Telling the Truth about American History

I hope that was a provocative title.  That’s why it is there.  Some will think that it is a simple and obvious standard and that “lying about American history” is the alternative.  Others will think it presumptuous to assert that there is “a truth” about American history.  Still others will be puzzled by the premise that anyone who has access to this “truth” would be moved to tell it when there are so many other important things to do in history class.

My own view is that there is not “a truth,” although certainly there are inaccuracies and distortions.  Narratives don’t become “true” just by avoiding falsehoods.  There is a lot more to it than that and I would like to leave you feeling that this standard—that the truth should be told about our history—is a poorly constructed standard.  We can do better.

Let’s begin with these two paragraphs from a fascinating New York Times study of American history texts by Julia Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars.

Conservatives have fought for schools to promote patriotism, highlight the influence of Christianity and celebrate the founding fathers.

The left has pushed to encounter history more from the ground up than from the top down, with a focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as enslaved people, women and Native Americans.

This one clip casts the differences among American history texts in Texas and California as the product of political ideology, which is true as far as it goes.  But, as is always the case in these matters, there is an interplay of what is salient (or not) and what is to be said about the salient issues.  I call that “position.”

Let’s begin with the obvious notion that you can’t treat the whole story of American history.  That means that some things will be included in some texts and not in others.  We will leave for another time the question of how textbook companies make such decisions.  If the local decision-making bodies are ideologically skewed—the State Textbook Commissions or the local school boards—they will want certain crucially important things to be dealt with.  You can look at those two quotations from the Times article and see clearly what events or evaluations of events would be emphasized.

Further, note that there is no need for either version to take aim at the major emphases of the other version.  Conservative texts—Texas, in the New York Times study—will spend very little time on “marginalized groups” and what they do say will be from the perspective of the marginalizing groups, i.e. the dominant groups of the era.  Similarly, liberal texts—California, in the New York Times study—need not attack patriotism or Christianity.  They can simply ignore them or call them by other names, say, “nationalism” and “religious influences.”

So…given a deeply polarized nation and the local choice of texts, you would expect to find just what Goldstein found.  

But it gets worse.

What if “liberal and conservative” were not the principal division?:  What if it were social class. [1]  Edgar Litt studied how the same text was taught in three school districts, one working class, one middle class, and one upper class. [2]  In this one text in three settings, the lesson that was taught in the classroom was that the duty of each citizen was to “obey” (in the working class district); to “participate” (in the middle class district); and to “lead” in the upper class district).  These three lessons came out of the same textbook.

But it gets worse.

Textbooks are going away.  The availability of primary sources online enables any teacher with a perspective and a little bit of academic freedom to create (“curate,” the article says) his or her own texts.  I did that myself in my last few years as an adjunct professor at Portland State University.  The “textbook” I used in my American Government classes was an amalgam of the standard chapters the company offered or, in the cases where I had better stuff to use, material I provided myself.

I felt very good about it.  In my own judgment, I was providing educationally superior materials to the kinds of students I was most likely to have.  The basis of my choice was pedagogical.  I wanted a particular outcome of my teaching and I wanted to use the materials that were most likely to achieve that outcome.  They were not biased against any political philosophy (left or right) or keyed to any perspective (central groups, marginal groups).  They were chosen to provide a context in which a careful consideration of our government could be made and which lampooned superficial and uncritical assessments of what we had to work with.  I justified it to myself at the time and would justify it today if there were any occasion to, as choices required by my own understanding of my responsibilities as a teacher.

Using my own experience only to make the point, the problem textbook publishers are facing is that they are not the only game in town.  Not only are they, as always, in competition with other texts, but they are in competition with no texts, with what each teacher can come up with as independent assignments.  “Read these sources,” such a teacher might say, “and draw your own conclusions about that era of American history.”
But teachers are not free either so long as their students are going to be taking standardized tests devised by panels of educators who, themselves, have ideas about what knowledge and what skills the students should be learning.  In a better designed world, the textbook publishers and the student evaluators would be the same people.  They are not.

