The (Former) President’s 1776 Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first shot across the bow is this:

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

This is rebutted by a quote from Republican President Calvin Coolege

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

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

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

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

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

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

By this means, Progressives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Observation

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

Good luck.

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

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Please have your mask on for us

“Please have your mask on for us.”

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

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

[This from an article by Kaila Mathis in Adweek]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s just good work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trumpism and Greater Appalachia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Did anybody remember to bring the boxes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eggs and Omelettes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s dark now in Washington.

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

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

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Balance of Power?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Give me a break”

Trump’s recent phone call to Georgia is iconic.  It puts on display nearly all the things that are most characteristic of Trump [1] and most dangerous to democracy.

Here is the account of the call as it appears in the New York Times.  As this call shows, Trump has no notion at all that Secretary of State Raffensperger is an elected official doing the job he was elected to do.  “Give me a break” is a request that Raffensperger change the votes as reported (and verified) so that they are different from the votes actually cast.  It is the logic by which one might ask a bank for a better deal on a loan.  There is, in this request, no awareness at all that Raffensperger has done all he can legally do and is satisfied that the job has been done fairly.

But “give me a break” isn’t the only sin this recording preserves although it might be the only crime.  Here is what I would call another sin: he generalizes inappropriately from his own experience.  Heather Cox Richardson [2] puts it this way:

He insisted that there was simply no way he could have lost in Georgia, and cited the size of his rallies there as proof.

So Trump had rallies in Georgia and a lot of enthusiastic Trump supporters came to them and Trump cites their numbers as proof that he really won the election.  It almost seems as if he doesn’t understand that there are other rallies that other people attend and direct their enthusiasm in other directions.

Trump cites the rumor that they are shredding ballots in Fulton County.  Secretary Raffensperger responds: Mr. President, the problem you have with social media, they — people can say anything.”

Raffensperger is guessing that is where Trump has encountered the rumors.  His willingness to speculate that there is a source—any source at all—is an act of generosity, but it is wasted.  Trump responds:

“Oh, this isn’t social media. This is Trump media. It’s not social media. It’s really not, it’s not social media. I don’t care about social media. I couldn’t care less. Social media is Big Tech. Big Tech is on your side, you know.”

“Not social media.  Trump media.”

Finally, there is the exchange with, Ryan Germany, a lawyer for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, who is also on the call.  Germany knows what has happened and is not willing to spin it.  That part of the conversation looks like this:

TRUMP: Now, do you think it’s possible that they shredded ballots in Fulton County? Because that’s what the rumor is. And also that Dominion took out machines. That Dominion is really moving fast to get rid of their, uh, machinery.

RYAN GERMANY,(lawyer for Georgia secretary of state’s office): This is Ryan Germany. No, Dominion has not moved any machinery out of Fulton County.

TRUMP: But have they moved the inner parts of the machines and replaced them with other parts?

GERMANY: No.

I think it is the brevity of Germany’s answers that appeals to me.  He is confronted by wheedling, by bullying, by allegations of crime, by “data” that are just asserted.  Germany says, “No”

I want to give the last line of this encounter to Secretary Raffensperger.  “Well, Mr. President,” he says, “the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.”

[1]  I have been rigorously careful to refer the Mr. Trump as President Trump.  The call to Secretary of State Raffensperger (Georgia) was one step too far for me.  It’s just “Trump” from now on.

[2]  In her January 3 post “Letters from an American.”

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“The” Christmas Story

“The” Christmas Story

I have never been a fan of “the Christmas story.”  I honestly don’t know why.  I know why I am not a fan of it now and it is a real temptation to project those reasons back into my past and to “discover” that that is why I was not a fan of it back then.

The truth is, it never made sense to me as a story.  I didn’t put it that way.  I just knew I wasn’t drawn to it.  It was great for inducting my kids into the beauty of it.  They loved it.  Different things at different ages.  There were angels and shepherds and Wise Men and Joseph and Mary in a stable with all those animals and all that.  What’s not to like?  

So I have had an inarticulate dissatisfaction with the “story,” and at some point along the way, I discovered Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah.  About a third of it is given over to the Birth Narrative (BN) as Matthew tells it and the other two thirds to the BN as Luke tells it.  That seemed strange to me.

So I adopted the practice of reading one account one year and the other the next year.  It was like scratching an itch I had not known I had.  The surprise and the pleasure combined were powerful.

I still read Brown like that.  One account each year.  By now, I have assigned Matthew to the U. S. political years.  The politics is so much more prominent in Matthew.  Then the other account in the other year.  I read each account five times in a decade and every time I read it, I find things I am ready to see now that I had not been ready to see before.  Along with that, I pass over things that I am now taking for granted.  And as I have read other scholars, I sit less firmly on some of the things Brown says.  It’s all good.

