Peter Stearns is “my guy” for gender roles

Stearns recently retired as Provost at George Mason University, in Virginia. He is still teaching and still writing. That’s good news for me. In this very partial introduction to Stearns’ thinking, I’d like to tell you why I take it as good news that he is still writing.

Stearns is a “social historian.” Rather than try to say precisely what that means, let me list some of his titles: if you can think of a better name for his specialty, I’d be willing to consider it. Here are my top nine selections from his publications since 2000.

Tolerance in World History (forthcoming)
Sexuality in World History, 2nd ed. (2017)
A History of Shame (2017)
Globalization in World History, 2nd ed. (2016)
The Industrial Turn in World History (2016)
Childhood in World History, 3rd ed. (2016)
Gender in World History, 3rd ed. (2015
Anxious Parents: a 20th Century History (2003)
Fat History (2002)

The only one on this list I have read is Anxious Parents. For me, the most important book Stearns has written is Be a Man!: Males in Modern History, 2nd Ed. That’s the one I am going to introduce to you today. [1]

In the title to this post, I referred to him as “my guy” for gender roles and I’d like toStearns 1 explain what that means before I write anything about his work. When a subject area is both important to me and too confusing for me to sort out, I like to choose “a guy” as my default guru. [2] “Default guru” means that I provisionally accept that person’s perspective as my own and I pay particular attention to writers who diverge a little from that perspective. [3] Sometimes these divergences pile up and I have to look for another guru—if I still feel, by that time, that I need a guru. More often, I keep the guru’s perspective, but modify it to meet my own needs. In that case, I think of myself as a “neo-something.”

I may become a neo-Stearnsian some day but it isn’t going to be today.

Nearly all I know about Stearns comes from his studies of “being male after the industrial revolution.” What Stearns is saying seems right to me—hence the choice of guru—but also, he is the only one I hear saying what he is saying. That makes him, like a rare anything.

In what follows, I am going to choose a few texts from on chapter of the revised edition of his book Be a Man! and comment a little on each of them. I’d like to share my enthusiasm for him. I’d like you to say, “Who IS this guy?” and go look up some of the things he has written.

Passage 1

The basic pattern of modern men’s history is deceptively simple: conditions imposed by the industrialization process undermined key facets of patriarchy, leading to a period of varied compensatory efforts in which establishment of masculinity was a central thread—hence the nineteenth-century preoccupation with male work values and male leisure monopolies. This focus yielded to a period of diverse modifications, which in turn describe major changes in manhood and its standards over the past seventy years.

Comments

This is the first paragraph of Chapter 8. Stearns argues that relations between men and women were clearly defined and stable before the industrial revolution. That doesn’t mean they were good; it means they were clear. The industrial revolution disordered them and what what we today call “modern history” is an attempt to find a balance of gender roles that fit our circumstances as well as the old balance fit theirs.

stearns 2I like that a great deal. If you look at the current fluidity in the performance of gender and the norms by which those performances are judged, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the complexity. If you get a firm notion of how those roles used to be and what happened to them, you can see today’s struggles as an attempt to return to clarity. Starting that far back gives you a perspective on today that you can’t get by starting today.

Passage 2

For men, however, the issue is less one of tolerance than the renewed acceptance of essential tension within the modal personality itself. What men can do for the family is redevelop an appropriate male style, using friendliness but calling on older traditions as well, to provide an approach different from the maternal style: no better, not simply supplementary in the sense of doing a fair share of the woman’s work in the woman’s way, but different, in a manner that will give children a greater range of choice in their own personal styles than the maternal monopoly has normally allowed.

Comments

Stearns had just said that we would be seeing “greater variations around a standard gender personality,” so his point here is that the action is not going to be focused on “tolerance” itself, but on the essential tension within the masculine role. And then he cites some tensions. The first is “using friendliness but calling on older traditions as well, to provide an approach different from the maternal style…”

Stearns has a fairly long treatment of just what the children in the family lose when their father is reduced to trying to get his children to like him. You can go only so far in being “buddies” with your kids and still give them what they need from a father. That is what he is touching on here when he says that friendliness is fine, “but…”[4]

I think the expression “maternal monopoly” is a useful addition to the discussion of how to raise children. It is common to focus on how much more of the work of taking care of the house and the children women do than men. Stearns notes that and agrees with that critique with the expression “fair share” But he also wants to consider whose judgment prevails on how those things are to be done—the house and the kids—and he is the only one I know who cares about that second question.

There is a way men like to do things and it isn’t always the way the women do it. If the men are going to be sharing the work, Stearns says, they ought to be sharing the controls as well. How are the crucial tasks to be defined? How good is “good enough?” Why? The men who are committed to doing “a fair share” of the work are responsible also to do a fair share of the defining of the work and of the evaluation of the work against appropriate norms.

This gives the children, as he says, “a greater range of choice in their own personal styles.” That sounds like a good thing to me.

Passage 3

“Mainstream” definitions raise issues of their own. Some men in the late twentieth century do not like dominant male traits. A problem in gender discussions, from both conservative and radical sides, is a tendency to assume that ultimately rational people should agree on a single set of standards.

Some men find the continuities with earlier traditions of aggressive, competitive behavior, that unquestionably start in boyhood, genuinely repulsive. They believe that men ‘would be better people—and physically and mentally healthier—if they adopted a larger number of female traits.”

Most men, however, if open to formal contemplation of gender issues at all beyond those forced by women’s change, clearly do not want sweeping reconstitutions.

Comments

In his discussions of gender, Stearns carves out for himself a large chuck of the middle of the road. He pushes away views that cluster at the far right edge and also the far left edge. You see that distinction referred to here as “both conservative and radical sides.” He spends quite a bit of time developing what he means by those terms, so I am comfortable in citing for your consideration a passage in which they seem to be casually used. There are, in fact, men who aspire to return to patriarchy because they like the role and have not noticed that it no longer has a place in the modern era. There are men who would like to see the “new manhood” modeled on the traits that are more common to women. There are some feminists—not, Stearns is always careful to say, “feminists as such”—who don’t see the point in men or in masculinity at all. In preserving a place for himself in the middle of the scale, Stearns rejects all those.stearns 3

The second point I would like to make about this passage is captured in the expression, “Most men, however… clearly do not want sweeping reconstitutions.” Let me urge you not to get caught up in this assertion as if it were a too broad generalization about “men, as such.” This book is a research project, not an editorial: Stearns has a lot of information about what men have been saying about gender and the future and he cites it as a scholar would. But further, that’s not really how I am using this statement and I’d like to have you look at it the same way I am looking at it.

