July 4 Virus Thoughts

We are celebrating, today, the independence of the North American colonies of Great Britain from the rest of the British Empire. We had devised, here, the beginnings of a single political system and we proclaimed that it “was, and of right, ought to be, [composed of] free and independent states,” [1] To skip over the separateness of the separate states for just a moment, the Declaration says that our system really ought to be independent of your system.

It is that sense of ourselves as many, yet one, (e pluribus unum, and all that) that required the President of the United States to bring to the Congress “information of the State of the Union.” The State of the Union address was intended to be an answer to the question, “So…this union thing…how’s it going?” [2]

It isn’t going all that well, I’m afraid. Barack Obama has a vision that we were “not red states and blue states but the United States of America.” That’s not what is happening. We are, in fact, declaring independence from each other. Think of it this way: “Who are you to tell me not to….”

Notice that this transition moves away from system requirements—that’s what the Declaration of Independence was about—and  toward the question of whether we are to stop relying on each other. The pandemic puts that question to us directly.

There is the question of freedom for—what is it we demand the freedom to accomplish together—and freedom from external restraint. Those two ways of considering freedom [3] cast a sharp light on where we are today. We have solved the problem of external restraint—which is what Jefferson was concerned about—but we have lost track of what we want to do together.

4 July 1Consider this. Let’s say I want to put my shoulder to the common weal [4] and move us forward as efficiently as possible—but only provided that everyone else is pushing as hard as I think I am pushing. That’s why successful wars are so good for morale. First, the sense of external threat gets people to cooperate, even to sacrifice, more than they normally would. But also, there is a real reduction in monitoring just who is doing just how much. A great deal is excused in “There’s a war on, you know.” The focus on our freedom to accomplish what we intend is still being buffered by our attempt at keeping our independence.

And when the war is over and a nation is struggling to survive, as Germany and Japan were, or simply basking in the prosperity that victory brought, as the U. S. was, there is a time when you are just too busy to spend a lot of effort making sure that no one is getting advantages you are denied. But then the prosperity wains and people find themselves working very hard again, but this time with no external enemy.

The Tea Party voters Arlie Russell Hochschild studied in Strangers in Their Own Land imagined that they were standing in a very long line, waiting to receive the results of their hard work and sacrifice. But the line is not moving forward. This situation is not covered by “There’s a war on, you know.” It is not covered at all.

So what I want now is the best social outcome we can manage for us all, PROVIDED that no one gets more than I do or works less. And if the value of the work no longer serves to fuel my resentment, then how arduous or unpleasant the work is will have to do. If I work three jobs, I don’t want people who work two jobs to have what I have. If I work a dangerous job, I don’t want anyone who works a safe job to have what I have. And I don’t want people with no job at all to have…really…anything.

This independence from each other is what we have sunk to. And, not to give the Russian bots too much credit, it is the effect that they worked so hard to achieve in 2016. This is, in fact, what many of the Russian bots did [5] although, as former President Obama said, we were doing it to ourselves anyway.

There are solutions, of course, and our experience of the COVID-19 virus has made some of them obvious. If we had the trust in government leadership so many other nations have and the sense of ourselves as bearing a common burden and pursuing a common goal that so many other nations have, we would be having the kind of success with the pandemic that they are having and that we can only envy.

There’s no chance, I suppose, that we could begin to celebrate Interdependence Day. The 4 July 4matter of formal separation from Great Britain seems to be pretty well in hand. “Freedom from” has been accomplished. And we are not going to accomplish much more unless we find a way to affirm and value our common citizenship. It is possible that we can come to feel a sense of pride that all Americans are receiving what they need to put together a good life for themselves and a sense of shame that some Americans are sleeping in the streets and rummaging through dumpsters for food.

We could do that.

It would require the sense that we cannot become who we once thought we wanted to become just by demanding our own rights. The ceiling on who we can become together by demanding our own rights is a very low ceiling. A whole-hearted celebration of Interdependence Day would be a step in the right direction.

[1] Here is the text: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” I note, for the first time that of the three verbs, one is a linking verb and the other two are in the passive voice. Not really a trumpet call, is it?
[2] The Constitution also requires that the President “recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” That is the body of the State of the Union address today. The “measures” part; not necessarily the “necessary and expedient” part.
[3] I have in mind Isaiah Berlin’s famous “negative liberty” and “positive liberty” in mind here.
[4] Just that one pun, please. It is independence day, after all.
[5] Which is why they spent freely on fluoridation campaigns and on anti-fluoridation campaigns; on pro-life campaigns and on pro-choice campaigns.

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A Klan of “Karens”

You may have heard about the fuss kicked up by Amber Lynn Gilles at the Starbucks in San Diego. The short version is that she didn’t wear a mask, as store rules required her to do, and was not served. I don’t think her story is really unusual, but several aspects of the narrative caught my eye. For one thing, someone started a GoFundMe account in the barista’s name. For another, the New York Times wrote about the encounter which is how I heard about the rationale.

That’s the short version. I would not like to perform a brief detour to apologize to anyfriends—not “former friends” I hope—named Karen. [1] On my own behalf, I will say that I have heard “Over hill, Over Dale” all my life and have learned to think they must be referring to someone else. And finally, I allowed myself a little fun in the title “Klan of Karens” on the grounds that the first two K’s in KKK, are a reference to the Greek work kyklos, meaning “circle.” So a circle of “Karens”—emphasizing the current meaning, an emphasis on personal entitlement—would still be a KKK.