So now I have two “Christmas stories.”  The muddiness and lack of clear narrative shape which I now think were the things that bothered me at the beginning—and that I had no idea of at the time—have just gone away.  In their place, I have two crisp clear dramatizations of how the birth of the Christ child came about.

This year, I taught a three-session mini-series on the BN as Matthew tells it.  The first session was about what Matthew is trying to tell us when he says that Joseph was a righteous man but/and (the Greek is kaì) he wanted to avoid embarrassing Mary, who unaccountably got pregnant.  It’s an important point.  It isn’t just about the conjunction.  It is about what righteousness means to Matthew and what he wants to tell us about Joseph.

The second session was about building rival groups into the story.  The Wise Men and the Scribes are as different as the Sharks and the Jets.  And Matthew makes them more different from each other than he would have to because each group helps to define the other.  When, for instance, the magi see the star in Jerusalem, it fills them with utter delight.  Without that, would we have noticed that aligning the prophecy about the Messiah and the news brought by the magi would mean virtually nothing to the scribes?  The gentiles were ecstatic; the Jewish scholars were not.

The third session was about the lengths Joseph had to go to to keep the identity and the whereabouts of his son secret.  It began, after awhile, to sound like a witness protection program to me, so that is what I called it.  Off to Egypt in the middle of the night.  Going back to Israel afterwards, but not to a place where they were known and not in the territory of the nastiest of Herod’s sons.

Those are three episodes in a story that makes no sense at all in the light of the narrative Luke gives us. And, as I will say next year, vice versa.  But it makes perfect sense of how Matthew sees Jesus and how he wants us to see Jesus.

Emphasizing how different and how powerful each of the narratives is was a big deal for me.  It took a story I really wanted to like and made it one of my favorites,. Well…two of my favorites.   So imagine my surprise when I discovered people who liked the story just as it was.  They took the elements of these two stories and put them in the blender and were delighted by the results.

To the child laid in a manger, you add the exotic recognition of foreign scholars and the celebration of a sky full of angels.  To the dreams of Joseph, you add the visitation of Gabriel to Mary.  There is no reason now for anyone to be confused, since God has revealed his plan to both, but on the other side, you get two distinct revelations of God’s intention—one to Joseph and one to Mary.  These events, which could be seen as alternatives, are added up like so many jelly beans in a jar.  The more jelly beans the better, right? Who doesn’t love jelly beans?

So I have learned, each Christmas, to step more softly.  I am not as cheerleader for the “two narratives” approach, the way I used to be.  I honor, as best I can, the fully complementary goals of the writers.  Luke’s way has a lot to be said for it.  It is so incredibly Jewish, for one thing.  And we have a new way to assess the meaning of the events of Jesus’ birth because all the same ones happen to his cousin, John the Baptizer.  The magi recognizing the little Jesus in Bethlehem and old Simeon recognizing the infant at the temple n Jerusalem and two ways of getting the one thing done.

I say, no harm, no foul.

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Naughty and Nice

This is the kind of post I think I had in mind when I started all this in 2010.  Yesterday, the words to “Santa Claus in Comin’ to Town” came to my mind and I noticed something I had never noticed before. [1]  There is a list of people Santa is keeping.  On this list are people who are distinguished by having two traits in combination.  They are naughty and nice. [2]

The song doesn’t specify just why Santa wants a list of these people.  A lot of bad books and even worse movies have been made about the combination.  You can imagine what the search for illustrations turned up!  The general sense of these books and movies would, if taken seriously, bring Santa’s character into question, so I will not pursue it further.

Moralists of every stripe—parents in particular, I suppose—have treated the crucial categories of this song as if they were mutually exclusive.  You can see why.  If the parents, who have a mysterious connection to Santa Claus, can define what  “nice” means and what “naughty” means, they have a great tool to affect the behavior of their children.  Carrots and sticks are well-known reinforcers of behavior.

I can understand the behavior of the parents.  Simple self interest would do it.  What I can’t understand is the resistance of so many of my friends as I showed them the text [3] and they persisted in believing that “naughty” and “nice” were shown in the lyrics to be opposed to each other.  As if, you know, there were two lists.

The song says there is one list.  There is a reassessment period where the data are rechecked, but only one list.  The list contains not the names of children who are naughty OR nice (wouldn’t that be everyone?) but the names of the children who are naughty AND nice.  Apparently, in the view of Messrs. Coots and Gillespie, these traits fall nicely together.  As they should, given their combination by “and.”  Still, it is hard to see the simple truth of the text when you are accustomed to seeing it as meaning something else.  And I don’t think all of this deficiency can be laid at the foot of the Trump era.  Some, but not all.

