each taking the position he took in Phase 1.

They come up with a solution quickly and inaudibly.  Ted says something, then Nate, then Higgins and Ted sees that the problem has been solved.  The solution has not yet been articulated, but it exists clearly in the minds of the Diamond Dogs.  It is so clear that Ted’s instructions to Coach Beard are just “Take it home, Coach.”  So coach puts in words what he knows to be the group’s solution, “Grow up.  And get over it.l”  And Ted raises both arms in an American football signal for “touchdown.”

Roy is not happy.  He utters a familiar vulgarity and stomps out, but the Dogs know they are right and begin barking or howling or baying or whatever dogs do of the kind they think they are.  During which Ted is panting enthusiastically like a happy dog on a hot day.  What the solution is, we are not sure; how they reached it, we are not sure; how they recognized that they had instinctively acted as an institution—as Hearn defines it—we are not sure.  But the celebration is automatic, coordinated, and perfect.

And in the middle of all of it there is an acute attention to language used and references made, like “All that Chandler Bingin’ aside…” for instance.  Nate remarks, “S’Wonderful,” and Ted says, “Oh, nice shout out to the Gershwin brothers there.”  Ted pretends to be making the case supporting Roy’s jealousy, but in fact, is all ironic and Nate says, “Oh, he means the opposite.  I  love it when coach does that.”  Roy says, “I can’t control my feelings,” and Ted responds in way over the top mode, “Well, then by all means, let your feelings control you!”  And Higgins says, “Oh….he’s doing it again.”

These are the sensitivities of a well-established group that has been together for awhile and has learned to appreciate the subtle quirks.  Excerpt we know they haven’t.  This is their first really convened meeting.  The ease with which they function is just another put on.

It is an institution functioning at its best with no reason at all why it should.

[1]  Moral Order and Social Order (1997) who, in this quotation, relies on John Braithwaite (1989) as he describes “communitarian interdependencies.”  It is in this sense that I am using the word “institution.”

[2]  If you get anywhere near Ted Lasso, you are a “friend.”

[3]  I will say on their behalf that that was not what they were trying to do.

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The (Former) President’s 1776 Report

Former President Trump convened a body of writers to produce a new version of American history.  He didn’t give them much time to do it.  They were appointed thirty-three days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden and it was published before inauguration day.

Still, it didn’t take as much time as it surely would have had there been any historians on the panel.  The chair was President of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn. [1]  The members included a conservative professor from Vanderbilt Law School, some of President Trump’s former domestic policy advisors, and some conservative activists.  No historians.

If you are reading a document, especially one that is going over events that have been written about a great deal before, it is helpful to get some idea of how this particular version is different from its predecessors.  We will look at three ways.

The first is the goal statement, which is clearly stated in the Conclusion.

Among the virtues to be cultivated in the American republic, the founders knew that a free people must have a knowledge of the principles and practices of liberty, and an appreciation of their origins and challenges.

We know now that “liberty,” as it will be defined in this document, is the value to be maximized and that a knowledge of its “principles and practices” will be the means by which this will be achieved.  This is referred to later in the conclusion as “an authentic civics education.”  It is a kind of education that will enable us to love our country as we should.

The second is embedded in the Table of Contents.  My eye was caught first by Section IV of the pamphlet;  this section is called “Challenges to America’s Principles.”  Five such “challenges” are named in particular.  In order, they are:  Slavery, Progressivism, Fascism, Communism, and Racism and Identity Politics.”   The principle evoked here is the you are known by the company you keep.  Three of the challenges are directed to political systems as such.  The three are Fascism, Communism, and Progressivism.

Progressivism was prominent in the campaigns and in the presidencies of Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  Its being listed along with Communism and Fascism calls immediately to mind the question of just what it is about “progressivism” that merits such company.

As the third look at this pamphlet, let’s examine what it is about “progressivism” that has aroused so thorough a rejection.

In the decades that followed the Civil War, in response to the industrial revolution and the expansion of urban society, many American elites adopted a series of ideas to address these changes called Progressivism.

