The Star Spangled Banner as a Commons

ill you all rise, please, and join us in the singing our our national anthem?”

It doesn’t sound all that hard, does it? But, as everyone knows by now, it can be made extremely difficult and we have done that. It seems to me that at the most fundamental level, this is just the tragedy of the commons. [1]

“The commons” as  Garrett Hardin uses it is a common grazing area. All the farmers areteam 5 free to graze their cattle on the common pasture provided they don’t have too many cattle. Only so many and no more. But each farmer has an incentive to add just a few “extra” cattle—how much harm can a few extra cattle possibly do?—to the common area and when too many farmers do that, the commons crashes and there is no food for anyone’s cattle and disaster ensues.

The national anthem is a commons. All public ceremonies in which we participate as Americans—only that one status–are a commons. The inauguration of a new president is such an event. The awarding of medals to the winners of a track and field contest is such an event. The crowning of a new Miss America is such an event—or was once. [2]

About all of these, I would say that everyone who participates in the event, as a contestant or as a spectator, owes a duty to the event. That’s a shorthand way of saying that each one owes to his or her neighbors the courtesy of treating the event as if we all related to it in the same way, not as partisans, who will be guaranteed to feel differently about the outcome.

There is only one way to treat the event as a commons and that is to lay aside, for the moment, the things that divide us and to focus, for the moment, on this one thing that unites us. There are literally thousands of ways to subvert the commonness of the event and every Sunday from now on into the foreseeable future, we will be treated to new ones?

Have you seen the NFL team that stands during the performance of the Star Spangled Banner, linking arms and facing away from the field of play? I haven’t either, but surely it is only a matter of time. Have you seen the team and all the coaches and all the owners standing on the sidelines linking arms and singing the anthem together? Or kneeling together, assuming that someone will be willing to help to owner to his feet afterwards? I haven’t either, but I expect to and if I could see a replay of every NFL opening ceremony next week, I would.

At the Seahawks v. Titans game last week, both teams remained in their locker rooms until after the “unifying ceremony” was over. At the Steelers v. Bears game, one team was on the field and one was not. Here is a survey of what was done at different sites.

A Sunday afternoon football game is a special thing. It is a commons. You can’t just add extra cows to it, confident that no one else will think of it. The real question is not my cows or your cows; it is some extra cows or no extra cows.

Katharine Q Seelye and Bill Pennington   reported in The New York Times that:

At football stadiums across the country, fans seemed united in their irritation that their sacrosanct leisure hours had been hijacked by a raging, uncivil war that in their view should be confined on Sundays to the talk shows — so they could tune it out.

I think the choice of the word “sacrosanct” is absolutely justified here. And the intensity it conveys is justified by the lengths people will go to protect it. [3] These fans want football and nothing else. Well…football and tailgating and nothing else.

The singing of the Star Spangled Banner—which was once something the fans were team 2asked “to join in”—even though the word “free” with that awful tight ee- vowel comes at a high G that hardly anyone can reach. That adds a common ritual to the “sacrosanct leisure hours.” As long as you don’t pay much attention to what it says, you can just wait until the performance is over and the game starts. [4] And as long as it is common, no one objects.

Refusing to treat it as a meaningless ritual—more precisely, a ritual that is powerful because the particulars are not attended to—opens it up to varying interpretations. What does standing quietly in a reverential posture “mean?” It used to mean that you were extending a courtesy to your neighbors and affirming a bond of solidarity with them. But if it now means “Black Lives Really Don’t Matter,” then you would expect some difference of opinion.

To the division between those who want pure leisure—that’s the commons—we add people who want almost pure leisure—broken only by the introduction of the issues that are important to me. Just my cows, that is, not yours. And once there is a divisive issue, your response to it will be divided into affirming it or opposing it. Even doing nothing will be colluding with it.

team 1Now the commons is gone. Players are staying in the locker room until after our “ritual of solidarity is over.” Players are inventing combinations of ways to affirm the unity of the team amidst the different views of the players. Look at this picture of the Detroit Lions. Some are kneeling, some are standing.  All are holding onto each other.  I wish the churches could figure out a way to do that.