Now back to the story for the long version. There is a lot approve of in this story, like Starbucks policy and the behavior of barista Lenin Gutierrez (pictured at the right). Also, of course, a lot to disapprove of. But rather than doing either, I would like to pay attention to the several responses Ms. Gilles unleashed. I am going to take them in the order that they interested me, so don’t try to string them together as a narrative. You can do that with the hyperlink.

Masks are Stupid

Let’s start with masks.

“They are stupid,” said Ms. Gilles, “and so are the people wearing them.”

It is possible, I suppose, that saying “masks are stupid” means that they look stupid, a way of saying they make me look stupid. But more likely is the charge that they are stupid because they don’t work and/or they are unnecessary.

To poke a little at whether they work, we would need to know what they are supposed to do. They are supposed to keep the people around you free from any infection you might otherwise have shared with them. That means that it requires some such methodology as contact tracing to determine whether the people in our wake are being infected and that is not the kind of information Ms. Gilles is at all likely to have.

It is more likely that she intended to say that they were not likely to keep her from getting sick. (Her direct comment was, “I don’t need one.”) But on beyond that, there is the question of whether Starbucks should be permitted to protect their employees from people like her. I don’t think even Ms. Gilles would say that, but given the nature of her charge—they are stupid and so are the people who wear them—she doesn’t have to.

Ms. Gilles said that she was “denied and discriminated against.

This is what Starbucks is charged with. Surely there is no debate about the first part. She demanded to be served even though she was not wearing a mask and Starbucks said no. She was denied. Ordinarily “denied” connotes that one was denied something he or she had a right to. No one says, “They denied me entrance to the theater because I didn’t have a ticket.” The whole charge really ought to have the form: denied X because of Y even though Z specifies that I have the right to X. Following that form would have required Ms. Gilles to say just what she was denied or to say that Starbucks had no right to deny it.

“Discriminated against” is a little more complicated and that complexity is brought to us by the loss of meaning of “discriminated.” “Discrimination” was still mostly a good thing when I became acquainted with the word.

It is a facility that marked off people who could tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. A person was said to have “discriminating tastes.” [2] The resolutely bad meaning of the word comes from the expression “invidious discrimination.” If you are going to use “discrimination” to mean “the ability to tell the good from the bad or from the merely mediocre,” you are going to need an expression to mean “discrimination I disapprove of,” and that was the function of “invidious,” which means “malicious, hostile, or damaging.”

It is the addition of “against” that enables Ms. Gilles to say that something bad had happened. [3] But in the absence of a standard, she can only mean that she didn’t like the decision. To say more, she would have had to say that Starbucks should not have had the standard they do have.

Next comes Ms. Gilles justification of her behavior.

“I didn’t harass anyone,” she said. “I called them out because I’m frustrated.”

There are three points of interest here. The first is what “harass” means and the related question of who gets to say what it means. The second is the substitution of “called them out” for “harassed.” The third is her explanation of why she did it: she was frustrated. [4]

Lenis Gutierrez, the barista, describes it this way.

“…she started “cursing up a storm” and called people “sheep” before walking out. A few minutes later, she came back, he said, and asked for his name, took a photo of him and said she would call the corporate offices.”

My guess is that her feelings of frustration came from the barista’s request that she put on a mask. The sense that she had “called them out” more likely came from her coming back, taking his picture, and threatening to call the corporate offices. That is the part she likely identified as “calling them out” and the part also that required her to specify her motivation.

A reader of the story might wonder why her doing all that did not fall under the label harassment. I wonder that. And how is “calling them out” different?

Ms. Gilles final salvo was more institutional. This is what she posted on her Facebook page:

“Meet lenen from Starbucks who refused to serve me cause I’m not wearing a mask. Next time I will wait for cops and bring a medical exemption.”

I think Ms. Gilles understands that the two actions she threatened are empty. What will the cops do if they come? Will they say that the CDC shouldn’t have recommended masks and that San Diego County should not have required them? It doesn’t seem likely. And what kind of “medical exemption” might she have in mind? “My doctors says I am free to infect as many people as I like?” That doesn’t seem likely either.

If a “Karen,” like Ms. Gilles—Leah Asmelash of CNN says that “a Karen” is “a potent moniker for someone decidedly out of touch”—were just one unusual person using unusual rationales for her demands, I wouldn’t have bothered with this. I do think, though, that her behavior and even the kinds of justifications she provided for it, are increasingly common and I think they are deplorable.

[1] I would like to make an immediate exception on behalf of a dear stepdaughter of mine, whose name is spelled “Karyn” and who is, most emphatically, not a “queen of entitlements.” That is, apparently, the principal meaning of the current phrase, “Such a Karen.”
[2] That use comes from the 1620s. The sense of discrimination “against” and “against” for unfair or malicious reasons comes from the 1860s.
[3] Although, in all fairness, the root of the word is the Latin cernere, which means to separate; dis- only adds “apart” to the root. So separating one kind or quality of things from another. Bette once had a job watching the green beans come down the line and separating the bad ones from the good ones. She did this by being discrimination. There is always, I guess, the question of how the rejected beans felt, being discriminated against like that.
[4] Not to sound any older than I really am, but when I got acquainted with the word, “frustrated” meant the failure or an attempt to do something. It didn’t say anything at all about how you felt about the failure. In its current use, “frustrated” is the name of a feeling. So Ms. Gilles doesn’t even have to say that she was frustrated; all she has to say is that she was “feeling frustrated.”

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And he lies scarcely at all…

Scene 1: Saint Peter and a few angels are performing the daily ritual with some dice and a chart of the cardinal sins. They throw an 11, look at the chart and see what vice is on special today.

