All my life, I have been a sucker for horizons. “Horizons,” I once thought to myself, “are just the earth in profile.”

With a horizon, you get beyond the welter of particular features and see the broad horizons 1incontestable outline of things. And after that, and without losing any awareness of it, you can attend to a good deal of complexity without losing your sense of the vision as a whole.

Back when I was studying humor more systematically than I am now, I ran across this from Max Eastman’s The Enjoyment of Laughter.

The mind should approach a body of knowledge as the eyes approach an object, seeing it in gross outline first, and then by gradual steps, without losing the outline, discovering the details.

I was so excited I just put the book down and went for a walk. It said a great deal about me that I had never heard that said before and it may or may not be true that, as Eastman says, “the mind should.” I think it is most certainly true about my mind and that I why I call myself “a sucker for horizons.” It is that “gross outline” that always grabs me.

I have recently been grabbed again and that I what I would like to think about today.

I have recently been grabbed by the level of generalization that Peter Stearns routinely uses. He provides the kind of horizon I seem to crave. I recently wrote that he is “my guy” on gender relations , referring to his excellent historical analysis of gender relations in the West. [1] Lately, I have been heading and listening to [2] his course on world civilizations. All of the world civilations, not just ours.

horizons 3And it isn’t just history. In preparing for a Bible study course that begins in September, I have been studying the Old Testament prophets. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me that there were three major categories of those prophets. Only three. There were the pre-Exilic, whose message was that God is going to punish (“discipline” in some of the prophets) you for your godless ways. And then there were the Exilic prophets, who said to Israel, “Your sentence is almost up. God is going to restore you to your homeland.” And there were the post-Exilic prophets who, with the exception of Jonah, said, “The holiness of the temple and the city and the worship of Yahweh have all been compromised while you were gone. Put things back to the way they should be.” [3]  This is someone’s notion of what the prophet Amos looked like.  He was one of the pre-Exilic prophets.

Three kinds. No more. Each with a characteristic message. I will get a good deal deeper into a study of those prophets before next September, but I will always have that horizon available to me. Which kind of prophet—and therefore which kind of message—are we talking about? Given that there are, you know, only three kinds.

horizons 5When I hit my first communitarian sociologist, Frank Hearn, I was fascinated by his allocation of all kinds of “social problems” to one of three places. His own preference as a sociologist is that most problems be considered as “social problems,” by which he means problems rightly referred to communities using their own local institutions. But that means that he has to have a nasty name for the practice of referring those social problems to other places, where they really shouldn’t be. [4] Problems that are rightfully social, but that are referred to the polity instead, have been “politicized.” Problems that are rightfully social, but have been referred to the economy instead, have been “commodified.” Three places to put problems: no more. Horizon.

Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks in his column and Ross Douthat, in his column, referred to a book by Patrick J. Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame. Deneen’s book is called Why Liberalism Failed. Note the past tense of the verb. Deneen says that of the three systems active and plausible in the 20th century, communism and fascism have already failed. The third, liberalism [5] is failing right before our eyes. Why is that? Notice again the three and only three. Horizons again.

In Deneen’s view, liberalism is not a sustainable system. Here are three small clips from his work. [6]

The ancient claim that man is by nature a political animal and must…through the … practice of virtue learned in communities, achieve a form of local and communal self-limitation–a condition properly understood as liberty–cannot be denied forever without cost.

Note the identification of “local and communal self-limitation” as the meaning of “liberty.” That sounds odd, certainly, but if the alternatives are distant and bureaucratic limitation, on the one hand, or unrestrained individualistic excess on the other, then it is a definition worth taking seriously.

If my analysis is fundamentally accurate, liberalism’s endgame is unsustainable in every respect: It cannot perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of constitutive social norms, nor can it continually provide endless material growth in a world of limits.

I think this quote is truly helpful. It puts the two requisites down together. Liberalism has to be able to do one or the other, he says. Then he says that we cannot enforce order on individuals who have no access to “communal self-limitation” (see the previous paragraph). That is not sustainable. Nor can we provide endless material growth, which Deneen sees as the other alternative. There are, in short, only two ways out of our current dilemma and we can’t do either of them. That is his point.

If I am right that the liberal project is ultimately self-contradictory, culminating in the twin depletions of moral and material reservoirs upon which it has relied even without replenishing them, then we face a choice.

Here he points to the choice we have. If we can’t do the one (communal self-limitation) or the other (endless material goods), then we have a choice to make.

Ross Douthat’s complaint is that Deneen doesn’t go on and say just what choice that implies, but I think that is more up Douthat’s alley than Deneen’s and I imagine that Douthat—and very likely, David Brooks as well—will get around to it.

As dismal as this may seem, I find it refreshing. We can swim in or drown in the horizons 4complexities of today’s policy proposals. DACA or not? Amnesty or not? Enhanced legal immigration or not? But all of these questions take the present political system—the old classic post-medieval Liberal system—for granted. And Deneen says that system is running out of fuel and can’t be saved.  I’m sure this picture is an ad for a business of some kind, but note the similarity to Deneen’s communalist picture of liberty.