Stearns is asking here, whether some new sweeping set of norms can be sold to American men. If you haven’t read a good bit of this literature—and I have—you don’t know how unusual this is. The question of “what men are like” is commonly dealt with as a moral matter. Are they salvageable brutes or unsalvageable? Given all the mess they make, are they worth having around at all? And then there are the child rearing questions. What new norms of masculinity will rescue young male children from the fate of being like their fathers?

The question Stearns is asking here is “Are you going to be able to sell the new norms to men?” That strikes me as a crucially important and very seldom considered question. Stearns answer is “No, you won’t be able to sell it and you shouldn’t try.”

So…Stearns is my “gender roles guy,” and he has been for quite some time. He’s a centrist and I like that. He explicitly rejects the “howling in the forest” school of men’s liberationist thought as well as the “make them as much like women as they will tolerate” school. I like that, too.

He sees positive values within the modal male personality although integrating them in a personally satisfying and social useful form will continue to be a challenge. I like both of those.

He understands today’s gender dilemmas in the long sweep of history. There is an ebb and flow to gendered relations that is obscured by people who live in ebb periods or flow periods and take either of those as “the way it las always been.” Stearns provides historical perspective. And I like that, too.

[1] I spent most of my reading time in the first edition, which was published in 1979. The revised edition (1990) extends the argument somewhat but the basic perspective is still the same.
[2] “My guy” isn’t necessarily a man. Arlie Russel Hochschild is “my guy” for the study of emotions. I like how she studies and who she studies and also how she writes.
[3] My guru for biblical studies is Raymond Brown, for theology and politics, Reinhold Niebuhr, for systematic theology, Gordon Kaufman. I don’t have a guru for fields of study in which I have actually been trained myself, although in each of those fields there are many writers I greatly respect.
[4] Stearns uses “paternal” as the name for the style he thinks must be maintained and “patriarchal” for the role that history is rejecting. It is very much like him to save a man-related word as a goal for which men should still strive. He doesn’t think much of androgyny as a goal.

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In loco parentis

Who is really well placed to act in loco parentis?

That was a big deal question when I was in college. Mothers and fathers sent their children off to far away institutions, some of them hoping that the college would act for the welfare of their progeny as they would have. That hope is captured by the Latin expression, which means, “in the place of the parent.”  This was not very often the wish of the progeny, as I recall, who were all to happy to be away from home and free to begin crafting a new identity. [1]

Is the sense of the word place that I want to use today. For me, Wheaton, Illinois where I was an undergraduate, was a different place than Englewood, Ohio, where I had lived with my parents. But that’s not really all “place” means. In very status-oriented settings, where there might be servants to take account of, “place”could mean both things at the same time. Here’s an example from Dorthy Sayers’, Busman’s Honeymoon.

“Bunter,” said Lord Peter Wimsey, “You’ve got some beer for Puffett in the kitchen.”

“Yes, my lord”

Mr. Puffitt, reminded that he was, in a manner of speaking, in the wrong place, picked up his curly bowler and said heartily, “That’s very kind of your lordship. Come on, Martha. Get off your bonnet and shawl and we’ll give these lads a ‘and outside.”

And even today, we will hear someone say, “Of course, it’s not my place to…” Most often, that means that some appropriate person—often a parent—should do something that the speaker thinks should be done.  The little tag “Of course…” indicates that the person is putting himself or herself in loco parentis and knows that isn’t quite proper.  It is not his “place.”

Because I’m your mother, that’s why

This familiar appeal to authority can be heard at the very end of many parent/child transactions. [2] This is not new information to the child. The child knew this was true all along and may even have known that this final discussion-ending pronouncement would be used eventually and may even (even) have been counting the steps until it arrived. The child knows this is his mother; he knows the mother is in distress; he is riding and perhaps celebrating, the waves of the events that precede its use.

loco 1And what are those “waves of events.” As specific tools, they vary, of course, from one parent to another, but as kinds of tools, they are pretty common among parents who are trying really hard to be “modern” [3] and “positive.” These tools involve amazing levels of “polite request” and “expressions of appreciation” for the children’s compliance with those requests that sometimes occurs. The tools involve praising a child for doing something he has no sense of doing at all. This has the effect of weaponizing the child, who now knows what behavior he is currently foregoing and therefore what behavior will bring him the attention he craves.  The kid who was perfectly happy looking out the window, learns, for instance, that he has been passing up jumping up and down on his seat.

All this politeness and all this reinforcement of “positive” (really, just “not negative”) behavior are attempts to postpone or to avoid getting to that last stop at which the mother says, “…because I’m your mother.”

A MAX mother

Let me use, as an example, the events that brought this to my mind most recently. I was riding a MAX train—that’s light rail for you non-Portlanders—a few weeks ago. I was trying to keep my bicycle, hanging from a hook behind one of the seats, from swinging out into anyone’s path, so I didn’t see the mother and her three children get on. They established themselves across the aisle from me; there was at least one child in a baby carrier the size of a town car and there were two older children running interference.

I am going to be critical of this mother’s interactions with her children not because they were so egregious, but because they typified a style I have seen in use for some years now and which I particularly dislike. [4]

The first thing that caught my attention was the use of “Please” and “Thank you.” To a loco 2little girl standing on her seat, the mother say “Would you sit down please?” and, when the little girl sat down, “Thank you.” Why is that a good thing to say, I wondered.

And then, to the little boy, who was sitting beside her looking out the window, “You’re doing such a good job of sitting in your seat, Jason. Thank you.”

Why do parent talk like this to their children? If you imagine that they are, basically, a group of peers out on a trip, it would be easy to say that politeness is better than impoliteness, courtesy better than discourtesy. And that’s true, of course, but when you lay out those alternatives, you are buying the premise that these are peers out on a trip. It is under those circumstances that courtesy and discourtesy are the important notions. And in this scenario, no one, please note, is in loco parentis.

And if you are a young mother who is a fan of this style of child-rearing, you will certainly want to object. The most common objection I have heard is that it is better than “the alternatives,” by which the defender normally means abrasive, punishment-oriented parenting. But, of course, that is “the” alternative only if you hold to the “peers out on a trip” model, in which no one is in loco parentis. I don’t like that ugly threatening parenting style either and I don’t want to do anything to justify it.