Scene 2: George Washington, having recently died, comes before Saint Peter’s professionally stern gaze. Saint Peter checks the chart to see what today’s heinous sin is and breaks out into a lovely beatific smile. “You’re in luck,” he says to President Washington, “Today’s special sin is deceitfulness and it says here that you never told a lie. Go on in.”

There are so many silly things about that little fantasy that it is hard to know where togeorge 2 start, but it came to my mind because one of the routes I frequently ride goes past the intersection of Sandy and 57th, where this statue is normally located. I guess parts of it are still located there.

It was “desecrated” this last week as part of a protest against racism. I’d like to spend a little time on “desecrated”—such an odd word in this context—and then return to my heavenly fantasy and the reason for beginning there.

George Washington is not “sacred” to me, nor should he be. [1] He provided a substantial service to the rebellious colonies and to the fledgling republic and I think he should be honored for that. By being a successful general and a very stabilizing president, he gave us a gift without which we would not be in our present situation. There was no substitute for him.

One of the great uses to which he and his memory have been put is to serve as the exemplar of attitudes and behaviors the society needs. The legendary George Washington, by contrast with the historical George Washington, was dignified, humble, practical, and, above all, truthful. It is his legendary truthiness that I make use of in the heavenly scenario with which I began.

What is “sacred” is the use we agree to make of our great women and our great men. It is our adherence to the virtues we claim they exemplify that enables us to survive as a society. The social norms held at least partially in place by this practice allow us to live together with much less coercion than would otherwise be necessary. They allow us to cooperate more fully than otherwise, to adjust and innovate more fully than otherwise. The “great people” of our past—those who by our consent [2] evoke one or another of the crucial virtues—serve us by helping us define and support the values our society requires. I can come a lot closer to calling that function “sacred” than I can come to calling any person from our past “sacred.”

So to George Washington is attributed a wholly pure and entirely unlikely truthfulness. The well-known legend of the cherry tree can serve as an example. George is also extraordinarily lucky that on the day he came up for judgment, the virtue of the day was “truth-telling.” So he was declared “worthy of entering heaven,” [3]

Had he come on the next day, when the special virtue was “kindness,” George, as a slave-holding Virginia planter, might have had some difficulty. The current round of protests against our best-known leaders is that they were “racist.” Without question, George Washington violated that standards that are today thought to be indicative of racism.

george 1But let’s look at where this leads us. Racism is just today’s fetish. [4] What about tomorrow’s? Let’s say that sexual fidelity is the next virtue. This is sexual fidelity as it was understood in the late 18th Century, of course. Cadres of zealots, now comb through the “great men and women of our past” and locate those who offended sexual fidelity. It is time now for their statues, the erection of such statues serving as the kind of honor we pay them to remind ourselves of how important that particular virtue is, to be torn down. They are no longer worthy to represent us.


The next virtue is, let’s say, charity.[5] We require, in this round of our purging of publicly honored persons, that they take special note of the poor among them and that they are noteworthy in caring for them as they should. Not all of our great men and not even all of our great women were unfailingly charitable. So…”off with their heads!” and where possible, their bases as well.

Fine. Next.

You see where this goes. Every round of purging will remove another category of statues until there are no more. You might think, I suppose, that new heroes will be created to mirror the newly ascendant values, but it takes only a moment of thought to understand that their time too will come when our attention as turned to a new virtue.

So the routine desecrating of our public statues, and thereby our common heroes, leads to a common celebration of no one and nothing at all. There is no common celebration. There are, of course, private celebrations. There may well be family celebrations and clan celebrations, but if the population we have in mind gets too large and/or too formal and particularly if public resources go into the construction and maintenance of such statues, we cross the boundary into George Washington territory—the racist planter who never told a lie.

In this scenario, we are without exemplars, except, of course, iconoclasts. We can still celebrate the people who pull down the statues, I guess. But we are without the common, the “public,” way of treasuring the virtues they stood for. Just what virtues they stood for is mostly, you recall, a fabrication of later generations. There are still private virtues, but there are not virtues that help us to shape our common polity, our common culture. [6]

This is a wholly needless problem. The solution is to value our forebears for what they have done, for their contributions to us. There is no need for them to be saints. We will weigh, for them as for everyone else, the good against the bad. We will not throw dice as St. Peter did in the example. We will not judge the paragons of an earlier era as if they should meet the standards of all succeeding eras.

In Portland, there are a lot of high schools named for presidents. A lot of our presidents suffered errors of judgment and flaws of character. They are, in that way, a good representation of the people who tore down their statues.

[1] He is, for one thing, “a graven image” is the most literal sense.
[2] I don’t want to overdo this. There needs to be some social reality that binds the virtue we prize to the life or the writings of the great one. You can’t just hand any virtue on the memory of just any person.
[3] A theological disaster, but the St. Peter metaphor requires it.
[4] I don’t call it a fetish because it is unimportant. I call it a fetish because of all the other virtues is displaces to become the only virtue worthy of our energies.
[5] There is really no need to focus entirely on sins of commission. Many of our leaders, faced with great opportunities, failed to achieve them through lack of imagination or failure of courage. Their statues too should be forfeit.
[6] Under normal circumstances, I would have added “our common economy,” but the common economy is an artifact, we are told, of the confluence of private greeds, so not a common economy in the same sense as the polity and the culture.

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Juneteenth, 2020

I think I’d like to pay some attention to Juneteenth this year. I remember hearing about it before, but only from a distance. Since last June, I have been thinking about the increasingly wide divisions in this country and how we seem to cling to them. With that in mind, I would like to think about how Juneteenth could be celebrated by “us” this year.