But it gets worse.

The value of “what is true” has been trashed recently by conservatives, most notably President Trump.  No fact can be so well established that it cannot be called “fake news” and be rejected wholesale by the Know Nothing Party. [3]  On the question of evolution, for instance, the state of Georgia had labels printed and pasted them in biology texts where evolution was discussed or presupposed.  The labels said, “Evolution is only a theory.”  So students learned to distinguish between “theories” and “facts,” rather than between “well supported theories” and “poorly supported theories,” —which is the crucial distinction.

In the current division of the country into hostile tribes, the value of loyalty to the group has risen dramatically and the value of “truth” has consequently declined.

I don’t think it can get worse than that.  That is the thing that needs to be fixed.

[1]See his 1965 book, The Political Cultures of Massachusetts.

[2]  Litt was much more sophisticated than I can afford to be about what “class” means and how they can be distinguished.  I’m in a hurry.

[3]  There was a party that was popularly called that, as you probably know, but in using term here, I do not mean to refer to the Republican party as such.  I mean to refer to the most loyal followers of President Trump, for whom no evidence matters if it leads to the wrong conclusion.

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Hello, Mark Galli

I had never heard of Mark Galli before today.  He is the outgoing editor of Christianity CT 1Today, which is described—except by President Trump—as “an evangelical journal.” [1]  According to his interview with Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs in the New York Times, he had no idea his editorial would have the impact it did.  It did, in fact, cause the website to crash, as the traffic on the site reached 50 times that of an ordinary day.

I found myself liking Mark Galli and that is what I would like to write about today.  Later, I will want to write a little about the editorial itself, although it is such a commonplace in my world that I have to stir myself to remember why it was such a bolt of lightening in the evangelical world.

Here’s the first thing I liked about him.  Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs asked him what he made of the opposition.  He said:

I was a little surprised that Donald Trump and then Franklin Graham thought it was worth commenting on. And it did strike me as a bit ironic that they both said that it wasn’t significant or going to make any difference. It makes you immediately think that they do think it’s significant, or they wouldn’t comment on it.

Anyone who says that when your enemies say a piece is not significant, it is a clear sign that they do think it is significant, is my kind of guy.  I have, in the last few years, tried to be careful not to confuse “significant” with “important”.  To help me do that, I remind myself of the function of “sign-“ in “significant” [2] and then I ask “What is it significant of?”  What President Trump’s remarks are significant of is his awareness that a crucial constituency [3] is in danger of being fractured by opposition within the group.

The second thing I liked about Mr. Galli is this.

People wrote to me and said they had felt all alone and were waiting for someone in the evangelical leadership to say what the editorial said….There were a lot of people who were feeling alone and they’re not feeling that way now.

I am in favor of that response, of course.  Evangelicals feel they are getting clearance to feel the way they feel and that is exciting.  The mechanism is exactly the same as the racists and sexists getting “clearance” from President Trump to feel their feelings and approve of them and act on them.  The mechanism is the same.  But I am happy for these evangelicals.  Also, I really enjoy the gutsiness of Galli’s conclusion—“they’re not feeling that way now.”

The third thing I particularly liked about Galli in this interview was his ability to recognize the political position of the President and to take account of it within a moral frame of reference.  People who don’t understand the evangelical frame of reference may not get that, but within the evangelical frame, “virtues” are personal virtues, not public virtues.  You ask of a political candidate, for instance, what kind of :”person” he or she is.  You pass by without notice or comment the party, the political views, the policy outcomes and all that.

Galli focuses on the meaning of Trump’s many provocations by considering that they come from the Presidency.  Actions that would be merely regrettable in a private life can be intolerable in a public life and Galli is willing to say that, thereby departing from the pietistic frame of reference.  Good for him.