Whatever parenting style is used, I would like to see it justified by saying that it works. That is a better justification, I think, than that it is polite.  It achieves the desired control of the children’s behavior, it makes available to the children all the kinds of experience that are appropriate in the setting, it protects passersby from the din of unceasing parenting, it leaves the parent in good enough shape to all the other things she needs to do. Those four are the effects I have in mind when I say that a style of parenting “works.” [5]

Does all this “politeness” work? No. I don’t think it does. I think it teaches the children that what the mother tells them to do is, essentially, a request for a favor. This puts the child in a very uncomfortable place. He may grant it, in which case, the mother owes him something. What? He may refuse to grant it, without any notable consequence to himself (until, late in the series, we begin to approach “Because I’m Your Mother!”). The child is being trained to regard what his mother tells him to do as the starting point of a protracted negotiation. Very often, this negotiation is much more entertaining than any other course of action available to the child–much more than sitting quietly and looking out the window, for instance.

I began to think about this some years ago when the suffix “OK?” began to be added to requests and even to orders given to small children. [2] It may have been that the first use of the added tag, “O.K?” was to soften the sound of what otherwise would have been an order to one’s children. That’s what it sounded like to me at the beginning. But as it became a longer and more emotional add-on, it took on the role of seeking permission. “Sally, sit down on your seat, is that OK with you?” [6]

So a child in this scenario, is empowered to place a tax—think of it as a tax on the attention of the mother— on every transaction. The child receives the income generated by the tax; the mother and the siblings pay the tax. The passersby pay the tax as well. It is asking a lot, I think, to require that the child will forego this very attractive situation and most children don’t, particularly when no one is in loco parentis.

What would work better

loco 4What would work a good deal better, I think, is for the parent—we have been considering the mother here, but there is no reason it couldn’t be the father—to take the role of the parent, to be in loco parentis. That means that she has special authority to organize the behavior of the group, to dole out rewards and punishments as needed. She can be as sweet-tempered as the situation allows her to be, subject to getting the work done successfully. And let me remind you that “successfully” has independent metrics for the safety of the children, the health and welfare of the mother, and the safety of non-belligerent parties, such as neighbors and passers-by.

“Because I’m your mother, that’s why” is changed from the fraught and unhappy last stage, to the presuppositions of all the interactions the project requires. “Because I’m your mother” is taken for granted in all considerations bearing on the health, safety, and welfare of the group. It is not an excuse for bad manners. Rather, it provides the extra space in the relationship where politeness can be offered without the danger that it will be taken as appeasement. When the children are, as in the example above, “taxing units,” the costs of all the transactions will be driven up.

A Wise Man Once Said

Finally, I’d like to remember the reflections of one of my favorite pediatricians. He was in practice for a long time and as someone who dealt all day every day with parents and children, he was in a position to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Over the years, he became wary of prescriptions about child-rearing that were too specific or that promised more than they could deliver.

He said that all the good parenting styles he saw—many, many different styles—had two elements. They had clear standards that the parents and the children understood in the same way and they provided consistent loving support to the children as they negotiated and then internalized the system. Those two things.

Now in fact, this pediatrician is my older brother, Karl. I say that only to give you a chance to disregard my use of his wisdom on the grounds that I am related to him. But Karl shared that insight with me a long time ago and I have used it as the basis of my own thinking about this problem for a long time as well. So my advice to you is, before you disregard it on the basis of our family connection, try it on and see if it works as well for you as it has for me.

[1] Even those of us who knew that loco meant “place,” smiled to ourselves as this distant extension of parenthood was called “loco,” a point we thought was too appropriate to deserve further comment.
[2] I don’t remember using it, myself, although some of my kids read this blog and will correct me if I am wrong, and I don’t remember hearing men resorting to “…because I’m your father” in the same way. Maybe the role discrepancy doesn’t get as wide as it does for mothers.  Or maybe I just haven’t noticed.
[3] I think that mostly means, “not the way my mother was.”
[4] Before you waste the energy pointing out to me that getting a bunch of small children safely from Point A to Point B is hard enough and that she may have had a very tiring day before the episode I saw, let me grant all of that. I don’t mean to be critical of the women I saw on the train. She did call to mind an approach to parenting of which I do want to be critical.
[5] I did my own years as a parent of three small children and I know that you can’t always manage to achieve all these goals. Still, I think it is important to keep them as goals so you will be able to keep track of the tradeoffs you will be forced to make
[6] Originally just OK with a very slight upward inflection to indicate that it was a question, but fairly quickly, a much more elongated O-Kaaaaay? with the drawn out a- and a much greater upward inflection. The short OK might have been a request for confirmation that the direction had been received. The long one sounds like supplication to me.

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What to say to the climate change deniers of Texas and Florida

This is the prime moment for environmentalists who have been screaming their heads off about the urgency of the need to change our practices and begin to deal seriously with the global warming catastrophe. This is the time when they—“we” actually—have a chance to make a difference by doing and saying the right thing.

What is the right thing to say?

It is, “I’m so sorry about the catastrophe that has overtaken you. I will do everything I can to see to it that immediate help and long term funding ease the pain you and your family are experiencing.”

That’s it. Nothing more. There are more things we might want to say, but that is all that should be said to the citizens of Florida and Texas. There are other things that might be said to their representatives and to members of the executive branch who are responsible for enforcing laws that bear on environmental pollution. But to the citizens, “I’m so sorry….” is it.

EPA Direct Scott Pruitt has said that raising the question of climate change is “insensitive.” He is right. Now is not the time. On the other hand, whatever it is we do allow ourselves to say should set up the crucial policy discussions that will be needed later. [1]

The point I want to make is more emotion-centered than argument centered, however, so I am going to “make my case” so to speak, in a different way. I’m going to use some scenes from a book and a couple of movies that I think make the emotional case I want to make.

Spanglish

There is a scene in James L. Brooks’ film Spanglish where the grandmother, who gave up alcohol so she could deal with her daughter’s marital crisis successfully, manages, for once, to keep her daughter from saying more than she should.

What the daughter does say is this, ““I’m just so glad you’re back.”

That doesn’t seem like much, does it? But her husband has just spent the night at his climate 3restaurant with one of the most beautiful women in the world and the wife interrupted her affair long enough to notice. She hopes desperately that the husband has had an affair. She thinks that would somehow make it easier for the marriage to survive her affair. Here are the grandmother and the wife in urgent conversation. I’m not even going to bother to identify the parts. It begins when the husband comes home. We, as viewers, have already seen what it cost him to continue to be faithful to his wife.

Oh, God, it’s him. He’s gotta tell me everything\

No.

Oh, yes.

Do you know that right now, you are your own worst enemy?That you can’t trust one thought in your brain. Then trust me and only allow yourself to say one thing to him.
One thing. “I am so glad you’re back.”