Juneteenth celebrates the announcement in Texas of the end of slavery everywhere in the U. S. in 1865. Here is what Wikipedia says: [1]

Juneteenth (a portmanteau of June and nineteenth),… is an American holiday celebrated annually on June 19. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free.

The end of slavery was a very good thing for the blacks who had been enslaved. It was a very good thing for the Union soldiers who were able to mark this as the ultimate achievement of a long and bloody war. [2] Those two simple statements provide the context for my reflection today, which is: Why is this “a black holiday?”

From my seat on the sidelines, it looks to me like a wonderful opportunity to celebrateJuneteenth 6 America, emphasizing its white and black components. A lot of Union soldiers died to get the Union troops to Texas. Before that, a lot of abolitionists were punished by their communities for urging inconvenient actions regarding slavery. This would be a great time to celebrate them.

For the slaves and their children in many subsequent generations, it doesn’t represent so much an achievement [3] as the celebration of a basic right that had been long denied them. There is every reason to celebrate this new status. Is there any reason to celebrate it together? Is there any reason why the children of the Union soldiers and the northern abolitionists could not get together with the children of the freed slaves and celebrate together? When you first think about it, it seems there is not.

I think you ought to think again.

In the first place, it is not at all in keeping with the cultural and political ambience of our times. This is a time for black Americans to emphasize their common victimhood and for white Americans to bewail their “fragility” and to repent of their “privilege.” Of course, both of those things are true. There is no question that they ought to be granted. There is a reason to wonder why they ought to be allowed to crowd everything else off the stage.

So if we were to begin to consider Juneteenth as the celebration of a new level of cooperation and comity between white [4] and black Americans, the first thing we would have to do is to claim a legitimate place on the stage. It is appropriate, we would have to say, to make a place for blacks and whites to celebrate together the ending of slavery.

juneteenth 1This is no more the time for deploring the evils of slavery than it is the time to dwell on the ugliness of early adolescence when celebrating a young woman’s nineteenth birthday. We all know there were those times. One of them might have been yesterday. The bills for some of them might not yet have been paid. But they are not the matter at hand, the birthday, and they will not keep us from celebrating the end of slavery together,

I spoke casually, above, about “making a place on the stage” and in doing so, I skipped over the fact that we would have to want to make that place on the stage. This celebration of the end of slavery by the white and black participants, is not going to take place if nobody wants it. It is not going to take place if the people who do want it allow themselves to be intimidated by people who think such a celebration is a disgrace.

So we have to proclaim a celebration that violates the cultural and political ambience. And then we have to claim—maybe muscle aside a body or two—a space on the stage to have this celebration.

The case we would make is that it is too good an opportunity to be missed. This a chance for blacks and whites to celebrate an aspect of our common history—an aspect that has something to do with race. How many chances are there to do that!

For people who want it to be a celebration for black Americans only, this is going to feel bad. It is like sharing with a neighbor kid the birthday cake that was supposed to be for the family. Frankly, it is a lot easier to orchestrate a black celebration than a black and white celebration. [5] That could mean that we go to our neutral corners and wait to see what happens. On the other hand, it could mean trying to work out what kind of celebration recognizes and honors all the participants.

Blacks who want the celebration to be all for themselves will accuse the whites of coopting “our celebration.” White liberals who are even more sensitive, sometimes, to slights against a group they think of as a client group, will argue the same from editorial pages. Whites as a racial group don’t have a direct stake in the game, as I see it. There is no Sons of White Liberators from Slavery that I have ever heard of, much less a culture to sustain it. But whites do have a stake in racial comity, just as blacks do and this is a chance to exercise it. If racial comity were a muscle, it would be in danger of atrophying and the blame for that can be very widely shared.

So if there is going to be a national holiday celebrating Juneteenth, I would like it to celebrate blacks and whites making a new start, celebrating what they have done together and planning to work that racial comity muscle until it gets stronger and less likely to tear when it is stressed.

[1] It also notes that Juneteenth is a “portmanteau word” of “June” and “nineteenth.” A portmanteau is a kind of suitcase. Lewis Carroll introduced the work into English, saying that it represented the sort of words he invented for “Jabberwocky,” — “two meanings packed up into one word.”
[2] If you will permit me a small note on punctuation, please note that there is no comma after “soldiers.” If there were, the statement would be demonstrably untrue. On the other hand, there were some Union soldiers for whom it was true and this phrasing includes them. Anti-black sentiment among Union troops was notoriously high, so that is a crucially important comma that is not there.
[3] You will note that “were freed” is a passive verb. It does not represent something the slaves did, but something that was done on their behalf,.
[4] I say “white” for convenience only. I intend “all racial and ethnic groups that are not black.”
[5] It would be easier, too, to celebrate a white event in a white style, but we seem to be in no danger of that.

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White women are vicious. Hm.

A recent column by Charles Blow, a columnist for the New York Times, is one of the worst I have seen anywhere. It stands out particularly in the Times, where the columns written by people who work for the paper are most often thoughtful and informative.

This column is neither. Not only is it racist and sexist, it is dehumanizing as well. That third charge is the one I would like to start with. If I am still angry when I am done doing that, I will provide evidence for the other two cases as well.

The subject of Blow’s diatribe is “white women.” To this category, he is going to attribute knowledge, intention, and cruelty. It is true that along the path of this accusation about white women in general, he does use particular white women as examples.