That means that all such questions are really just one kind of question. That question is, “Can we find a way to undo either of the limitations Deneen sees and if not, to what kind of system do we go as an alternative?” Is there a post-Liberal system?

Liberal or post-Liberal. Horizons.

[1] I think it is unfortunate that the title is Be a Man! A much better notion of what he is writing about is conveyed by the subtitle: Males in Modern Society.
[2] His Great Courses title is A Brief History of the World. Does that suggest “horizons” to you?
[3] Oh, and kick the squatters off of your ancestral lands.
[4] And in a stroke of wit, he made these names not only pejorative, but also ugly.
[5] Liberalism in this very historical use refers to the political and economic institutions that replace the feudal system. All modern liberals and conservatives are “Liberal” in this sense and so is capitalism and so is democracy.
[6] I used to run out and by books that look as interesting as this one. Now I search the electronic storerooms for an article-length version of the book’s argument. I am quoting here from an article he contributed to the journal First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, back in 2012. It is called “Unsustainable Liberalism.”

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This is your id speaking. Listen up!

I’ve been thinking about healthcare recently. I’m going to say some things I haven’t heard anyone else say. That is often not a good sign. As usual, I am going to start at several apparently unrelated starting points and as usual, I am going to try to bring them within speaking distance of each other.


I don’t know much more about Freudian therapy than you can easily get from books andid 1 movies. [1] The picture I am relying on here is the patient lying on the couch free-associating in the presence of a fully present therapist. The “free” of free associating means, in part, that the little boxes in which we keep the thoughts and feelings that contradict each other are all opened at the same time in free association. And they associate with each other, not in the dark safety of the mind but in the public space between the therapist and the patient. Both hear the patient say things neither has ever heard before. [2]

Now I want you to picture President Trump as the therapist and the conservative core of his support as the patient. The patient is being encouraged to say, out loud, feelings and beliefs that have been publicly frowned on for many decades now. But instead of thinking that exposing them will rob them of their insidious power over the patient, the idea here is that it will reformulate them as public policy and give them a great deal of power over everyone. In fact, it will give them the power of law.


Since the Great Realignment began around 1970, the two major parties have become much more internally consistent that ever before. [3] Now we have, not two parties, each of which has a right-ish wing and a left-ish wing, but a left wing party and a right wing party.

That is easy to see in a red state and blue state map of the United States. And year after id 3year, red states want to do red state things and blue states want to do blue state things. And every year, each color has to put up with federal regulations that requires them to be much more similar than they would really like to be. This tension between the national administration of national systems and the state preferences which express the political culture of their own states, is the heart of the federal bargain.


For example, some states think that “welfare services,” thinking particularly of medical services at the moment, need to be earned. This the the cri de coeur of the red states. “Working” is good. Receiving benefits apart from working is bad.

The red states have been slapped on the wrist for many years now by the Great Father in Washington, who says that their hearts can cry out all they want, but their Medicaid administrators may not withhold medical benefits by enacting a work requirement. Note carefully that this is a constraint on the behavior of healthcare administrators in red states. It has nothing to do with what I called earlier, the cri de coeur of those states.

So the first thing to notice is that those states want, year after year, to do this. They want it when the economy is booming and they want it when the economy is busting. Only the rationales change; the desire stays the same. During liberal administrations and conservative administrations, they want this. And because it is a federal requirement—you may not, however much you want to—make the availability of medical services contingent upon “work” or “looking for work.” [4]

And why do they want to do this? One answer is that it is the right thing to do. They hold a view of “working” that is essentially moral. Work is what establishes your full membership in society. [5] Work establishes the income that will allow you to purchase medical services or at least the insurance that will pay for the medical services. And if it doesn’t, you will still have done your part and therefore deserve the additional money the state contributes to your care. That’s what I mean when I call this stance “the moral view.”

And I mean to distinguish this “moral view” from the practical view. If you wanted to design a system that provided medical care to people who need medical care, this is not the way you would do it. What might be called “the red state prescription” will not only withhold medical care from many who need it, but it will also cost more than it would cost of offer treatment. Here’s an excerpt that explains why. You can see the whole article here.

Other states [in addition to Indiana] are considering similar proposals, but a recent redesign of West Virginia’s Medicaid program offers reason for caution. In 2007, West Virginia asked Medicaid-eligible individuals to sign a personal responsibility agreement to qualify for enhanced benefits. The agreement required beneficiaries to keep medical appointments, take medications, avoid unnecessary emergency department visits, and participate in health screenings.

Those who didn’t sign it — or couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain — had their benefits cut, and were enrolled in a basic plan that restricted prescription drug coverage, limited access to mental health and substance-abuse services, and excluded weight management or nutrition education programs. Both children and adults were subject to the agreement, which raised a basic fairness question: Children might be at the mercy of unreliable parents or guardians to follow the rules.