Then (fourth) there is his specificity about President Trump’s political style.  Trump’s style, Galli says, is “to denigrate people.”  I have heard that a lot and have said it myself my share of times.  But then he goes on to say that Trump’s style is to “frame the entire conversation as a competition between success and failure.”  There is an analytical clarity in that way of putting it that I had not heard before and that I will be able to use., myself.   He gives the example of Trump saying, “You’re a dying magazine.”  Fine.  If I hear that just as Trump being nasty, it doesn’t help me very much.  To see it as part of his common reframing in the success/failure frame helps me a great deal.

Finally (fifth and last)

The right and the left clearly wanted to excommunicate each other from the movement, so whenever I had the opportunity, I tried to get evangelicals on the left, center and right to have a reasonable conversation. I wanted to continue that when I sat down to write the editorial, but something in me clicked and I thought: That approach doesn’t work anymore. Given what we now know about what the president has done, we need to speak out more directly about this.

Notice, in the paragraph above, his commitment to a reasonable conversation including left, right, and center.  That is where I am right now.  It is hard for me to imagine a lasting solution that does not involve that kind of discussion (reasonable) among adherents of that range (left, right, and center) of views.  And for me, that means Americans, not just evangelicals.

But notice what happened to Galli when he sat down to write.  Something clicked and he decided that his preferred approach “doesn’t work any more.”  So he wrote this strong call for evangelicals to reject Donald Trump.  And that is the fifth and last thing that attracted me to this man.  The “clicking,” not just the call.

Having said that, I think he is wrong.  I think he was right to do what he did.  I think there will be no lasting solution that does not require the discussion he decided not to call for.  But the time will come when we realize, I think, that nothing else will work.  

The war of each against all is not a tactic.  It will not work.  It is, rather, a way of organizing society and I think it is profoundly wrong.  It leads in the first phase to chaos and in the last to the dominance of the strong over the weak.  It is the natural gravity of  and social development, but the Framers gave us tools to resist it and we should treasure and implement those tools  Now.

[1]  In a tweet on December 20, 2019, he referred to it as “a far left magazine,” and  then damned it further by clarifying, “or ‘progressive’ as some would call it.”

[2]  If we pronounced it sign-ificant it would be easier to remember that the n- goes with the sig-, not with the -ify suffix.  But…we don’t.

[3]  He thinks of evangelicals as an interest group, like coal miners and racists.  When he talks about “what I have done for them” is it to be understood in this vein.  Regrettably, Franklin Graham was thinking  of evangelicals the same way when he tweeted  “No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage.”

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2019 in the rear-view mirror

I freely grant that this end of the year reflection is an indulgence. [1] Except in the religious sense, we think of of that word in the context of “self-indulgent” mostly. That context puts many of these meanings (see the footnote) on shaky ground. So…kind to yourself, give oneself up (to one’s self), be addicted (to one’s self)? See? Shaky ground.

Introduction

Still, it has been a difficult year for the United States and for the world, generally. There was a movement toward “common identity” in the U. S. and Europe. The idea was that the old “nationalisms” could be transcended. We are all Europeans now; we are all Americans now.

OK, so that didn’t work very well and narrower, more exclusive identifications are becoming more prominent. It isn’t just Boris Johnson and Brexit. It isn’t just Donald Trump and what he is now calling “nationalism.” You see it everywhere. Why is that?

In Europe, a period of unprecedented prosperity set the stage for a new sense of “who Brexit - Flag of European Unionwe (Europeans) are.” The unity and prosperity of Europe in the EU was inevitably set against the division and conflict of the previous eras, including how we got to World War II. But as the prosperity continued, the younger generations didn’t see it against the backdrop of the old deprivations; they saw it as a new consciousness. It is “the wave of the future” because new generations feel themselves to be the wave of the future. It is a “new consciousness, ” not a period of unprecedented prosperity. And, of course, it will continue undiminished into the future.