President Trump—His Tweetness—has not invented this issue, but he has made it markedly worse and he will certainly lose. Every Sunday, ingenious new ways to give the finger to the President will be invented and displayed on prime time television. Standing, kneeling, squatting, staying in the locker room, joining hands with the other team, wearing blindfolds, holding signs. There is no end to the ways this rebuke can be administered.

And to all the owners and coaches and players who oppose the President’s issue, add all the fans who want no issues at all to distract them from their non-NFL lives. So Trump will lose this one.

But then, how will the commons be restored? Does it ever get restored? Unlike the pasture in Hardin’s parable, the unity of a ritual doesn’t just grow back like the grass does. When you stop overgrazing the grass, it grows back. When you stop chipping away at a common ritual, it just stands there, chipped. Rituals don’t heal.

I think they can be healed. Theoretically. I don’t know how. And since we don’t really know how they can be restored, maybe we shouldn’t damage them so carelessly.

[1] “The Tragedy of the Commons” began to be a much-used metaphor when Garrett Hardin published it in the journal Science in 1968. He says he got it from a pamphlet written by A. F. Lloyd in 1853, so the image has been around for awhile.
[2] It took a little time and thought to give you three grades of illustration: undeniable, plausible, and controversial. I hope you appreciate the care with which this buffet was prepared for you.
[3] In the movie, Concussion, Dr. Cyril Wecht tells Dr. Bennet Omalu, “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week; the same day the church used to own.” You want to talk “sacrosanct,” there it is.
[4] I once imagined a protest in which the singer would refuse to sing the words “the land of the free” until the U. S. dropped out of the top ten countries that have the highest proportions of their citizens in jail. He or she would just hum those six words—“o’er the land of the free”—before ending the song.



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I know, but he’s OUR dotard

I didn’t hear President Trump give this speech. I have a lot of trouble seeing him and hearing him. My dentist said just a small amount of nitrous oxide would help solve that problem, but he wasn’t allowed to give me any once I left the office. [1] I was eager to know what he said, however, so as soon as the White House released the transcript, I read it. The man never ceases to amaze me.

I want to begin by saying that Trump’s speech was “bunk.” I mean by that very rich word [2] that it was aimed at a domestic audience, not at the international audience in the U. N. auditorium where he was standing. So the people who were invited to be present for the speech—having never been in “Buncombe”–were in no position to appreciate how good the “bunk” sounded back there.

u n 3If you begin by understanding that President Trump was making a campaign speech aimed at people “back home” it all makes more sense. There is a great deal of anti-U. N. sentiment among Trump supporters. I used to see signs “U.S. out of U. N.” I haven’t seen any of those signs for awhile, but the sentiment lives on. This speech pandered to that sentiment in quite a few ways.

Let’s start with “The socialist dictatorship of [Venezuela’s] Nicolas Maduro has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country.” Why would he say such a thing.  Everyone is against “dictatorship.” Even dictators make sure to call their rule by some other name. But President Trump wants to attach “socialist” to “dictatorship.” “Socialist” is a good word almost everywhere in the world except the United States. It most places, it means caring for all the citizens of your country and sharing the burden of governance and where it is not presupposed, it is sought after. But Trump knows that his base thinks of it as a bad word, roughly akin to ‘communism,” so in constructing his condemnation of Venezuela’s Maduro, he combines them. That makes no sense at all at the U. N., but it makes perfect sense “back in Buncombe.”

Of the specific charges, the easiest to understand is that the U. S. is not getting its money’s worth out of the United Nations.

The United States is one out of 193 countries in the United Nations, and yet we pay 22 percent of the entire budget and more….  The United States bears an unfair cost burden…The American people hope that one day soon the United Nations can be a much more accountable and effective advocate for human dignity and freedom around the world.  In the meantime, we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden…”

In the context of the immediate hearers of the speech, none of this makes any sense at all. Does President Trump really think that the costs should be apportioned by dividing the total budget by the number of members? If he doesn’t mean that—and I am sure he doesn’t—then why does he say we are only 1/193 of the membership but pay more than 1/5 of the budget?