Less than 15 percent of those eligible signed the agreement, and more than 90 percent of children with Medicaid had benefits restricted. A central motivation of the program was to reduce emergency department use, but over all, people were more likely to visit the emergency room. There was no clear improvement in health or healthy behavior. The experiment was scrapped in 2010.

I’m pretty sure that this predictable ineffectiveness is not known in these red states, but I wonder if it would make any difference if it were. “Morality” as the source of public policy really doesn’t lead to “effectiveness” as an outcome. Here is the pitch, as I understand it.

If it’s the right thing to do, then it’s the right thing to do.

And besides, the people who will be harmed by it are not morally worthy people. Weid 4 know that because they aren’t working. Further, they are not working because they choose not to work and in that choice, they forfeit their claim to society’s help.

And the federal requirements that we fund their chosen inactivity are now being rescinded by a conservative administration in Washington which “gets it.” This administration understands how resentful we are that we have had to fund all this laziness in our states and now we get a chance to do it our way. [6]

Nothing I have seen in federal policy has taken any account of the persistence of this red state desire. I have heard it criticized as cruel and also as ineffective. But eventually, some account is going to have to be given of why they continue to want to do this. Decade after decade, they have the same policy preferences. Does federalism mean that eventually, they get to do what they want to do? Or does federalism mean that the citizens in those states are protected against their governments by national programs that constrain them?


After many years of national administrations hostile to “work requirements,” the redid 5 states are finally being allowed to do what they have wanted to do for so long. It is this “permission,” that called to mind the image of Dr. Trump as the therapist and “the red states” as the patient. Dr. Obama kept telling them how they should feel—compassion, for instance, toward those not able to find work—and made them feel ashamed of how they did, in fact, feel. Dr. Trump is allowing those states to say out loud what they have felt for so long and is giving them permission to build systems tying work to medical service.

I think the red states will find, as Khular says in the excerpt above, that it doesn’t really work. But I’m not sure they will care.

[1] It isn’t that I haven’t studied it. It is that the climate at the University of Oregon when I was there was actively anti-Freudian. The Rogerians and the behaviorists and the cognitive therapists were all opposed to it, although for different reasons.
[2] I can see why that would be helpful. I get some of the same jolt less expensively by talking candidly to friends who routinely disagree with me and with each other.
[3] I think of Paul Ryan as the true exemplar of the Republican consensus, not Donald Trump.
[4] I am fully aware of the difference. When I moved to Oregon, I received unemployment compensation for awhile and the requirement was that I continue to “look for work.” So I did. I applied for and had interviews relating to jobs I wouldn’t have taken if they were offered to me. And side by side with those, I spent time getting to know the people who knew people who would eventually open the door for public policy work. So I do actually know the difference.
[5] “Real work,” that is, not being “a paper pusher.” The prejudice in favor of physical or at least difficult work is very common among the working class whites who form the hardest of the hard cores of Trump support. See Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter’ .
[6] Even if it hurts good people to punish the shiftless in this way, there is a theoretical perspective that sheds some light on it. It is called “altruistic punishment.” See the piece by James H. Fowler of UC Davis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2005.

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Pick two

You can have it fast and you can have it good and you can have it cheap. Pick two.

I heard this from a patient on The Good Doctor who said he was in real estate and cited the “pick two” aphorism as a commonplace in his industry. The surgeon responded, “It won’t be cheap.”

It does seem hard, in American politics, to get all three of anything. I remember how positively I responded to Bill Clinton’s line on abortion. “Safe, legal, and rare.” [1]  And I was reminded of that difficulty recently as I see the Democrats casting about for a presidential nominee for 2020. Why is this so hard?

First, it is hard because the animosity between the Bernie faction and the Hillary factionDemocratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Campaigns At Pennsylvania's AFL-CIO Convention has not yet abated. Some of that animosity appears to be no more than personal grudges projected onto public issues. What could have been a perfectly normal division within the Democratic party between the ideological left and the pragmatic center, got blown out of proportion by the personal attachments of the campaign supporters. Hillary’s people need to get over blaming Bernie’s people for “denying her the election.” Bernie’s people need to get over their resentment of Hillary’s persistent tacking to take advantage of the winds of the campaign season

But down below the personal animosities, there is a true tension within the party. Most of the Democrats I know would really love to be socialists if they thought they could get away with it. If there is going to be a party of the programmatic left, it will be the Democrats. The argument is that Trump will be massively unpopular [2] by 2020 and that the kind of gains the Johnson administration was able to build on the ashes of the Goldwater failure in 1964 will be available again in the ashes of the Tump failure in 2020.  This argument adds to the preference for programmatic left wing reforms, the always seductive, “Now is the time.”

On the other hand, Democrats who are more moderate in their social and economic goals as well as more pragmatic in their political ambitions, urge winning as a first step. First win back the presidency and the Congress, this argument goes, and then we will talk about what to use them for. At the very least, we will be able to begin rolling back the worst of the Trump excesses and as a common core of progressive social goals is agreed upon, we can do them next.