But I have to know whether he touched her. And where he touched her and how he touched her..and how he felt afterwards,whether they held hands…when they left.

Just those words, if you want to have a prayer of coming out of this.

Jesus, do I need a little makeup?

You need a hose.But you don’t have the time. It’s fine that you look like that.It’s genuine. You can use genuine.

The husband walks in and finds a disheveled and anxious wife in the entryway. He knows what kind of conversation she wants. He doesn’t know she is capable of postponing it.

It’s late, Deborah.

I just wanted to say…

I can’t sleep upstairs with you.I just can’t for now.

“…I’m just so glad you’re back.”

That one line and no more. None of the other things she desperately wanted to say. There will be time for those later if she really needs to know. Spoiler alert: Nothing she will learn, later, will help her in the slightest. But at that time, saying that one thing and no more, preserves the possibility of more substantive conversations later.

And that’s why I want environmentalists to say to Floridians and Texans who are in great distress right now, “I’m so sorry about the catastrophe that has overtaken you. How can we help?” And no more.

Pruitt’s Strategy

What Pruitt actually wants is for there to be no discussion, ever, of climate change. That is why he has systematically eliminated any reference to climate change from the EPA website, according to the Washington Post. If he were more politically astute, I think he would bait environmentalists and try to get them to behave like the injured wife in the story. No caring. No compassion. No help. Just, “I told you so.”

climate 1And if we did that, the moment would go by when the argument can be put aside just for now and simple humanitarian assistance given—without a ruler across the knuckles for once. And the resentment of elite know-it-alls in exacerbated and Trumpism gets stronger. You can see why Pruitt would like that. You can see why I wouldn’t.

Very likely, Pruitt and I know the same thing about the resistance of Trump voters to having their knuckles whacked. The strongest part of the Trump coalition is white males with less than a college education who supported Trump by a jaw-dropping 67% to 28%., the largest of all the demographic splits among white voters. And what we know about this crucial voter class is that they have fierce resentment toward those who “disrespect them,” to use the current vernacular.

The resentment of “elites” is so strong that they would—and do—willingly vote against their own economic interests just to stick it to the elites. You can find that in half a dozen contemporary books and maybe a hundred articles. It’s just true. Finding a way to appreciate it is the issue for environmentalists.

Flight Behavior

Here’s one. Here is Dellarobia Turnbow, heroine of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. She is trying to explain the divide on climate change to a scientist who has come there to find out why the Monarch butterflies decided to winter in Tennessee this year.

Ovid says, “You think…it’s a territory divide? We have sorted ourselves as the calm, educated science believers and the scrappy, hotheaded climate deniers?”

Dellarobia replies, “I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around.”
“Team camo,” she says, referring to [her husband] Cub’s team. “We get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own.”

“The other side,” [she doesn’t even know what to call the other team but contemporary conservatives call them Limousine Liberals], “wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattés and as many second chances as anybody wants.” Dellarobia doesn’t have a name for the “other team,” but she knows they are rich (wear something expensive, lattés, second chances) and progressive (recycling and population control).

The great thing about this exchange, as it bears on my current difference of opinion with Scott Pruitt, is that Dellarobia is talking and Ovid is listening. Further, I think Dellarobia is right. The teams get picked and “then the beliefs get handed around.” The relevant beliefs at the moment have to do with whether the nation will mobilize behind these disaster-ridden areas. The beliefs Tomás Relegado wants to talk about now should be talked about later and with different people.

Needful Things

The other picture I want to give you comes from Fraser C. Heston’s film Needful Things. [2] In this scene, Danforth Keaton III, who is “disrespected” throughout the movie by being called “Buster,” shows up in the center of a crowd and he is strapped with explosives.

“Hi,” he says, imitating the AA protocol, “My name is Dan and I’m here to blow up your fucking town. You’re all going to pay big. Pay h-u-u-u-ge!

Sheriff Pangborn tries to defuse the moment.

“Be calm, folks. Don’t give him a reason.”

That turns out to be no more than a straight-line for Keaton.

“I got a reason, you shithead. I got a lifetime of reasons.”

I want to offer you that picture so we can look at it in detail. Keaton is just about to blow himself up. [3] And his pitch, the whole of his interest, is that “they” and going to pay. Is he really capable of looking past all the cost to himself just so that he can do something that will cost others? Of course he is. A large part of the conservative demographic votes in exactly that way.

The second point I would like to draw your attention to is that the grievances have so climate 4accumulated—“a lifetime of reasons”—that present events cannot be made the reason for deciding what to do. In that way too, I think Keaton illustrates the resentments of the right wing.

I’m with Sheriff Pangborn. Make the present moment the crucial moment. Don’t raise the larger questions at the time of crisis. Don’t try a self-interest argument with anyone who is so bent on causing others pain, that he is willing to undergo any amount of pain himself to do it.

Conclusion

So in place of argument, I want you to spend some time looking at these three pictures and thinking about what they mean. That is certainly what I have been doing. The second two, Flight Behavior and Needful Things, illustrate how thoroughly fixed the climate change denial is. It’s not a matter of data. It’s a matter of showing their contempt for the people who don’t have any respect for them.

The scene from Spanglish argues that what we need to say to the citizens—remember that I am hoping for another message to the congressmen—is only this: “We are so sorry. How can we help.” Period. Nothing more. My argument is that saying only that will help sustain, in the long run, the kinds of conversations Scott Pruitt wants to defer forever.

[1] And that is the concern of Tomás Regalado, the Republican mayor of Miami.“This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the president and the E.P.A. and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change,” Mr. Regalado told the Miami Herald. “If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”
[2] Based on Stephen King ’s book of the same title.
[3] If I had already sold my soul to the Devil, as Keaton has, I’m not sure I would be all that eager to die, but there is no reasoning with him at this point and that is, in fact, the point I want to make.

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Two Systems of Forgiveness

Do you know when you have effectively forgiven someone who has offended you or against whom you hold a grievance? Not necessarily.

I am going to describe two systems of “grievance-processing” here. The most important MSDMIBE EC006thing I want to say is that if there are indeed two (or more) and if they operate independently, it is crucially important that we know that. Not knowing it makes us all look foolish.

I want to argue that there are two systems and that they work differently and are seen differently by the participants and others. [2] This little clip of dialogue is from Robert Redford’s film, The Milagro Beanfield War. It is Ruby’s fault that Charlie spent the night in jail. Charlie has spend his jail time polishing up his complaint. Ruby, who has spent the time collecting money to bail him out, thinks the grievance should have dissipated some time during the night.