The first shot across the bow is this:

“…the political thought of Progressivism held that the times had moved far beyond the founding era, and that contemporary society was too complex any longer to be governed by principles formulated in the 18th century.”

This is rebutted by a quote from Republican President Calvin Coolege

We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.

The second shot—closer to the waterline than across the bow— is this.

Progressives held that truths were not permanent but only relative to their time. They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights. 

Instead, Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and change with the times. Indeed, society has the power and obligation not only to define and grant new rights, but also to take old rights away as the country develops.

If the country will need to be redefined and to change with the times, there will need to be people to identify the new needs and to propose the necessary changes.  Who will these be?

By this account, they will be “credentialed managers, who would direct society through rules andregulations that mold to the currents of the time”

By this means, Progressives:

“created what amounts to a fourth  branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state. This shadow government never faces elections and today operates largely without checks and balances. The founders always opposed government unaccountable to the people and without constitutional restraint, yet it continues to grow around us.”

These characterizations account for why “Progressivism” is listed along with Fascism and Communism as “challenges to America’s principles.”

It is interesting to me that it is the “principles” rather than the practices, that define the America that is to be cherished and admired by its citizens.

Also that it is individuals, not groups, that are to be the beneficiaries.  In that regard, I note that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments deal with groups (former slaves) and the 19th as well (women), and I can only wonder whether a principled opposition to “progressivism” would have insisted that these liberties be restored one person at a time.  It seems impracticable, but perhaps not all slaves deserved their freedom or all women the right to vote.  These are the groups, after all, who “voted wrong” in the 2020 election.

I notice that Progressives rejected the notion that “all men are created equal.”  I gather that the key to that is that being “created equal” means that they have “unchanging rights.”  That would mean, among other things, that those rights cannot be expanded.  But if the rights of “all men” can be expanded over the original notion—if, for instance, you don’t need to be a white male property owner to vote—where will it all end?

And finally, the shot that tries to sink the ship outright, there is the question of the “administrative state.”  The charge against the administrators is that they are not elected.  I ask you, in response, to try to imagine the regulatory apparatus of the United States being operated by Senators and Representatives.  Only.  No delegation.  That position must have been taken by someone who has never read, or possibly never held, the Federal Register and noted the process by which proposed changes in the rules are published and held open for criticism and opposition.  Do the true patriots who produced this document really want to see the administrative burden of an advanced economy in the hands of Senators and Representatives?  Only?

Concluding Observation

You might want to take a look at this document for yourself.  It is very attractive.  And there are, at the end, questions you should ask.

Good luck.

[1]  Hillsdale College, their mission statement says, “maintains ‘by precept and example’ the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.”

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Please have your mask on for us

“Please have your mask on for us.”

That’s what they say at the Starbucks Drive-through where I get my coffee in the morning.   I really like it and I’d like to think about it a little today. [1]

I would like to take just a paragraph to try to make myself believable.  I am more aware of the nuances of language than anyone (else) I know.  I don’t listen attentively in any way that implies effort; I just hear a great deal.  And then sometimes I reflect on what I have heard, disassembling it to see why it worked or why it didn’t.  And since I do that as a matter of practice, I am not surprised that I did it again this morning. 

[This from an article by Kaila Mathis in Adweek]

Even early in the morning in the dark drive through lane, there is a context to consider.  Here are some elements of that context.  For me, it’s dark and it’s early and I have not yet spoken or heard a human voice.  I am ready.  For Starbucks, there is the question of how a company that was designed to be what Howard Schulz, the founder, calls “a third place” can adapt.  [2]  It isn’t a “place” at all, in that sense, when it is only a drive through.  So, in some meeting somewhere, the question was raised, “How can we be as much like Starbucks as possible using only a drive through lane?”  The answer they came up with is what I experience every morning.