2016 Election ClintonThis argument agrees that the Republicans may be very weak in 2020 as a result of the expected Trump implosion but they make the case that winning seats is more important than the success of the programs so dear to the left wing of the party. And you don’t have to say out loud that you don’t share those goals if you can just make the case that it would be risky to pursue them.

This is essentially the dilemma Bill Clinton faced in 1992. He was up against an incumbent president, the heir of the very popular Reagan administration and also up against a radical and unresponsive Democratic left wing. It took him some bare knuckle work, mostly in private, and a lot of reconciliation, mostly in public, to get the party back together.

But that was then. This is now. Clinton was up against George H. W. Bush, who was, whatever you would like to say about his politics, a gentleman. The 2020 Democratic nominee will (probably) be up against Donald Trump, who is engaged in what looks remarkably like an adolescent rebellion. The Democrats cannot oppose Trump the way they opposed Bush.

Furthermore, the tribalization of American politics has progressed much further since Clinton’s time, even since Obama’s time. 2020 is going to require a warrior, not a reconciler. And if he [3] is not belligerent in the policy sense, he still must be stylistically belligerent; he must be seen as someone who “fights for” his party. He can count on his excesses being forgiven by the members of his party where he could not count on his restraint being forgiven.

And this isn’t as easy as you might think. The Republican party and the Democratic partypick 2 4 are not the same kind of thing at all. The dominant voice of the Republican party is now a movement-oriented voice, something like jihad. The Democratic style is collecting groups of voters who are willing to sign on for the campaign, like a state militia. The Democratic party works like the United Nations, not like Al Qaeda. [4]

If getting belligerent, as I say, above, will be required of him, the Democratic candidate also needs to cultivate the constituent “nations” that make up the party voters. He needs to be seen as a warrior fighting for the interests of each crucial part of the party and to fight for each in a way that makes him acceptable to all. Good luck with that.

So the next Democratic nominee needs to be a programmatic leftist and a pragmatic centrist and a warrior who leads his party against the enemy.

Pick two.

[1] It’s a phrase worth celebrating. Not only is the rhythm easy to enjoy, but it also distributes the goods nicely. Lefties like “legal;” righties like “rare,” and everybody likes “safe.”
[2] Not among his core constituency. Nothing will do that. But the Democrats don’t need Trump’s core constituency to win back both the Congress and the White House.
[3] I’m perfectly capable of using “he” as a neuter pronoun when it doesn’t really matter, but in the case of the Democratic party in 2020, it really does matter. The Democratic candidate in 2020 will certainly be a man and in all likelihood, a white man.
[4] We commonly refer to Trump’s “base” or “core constituency.” That is actually what the word “al-qaeda” means so there is a very satisfying irony there.


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Time on and time off

Nearly all the words I know about work presuppose there is a task to be done and a place to do it. Whatever else there is—the person who is supposed to do the work, for instance,—gets pushed to the margins and the focus on him or her gets blurry.

So “Time on” is addressing the work to be done because it needs to be done. “Time off” isn’t the same thing as doing the job, but the phrase still takes its meaning by reference to the job. When the job is central, “off” and “on” both refer to the relationship between the “worker’” and the job.

I’m not working anymore. How do I get time off?

work 1Of course, the fact that I am not “working” anymore doesn’t mean that there aren’t things I want to do. In fact, there are things I commit myself to accomplish and they highlight that task-focused center and they push my focus on myself to the blurry periphery. It’s a very familiar feeling and most of the time, I like it.


But part of the reason I like it is that I choose it. [1]

Next problem. This time, I, the worker, am in the center and the “job to be done” is at the periphery. I said, above, that I am “not working anymore.” That is true, but part of the reason for that is not all the parts of me work anymore. To save you a medical overview, let me just say that I can’t always be confident that I am going to be able to get up and move around, nor that I will remember how to run the video and soundboard in the auditorium, nor that I am going to remember everything I once knew about American foreign policy.

Those particular problems aren’t all that big for the Great Decisions course because those are programs and I can manage to get myself in gear for them. I collect myself and then there is the mild and familiar stress of presenting material and responding to questions. Most of my days aren’t like that and some days I get up with real deficits to consider. And that’s where my new plan comes in.

I start with me and choose the “jobs” that fit me best. [2] This involves a fundamental reorientation, so I’m not saying it is easy. I’m saying it is simple. Here’s the basic principle: every condition of mind or body matches really with some tasks and not with others. Choose the one it matches best.

All my working life took the opposite principle for granted. The work is there and needs Stressto be done—sometimes there is a deadline—and you need to do to yourself whatever you need to do to get it done. Solitude, alcohol, stimulants, brainstorming…whatever. So starting from the other end, “What job best fits what I have to give right now?” is a whole new thing. Sometimes I am frazzled and can’t focus on anything. That is the basic fact. But there is a collection of errands or chores to do that require virtually no focused thought. I can do them just as well when I am scattered as I can when I am cogent. So I choose those.