He says that ‘a white woman in New York’s Central Park”—that would be Amy CooperCentral Park although Blow does not use her name— told a black man, a bird-watcher, that she was going to call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life. Blow could plausibly say things about what Ms. Cooper knew for sure and what her motivations were. It is possible to learn those things about Amy Cooper, the person. But when she is made an instance in a more general accusation about “white women,” the meaning of the charge evaporates. It is not true about “white women” and no listing of actual instances could make it true about the whole category.

The vicious killing of Emmet Till, Blow says, came about because “a white woman said that he “grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her.” …

A few years ago, the woman admitted to an author that she had lied.” The woman’s name was Carolyn Bryant Donham. She said, in an interview with, Timothy B. Tyson, that part of her allegation—that he had grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her— “that part is not true.”

Mrs. Denham has not provided much evidence about how she saw the situation, but she did give the Tyson interview and Mr. Blow is free to explain Mrs. Denham’s actions as best he can. What Mrs. Denham has in common with Amy Cooper is that she is not “white women,” which is what Blow is so hot about. Consider the following paragraph.

Specifically, I am enraged by white women weaponizing racial anxiety, using their white femininity to activate systems of white terror against black men. This has long been a power white women realized they had and that they exerted.

There is a category here: “white women.” It is argued that this category of people “realized” something: they realized that they had a power. Let’s pause for a moment to realize just how silly this is. Either we have a category realizing something or we have all members of the category realizing something.  You’re kidding, right?

In addition, this category acts. It (they) recognize the availability of an attitude in the more general public and they “weaponize it.” Again, this is not something categories can do and it is empirically untrue that all the members of the category do this.

Mr. Blow probably has the gender status shared by all white women in mind, but when he says “femininity” he is going way beyond the constraints of “femaleness.” “Femininity” is a particular style of behavior much admired and practiced by some women and vigorously deplored and avoided by others. To attribute “femininity” to white women as a category is not a good thing to do. First, it is, as the above uses show, silly. In addition, he risks the wrath of women who think the equating of “femininity” with womanhood is a gross calumny against all women.

This category of women is, in addition, “cruel.” This is not, just to make the obvious point one more time, a charge against any particular woman, with the exception of the examples he gives. This is a charge against the category as if the category itself were sentient and/or a charge against all the women in the category.

I expressed my anger at the beginning of this essay saying that Mr. Blow’s charges are racist, sexist, and dehumanizing. The charges are “racial,” obviously and “sexual” obviously. They have to do with race and sex. I charge, in addition, that they are “racist” and “sexist” using the -ist suffix to indicate my disapproval of it.

The case for “dehumanizing” is easier. Treating human beings as if they were no more than the attributes expected of the social categories they belong to obviously “dehumanizes” them. But maybe it would be easier to see if we looked at some other categories.

What are poor midwestern farmers like?
What are Africa-born black American citizens like?
What are autistic fathers like?

You see the problem. Everyone who uses the language sees the need for discriminating within the category when using psychological notions like “intention.” What intention do autistic fathers have? Thank goodness there is only one such intention because it is so much easier to describe what “it” is than it would be to describe the many intentions that “normal people” have.

Just one question, Mr. Blow. What intention (just one, please) do columnists have?

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Why does President Trump lie?

My father had a drive toward being a cultured gentleman. I see, as I look back, that it was much more powerful than I thought as I was growing up, but even then, I noticed it. He was raised on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania as part of an old order community and when he chose to leave that community, he faced a bewildering array of options. I think the intensity of his focus on “being a gentleman” and on trying to make his four sons into gentlemen came from the great distance between what he left and what he chose. [1]

Part of Dad’s aspiration to gentility had to do with politics. Dad wasn’t oriented toward policy; he wanted presidential candidates who shared his concern for good manners and good language. Partly for that reason, President Truman was a difficulty for him. The trait that newscasters celebrated as “plain-spoken,” Dad saw as “vulgar.” One of the first political stories I remember from Dad was that “the dictionaries”—he may have had Webster’s 2nd Edition in mind—had been using the rule that a word will be added to the dictionary when it is used by the President. They had to stop using that rule, he said, when Truman became president.

This led in time to a joke that Washington “couldn’t tell a lie.” Roosevelt.couldn’t tell the truth. And Truman couldn’t tell the difference.”

It isn’t Dad’s conservatism I want to point to in remembering that story; it is the moral vacuity of the butt of the joke—Truman in this case. [2] And I got to remembering this when I readMichael Tomasky’s column in the New York Times this morning. Trump is the most egregious liar in the history of the presidency. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, who has been keeping track, has Mr. Trump at 15.6 lies a day, “roughly one every waking hour.”

Why does he do it?

Lying 4As a (nearly) life long professor of political science, I used to field questions like this in class and the first thing I wanted to know from the questioner was, “Why do you want to know?” I would ask that because some reasons for wanting to know can be satisfied, even within the context of a political science class. Other reasons have no hope at all of being adequately addressed. In the case of President Trump, I have three answers in mind and none of them can be fully addressed by the social institutions we have now.

Three plausible reasons

The first follows from Dad’s joke about not being able to tell the difference. President Trump’s overwhelming interests, it seems to me, have to do with self-aggrandizement. Some say he is besotted by the quest for power, but it isn’t power to do something; it is power to avoid restraint.

Tomasky’s column notes that previous lying presidents have lied within the structure of existing political institutions. Even Nixon and George W. Bush recognized that there were other political institutions with their own legitimate powers and they needed to be dealt with in some way. Tomasky says that Trump doesn’t recognize any other legitimate powers at all. The center of moral worth is “the Presidency,” (meaning himself); before that, it was the campaign, (meaning himself); and before that it was his several businesses (meaning himself).