So as the prosperity has waned and the immigrant crisis has persisted, Europe has moved back toward national identities. So we see “Poland for the Poles” and even “Denmark for the Danes.” And, of course, Brexit.

We have done the same thing in the U. S. with less excuse. We had the post-war prosperity, just as Europe did. We attributed it to our wisdom and good judgment, as Europe did. We took our global leadership—through a Liberal International Order (LIO) consisting of Western-oriented international organizations, such as the U. N. and the World Bank—for granted. And now the prosperity is disappearing. If the high point of our post-war dominance resulted from our good judgment, what will we say about the waning of that dominance. Bad judgment? That doesn’t sound like us.

Rather, someone must have it in for us. Someone must wish us ill. We are suffering economically and there is no prospect for returning to prosperity by using the strategies that worked before. So what we really need is a scapegoat. Trump has put together a murderer’s row of scapegoats. There are the Democrats, the exemplars of the “deep state.” [2] There is the press, now tarred in the minds of the Trump faithful as the purveyors of “fake news.” There are the immigrants who are “not us” and who are criminals whose goal is to take away our way of life.

Since, as a viewer from the sidelines, I reject all those allegations, I would like to formulate three that make more sense to me. They are:

  • the changes in the economy,
  • the changes in the nature of citizenship,
  • and the stress put on the institutions which moderate conflict and
    maintain the priority of law over charismatic despotism.

Economy

In broad strokes, the nature of the economy is changing rapidly. The three changes that have caught my eye are the extensive use of robots to replace human workers, the distribution of manufacturing jobs to lower wage countries, and the rise of a global middle class.

The first two are bad news for manual laborers for obvious reasons. They both mean that jobs that provide a living wage are not going to be available. As to the third, the old rationale that employers must pay a living wage so that their workers will be able to buy what they build—a rationale made famous by Henry Ford—is weakened considerably by the rise of a global middle class, able to afford to buy those goods, no matter how poorly American workers are paid.

We have been moving, year by year, to a massive change in the economy—toward the time when distributing buying power only through salaries and wages is not enough to sustain consumption. Some other mechanism, some other way to support consumer consumption, is going to have to be found if employment alone will not serve. This year, we took a few more steps down that road.

The workers who are so severely disadvantaged by this process are stressed and angry, of course, and it is very hard to be angry at large scale changes in the world’s economies. It is much easier to be angry at immigrants, who, apparently, are taking our jobs.

Citizenship

Given the considerable economic misery and the lack of any hope for relief in the near future, the need to organize as mutually hostile tribes, and to hate each other was, perhaps, inevitable. Inevitable or not, we have done that. We have developed two ideologically integrated parties—remember when the Southern Caucus controlled large parts of the Democratic party’s agenda?—and then decided that we could do without bipartisan cooperation.

Partisanship is now a factor in “who I want my son or daughter to marry” on par with or greater than race, class, and regional culture. “Us” and “Them” have now been given a solidity that resists being divided by other identities.

We used to say, “Yeah, he’s a Republican, but he and I belong to this church and are fans of the same teams and sing in a barbershop quartet together.” More and more, that first designation simply wipes out the others. If he’s a Republican then he is one of Them and I don’t want to be singing in a quartet with him. We’re not there yet, but we are nearer to being there than we have been since the 1850s and it is getting rapidly worse.

2019 review 5The next step on the Us and Them trail is “Ours and Theirs,” where Ours and Theirs are political leaders. This amounts to, and leads toward, the identification of the leader with the tribe. This is common in authoritarian regimes, but it has not been common at the national level in the U. S. In other times and places, we speak of “the cult of personality.” That’s what the Republican party has going for it right now. It is hard to moderate from within, because moderating forces are identified as traitors. And not just as traitors to “the cause,” but as betrayers of the Leader.

It’s a hard cycle to crack. Talking about how “no one is above the law” doesn’t do it. Reciting that we aspire to be “a government of laws and not of men” doesn’t do it The only two things I have ever seen that do it are a public failure that even the faithful will have to admit is a failure and the violation of important other values. Banks, for instance, have shown a real reluctance to continue to support the Leader when he is costing them money.