Ruby: (Sarcastically): “Thank you, Ruby, for bailing me out.

Charlie: I’d be a hell of a lot more grateful if you hadn’t gotten me in in the first place. Or at least if you had bailed me out sooner.

Ruby: I had no cash. I had to wait for the bank to open.

Charlie: Oh, I see. So I have no reason to be sore.

Ruby: No, you had all night to get over it.

Do grievances just “go away,” do you think, or does something have to be done to fix them? The answer given to that question indicates which of two understandings of forgiveness seems right and normal to you. I’m going to call one system “forensic” because of the easy analogies to courtroom practice. I’m going to call the second “relational” for reasons that aren’t as easy to describe. After a brief description of each, I will launch into my thesis.

The forensic and relational systems

The judicial or forensic system is easily understood by everyone. The agreement that it ought to be applied to people is not as broad as the understanding. There is an offense of some sort. The state has them all defined and most of time people know when they have violated a law. You are charged with something by impartial agents. [3] You are convicted by other impartial agents. You ‘serve your time’—that’s the appealingly broad expression I am going to use to refer, in this system, to jail time—under the watchful eyes of yet other uninvolved agents. And finally, you are excused by someone, speaking for the state in all its interests, and pronounced “free.” You have, in the much too often used expression,”paid your debt to society” and are now permitted to live among your fellows on the same terms. That’s the judicial model; familiar isn’t it?

The Roman Catholic church, as even Protestants know from all the movies, follows aforgiveness 6 similarly formal system. You confess your sins to the priest, [4] he prescribes some act of penance (and possibly of restitution—the movies aren’t as clear about that) and then pronounces, on God’s behalf, that you are forgiven and restored to full fellowship in the church. I hope that account isn’t too far wrong; I am trying only to illustrate a non-state version of the judicial system.

So everybody is with me so far.

But, I am arguing, there is another system. It may be is widespread use—I suspect it is—but it isn’t talked about. Or if it is talked about, the elements of the system are called by other names. This is an informal or, as I said above, “relational” system.

In this system, you know that there has been an offense when someone tells you that he or she is offended and/or begins to behave the way people do when they are offended. These would be offenses against custom or some notion of “good taste” rather than against a law.

Many times, good practice argues that the offender—the person who has been informed that he has offended—apologize. [5] The offender need not take the offense seriously—he may not yet know just what it was—but he is determined to take the offended person seriously and to deal with the state of his or her feelings.

Common practice diverges at this point. Among some people, it is absolutely necessary that you pronounce the words of forgiveness, whether you have forgiven the offender or not. Among others, it is possible to “receive” the apology and for the offended person to confess that he or she is not yet able to forgive, but that he or she hopes to be able to in the future. The implication of this formula is that there is an intention to forgive, as there might be an intention to get in shape, but it is going to take work to get there. By using this formulation, the person implies that he or she intends to do that work and to arrive at the requested forgiveness.

Then, odd as it may seem, the next step is the resumption of the relationship in some form. It may be a crimped and distant form; it may be a tense and wary form; it may be an apparent resumption of the old relationship—but only in public settings where the offended person and the offender happen to be together. [6]

And then, finally, the relationship in its old undamaged form is resumed and there may even be a period of “better than normal”—a compensatory increase in warmth and affection, as if to call attention to the return to normality.

There are two

That was the easy part. Now let’s get to work. If there is only one system, it is the forensic system. There is no way for people to live in ignorance of the forensic system, since it surrounds them in society, so it is natural to apply it to relationships between persons. I’m not arguing that it is a good thing to do; I am arguing that it is common and that it is natural.

forgiveness 7If there is only one system, then the behaviors of the other person will be evaluated using the norms of that system. This is the step where I lose people, so let’s imagine that a well-known rugby player, Jonah Lomu, for instance, is referred to as the dirtiest basketball player in the league. I know that makes it seem silly, but if you really believe that the only game there is is basketball and if, with that in mind, you watch Lomu doing this, you will be driven to that kind of criticism.

But if there are two (or more) kinds, then you evaluate by using the standards appropriate to that kind; you judge the behavior within its own system of standards. So criticizing a practitioner of the forensic style as “heartless” or “cold” or (even worse, as “linear”) is the most natural thing in the world. If there is only one system and it is the relational system, then the steps of the forensic model seems as “wrong” as Jonah Lomu’s “basketball moves.” Criticizing a practitioner of the relational style as unpredictable or cruel or whimsical is the most natural thing in the world If there is only one style and it is the forensic style, then the person who ignores or denies all the well-known markers of forgiveness and restoration is a terrible person.

One and a half solutions [7]

The first solution is knowing that there are two systems. That makes it possible to assess the characteristic behaviors of each style by the norms appropriate to them. A practitioner of the relational style, like Ruby in the opening dialogue, will be judged as better than or worse than other practitioners of that style. A practitioner of the forensic style, like Charlie in the opening dialogue, will be judged as better or worse than others like himself. Fine.

So now everyone understands everything. Now we can get to the hard part where the two styles are mixed. Charlie, or someone like him, is emotionally abusive to a friend and then “fixes” it with a heartless “request” for formal forgiveness. He has done the right thing and is dumbfounded that the friend is furious. Ruby, or someone like her, is emotionally affirming, a way of signaling that the period defined by the offense is over. No offense has been recognized, no apology has been given, but clearly, the relationship is back to normal so far as Ruby is concerned. She is dumbfounded that Charlie continues to hang on to a grievance when he should have gotten over it by now.

The half solution involves how one such person can deal with another. There is always empathy, of course. I know you to be forensic in style so I model my asking for or granting forgiveness in the style I know you will understand. I know you to be relational in style, so I model the restoration of the relationship—with no reference to “offenses” or “forgiveness”—in a style I know you will understand.

I think that “solution” is clear, but I am not sure it is good. I have two concerns. One is forgiveness 9that it is really hard to do. Picture this. A man finds that his wife has been sleeping around in the neighborhood with his friends. What he wants from her is some sign of remorse and a good faith promise that she won’t do it again. What he gets after each episode is…oh, “enhanced affection” from his wife. Whatever it is that he likes best about the relationship, there if more of it for him for awhile. This is perfectly in keeping with his wife’s understanding that what she did was emotionally hurtful to her husband and now she is making up for it by being emotionally receptive to him. There are no “offenses” here; I was mean so now I am being nice.

Picture this. A wife finds out that her husband has been sleeping around the neighborhood with her friends. She confronts him and he admits that he has done wrong. He apologizes and she forgives him, but for reasons she cannot quite grasp, the relationship never returns to full power. The offense as been dealt with completely, so far as formal steps will allow, but he is still distant and easily offended and she feels like “it” isn’t over yet.