I’m lightheaded. My doctor prefers that I say that instead of saying that I have vertigo because he isn’s sure I do have vertigo. She and I do agree that there are some times that I can’t count on being able to stand up. I’m not sleepy; it’s just that my vertical orientation is being challenged. Is that a problem for me?  Nope. There’s a bunch of sitting down things that need to be done. I can manage to get myself carefully downstairs to the circle of chairs and sofas around the coffee pot, for instance, and talk to whoever else sits down there.

If I am depressed, I can do the things that have, in the past, pulled me out of the hole. If I on the upswing, being optimistic and full of energy, I can try to use it to help someone rather than for self-aggrandizement. If I’m feeling unusually pacific, I can do the things I have put off because they will lead to conflict. If I am understimulated and feel like a little tussle might be activating, I can pick an activity which takes “ready to rumble” as an entrance requirement. Those activities are the ones I routinely keep away from, but maybe on this particular day, it will be just the right thing.

The examples could go on and on and my examples will be different from yours. The point is this: if you start with what you are  able to do and match the job to yourself (rather than vice versa), you can arrive at a really satisfying match. It would be like arriving for work every day brimming with energy for just the things that day’s work will require of you. How likely is that? But if you start at the other end—not with the job, but with the self—it’s pretty likely.
So Why Work?

So why does there have to be any “work” at all?  Let me make the case for and against work 4tranquility by showing you this picture.  The case for: wouldn’t it be great to be able to be like this some part of every day?  The case against: wouldn’t it be awful to be like this all day every day?

I’m going to skip over the broadest answer to the question about work, which is a response to the question of what human beings are like in the most fundamental sense. [3] As a way of bypassing that, let me make a comment or two about why I need “work.”

I need to be doing the things that feed me and keep me healthy. I need, for example, to know who I am and I need to know that being who I am is OK. [4] I need to do the things that send back confirmatory signals. I need to do the things and be with the people who will confirm my identity and my acceptability. [5] So every day, I choose things to do that I approve of and that seem to me to reflect the kind of person I am.

That is my work. It is why I need to be doing something. Sitting around and letting my mind and my body get flabby and useless doesn’t meet the fundamental standards of what I need, so I don’t do them. Eating or reading too much “junk food” doesn’t meet the standards. Looking out for my own welfare only and not also for the welfare of those around me doesn’t meet the standards.

Now, of course, I myself don’t always meet the standards, but falling short of a clearly defined goal does give the kind of feedback that can help me on the next try. And the great value of choosing the best work you are capable of that day—a day defined to take account of whatever debilities you have that day—is that there is no day when you can not do your best.

And, with a little practice, you can learn to be proud of the smallest achievements if they are all you were capable of at the time.  Well…OK….with a lot of practice.

[1] In a sense. So I “choose” to be in charge the Foreign Policy Associations’s Great Decisions discussions. I like that. But then, one week I have to hassle a double scheduling of my room and the projector blows a fuse another week, and a few dissidents dominate the discussion on a third week. I don’t like any of those and I didn’t choose those particular experiences—except that, in a sense, I “chose” them when I “chose” to organize the program.
[2] So somebody is going to say, “So…why pick any jobs at all?” That’s a really good question and I have a really good answer—for me. I don’t have a good answer for anyone else, although I have suspicions that could be elaborated into a theory that applied to everyone equally.
[3] If I went that way, I would have to say that humans are inherently goal-oriented and then I would have to say what would count as a goal and then I’d have to write a lot of things I don’t know anything about.
[4] That’s the plainest version I have ever come up with of Putney and Putney’s formulation (in The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in Self and Society) that we seek “an accurate and acceptable self-image” and that we seek to expand them through our actions and our associations.  There are theological implications that could be drawn from the language I am using here, but I think they are superficial.
[5] That does include, by the way, people who think I did something wrong and that I have the strength to be told that and the energy to starting doing it right.

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“I’m Old, You Know.” Since the time I invented that acronym, I have learned that it also can man “if only you knew.” There are lots of circumstances in which this particular excuse is more or less appropriate, but I am going to consider its overuse. But first, let’s clear out some of the underbrush.

“Reasons” and “Excuses”

IOYK 2For reasons I can no longer recall, a big distinction was made, where I grew up, between “a reason for something” and an “excuse.” By usage, I learned that a reason you gave for something was one or the other. I never heard anyone say that a reason was so inadequate that it could not serve as an excuse or that a reason was so compelling that it did serve as an excuse. The old usage is still in place, I notice.

“…I’ve heard an incredible number of reasons why restaurant owner’s businesses are struggling or failing. 99 out of 100 times, that “reason” really isn’t a reason at all, it’s an “excuse”. There’s a big difference, and I’ll tell you what it is. [1]

If “excuse” is the reason why the discussion is being pursued [2], then some reasons are good enough to achieve it and others are not. “I’m sorry I was late for dinner. I had a heart attack on the way home and the hospital wanted to keep me overnight for observation.” I like that one. “I’m sorry I was late. The #8 bus was late getting to my stop and the traffic was unusually heavy.” I don’t like that one so much, particularly when it is delivered by someone who is frequently late and always has a low grade reason for it. So, you know, take an earlier bus.