There is, in the President’s mind, a massive moral equivalency between “greatest” and himself. “Greatest” naturally inheres in himself. That is why the crowd at his inauguration is larger than any other crowd ever. It is why all Americans are safer and happier than they have ever been before. These are assertions that do not need confirmation—facts that bear on these assertions are irrelevant to him. “Facts” are just tools to support a “truth” that is obvious to him, which is that he and his are the greatest. So assertions of “fact” are not, principally, true or not; they are useful or not.

The heart of President Trump’s lying, in this view, is that “truth” has no merit at all apart from utility. He asserts that it is true if it is useful. [3]

The second reason he lies is to defame his enemies. The core of President Trump’s base is angry at the way they have been treated. The Trump style of campaigning not only defames these enemies, but makes fun of them. He says they are bad, in other words, and also makes them objects of derision.  I love the idea of “leaving the sociopath,” but it will require winning a very important election to do that.

This is a separate reason for lying. It has no direct connection to the Trump fetish about Lying 1being the greatest. This is giving “talking points” to people who was to “hit back.” These people are aggrieved, remember, and whatever they do, is something “back.” They are “retaliating.” Notice the re- in retaliating; It represents the “back” in “hitting back.” And not only does it give talking points, it gives permission to say things like that. These are social slurs or ethnic slurs or class slurs. These are things that until recently, were not OK to say in public. The avalanche of Trump lies addresses these two problems: it justifies language that used to be “bad manners” and it scripts the charges against their enemies. And…of course…their truth of falsity is not an obstacle. Not for a man who tells 15.6 lies a day.

The third reason is that it puts the news media in an awful spot. The game the media have been playing has been the fact game and that game has been further inflamed by the “both sides of the story” game. President Trump’s drumbeat of outrageous lies causes the media to fail at both of the games they are accustomed to playing and that is another reason, as I see it, that he lies so much.

The match President Trump wins by lying in ways the media cannot afford to pass unchallenged is the match of the narrative against the facts. President Trump’s narrative presumes a factual basis, although it is false. The media can demolish the factual claims one by one but the revelation that the facts are fraudulent doesn’t damage the narrative. The both sides of the story game requires the media to give equal weight to the most sober investigation and the most transparent lies on the grounds that they represent two “sides.”

Lying 3The most recent response by the press is to aggressively call President Trump’s lies for what they are. This doesn’t work either. This is equivalent to the referee starting a fight with a pitcher who threw a beanball or with a defensive end who laid a late hit on the quarterback. The referee cannot become a participant and still adjudicate quarrels between players. The New York Times cannot challenge the Trump administrations claims as intentional and unconscionable lies without being “an opposing player.”  The guy in the yellow shirt, no matter how severely he was provoked, is no longer refereeing the game.

So in response to the lies of the Trump administration, the media has three options, all of which set the President up to win. And that is the third reason he lies so much.

President Trump’s lying is, in other words, overdetermined. Any of the three reasons for lying consistently is adequate to maintain the pattern.

I am very much encouraged, myself, by the fact that some lies are federal offenses. He won’t win that one.

[1] There was still a lot of distance to cover for the sons, because being the children of a father who grew up on a farm in an old order community was an identity we had to cope with.
[2] It’s really not a bad joke. It switches the meaning of the verb “tell” in the middle of the joke, from “speak to “distinguish,” so that “tell” in the last use means something different that it did in the two previous uses.
[3] Try to imagine designing a lie detector test this man could not pass.

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A “Permission Structure” for Republicans

Let’s start with this paragraph from Jonathan Martin in the New York Times.

Yet it would be a sharp rebuke for former Trump administration officials and well-known Republicans to buck their own standard-bearer. Individually, they may not sway many votes — particularly at a time of deep polarization. But their collective opposition, or even resounding silence, could offer something of a permission structure for Trump-skeptical Republicans to put party loyalty aside.

That is the paragraph I want to follow up on, but I do have a longstanding grievance against people who offer a quotation beginning with “Yet…” It always makes be wonder what it refers to. Here is what it refers to: “And polls today indicate that rank-and-file Republicans are squarely behind the president…” [1]

“Something of a permission structure,” Martin says. Not an expression I have ever heard before, but I know exactly what he means by it. [2] A whole world of possibilities is called into being by the action of these “well-known Republicans”.

And another piece of this same puzzle if offered by Heather Cox Richardson who, in her June 7 “letter” [3] says:

The protests, and perhaps even more, the declarations of military leaders, have given anti-Trump Republicans room to buck the president.

The military leaders are saying that President Trump has put the whole structure of military readiness in peril. Nothing about what these leaders are saying sounds partisan or political. Rather, it addresses the primary mode most Americans use it thinking about patriotism, which is using the armed forces to repel attacks by foreign enemies.

Without establishing a strict causal chain, I want to propose that declarations like that of retired Admiral William H. McRaven, who said, “President Trump has shown he doesn’t have the qualities necessary to be a good commander in chief.”

permission 1Admiral McRaven, speaking on the 76th anniversary of D-Day said “those wartime leaders inspired Americans with their words, their actions, and their humanity.” In contrast, he said,” “Mr. Trump has failed his leadership test.”

That is about as blunt as it can get. As I look at the structure of Admiral McRaven’s denunciation of Trump, I head Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s powerful denunciation of Vice Presidential nominee Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” [4] In both cases, the contrast is carefully prepared (wartime leaders” in the case of the admiral) and then the hammer descends.