The barista gives his or her name.  The one I hear most often is named Nicoletta. [3]  She wouldn’t say her name if I were at the counter because I would be able to see her name tag, but out in the dark, talking to a post, it helps to have a name.  It suggests that there is a person in there and if I have his or her name, I can use it.  And I do. [4]

Then there are the finely crafted words, like “What may I get started for you?” [5]  And the other things that go with taking the order and suggesting that it could very easily be a larger order than the one you had in mind.  Those are the same as the at-the-counter words.

But we’re are in the middle of a pandemic and all of the baristas and many of the customers wear masks.  Not all, apparently, because the last line of the pitch is, “Please have your mask on for us.”

Point one:  There is no “and.”  That’s important.  It is not part of the order-taking.  The “and” would connect them; they don’t want them connected.  This is another kind of matter.

Point two:  “Have” is not “put.”  That might be because they don’t know whether you have a mask on or not.  I don’t know what they can see from inside.  But is probably because “put” implies that you are not wearing one.  A lot of people are not in a place by that hour where they want to be told what to do.  I am one of those.  “Have” establishes the condition they want me to be in by the time I get to the window, but it makes no judgment about whether I have one on at the moment.  Good choice.

Point three:  “For us” is a reason for the customers to be wearing masks.  This is a point that was lost entirely on several Republican members of the House of Representatives, who, being hidden in a small space with Democratic colleagues, refused to wear masks because they were sure they were not carriers.  You don’t wear a mask for you; you wear a mask for everyone else.  At Starbucks, that’s “for us.”

In short, a lot of very good things are packed into that last line.  My experience with Starbucks over the years is that those things don’t happen by accident.  Local adaptations are allowed, especially in in-person settings, where deviating from the script is an indicator of relationship, but by and large, “the Starbucks style” is in place from one store to another and from one region to another. [6]

It’s just good work.

[1]  It is things like this that made me want to start a blog in the first place.  It is true that I have been distracted by politics recently, but I would like to do more like this one.

[2]  It is a not-home, not-work, place.  They were designed to be like that and will be again, I am sure, after the pandemic is over.

[3]  I heard it as Nicola the first time and I addressed her that way as I gave my order.  She came over to the window, where I was paying for my coffee, to correct me.  “It’s Nicoletta,” she said, pointing to her name tag.  I really liked that.

[4]  And for the new or the forgetful, who don’t give a name, I say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”  Very often, when the name comes, there is a chuckle (or a giggle) behind it.

[5]  There are three distinct elements in that one that I could celebrate one at a time if that line were the subject of this post.

[6]  I was not surprised to hear, in Vancouver B. C. the same greeting I would have gotten at my Starbucks in Portland, had the Portland version not been tailored to fit the continuing relationships I had there.

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Trumpism and Greater Appalachia

Here is the first paragraph of Colin Woodard’s examination of the “American nation” he calls Greater Appalachia. [1]  “Nation” is a cultural reference in Woodard’s usage and Greater Appalachia is the culture where I was born and raised.  (See the darker green area on the map below.)  That may be why this thumbnail summary affected me so much.

The last of the nations to be founded in the colonial period, Greater Appalachia was the most immediately disruptive.  A clan-based warrior culture from the Borderlands of the British Empire, it arrived on the backcountry frontier of the Midlands, Tidewater, and Deep South [2] and shattered those nations’ monopoly control over colonial governments, the use of force, and relations with Native Americans.  Proud, independent, and disturbingly violent, the Borderlanders of Greater Appalachia have remained a volatile insurgent force within American society to the present day.

Reading this again today, after the assault of the U. S Capitol on January 6, my mind isdrawn to “proud, independent, and disturbingly violent.”  That’s what I thought I was seeing on TV

And that brought my attention to the relationship between the people I saw storming the Capitol and the Greater Appalachian culture in which I was raised.  How does the one affect the other?

There is an obvious and difficult way to calculate that.  It would be to take the Greater Appalachia territory marked out on the map and look at a county by county breakdown of partisan predominance in 2020.  I didn’t want to work at it that hard, so I devised a cheap and easy substitute.  I counted as part of Greater Appalachia, any state that has at least some Greater Appalachian territory in it.  That means that Pennsylvania, which is mostly the Midlands culture, gets counted in the Greater Appalachia total for electoral purposes.  That’s unfortunate, but tolerable for the present purposes.