Use and Overuse

“Old” isn’t much of an excuse all by itself. It is the practical implications of “old” that provide the utility. “Old and therefore forgetful” for example “excuses” the failure to write down an appointment. “Old and therefore frail” excuses attending a party that will require standing for long periods of time and also excuses being part of the moving crew summoned to help a downsizing friend. [3] “Old and therefore frequently ill” excuses commitment to long range plans.

When you begin with IOYK, those are the gains that the excuses buy you. But what does it cost you to buy those benefits? What is the cost to you?

We tend to look at the effect of the excuses we offer. That seems a reasonable thing to do. IOYK 5For one thing, the IOYK excuse functions as a kind of euphemism. It is a socially acceptable reason where “the real reason” might not be so acceptable. If there are parties you don’t want to go to or projects that aren’t really worth doing or jobs you would rather leave for someone else, saying those things in those ways will get you into trouble. Or reasons for not texting an “old person.”  Using IOYK will not. People accept it more or less at face value and don’t take it personally.

So it takes real discipline to keep from overusing it.

But I think there are good reasons for trying not to overuse it. First of all, while we are attending to the effect of the excuse on others, we are not noticing the effect of the excuse on ourselves. It is the premise, the hard to notice foundation of the excuse, that causes us all the difficulty. The overuse of this particular excuse requires that we present ourselves as old more than is strictly necessary. The network of implications we have devised—old and therefore frail, for instance, or old and therefore forgetful—acts just the same way on us as it does on them.

It does. Jonathan Haidt says is a line that made me decide to buy his book [4], “I then lied so quickly and convincingly that my wife and I both believed me.” It forms connections in our minds. We now think of ourselves as “old” more than we would have otherwise and while it is true that we are old, it is also true that we are active, inquisitive, empathetic, and capable of sustained action should the occasion require.

All these things may be true of us and calling our own attention disproportionately to the one that provides the best excuses will weaken us in the long run.

IOYK 3And not only that, but the people to whom this reason is presented and who accept it as legitimate—they accept it, that is, as an excuse—will also learn the broader premise we are using. “He thinks of himself as old” our friends will learn to say, “…and so he would probably not like to be invited to the party or told about the project.” And, of course, our friends talk to each other too, so this assessment of what we might respond to spreads across our friendship network, with the result that many invitations may simply be not offered. “He always says No,” our friends will say as they consult each other, “and he will say he is too old.”

Inculpation [5]

Dr. Shaun Murphy, the principal character in ABC’s The Good Doctor, is autistic and in a recent episode, he encountered his first autistic patient. A rich and complex story ensues, but at the end, the autistic doctor has this word of advice for his autistic patient, “You need to make more mistakes.” That is what backing away from the overuse of IOYK will mean for us.

If we focus the appropriate attention of the whole range of our traits—not only old, but also, as in the series above, “active, inquisitive, empathetic, and capable of sustained action”—then we will be more overtly interested in more things. That means we will not over-learn the one premise we are using—IOYK—and will, instead keep the whole series alive in our minds and in the minds of our friends.

It does seem a shame to give up on an excuse that works so well, but when we think about what it costs us, maybe using it a little less would be a good idea.

[1] I got this familiar treatment from Brandon O’Dell, a restaurant consultant.
[2] I would prefer “exculpation” myself. The root, culpa is a Latin word meaning fault or blame. The prefix ex- gives us “out of” or “away from.” So an exculpatory reason is one that takes away the blame. That seems clearer to me.
[3] Not Matt Damon, who downsized not only his character, but also himself in his recent movie, Downsizing. Someone else.
[4] The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. See page 54.
[5] One of the many good reasons for using words like “exculpation” is that is makes it possible to flip over to “inculpation” when the time comes. The relationship between inculpation and exculpation is completely transparent.


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The Good Patient

I have very slowly become a fan of the ABC show The Good Doctor. The friction that is patient 4the basis of the show—Dr. Shaun Murphy is better than everyone else at the hospital in diagnosis and treatment and worse than everyone else in interpersonal relations—is hard for me to manage. I also thought that they would settle on a format and just crank each week’s episode through that format and be done with it.

They haven’t reused a format so far—or I didn’t catch it—and they keep making the friction worthwhile. So I’m still watching. [1]  Still writing about it, too.

DYLAN KINGWELLThis one is called “Point Three Percent,” [2] and in it we meet an amazing boy. Evan Gallico (Dylan Kingwell, who also plays Steve Murphy, Shaun’s brother, when they both are young). [3]  Evan is committed to protecting his parents. That is the common element of the several strategies he adopts. He is bright and caring and perceptive. He is not the kind of kid you want to see die of cancer.

He tells Dr. Murphy that he already knows he has cancer. The parents have gone to great lengths to keep him from finding out, but he found out anyway. Here is how that goes.

Shaun: You have cancer.