And again, without postulating a strict causal chain, I note that President Trump’s support for the Republican candidates in most of the interim elections has not helped them. This is potentially critical. As President, President Trump is head of his party, the party that nominated him as the standard bearer. But the party wants as many Republicans as possible to be elected and each candidate has a sense of what will help and what will harm his chances. A whole fleet of Republican candidates distancing themselves from the leader of their party, trying to enhance their prospects, will be catastrophic for the President.

If the party elders, the George W. Bushes snd the Mitt Romneys, are speaking out about their concerns for what is left of the Republican party and the party foot soldiers are trying to distance themselves from the top of the ticket, it is going to be very hard for the core of Trump’s support to stand firm.

This is what Martin means by “permission structure.” People make decisions and evenpermission 2 more make public announcements that they feel they are allowed to make. Broadening the boundaries of the things people are allowed to say about President Trump could be devastating and may be under way. The patriotism card is compromised by the Joint Chiefs; the national intelligence card is compromised by the complaints of recent intelligence leaders; the party elders’ card is compromised by the clear refusal of some to adhere to the leadership and the announcement by some that they are going to vote for a Democrat this time. The Republican candidates will have to find a way to navigate these difficult currents but the permission structure opens a lot of options.

I’m encouraged.

[1] There are also people who say you should never use a quote ending in an ellipsis, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Trust me, you don’t really need to know what is represented by those three dots and if you do, click the hyperlink and see for yourself.
[2] I imagine “permission structure” is a version of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s “plausibility structure,” which is the foundation of their whole sociology of knowledge. A “plausibility structure” is that set of assumptions that allows societies to agree on the shape of the social world they are living in and to decide together, how to approach it. See The Social Construction of Reality if you are interested.
[3] I feel free to call it a “letter” because her blog is called “Letters from an American,” a play, it seems to me, on J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur’s (1782) Letters from an American Farmer.
[4] With McRaven, as with Bentsen, the power is in the setup. Bentsen’s rebuke, “You’re no Jack Kennedy” was the fourth item in a series. The whole series went like this: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

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Strategic cockroach

Yesterday, my husband thought he saw a cockroach in the kitchen. He sprayed everything down and cleaned thoroughly. Today, I’m putting the cockroach in the bathroom.

That’s one of the cute little reports included in a paper called Funnies, which has been circulating here at Holladay Park Plaza. This one caught my attention particularly. You have already enjoyed it (or not) so all I’m going to try to do here is speculate about why I liked it so much. [1]

There are certain words that control this little fantasy and they might not be the ones you noticed on your first time through. I want to pick “a cockroach” and “the cockroach” as our first stop. The wife, from whose point of view this is being told, knows all about the cockroach from the beginning. She is deliberately misleading us when she says her husband saw “a cockroach.” The deception is enhanced by “thought he saw.”

Why is that deceptive? “A cockroach” reflects the husband’s perspective. It would absolutely not work if the husband were to say, “Honey, I saw the cockroach in the kitchen.” It would sound as if it were a pet. But the husband is mistaken. He saw “the cockroach” and didn’t know it. “The cockroach” is a tool, we later learn. He was in the kitchen on assignment and will be deployed in the bathroom tomorrow.

The second point follows directly from the first. There is not so much as a hint of disapproval in the wife’s assessment of the husband’s behavior. It could even sound laudatory. “He sprayed everything down and cleaned thoroughly.” What a guy! My hero! I’m so lucky to have a husband who takes care of things like that.

In fact, the husband is a chump. He is being manipulated shamelessly by the wife. That means that his cleaning may very well be first rate, but he is a fool. [2]

Finally, like a lot of good jokes, everything in the beginning—in this case, that is the first two sentences—points in one direction. The last part turns it around entirely, and it does so without using the kinds of words we ordinarily use to change the direction of meaning. There is nothing like “on the other hand,” or “nevertheless.” It’s just cold, as if the second part flowed directly from the first part, which it does not.

I really like this joke and it is this kind of thing that I had in mind when I called the blog “the dilettante’s dilemma.” Jokes like this just delight me.

[1] I have friends who cluck gravely at me when I do this because they think it is the opposite of enjoying the humor of it. Not at all. When I have added to my enjoyment the extra enjoyment of knowing just how it works, I get twice as much.
[2] I think it would be really cool—not very funny, unfortunately—if the husband were to confide in a friend, “My wife put her cockroach out in the bathroom today. It’s her was of asking me to clean the bathroom. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”

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Feeling no pain

Mostly, I’ve heard that phrase as another way to say that someone was drunk.  “He was feelin’ no pain,” someone will say, rolling his eyes meaningfully.  I want to use the phrase a little differently.  This will sound like a grammatical gripe, of which I am entirely capable, but it is not.

I want to consider here the difference between “feeling no pain” and “not feeling any pain.”  Following the wording carefully, we see that you are feeling something in the first formulation and you are not feeling something in the second.  That is the difference between feeling and not feeling.

So how can you feel something that is not there.  Pain, in this instance.  It’s not as hard as you might think.  How can you “find” anything not to be there?   How can you discover the absence of your favorite coffee mug from the shelf in the kitchen cabinet where it always is?  Well…you look with the expectation of finding it and you find it not to be there.

So let’s move away from the coffee mug.  You can experience the absence of anything you pain 1expect to find.  So, for instance, if I am accustomed to lower back pain as I get out of bed in the morning, what should I say about the morning when I start to get out of bed and am startled to discover that I am not feeling the lower back pain I was expecting to feel?  

I think it is perfectly proper to say that I am feeling—I am actually experiencing—no pain.  That requires, as I said in the first paragraph, that I feel something.  I expect, certainly, to feel something.  I sent my early sensors to the site “knowing” what they will find and they report that absence of what I knew I was going to feel.  That is why I feel justified in using the verb “feel” to describe it.