This is all much deeper than Trump. We began disinvesting in each other a long time ago. That has produced the separateness which leads to factions which leads to tribes which leads to endemic hatred, cultivated and harvested by political leaders who know how to mount the tiger and have not yet discovered that they do not know how to get off.

Institutions

I said in introducing this topic that I wanted to look at “the stress put on the institutions which moderate conflict and maintain the priority of law over charismatic despotism.” I have, of necessity, introduced that problem already by looking at the citizen base of it. It is “the people” who are attracted to charismatic despots (He may be an SOB, the old saying goes, but he’s our SOB) and who, consequently, lose their vigilance about the priority of law over despotism. Here, I want to look at the other half: the institutions that are supposed to provide the buffer against those popular appetites.

I will skip over, in one paragraph, the historical demise of most of the protections the Framers invented to solve this problem. [3] The Electoral College is no longer a convention of elites to consider which of their number should serve as president; the Senate no longer serves the interests of “the states” rather than the people of a state, because they are now popularly elected. [4] The President no longer implements the actions of the Congress, but serves as the Head of the American Empire, which Congress can do very little about. The Supreme Court is now divided into Ours and Theirs.

Of the institutions themselves, I want to place first the dominance of the primary elections for Congress. Before the radical partisanship of the present day, R candidates tacked to the right to win the nomination, then back to the center to contest the general election. D candidates did the same on the left. But everyone understood that it was the general election, where each candidates came to the middle and where their general appeal to moderate voters was made, that determined who would serve in Congress.

Now, with the prevalence of gerrymandering and the highly ideological funding of extremist candidates in the primary elections, the winner of the primary, the one who appealed most successfully to the extreme right (R’s) or the extreme left (D’s) is the one who goes to Congress. No longer the most successful moderate, but the one who breathes the hottest fire.

2019 review 6Associated with this is the current practice of keeping the Representatives and Senators “pure,” that is, unsullied by contact with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Following the practices first brought to prominence by Speaker Newt Gingrich, congressional leaders spend as little time in Washington D. C. and as much time at home (state or district) as they can and they avoid mixing with the parents and children of the alien party. [5]

Then there is the total abuse of the legislative chambers for partisan warfare. The best single quotation I know which captures this is Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) assertion that his number one legislative priority for the 2009—11 Senate, was to make Barack Obama a one term president. This is a legislative agenda?. He followed up that claim by refusing to hold hearings for an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court—or, in fact, any federal court. The partisan advantage here is pursued simultaneously against both the President and in the Court.

These practices add up, as I implied in the introduction, to the substitution of charismatic despotism over the orderly rule of law. Americans tend to look at places where charismatic leaders took over the country and sniff in disdain that it can’t happen here. I think it is happening here. It just isn’t looking like it did in those other countries. There is no reason to expect that it will look the same here.

It still chills my blood to remember a remark made by Bertram Gross, author of Friendly Fascism. “When fascism comes to the United States,” he said, “It will not look like jack-booted thugs. It will look like Disneyland.” He wrote than in 1980.

I know that lamenting is fashionable among liberals like me. Also, it doesn’t cost very much. But I read recently, some research that suggests that we might not give up so easily if we thought “we” were worth saving.[6] Americans? Democracy? The culture of the West? Humanity?

Until they were offered the perspective that we would recover and go on to great things. Then they thought it just might be worth working for. That is a real challenge for liberals like me. Observing and lamenting is what I am good at. Helping people feel that there are worthwhile goals ahead of us and that it is worth our while to aspire to them—that’s a whole new direction for me. But if it would help people just not give up, not resign themselves to inevitable decline, someone ought to be doing it.