I have great sympathy for this this husband and this wife. They have already received what I have to give them, which is understanding. She understands that he is a forensic person; he understands that she is a relational person. But when it comes to healing the rift between them, that understanding just doesn’t get the job done.

So I will leave them with my sympathy and no more. I don’t know what else to give them. There is one more theoretical step, however, and I want to tuck that in before I punch out. It is that each system can also be judged by whether it works, not just by whether it is familiar.

I, as a forensic style person, am wasting my time by complaining about the practices of relational friends IF what they do, actually works. There are, as Rudyard Kipling says, “four and twenty ways/of making tribal lays/ and every single one of them is right.” If it works, it works. What criticism can there be of a sequence of steps that does, in fact, produce genuine reconciliation and restoration of relationship?

Unless you can’t do it, yourself. You can approve of it. You can suspend any criticism of it. But you can’t go so far as to internalize its benefits as the two empaths in my example did. You are stuck. Good luck. Don’t forget to write.

[1] Note the two formulations. You may hold a grievance, for reasons of your own, against someone who has not offended you. There is no “crime” here, but someone is nevertheless being charged with it. Or there may be a crime and the charge is just the first of many necessary steps in dealing with it.
[2] And written about it differently by counseling psychologists and perhaps even by theologians. But every treatment of this matter I have seen begins and ends within the same system. That may be the source of some of our misunderstandings.
[3] I mean only that there is no need for them to have been personally offended by what you did. You didn’t do it to them. They are impartial in that sense.
[4] In Ireland last May, we visited a Catholic church where the confessional was called forgiveness 1“the reconciliation room.” I liked that It had never occurred to me before that you could name the room after the outcome, rather that after the process.
[5] I am thinking of a real apology here, not the non-apology apologies that have become so common in political life. “I’m sorry if what I did offended you.” Really? You are conditionally contrite, waiting only until better data arrive? I don’ think so.
[6] This is very common in family settings where there are so many reasons to be together other than the choice of the two people to be together. The two might be taking turns in schlepping the kids. They are not “together” in the old sense, but some face has to be put on the relationship anyway.
[7] I own that subtitle to a book title. The movie, Their Finest, draws on Winston Churchill’s famous speech. “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties,” said the Prime Minister, “and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.” The book on which the movie was based was about propaganda films for World War II and it was called Their Finest Hour and a Half.

 

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The Call of Moses as a Fish Story

Yup. Moses. [1] Not Jonah. [2] Our lectionary calls for the reading, at the September 3 service, of the story of the call of Moses. The sermon was actually based on a parallel scripture in Matthew, but I was completely taken by the reading from Exodus. I heard it as a large and simple story, almost a plot outline. It sounded preposterous and the more preposterous it sounded, the better I liked it. Today, I’d like to show you the overall arc of that plot outline and a few pictures that came to mind. I am thinking of the pictures as Postcards from the Edge and I am thinking today only of sharing the enjoyment they gave me.

To begin with, let’s imagine that the version of Exodus 3 we now have was composed in Babylon in the 6th Century B. C. for the needs of the Israelite exile community. Maybe some of that is true; maybe all of it. And let’s specify a particular author, so it will be easier to attribute the intentions of an author to him. I’m thinking of a name like Joseph bar Jonah. [3]

So Joseph writes up the story of the delivery of the Hebrew people from slavery in the land of Israel and since they are slaves [4] in Babylon at the time, there is no reason for him to get all subtle about it.

The Burning Bush

The bush appears to be on fire, but it is not being consumed by the fire. Moses, the fish story 1nobleman turned shepherd, had seen a lot of bushes on fire, but never one like this. It struck him as odd and he went to see it on the grounds that it was a natural oddity. I was an anomaly. It was The Anomaly.

God waited to see whether Moses would go check out the bush. God didn’t know and had to wait, like Joseph bar Jonah’s readers, to find out. When Moses did turn aside, the first job was to change this encounter from a simple natural anomaly to a profound spiritual interaction. And that needed to happen quickly because Moses was about to get the job offer of his life and the whole thing was completely implausible.

God’s Name

Joseph bar Jonah didn’t need to convince his readers of the power of a name. A name in that society was like the combination to the safe in our society or access to the passwords or authority to write checks on someone else’s account. Knowing a name was a big deal.

Now…Moses didn’t know God’s name. Nor did the Israelites, to whom it would matter, since this God was their ticket out of slavery. [5] Nor did the Pharoah know the name of this god. It wasn’t familiar to him even when he was told what it was and, didn’t see any reason why he should consider it to have authority.

And the name God gives to Moses is completely impenetrable. I have been told by people who know a great deal more Hebrew than I do that the name God gave to Moses can be rendered “I am who I am” or “I will do what I will do.” [6] Those can be used as if they were a name, Yahweh, but knowing that name does not entail having a power over that being.

On the way to using the name Yahweh (or just YHWH), God identifies Himself historically. He says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” We don’t know just what that meant to Moses, with his high-grade Egyptian education. Bar Jonah tells us that Moses’s mother and father were Levites. That means that he is in direct descent from Levi, the son of Jacob. So “I am the God of ….Jacob” means I am the God of your family in particular, as well as all the other families.

Now the children of Jacob, i.e. the children of Israel, had been in Egypt for about 400 years by that time [7], so “direct descendant” didn’t mean anything very obvious, even in a tight clan society. And that’s why the same claim didn’t move the elders of the Israelites in Egypt.

So…this is the fish story part…Moses was sent by a God he didn’t know to proclaim imminent release of the Israelites on behalf of a God they didn’t know either and all this was to be accomplished by persuading a polytheistic ruler that he should honor the wishes of a god he had never heard of and had no reason to obey. It is a lose, lose, lose proposition.

God’s Deeds

fish story 2But as I said, the name God gave to Moses can be understood as “I will do what I will do” and the doing accomplished things that the name could not. Moses was scarcely willing to believe in the project himself, so God gave him three tricks to do. One has to do with a walking stick that turns into a snake and then back; one with a hand that is terribly diseased and then healthy; and one about water that turns into blood when you pour it out. Moses can, apparently, picture being persuasive in Egypt if he has these tricks in his repertoire. They certainly work for the elders of Israel the same way they worked for Moses. They didn’t believe in the name, but they did believe in the deeds.

That must have stung bar Joseph’s readers just a little, because they had the name. But when the army of the foreigners came to haul them away, there were no deeds. Maybe bar Joseph is trying to plant the question, “So…where are the deeds?”