To tell you the truth, I have been puzzling over this “absence of pain” problem for awhile now.  It was only yesterday, on a bike ride, that I thought of the “feeling no pain” formulation.  That seems to have kick-started everything.  I wrote a piece a few years ago called “Names as Superchargers,” in which I reflected on the amazing burst of energy I get for a project once I think of what to call it.  I played around with my doctoral dissertation materials for awhile before the title “Undimensional Man” occurred to me. [1]  And once I had that name, I felt a lot of energy for the project.

That is what happened with this “feeling no pain” title.  I’ve experience the lack of pain recurrently for several months, but only when I thought of what to call it, did it become something I really needed to write about. [2]

[1]  It was a straightforward, and in the context of a campus in the 1970s, an unmistakeable reference to Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.”

[2]  I know that’s a little quirky as a reason for doing anything, but this is the first post the my second decade with this blog (just how deep into the decade I will actually go remains to be seen, of course) and it has just the right flavor of dilettantishness.

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The First 10 Years: Part III

Tomorrow I am going to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog.  I’ve been working up to it by reflecting back over the last ten years.  This is the third and last of those essays. It doesn’t seem all that likely that I will have another chance to look back over the last ten years of blogging—that would be 2020 to 2030—so I really should give this decade a thorough look. [1] Apart from politics, (the subject of Part II)I wrote most of the posts about religion in some sense and that is what this reflection is about.

The posts I tagged as “religion” posts were about three kinds of things. Most were about biblical exegesis. I am involved in several Bible studies and in preparing for them, I run into new and interesting ideas and I like to write about them. Some are theological. I am not entirely settled in my theology and every now and then, discrepancies show up and I fuss with them in print. I got to wondering in February 2017 what the re- in the word “resurrection” refers to, for instance. The third category involved some public issue. Lots of other people write about religion in the public sense of the term and I sometimes reply. Nicholas Kristof, one of my favorite New York Times columnists, interviews prominent Christian leaders from time to time and winds up the interviews asking whether they think he is Christian. Most of the answers to that question have been really bad, but I am still sympathetic. What would a good answer be based on?

There is a regular cycle to the religion posts that is entirely absent from the political posts. I caught that right away in January 2011 when I began “a new blogging year” just as Advent was wrapping up. The church calendar can be plausibly said to begin at Advent, so I thought it might be convenienCana 4t for me to do the same. To help in that, I invented my “Blogging Year (BY)” which runs from December 1 to November 30, taking the date of the ending year. So I am currently in BY 2020 and in December, I will begin BY 2021.

The regular cycle is caused by the regular recurrence of Advent and Lent. I hear a lot about those during those seasons so I think about them and read about them and write about them. Raymond E. Brown’s work has been very helpful in keeping that recurring emphasis. I read some part of his The Birth of the Messiah and The Death of the Messiah (2 volumes) each year. Always I find new and interesting things.

One of my favorite Advent posts was called “He Said/She Said.” in December 2013, so it was the first month of BY 2014. It had just occurred to me that the birth narrative Matthew tells is all about Joseph and that the story Luke tells is all about Mary. Mary doesn’t speak a single line in Matthew’s account and Joseph does not in Luke’s. I picked a title that I thought made it sound like a dispute between them, just for fun.

Every now and then, I hit some realization that is so clear and so persuasive that I am embarrassed I never saw it before.  I tend to write about those. One had to do with the first of the cycle of miracles recorded in John’s gospel. It is ordinarily referred to as “turning water into wine” and that is the spectacular part of the story, certainly, But I came to the conviction, eventually, that is what the availability of all that water that was the real significance. It is true that Jesus changed it into really good wine, but it was there for the ritual cleansings that were necessary and the point of the miracles was not the wine but why those cleansings were no longer needed. I had a lot of fun with that.

I can illustrate the theological emphasis with a post on a Christmas season campaign by the local atheists. They took out some billboard space in Portland to claim “you can be good without God.” I appreciated their bringing the question forward. It isn’t the kind of thing you can answer, of course, because of the terms to be clarified. I expressed my appreciation and raised some definitional questions that I thought would help.

Truman 2Wheaton College, one of my several alma maters fired Larycia Hawkins (left), a political science professor, for a very public, but ill-defined offense. (December 2015) The theological faculty voted unanimously that she had not violated her obligations to the college in anything she had said or had done. The crux of the issue was really, what do we mean when we say “God?” The face of the issue was this professor’s wearing a hijab in solidarity with her “sisters.” One of the things she did was, apparently, conduct unbecoming an evangelical.

I was surprised, in looking back over the ten years, how many movies pushed me in the direction of theological or biblical reflection. An example that has continued to affect me is The Truman Show (October 2010). The Truman Show is, actually, a TV show and Truman is, unwittingly, the star. When he catches on to the whole charade and decides to leave the set (the world in which he has lived his whole life) Christof, the director,truman 1 addresses him directly from “heaven” and urges him to stay. He makes every appeal he can, but every appeal shows that he has no idea what living Truman’s kind of life is like. He has never been there. And that brought the power of the Incarnation to mind. “He pitched his tent among us” is a claim that is central to Christianity and it is utterly unavailable to Christof.  Here Truman (Jim Carrey) makes one of the best exits ever.

I have no idea what the next ten years of blogging on religious themes is going to offer. I’m just going to let it surprise me. lL

[1] On the other hand, I don’t want to give it up entirely. There are quite a number of people at the Senior Center where I live who are the age I would be in 2030 and who are perfectly capable of writing such a retrospective.

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