[1]We get indulgent from indulgens, the present participle of indulgere “be kind; yield, concede, be complaisant; give oneself up to, be addicted,”
[2] As a discipline, I try to limit myself to one Hitler reference per essay, but the similarities of Hitler’s case against the Weimar Republic and Trump’s case against the deep state are startling.
[3] Without any question, the most cited is Madison’s justly famous essay #10 in the Federalist Papers.
[4] This is lucidly clear in states that have only one member of the House of Representatives, and therefore have three state-wide races. Two of the winners go to the Senate and one to the House.
[5] This is a little complicated. The voters have divided themselves into Us and Them and have divided their leaders into Ours and Theirs. But among the leaders, the priority of Us and Them returns. No one says Ours and Theirs about constituents unless there is a federal grant to be administered.
[6] It was only the suggestion that humanity might arrive at a glorious and well-earned achievement by 2100 that made the panel care at all whether humanity survived. They thought it would be a shame to lose zebras, but humans? Not really worth saving.

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Happy birthday, Dale

One of the treasures of 2019 was an acquaintance with the word paraprosdokian. None of my online dictionaries has it, but Wikipedia—bless their hearts—has this.

A paraprosdokianis a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part.

Not only that, but they suggest an etymology as well.

“Paraprosdokian” comes from the Greek “para”, meaning “against” and “prosdokía”, meaning “expectation”.

When it appeared in my Word-A-Day calendar, it came with this example from Groucho Marx: “I’ve had a lovely evening. This wasn’t it.”

paraprosdokian.jpgParaprosdokian is a noun as you see—“A paraprosdokian…is a figure of speech”—although it looks like it ought to be an adjective. When I got accustomed to it, I began to notice that my favorite greeting cards are built on this model. The cover suggests one meaning, but the facing page, when you open it, contradicts the expectation you were led to develop.

There are lots of perfectly good cards where the second comment clarifies or extends the sentiment on the cover. Nothing wrong with them. But I like the others better. Here are some examples.

Cover: “They don’t make ‘em like you anymore.”

Implication You are notable or superior in some way.

Inside: Heck, I don’t think they even carry the parts!

Implication: You are so far out of date that even simple repairs will not be possible.

I loved it. Bette’s youngest sister send me that as a birthday card this year. The implication of the cover is definitively contradicted by the clarification inside. It seems that I am being told that I am not one of the shoddy modern models, but one of the sturdy classic models, only to be told that I am too far out of date to repair. [1]

Here is a second wonderful birthday wish featuring paraprosdokian.

Cover: Everyone gets to be young once.

Implication: I have done something or am about to do something that can be excused on the grounds that it is “being young” and that I deserve to be excused for whatever it was I did.

Inside: Your turn’s over.

Implication: What was future in the setup is part of the past in the resolution. [2] There was a time, apparently when my behavior might be understood and excused by reason of my youth, but that time has gone and I need now to face reality.

I think greeting cards are just getting better and better. Thanks to those of you who sent me cards featuring paraprosdokian.

[1] This is, in fact, why I try never to get more than two operating systems behind on my phone and my computer. You get too far behind and the transitions to the “new and better” get tricky.
[2] I learned, in looking for where the accent mark falls in denoument, (as an English word, it doesn’t have one; as a French word it is dénoument) that the word I really wanted was “resolution” and that a resolution is not the same as a denoument. Who would have thought?

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All seated on the ground

As I have been reading texts more carefully (the reasons for which need not detain us at the moment) I have found all kinds of little fragments of language that you can read right through or listen right through and never notice them. But then when you do notice them, they stick out every time you visit the neighborhood.

This will return to Advent, whence it began, but I would like to begin with The Matrix.  [1]  In the last moment of Chapter 1, the Agents ram a phone booth trying to kill Trinity. When they examine the wreckage, they discover that her body is not there. “Well,” says one of the Agents, “She got out.”

Out?

Nothing we have seen up to that point suggests that we are looking at anything “inside” in the sense that there is something else “outside;” some “where” to which Trinity could escape. But there is, apparently.  It would be a very short movie if there were not.