Evan: Yeah, I know. Hey, it’s OK. I’m not afraid to die.

Shaun: You’re not?

Evan: Well, the dying part will suck if it hurts, but I’m not afraid about the actual death part.

Shaun: Because you believe you’re going to heaven? [4]

Evan: Because I don’t. If I believe in Heaven, then I’ve got to believe in God and then I got to believe God made me sick. How messed up is that? It’s just easier to think that it’s all random and when it’s over, it’s just…over.

So that’s where Evan is and why he is there. I want to come back and touch on his theological reasoning later, but I want to look at the second confrontation first—this one with his parents.

Evan: Dad, I know all about the cancer. I have for a long time.

Mr. Gallico: I am so sorry.

Evan: It’s OK. [Looks out the door to the hallway and sees Dr. Murphy there] …because I’m not gonna be alone. Grandma’s going to be there, too. Auntie Arlene. Uncle Jim, if he figures out how to stop swearing…

[Looks out the door again and he and Shaun hold a gaze briefly, then Shaun walks away]

The common element in Evan’s world is not heaven or not. It is protecting his parents as best he can. He protects them first by pretending that he doesn’t know. When, as a result of Dr. Murphy’s investigations, it is no longer possible to pretend, he pretends to believe in heaven and populates it with people who will be meaningful to his parents.

Evan is completely persuasive in each of his narratives. It is only the viewers and Shaun Murphy who see both performances and are forced to realize just how much they are performances. Evan’s love for his parents is shown in his protecting them from knowing that he knows he is dying and also, when that is no longer possible, protecting them from the despair they imagine he must feel. I love him wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, his theological calculations skip over free will. There are a lot ofpatient 1 things God can no longer do once He has committed Himself to free choice in his creatures. That is what intervenes between “if I believe in Heaven, I’ll have to believe in God” on the one hand, and “then I’ve got to believe that God made me sick,” on the other. Evan believes that whatever happens must be the will of God because God can do anything. But it seems to me that God limited the playing field a great deal by creating people capable of saying Yes or No to Him.

Then there is the further question of whether a bad thing is pointless. Job wondered that same thing and came to the opposite conclusion. In 42:3 , Job says,”I was the man who misrepresented your intentions with my ignorant words. You have told me about great works that I cannot understand, about marvels which are beyond me, of which I know nothing.” That is not where Job began, but it is understandable given the argument he has just made. Evan doesn’t get that far. It is either good or random for him. I am willing to praise him for his love of his parents and to admire him for his candor to his doctor.

But I think his theology leaves something to be desired.

[1] There is always something about an episode that isn’t really about the plot, but that catches my attention. Last October, I wrote one on what “honesty” and “candor” mean. See October 13
[2] Although if memory serves, it was actually .003%

[3]  They help us through that by having the president of the hospital (Richard Schiff) say, “He looks exactly like your brother, Steve.”

[4] We are not given any clear theology that Dr. Murphy holds, but his way of saying “die” is “went to heaven.” He saw his rabbit “go to heaven” when his father threw it against a wall. He say his brother, Steve, “go to heaven” when he fell off the roof of a train. Six episodes in, I still have no idea whether Shaun has any beliefs about God at all.



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Matthew pairs Jesus and Moses

Matthew spends a lot of time in his gospel presenting Jesus as the new Moses. It has not moses 1been lost on scholars, for instance, that in Matthew, Jesus’s first sustained teaching was on a mountain. Moses went up the the mountain (Sinai) the get “the Law” from God. Jesus went up a mountain to give a series of contrasts to that Law, each of which began, “You have heard how it was said to our ancestors…” and then continues, “But I say this to you…” [1]

This pattern of presenting Jesus as the New Israel can be seen all through Matthew’s gospel and is widely commented on. The structure of the gospel of Matthew is in five large “books”shapes his gospel—everything between the birth narrative at the beginning and the passion narrative at the end—into five large “books”—each containing a narrative of the ministry of Jesus and a discourse. Many scholars think that in structuring his gospel that way, he is suggesting that Jesus in not only the new Moses, but that the gospel is the new Pentateuch (five books).

moses 2This device of Matthew’s is, as I say, widely recognized in his gospel, but it is not widely recognized in his narrative about the birth of Jesus and it is noticeable there as well. You would think that a writer who thinks of himself as a teacher has a point to make, he would work it into every part of his writing, even the birth stories. And he does. Here are some examples.


The Birth Narrative

I argued in a previous essay on Matthew’s birth narrative (Was Joseph a Righteous Man?) that Matthew emphasizes the “righteousness” of Joseph as “scrupulous adherence to the Law of Moses” and that he could afford to do that because Joseph was just about to receive a “new commandment,” one that superseded the demands of the Law of Moses. It is the Old Law/New “Law” contrast that Matthew has in mind.