It would make much more sense to the immediate audience if he were to compare the percent of each nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) goes to support the U. N., but that way of putting it is going to make no sense at all back in Buncombe. It’s too subtle and it isn’t angry enough.

In addition, I am sure it sounded odd for the leader of a constituent state to get up and say that his nation was better than anyone else. In fact. President Trump said:

The United States of America has been among the greatest forces for good in the history of the world, and the greatest defenders of sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all.

And he said:

 The United States continues to lead the world in humanitarian assistance, including famine prevention and relief in South Sudan, Somalia, and northern Nigeria and Yemen.

And he said:

The United States will forever be a great friend to the world, and especially to its allies.  But we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return.

Remarks like these will be considered bizarre by the world leaders who assembled to hear the speech. On the other hand, they are red meat for the core of the Trump constituency and as odd as these statements seem in the setting where they were delivered, they make perfect sense to angry white Trump voters.

The elements of this speech that I have pointed to so far are really no worse than u n 2embarrassing.  They are dumb, but they aren’t really dangerous.  But there is another matter that troubles me and this one I think it is far more dangerous. Trump has in mind changing the understanding of what the U. N. is for.

Why are we all here? Is it really to advance the cause of each of our nations? Really? Is that the behavior we expect from China? From Iran? From North Korea?

Are there really no “world issues” that we can address if we are willing to set aside the national interest for the purpose of working on them? In whose “national interest” is humanitarian aid, for instance?

In the Trumpian vision of the U. N., is there any place for a Security Council, which has the authority to sit down together and act on behalf of common interests—and act in ways that require authority and sustained funding and sometimes even armed force? Does the loose coalition of self-interested nations support such an institution? I don’t think so.

And that the part that I said troubles me. We can get beyond a few self-indulgent speeches aimed at constituents “in Buncombe.” We cannot get beyond a fragmentation of the world’s great powers.

There is another way to look at this, of course. To help me think through this event, I went back and looked at President Obama’s first speech as President to the United Nations. I do not recommend casually that you go back and take a look at that speech. I did and it broke my heart. But I do want to put this short passage into this record; just to help us all remember that it doesn’t have to be the way it was this week. It used to be better and it will be again.

This was President Obama’s vision.

The United Nations was built by men and women like Roosevelt from every corner of the world — from Africa and Asia, from Europe to the Americas. These architects of international cooperation had an idealism that was anything but naïve — it was rooted in the hard-earned lessons of war; rooted in the wisdom that nations could advance their interests by acting together instead of splitting apart.

Now it falls to us — for this institution will be what we make of it. The United Nations does extraordinary good around the world — feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, mending places that have been broken.

The United Nations can either be a place where we bicker about outdated grievances, or forge common ground; a place where we focus on what drives us apart, or what brings us together; a place where we indulge tyranny, or a source of moral authority. In short, the United Nations can be an institution that is disconnected from what matters in the lives of our citizens, or it can be an indispensable factor in advancing the interests of the people we serve.

[1] That’s not precisely true. I do think that the nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) would have helped because, as the told me at the dentist’s office, nitrous oxide doesn’t make it hurt less, it just makes you care less how much it hurts.
[2] Felix Walker, who served in Congress from1817—1823, is supposed to have given a long speech of which his colleagues disapproved because it took a lot of time and wasn’t about anything. Rep. Walker asked their indulgence. His constituents expected him to make speeches in Congress and this one was for them, back home in Buncombe County, North Carolina. Rep. Walker said he understood that his remarks didn’t make any sense in the context of the Congress, but that he was “speaking to Buncombe.” We derived the English word “bunkum” from that setting; it is familiar to us now as “bunk.”





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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.


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.


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.


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.

Posted in Living My Life, sociability, ways of knowing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


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\


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.


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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