And the Pharoah, as I said, saw no need to honor the extravagant requests of an unheard of deity, but Moses’s tricks were more powerful than those of his own mages. That’s something to think about. And then God brought awful plagues upon the land and the people, just the plagues Moses predicted. So this unheard of God is a god of deeds and He can make you an offer you can’t refuse.

[1] “An extravagant or incredible story,” according to my online Merriam Webster Dictionary, first used in this sense in 1819.
[2] A “great fish” according to the author of Jonah. A “whale” according to the Matthean Jesus, using one of the translations of the Greek, kētos, which could be translated “whale, sea monster, or huge fish.” I am a fan of the translation “sea monster,”myself. It dramatizes all the right things and runs no risk at all of pretending to be scientific.
[3] The parallels with Jesus’s disciple Simon bar Jonah are intentional, though hardly necessary. If you’re going to tell a fish story, you might as well have fun with it.
[4] Not in the same sense as in Egypt, but they couldn’t go home and they couldn’t be the set apart nation, Israel, in Babylon—especially since the site of the Temple was in Jerusalem.
[5] And, according to Genesis 6:3, that is not the name God had used in His dealings with the Israelites, but rather El Shaddai. You see what I mean about this name thing.
[6] And since they are the same verb, they can be mixed and matched. So a scholar could, on good linguistic grounds, propose that God has told Moses that His name was “I am what I will do” or even “I will do what I am.” Either one can be supported by appeals to the history of Israel.
[7] Genesis 15:13. I’m not making a historical argument here, just passing along bar Jonah’s study notes.

 

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Garbage Time

Yesterday I attended a meeting at which a lot of appropriate things were said.  After that, the meeting deteriorated into a free for all of bad questions and posturing. It is that latter part of the meeting that I am calling garbage time.

I’d like to speculate a little about how to understand meetings like these, and especially the contribution that the notion of garbage time brings to that understanding. Then I’d like to offer an abrupt change of perspective that was given to me for free by Barbara Tyler. [1]

How the idea of “Garbage Time” helps

It gives you a way to think about the good part of the meeting. There is a purpose to be achieved, let’s say. You are here to describe a program and I am here to understand the program. We have a common interest. That’s the part of the meeting that is like the game.

garbage 2Real issues are at stake. One team is going to win and another will lose. I want to be on the winning team so I subordinate any other interest I might have to the team’s needs. Ordinarily, for instance, I’d rather score than rebound, but winning tonight is going to require more rebounding, so I pass up my shot and get in position for the rebound. This is so clearly what the team needs that I might not even be conscious that I am doing it. But if you see me doing it, you will know how to understand it.

But when that part of the game is over—we are so far ahead that we couldn’t really lose or so far behind that we couldn’t really win—the reason for all that discipline is over as well. Now I can take the shots I had wanted to take and maybe some shots I shouldn’t ever take. I take them now. It’s garbage time.

I think that participants at a public meeting make judgments just like that one. There is a time when the success of the meeting is up for grabs. We may succeed if we focus carefully and we will surely lose if we allow our discipline to lapse and our individual interests to take precedence. So we keep ourselves from doing the things that will cause us to fail. Instead, we do the things that the meeting requires. That’s how we all win at a public meeting. We keep the benefits high and the costs low.

The notion of garbage time helps to clarify, by contrast, the real game part of the meeting is and when it is no longer “a real meeting;” it is only garbage time. So these function as indicators. When we see these things starting to happen, we conclude that the real meeting is over. In a game, inappropriate shots and lax defense and missed assignments are all indicators we can rely on. What can we rely on to help us identify garbage time in a public meeting. [2]

I think examples might be more useful than categories here. I have two in mind.

Let’s say that I am a resident attending the meeting and that I was, in my career, the master of some skill that bears on this meeting. Accounting or programming or systems analysis. Because it is garbage time, I spend a good deal of time informing the other residents of my skills and I imply that if there is anything wrong with the information being presented, I will find it.

Is that an indicator that it is garbage time? Probably.  Going on and on about my skills seems needlessly self-aggrandizing to me but what we really need to know is whether this account would have been withheld earlier in the meeting—when the game was still in doubt. But if it is true—I am postulating that it is true for the purposes of this example—that she would ordinarily have disciplined herself to the purposes of the meeting and would not have made all those personal claims, then the fact that she did make the claims could be taken as an indicator that the “real contest” part of the meeting had ended and that garbage time had begun. And that is what we are looking for; we are looking for indicators of the transition.

Or, for our second example, let’s say that some explanation is made about changes in the garbage 3cost of parking. A resident is recognized and goes on for awhile about how rich our area is in public transit and how, as a result, there is very little need for a resident to have a car at all.  That’s the real way to deal with increases in parking fees!. Let’s imagine that this resident is well-known for his pro-mass transit views and nearly always expresses those views in private or small group conversations. It seems odd to us that this familiar pitch would be made again in a public meeting and that the time of the meeting would be taken up by what is, essentially, a public service announcement. But if it is true that this resident would not have allowed himself to make this pitch in a public meeting during “game time,” then his willingness to allow it now is yet another indicator that we have arrived at garbage time.

When things like that start happening, it represents the judgment of the attendees that the useful part of the meeting is over and the willingness to exercise discipline on behalf of the common goals begins to decline markedly. And of course, since the value of the meeting as a public meeting declines rapidly when people begin to use the common time as a time of personal grievances or private aggrandizement. So the more garbage there is, the more garbage there will be.

Another Perspective from the Tyler Coffee Klatch

All of the ideas so far begin with the public meeting. I have always begun with the meeting itself. We are having a meeting because there is a goal to be achieved by meeting together. The meeting is the primary thing and although it is true that the proceedings tend to get frayed toward the end, we can chalk those off to fatigue or frustration.

But Barbara Tyler said that she thinks some people go to the meeting specifically for the garbage time. That struck me immediately as quite likely. But I am raising it here because it is an analytical game changer. It starts at the other end of the process. It begins with the reasons to go to the meeting, not with the purpose of the meeting. I was really struck by that. I’m still excited by it.  It’s like discovering a new species.