In a Bible study class I am teaching here at Holladay Park Plaza, where Bette and I live, we spent a session on the meaning of the Greek word kai, which is normally translated as “and” but in this case (Matthew 1:19) there is a good case for translating it as “but.”

The question is this. Joseph was an upright man. We know that. He also was reluctant to place his apparently unfaithful wife into public disgrace. We know that, too. So what was the relationship between his righteousness and his generosity. Does the generosity flow from the righteousness (kai = and) or does he overcome his righteousness to extend grace to Mary (kai = but).

And? But?”

This came to me this morning when I got to thinking about “all.” The Plaza Singers gave a small Advent concert yesterday and we sang “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.” It is the next line that offers the opportunity for confusion. It says the shepherds watched their flocks. Then it says “all seated on the ground.” Notice the “all.”

All?

sheep 1Who, exactly, was seated on the ground. The structure of the sentence doesn’t say. Shepherds? Sheep? Shepherds and sheep? I trolled around a little to see if this had ever occurred to anyone with more artistic imagination than I have. I wanted a picture of the shepherds  and the sheep seated on the ground and if they were sharing a pot of coffee, so much the better.

Nothing. I did find this picture of a sheep “sitting.” It isn’t the seated crosslegged on the ground that I would prefer, but it is “sitting.”

Clarifying the semantic landscape, one unnecessary ambiguity at a time. A tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Merry Christmas to all.

[1]  We are beginning a study of the gospel of John next and The Matrix will be our primary visual referent.

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On being “woke”

This is President Obama, at an Obama Foundation event this last October. The man makes so much sense.

There is this sense [among some young people] that the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people.. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, “Hey, did you see how woke I was? I called you out.”

The question he focuses on is, “Did you see how woke I was?” Note that the question iswoke 4 addressed to other members of the movement or the group or even just the clique. This question asks them to pay particular attention to the fact that I have gone beyond them; I have reached out to new targets or reached out in new ways with my condemnation of our common opponents.

The psychology behind this is familiar. It is also fundamental. Here’s an example from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Lord Finkle-McGraw is explaining why, in an age of moral relativism, hypocrisy was considered the worst of all vices. [1]

…for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings.

This is the point Obama was making.

I grew up in a pietistic religious culture. Some of the very “wokist” things were internal experiences that would be entirely unknown if you did not tell the group about them. Whatever your group favored particularly, you did more of it and criticized people who did less of it. There was a good deal of “praying for the lost” that, in a political setting, would have been instantly recognized as the most nefandous slander. [2 ]Similarly, there was a good deal of display of what counted for virtues in that setting. I don’t mean to be unkind, but the structure is similar. You build up your group by dissing other groups and you build yourself up within your group by doing more and better than others.

Pietists are, “naturally censorious.”

woke 2A significant part of my grad school experience at the University of Oregon was spent dealing with “the third consciousness.” That is a political application of the much more general phenomenon of “conscience raising,” of which “being woke” is the current manifestation. In conscious raising you don’t reject specific contrary views or the whole system of “conventional wisdom.” [3] Instead, you “transcend” them, as if by going further, your view builds on the strengths of all previous views but picks up none of the weaknesses. There was a lot of “transcending” of gender roles when I was in grad school. These were called, for the purpose of transcending them, “gender stereotypes.”

What can I say. People are naturally censorious.

The option President Obama held out in his remarks is “making change.” Given that it was Obama speaking—a man whose public life was prominently connected to making change—we know what kinds of things he was talking about. Still, making change involves a) triumphing over your opponents, b) persuading them or c) trading them something they want for something you want. Beneficial change is very seldom achieved and never sustained by simple conquest.

When you give up on simple conquest, the other two options require that you begin by seeing things from the other’s point of view. You can’t persuade them if you don’t do that. You can’t even make mutually beneficial trades with them if you don’t do that. Neither of those requires that you agree with them, but you do have to know where they are coming from. “Calling them out” isn’t going to do that for you.