Today, I want to add to that pattern, the next dream Joseph gets. “Get up right away and collect your wife and your little boy and leave your comfy house in Bethlehem and go to Egypt. Now.” Why Egypt? Well, Egypt is close and safe. Today we would say that Egypt didn’t have a treaty of extradition with Judea, but for that time, we can just say that it is the kind of place people went to hide out. [2] So Egypt isn’t an implausible place for Joseph (et. al) to hide out.

But Matthew has more in mind. Matthew introduces that parallel by saying, “This was tomoses 3 fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt.” (Matt 2:13) So…what prophet is Matthew talking about? It is Hosea (11:1) where Hosea, in using the expression, “my son,” means Israel. And Matthew knows that Hosea meant Israel. So how does he manage to appropriate it so that it refers to Jesus?  I can argue all I want that in Matthew, Jesus would have been a little boy, but I can’t find any pictures in which he is not an infant.

The switch is perfectly clear. It could be put in language that is much too bald by attributing some sentiment of this sort to Matthew. “Hosea, in talking about “my son” meant the people, Israel, but to my mind, it is also true of His son, Jesus.” [3] But I think Matthew wants more than that. He wants us to see Jesus as “prefigured” in the scriptures and that is the way he brings it to us.

The mechanism that makes this change work is not “prophecy” in the predictive sense, as when I predict that it will rain tomorrow. It is more like what is called today “a cueing phenomenon.” One way to picture this is that the Egypt reference in Hosea draws a line on a blank page and then Matthew draws a parallel line referring to Jesus. This is not “fulfillment” in the sense of a prediction being fulfilled; rather, it our minds to an area where some new thing will be said. [4]

“Oh…right,” we say, “Israel, God’s son, came from Egypt at God’s call. I knew this thing moses 4about Jesus sounded familiar.” Placing Joseph’s family in Egypt allows Matthew to re-appropriate the scripture, “From Egypt, I have called my son.” For Matthew and/or for his readers, this is a sign of the providential working of God to bring us the Messiah just as he had promised.

The Slaughter of the Hebrew Children

Once in Egypt, the Israelites multiplied to the extent that the Pharoah was frightened at how many of them there were, so he ordered that the male babies be killed by the midwives. Moses was saved by prompt and providential intervention, but a lot of Hebrew babies were killed. This functions, again, as a prompt for the Jewish Christians in the church Matthew was writing to. The birth of Moses was accompanied by the death of many Hebrew babies.

moses 5This is the first line on the paper. Remember the “slaughter of the innocents by the Pharoah in Egypt?” And then the parallel line. Well, there was a slaughter of Israelites at the time of Jesus as well, this one engineered by Herod the Great. [5] And we say, “Oh, right. I knew that sounded familiar. This story of Jesus is so very much like the story of Moses.”[6]



In making these distinctions, I am following a different line of argument than Matthew is. It may well be that Matthew thought the events of Jesus’s life happened because they had been “predicted” in the sense that God had planned them. I don’t know how Matthew thought of them. It is quite clear, however, that Matthew, not just in the infancy stories but throughout his gospel, is drawing a parallel between the history of Israel and the life of Moses, on the one hand, and the story of Jesus on the other.

This parallel approach requires Matthew to use a lot of what are today called “scare quotes.” [7] So Matthew, in arranging these parallels says that “the Law” was brought from the mountain by Moses, but that Jesus gives a new “Law,” also on a mountain, which is about the renewing of God’s grace and favor.

[1] This particular phrasing is the New Jerusalem Bible.  The argument in general is based on Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah.
[2] In Stan Freberg’s History of the United States, Volume 1, he has Ben Franklin refusing to sign the Declaration of Independence because “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life ‘writing in Europe’.” The phrase “writing in Europe” was, at the time, a euphemism for banishment or even just a temporary escape from the Americas.
[3] Some say that Matthew believed that Hosea, filled with God’s Spirit, really meant to refer to “my Son, the Messiah” and didn’t realize it himself. That’s further than I can comfortably go. I would rather say that Matthew sees the powerful parallel and adapts Hosea’s text to his own message.
[4] This is a notion of “prophecy” I have never had before nor have I ever seen it before. So I’m really excited about it at the moment. Ordinarily, that means that tomorrow it will either be shown to be old hat among scholars or to have been decisively discarded years ago. Today, I really don’t care.
[5] The total of Israelite babies who would have been killed in Herod’s massacre is estimated by scholars to be somewhere around 20. That is based on the likely population of Bethlehem at or around 6 B.C. and the proportion of the population likely to be 2 years old or less
[6] And, in addition to that, there were apocryphal stories, which Matthew may very well have known, in which the Pharoah’s “wise men” understood that a deliverer of the Israelites was going to be born and that the prudent thing would be to kill all the male infants. This is an alternative rationale for the killing off of Hebrew boys in Israel and it is one much more like Herod’s killing off Jewish boys in Judea.
[7] The function of “scare quotes” is sometimes to indicate that the writer doesn’t believe the term is warranted. In this use, the quotes are the equivalent of the expression “so called.” But at other times, it is simply a marker that this word, which we are used to seeing one way, can, in fact, be used in another way.

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