Here is what I found out.  If you add up the electoral votes of all the states that are at least partially in Greater Appalachia, you find that they produce 216 electoral votes.  That’s 80% of the 270 votes needed to win the presidency.  And of those 216, Trump won 153, or 70.8%  [3]

There are other ways to account for the affiliation between the Greater Appalachian culture and the Trump appeal, but I am drawn, in the light of recent events, to the features Woodard emphasized. “proud, independent, and disturbingly violent.”  This is the picture that keeps coming to my mind.

[1] SeeAmerican Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, published by Viking in 2011.

[2]  The names of three of the other “nations” in Woodard’s scheme.

[3]  The rest of the Trump vote comes from the Deep South and the Far West and each has its own reasons for attaching itself to Republicanism, even the erratic kind represented by the Trump administration.

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Did anybody remember to bring the boxes?

Like a lot of people, I spent most of yesterday watching television.  I learned as lot from the commentary.  The video, not so much.  All day, they showed the same protesters coming up the same stairs their progress being retarded by a lone policeman with a baton.  It reminded me very much of the cheapie westerns I used to see on television where the bad guys would pursue the good guy past the same mesa over and over again as if there were only one mesa or only one camera tripod.

I had some of the same reactions everyone else had.  I was offended that these buildings where respect must be shown were treated as a down-scale marketplace might be treated.  If a protester had been caught on camera throwing a banana peel on the floor of the House, it would not have expressed their contempt any more clearly than what they did.

I felt the contempt more viscerally than many, I suspect, because of my experience at the Oregon legislature.  The Legislative Assistant—that was my job—sits at the desk with the Representative he serves on the floor of the House of Representatives.  A Sergeant-at-Arms controls access to the chamber, denying it to anyone who is not a legislator and, when necessary, escorting a legislator from the chamber against his will.  A Legislative Aide DOES NOT CROSS THE AISLE.  Ever.  If you need to see someone on the other side of the aisle, you walk to the back of the chamber and cross there and come up the other side.  That shows respect.

It is hard not to use religious words about a space that is set aside particularly for respect.  I think it is worth the effort.  Is the Capitol “sacred space?”  Not by any religious understanding I know about.  Is it revered?  Certainly.

Still, it is natural to see the action I described above—throwing the banana peel—as somehow wrong.  It isn’t littering.  It is disdain.  It is not our House; it is their House.  It is enemy territory and the banana peel is an accurate representation of the feelings of the protesters.  And it was done with such glee!  I remember seeing that same expression on the faces of students who took over dean’s offices on major college campuses during the Vietnam war or that took over mayor’s offices during protests for racial justice.  They were being “bad” and they knew it and they were loving it.  Do you suppose that someone will  invent a battle ribbon to be worn with pride by the veterans of Operation Take Back Our House, or whatever they decide to call it?  Will there be meetings of the veterans of this operation as there were for many years, meetings of the Watergate plotters?

It is worth thinking about the effect of this event on our politics.  It could be thought of as a vaccination against populist uprisings.  The “body politic,” having received this vaccine is now producing antibodies against it, making us less vulnerable to any reoccurrence.  Or it could be thought of as an episode of disease that results in the permanent weakening of the body, making us more likely to sicken and die of the next wave of infection.

It could go either way.  The time between now and the inauguration will determine which way we begin to go.  The two questions that most need to be asked, as I see it, are these: a) how serious was it? and b) how shall we describe what actually happened?

I ask these questions with the results of the actions in mind.  I am not asking for the most detailed and accurate answer or the most thoughtful and discriminating judgment.  I am asking what answers will help us recover our balance and go on.  What I want to know is just this: what answers to those questions will help us most?  Was it patriots our for a lark?  Was it saboteurs intent on destroying democracy?