A lot of the behavior I see called “woke” has no beneficial effect at all in terms that President Obama would call “change.” It does raise your status among the other members of your group who may wish they were as woke as you. It does, also, unfortunately, harden the defense against your position among those whom you will need to persuade or trade with, since you cannot conquer them.

One thing you can be sure of is this. Anyone who is committed to doing the hard work of persuasion and reconciliation and compromise in the service the nation is never going to get called “woke.” And those people are our only hope.

[1] Lord Finkle-McGraw is a Brit, so I left him the s- in “criticise.”
[2] Stephenson uses a lot of words I didn’t know and which, I discovered on looking them up, are perfectly good English. This one was used by Lord Finkle-McGraw
[3] That phrase in one of John Kenneth Galbraith’s signal achievements. It is a shame that many who use it, use it with less care than he did and even he wasn’t as careful as I would have liked. Very often “conventions” develop for good reasons and rejecting them on the ground that many people accept them has always seemed thin to me.

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The bird needed to be flipped

This very unusual expression was used—I am tempted to say “coined,” because I have never heard it before—by my friend, Bob Nightingale. He was describing a situation I didn’t see, myself, although I was there.

But I knew what he meant. Some offense had been achieved [1] to which the appropriate response was someone “flipping [him] the bird.” [2] It was just…you know…the right thing to do. In this instance, where Neo is flipping the bird at Agent Smith in The Matrix, it is an act with awful consequences.

Imagine, for instance, that some member of a group has done something that will be bird 1harmful to the group. He apologizes and the subsequent silence seems to go on and on. Why is that? It is because there is a predefined and expected response from the group. Because this response is predefined, the meaning of the silence is “We do not accept your apology.” The apology and the assurance of forgiveness are two elements in a single social circuit. There is a need, therefore, for the required response to be offered so that the circuit is completed.

I think that is what Bob meant when he said the bird “needed to be flipped.” Bob had said something to which being flipped off—in an affirming and collegial way—was the appropriate response in the same sense that accepting a public apology is the appropriate response. There is, here, a two-action circuit. Bob did the first part by saying something provocative or outrageous or whatever it was he said. Somebody needed to do the second part and an unexpected person stepped up and did it. [3]

So Bob was not “left hanging” because someone…finally…took the other predefined action. This person is, in fact, not a prominent bird-flipper. I have never seen it from this person, despite having many opportunities. But this person surveyed the gathering, looking for someone who would do what needed to be done, and finding no one, did it as a social grace. A necessary fulfillment of the social circuit.

And that is what Bob meant when he said that the bird “needed to be flipped.”

Finally, I want to note that this is the kind of post I had in mind when I started this blog nearly 10 years ago and why I called it “the dilettante’s dilemma.” I had just learned that “dilettante” is a word derived from the Latin delectare, to “allure, delight, charm, or please” and that is a freqentative of delicere, which has the same meaning. [4]

[1] This is a very congenial group, so it does make sense for an offense to be “achieved,” if it is just the right offense in just the right amount.
[2] Flipping the bird can be effectively alluded to as well as effective done. President Carter, the prominently Baptist president, observed, in the second years of his presidency, that he seemed to be settling into Washington. People are beginning to wave to him, he said, “using all their fingers.” He meant, “rather than just that one.”
[3] This same sense of calling for a response shows up in Remember the 
Titans where Ronnie Bass (Kip Pardue) a new white guy in a team of mostly black guys, makes a remark and holds his palm out to be slapped in affirmation. The black guys, who would have done this automatically to one of their own, are taken aback and no one responds quickly. Ronnie says, “Come on, bro. Don’t leave me hanging.” The “leave me hanging” captures exactly why there are times when the bird needs to be flipped.
[4] Frequentatives are common in English. It is just not common to point them out. “Sparkle” is a frequentative form of “spark.” How cool is that!

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