In this view, people go to the meeting with no interest in the announced topic at all, but with the confident expectation that at the end of whatever focused consideration there is, there will be a time for the public airing of private grievances and the public posturing about past accomplishments and the public chastisement of anyone who has run afoul of that resident in the past. And the time of the meeting—garbage time—when those kinds of contributions are common is the reason for attending the meeting at all.

garbage 1Of course, I don’t want to argue that there are, in fact, people who think of the meetings that way. I don’t know whether there are or not. I don’t think I know anyone about whom I would say that—that they attend meetings just waiting for garbage time. On the other hand, this is a way of looking at the meeting that starts at a different place entirely. It understands the meeting as a way for individuals to meet their individual needs in public and that way of understanding the value of the meeting had never occurred to me and likely never would have.

[1] Ordinarily, I take good ideas wherever I find them and just tuck them into the narrative, but this one came as part of what I called Barbara’s Coffee Klatch, when I wrote about that gathering on our first anniversary here, so I’ll just go ahead and own up to where I got it.
[2] It isn’t anger, by the way. Sometimes, it seems that the presenters are not playing their roles well. They are withholding information the meeting needs, or demeaning the askers of inconvenient questions or pretending to “answer” a question by repeating the same non-answer that has been given several times before. I have seen groups get really angry at being treated that way. The temperature goes up and the volume goes up, but this is a natural part of the deliberations and no one leaves because of it. In fact, the agitation might have some entertainment value.

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The Descent into Tribalism

David Brooks wrote a really good overview of the Trump and Comey controversy on June 9. I read it and valued it and filed it in my mind. But one small clip from that article has continued to float up to my consciousness and I’d like to give it further thought today.

Comey emerged as a superb institutionalist, a man who believes we are a nation of laws. Trump emerged as a tribalist… who simply cannot understand the way modern government works.

I like the contrast between institutionalism and tribalism. There is no way to have what has often been called “a government of laws and not of men” without people who are committed to making institutions work to the benefit of the public. Tribalism is another kind of thing entirely.

I don’t know exactly what Brooks meant by tribalism, but I know where tribalism goes if it is not contained and I don’t want to go there. Let’s consider President Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona as a case in point. Why did he do it and what does it mean?

tribalism 2Sheriff Arpaio was convicted of “flagrant defiance of another judge’s orders in a long-running case over the former Maricopa County sheriff’s targeting of Latinos in Arizona,” according to Joan Biskupic, a CNN court reporter. The court said that Arpaio was violating the constitutional rights of Arizona citizens and he said he didn’t care and wasn’t going to quit. Hence the arrest and conviction.

By no coincidence at all, a big part of President Trump’s campaign was strongly anti-immigrant. He may have felt very much the way Sheriff Arpaio felt and he may have wanted to communicate his support for Arpaio to his constituents. I think a presidential tweet would have accomplished that or a “Sorry to hear about your conviction” greeting card. Trump issued a pardon.  Why did he do that?

Here’s a possibility. Trump used the resources of the office of President to rescue another member of his tribe. It is the common tribal affiliation that would matter in this way of reading it. It is not that Arpaio was tried and convicted. It is that he was tried and convicted for doing things Trump approves of or at least that he is confident his constituents approve of. Clearly, that brings a new standard to light. It is not whether you have violated the law or not, according to this new standard, it is whether you have done so “in a good cause.” If harassing U. S. citizens on the grounds that they look Hispanic is “a good cause,” then it doesn’t matter that it is against the law. You can be charged for it and tried for it and convicted for it and you really don’t care because there is always the presidential pardon to rely on.

You have to wonder whether that would cover treason “in a good cause” too. Would it cover the assassination of doctors who perform abortions? Would it cover the use of attack dogs and fire hoses against black protesters in the South? If the issue is tribal—a matter of the cause and not of the law—is there any way to tell what is permissible anymore?

I don’t see how.

The legal perspective is that it is illegal to murder people. It is illegal to murder them in a good cause and also in a bad cause and also on behalf of no cause at all. It is the means—murder—that is wrong and the defense that you did it in a good cause does not make it right. Murdering “in a good cause” might be very popular politically, but it is still wrong and it is still illegal. That is the perspective that “a government of laws and not of men” brings to the table.

If we are headed for legal immunity for the people Trump likes, how far are we from thetribalism 1 Hatfields and the McCoys. [1] On the one side of this divide would be the laws of the land and the men and women charged with seeing to it that it is obeyed. On the other would be the people who are immune from legal prosecution for anything they do on behalf of their tribe. It would mean looking at Eliot Ness and Al Capone as the heads of two tribes fighting for supremacy in Chicago. The fact that one represented the law and the other a criminal organization is not brought to light in this conflict of tribes perspective.

I don’t want to go there.

I have been careful in this essay not to try to say what tribalism is—or institutionalism either—but where this emphasis on tribe could take us. It might be, for instance, that President Trump doesn’t care as much as he seems to about Sheriff Arpaio and a great deal more than he seems to about Robert Mueller. Mark Joseph Stern wrote in Slate.com that Trump may be sending a signal to the witnesses Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller will be calling in his investigation of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Comey, the man Brooks referred to as “a superb institutionalist” was fired by President Trump, apparently for not being loyal enough. Trump wanted to make sure The FBI director was “on the team”—was part of the tribe—and Comey wouldn’t make that commitment. Special Counsel Mueller was appointed to look into the matter and given that he has very broad powers to collect information and to subpoena witnesses, he could very well make himself a nuisance.

And he does not appear to have a tribal affiliation. And he will be subpoenaing people who do have a tribal affiliation. Are these members of Trump’s tribe going to be required by law to tell the truth in public? Will they have to admit to having broken the law? Will they break the law by refusing to admit that they broke the law?

To all of these speculations, the tribal answer is, “Don’t worry, be happy.” You can do what you need to do and say what you need to say because the pardon that is wielded by the head of your tribe is going to be available to you no matter what. Or, as one writer put it, “The message of the Arpaio pardon to the Mueller witnesses is, “I’ve got your back.”

In these circumstances, a “crime” against the law is just a speed bump provided that it was done on behalf of the tribe. A government of men, you see, and not a government of laws after all.

tribalism 3I know that is where tribalism goes. I don’t know if we are taking large steps in that direction. It looks like it. People who stand up for the integrity of the law will be accused as being members of “the other tribe.” The Tribe of Anti-Trump. That is, after wall, what Capone said to the members of his organization who were not Anti-Ness enough. It is what members of the McCoy Clan said to family members who were not Anti-Hatfield enough. It is what President Nixon meant when he urged the people of his administration to “take one for the team” and go to jail. But he didn’t pardon them.

And Trump should not either.

[1] This famous feud involved two rural families on the West Virginia-Kentucky border in the years between 1863 and 1891. Wikipedia has a great line about it: “The feud has entered the American folklore lexicon as a metonym for any bitterly feuding rival parties.”

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