Don’t let your dislike of President Trump influence your answer.  Just look at the video and listen to the best of the commentary and decide: what answers will help us?  Trump’s role was beneath contempt.  Hardly anything you can think of to say against it would be too much.  But…what will help us?

Still, there is some fun in all this.  I have an example in mind.  If you stayed until the very end, you saw a lot of civic liturgy.  Papers were passed back and forth between the presiding officer, President Pence, [1] and the clerks who read and verified the judgments of the states about their certificates of election.  In our electronic era, it all came down to these pieces of paper.  No papers, no process; no process, no outcome.

Imagine that a diamond of incalculable value was in a big wooden box and that burglars were assembling outside the raid the building and steal the diamond.  Would you protect the box?  I would.  If I thought of it.

But the Capitol Police are bursting into the chamber and giving instructions about gas masks and oxygen supplies and herding duly elected members out of the chamber and into “a secure location.”  And in all this noise and confusing, there sit the boxes with the certificates in them.  And everybody is being hustled out of the chamber.

At that point, some Congressional staffer says, “Do you think we ought to take the boxes with us?”

Those boxes are what all this is about.  They are the incontrovertible evidence that 50 states have done their due diligence and recorded the results of their voters and then their electors.  If we didn’t have those papers, how would we confirm their accuracy?  They are absolutely crucial to the process.  If you stayed up late to watch the liturgy, it was those papers that were being handed back and forth.

So, in all of this, my favorite person is the one who said, “You know, maybe we should take the boxes with us.”  There is absolutely no alternative to having a good staff.  What, otherwise, would you lean on?

[1]  It does look funny on the page, but Vice President Pence was acting, yesterday, in his capacity as President of the Senate.

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Eggs and Omelettes

As I write this, it is getting dark in Washington D. C. There are still pro-Trump rioters inside the Capitol and darkness does odd things to riots.  On all the channels I have watched, the reporters and commentators are asking, “How did it come to this?”  I would like to reflect right now, before it gets dark in Washington, on how it came to this.

I think that Trump [1] is very careful about some things and entirely cavalier about others. The maintenance of his image is what he is most careful about.  There is no telling what a man like this is, but it is clear that he cares about how he seems.  “If you hit him,” said one of his campaign aides in 2016, “he will hit back harder.  He can’t help himself.”  And, of course, if he can’t help himself, he can’t help us.

When you choose a risky course of action, you must always ask how close to the edge you are willing to come.  You must ask what is the likelihood that you will go over that edge.  And you must ask how bad it would be if you did.

There is a perspective on these questions that I have always heard attributed to Lenin.Referring to the bloodshed occasioned by the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, he said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”  It’s catchy.  It’s easy to repeat.  But it doesn’t say why making an omelette is that important and it doesn’t specify that these eggs are human lives.  So I would translate Lenin’s aphorism as, “The supreme value of the omelette is so great that the sacrifice of the eggs is of no concern at all.”

I began to worry about this during the 2016 campaign when Trump said he might not be willing to recognize the results of a failed election.  He might just take over the government anyway because it was clearly the will of the American people. [2]  He also said that he had friends who were very upset and who believed firmly in the 2nd Amendment.  He came right up to the edge of calling directly for the assassination of Hillary Clinton.

Now come to the present moment in Washington.  It will be dark in fifteen minutes.  Thereare still protesters inside the Capitol.  The protesters are in Washington because Trump told them to come.  I doubt very much that he had in mind the possibility that they would break through the barriers and take a crowbar to the doors, but had some prudent staffer suggested the possibility to him, I think he would say it was a risk he was willing to run.  There is that thing about eggs and omelettes.

So first, I don’t think this is a strategy that Trump is following.  I think he has done what he has needed to do to seem undefeated and unrepentant in public.  Whatever that is, he does it.  He is not thinking of consequent action; he is thinking of blustering.

Second, if he had imagined what possibilities were opened up by bringing together a crowd of protesters who believe the election was fraudulent, he would have said it was worth the risk.  Called upon by President-elect Biden to stand up for order and peace, he reassured his crowd today that the election was, in fact, stolen from them, and that he had, in fact, won by “a landslide.”  Then he told them to go home.  Right.

If a few of his followers, fueled by righteous anger, get out of hand, that is worth the risk.  If he gets to continue to blast and incite, it is worth the risk.  “But Mr. President, what about all those eggs?”

Those eggs are the common property of the American people.  They are a commitment to the peaceful transition of power, to the rule of law, to constitutional democracy, to our image of leadership in a world where democracy is a sometime thing.  Is it really worth the risk to those common values?

Well…how important is the omelette?  To Donald Trump, the omelette is all that matters and his image is the omelette.

It’s dark now in Washington.

[1]  I stopped saying “President Trump,” which has been my practice over the last four years, when he called the Secretary of State in Georgia and instructed him to “find him” another 11,800 votes.

[2]  It is clear, now, that he thinks the people who show up at his rallies are typical of the American people.  He knows what the American people want because he listens to the crowds at the pro-Trump rallies.

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Balance of Power?

The government of the United States was built to be a balancing act.  Just what elements of this mechanism are supposed to be “in balance” have changed from one time to another.  Early ideas were that the largest states were to be balanced against the smallest.  That’s why we still have an Electoral College.  Then there was the idea that the elites should be balanced against the people.  Madison’s vision of that is quite vivid.  Then, after the rise of mass-based political parties and universal suffrage, the idea was that “balance” could be achieved by dividing the government between the major political parties.

It isn’t ridiculous.  The logic is the same as requiring ⅔ of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.  If it is so good an idea that extraordinary majorities can be mustered for it, then the President should not be allowed to forbid it. [1]  In the same way, each party could theoretically dominate the national government so it could do extreme things, so  that putting the Congress in the charge of one party and the Executive in the charge of the other is just a prudent measure.  And if, as in the case of the veto, they feel something is so important that they can devise an extraordinary majority, then they can still act.

As I write this, there is speculation that the voters of Georgia might vote Republican in the Senate elections on the grounds that the House and the Presidency are already in Democratic hands and wouldn’t it be safer to make sure that they can’t do everything they would like?

That argument, which has not been ridiculous over the years of our republic, is ridiculous now.  What they call “divided control” of Congress—Ds in one house, Rs in the other—is, in our time a guarantee that there will be no action at all.  Increasingly, over the last thirty years, the goal of each party has been to frustrate the will of the other.  We don’t have “bipartisan cooperation” any more, so that if a policy is a good idea, some members of one party and some members of the other party will get together and pass legislation.

Just to get a picture of how far we now are from that long-honored ideal, try to imagine that the offensive and defensive lines in a football game were to decide on just what yard line the football should be and then, cooperatively put it there.  That’s not how it is done in football and no longer done in government.  If you want the ball to be further that way than it is—you will call it “advancing the ball” probably—then I want it not to be there.  In fact, I want it to be further in the other direction.  The war of offensive and defensive lines is not a policy dispute.  No one ever thought it was.  But neither is proposed legislation a policy dispute and there was a time when it was.

If the Democrats do not win the two Senate seats in Georgia today, they will be handing Mitch McConnell the means and the opportunity to forbid any legislation at all.  He already has the motive.

So the question about “divided government” today is just this.  Do you want the government to be capable of passing legislation?  Just that. [2]  The Republican stamp on a bill in enough to kill it in the House; the Democratic stamp is enough to kill it in the Senate.  The alternative is the systematic abuse of the Executive Order by presidents who know better, but who have no alternative.

Will the country be governable this year?  That is the question in today’s elections in Georgia.

[1]  “Veto” is straight Latin.  First person singular, present, active, imperative: I forbid. (it).

[2]  It is possible that a band of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats could agree to vote together and run the whole Senate.  It would take four of them to do it.  It hasn’t ever been done at the national level, but it was done in Oregon some years ago.  Observers were amazed.

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