Well, it has changed my view of the song, for sure.  After all these years of believing the
commentators that this was a rewards and punishments song, I have now paid attention to the text itself (always a good idea) and have noted to my surprise that it doesn’t say what everyone says it says.  What is actually says is that there are dimensions to Santa Claus that have not yet been fully appreciated, even though the textual evidence has been sitting there in public for more than eighty years.  I am the only one I know who will be singing this song this year with a new and intriguing understanding of what it says about Santa Claus.

Unless, of course, you would like to join me.

[1] The song was written in 1934 for J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillispie so it is a few years older than I am.

[2]  Etymologically “naughty” can be traced to “having nothing” and “nice” to “knowing nothing.”  So these would be poor and ignorant children.  It shows the limits of etymology, doesn’t it?

[3]  Really, if you search hard enough, you can find later versions where the “and” is replaced by “or.”  You see this all the time in contested biblical texts where it is referred to as “scribal amendment.”  I am not sure who does that work for pop singers, but it seems unlikely that it was the inconsistency of the two categories that bothered them.

Posted in Getting Old, Uncategorized, Words | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The most lied about President

It was a professional conversation.  About long-term financial planning, mostly.  We had done all the work and the comments being made were “on the way out the door comments,”  In some way, the topic of President Trump came up and I said that he was clearly the most consistently lying president in our history.  “Yes,” agreed the professional, “and the most lied about.”

I had one of those moments you see in the movies where I kept moving and everything else remained frozen in place.  I felt as if some kind of a spell had been cast.

Say what?  The most lied about?

Three impressions came piling in on me at once.  The first was the ease with which he said it.  It was a “talking point.”  He already had that handy.  It wasn’t a realization; it wasn’t a conviction.  It was a line that was current in the political crowd he identified with.

The second was that although “lying” is something we could know, “being lied about” is not.  How would you do that?  Would you sum all the lies that everyone told about President Trump and compare it to the number of all the lies told about all previous presidents?  Really?  Would you calculate an average number of lies per 100,000 of population?

It really isn’t something anyone could know and yet it was tied, conversationally, to something everyone could know—the absolute count of lies, how they were false, and the evidence establishing that they were false—because they are all matters of public record.  The huge discrepancy between the two notions—he lies/he is lied about—really struck me.

The third thing that struck me is that this professional is not clever in his speech.  He is well-informed and trustworthy (both very valuable) but his style is not the quick quip or the subtle turn.  This line, cute as it is, really didn’t sound like him.  So the third thought was, “Where did he get that?”

I don’t know.  I really don’t want to know.  But it reminded me immediately and vividly of a scene in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Flight Behavior.  Here is the line I want to end up with: “Al Gore can come toast his buns on this,” 

There is a context, of course.  Dellarobia, the principal character, and her husband, Cub, are being drawn in different directions by a flare-up in the culture war.  Ordinarily, there is only one culture in Feathertown, Tennessee, but the inexplicable arrival of thousands of Monarch butterflies, followed immediately by dozens of lepidopterists, has changed all that.  The scientists hired Dellarobia to do some work for them and she has been listening to what they say to each other.

So when she says to Cub, “it’s due to climate change, basically,” [1] she knows she is close to the edge of the chasm.  Cub isn’t sure what “climate change” is. “What’s that?” he says.  After hesitating a little—she senses what is at stake—she says, “Global warming.”

That brings us to the line I cited at the beginning.  When Dellarobia says “global warming,” Cub kicks up a cloud of frost from the ground and says, “Al Gore can come and toast his buns on this.”  A line like that really doesn’t sound like Cub and it isn’t his.  It is a line from Johnny Midgeon, a local radio host, who uses it every time a winter storm comes through.  In Midgeon’s world, frost on the ground is a refutation of “global warming.”

So when I reflected that the line about “Trump is the most lied about president” didn’t really sound like the person who said it, I remembered Cub and how quick he was to use Johnny Midgeon’s line.  Cub is part of a group of locals who listen to Midgeon and who use his one-liners to keep the reality of the world at bay.  Just quoting the lines at the right time deals with the topic (It’s ridiculous!) and shows that you are part of the group.

I don’t know if the financial professional I was talking to is really a part of such a group, but his remark is what Cub’s reliance on radio host wit reminded me of.  And I think that it why it was so powerful for me.  It wasn’t a “slip of the tongue.”  It was the practiced reliance on a one-liner that is presumably shared among a group of like-minded people.

I smiled at him on my way out the door and said, “See you in March,” but my mind was screaming, “Danger, Will Robinson.

[1]  Here’s the earlier part of the quote.  “And Dr. Byron’s not the only one wondering. There’s more to it than just these butterflies, a lot of things are messed up. 

Posted in Communication, Political Psychology, Uncategorized, ways of knowing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment