The most lied about President

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

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

Say what?  The most lied about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Performative Behavior

I got this paragraph from Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, this morning.

The Republicans behaving radically are doing so in the knowledge — or at least the strong assumption — that their behavior is performative, an act of storytelling rather than lawmaking, a posture rather than a political act.

I read the rest of the article, but it was hard because all I really wanted to do was come back and read that paragraph over and over.  “Their behavior is performative.”  Performative rather than what?  Douthat doesn’t say, but here are a few that come to my mind.  

  • Performative rather than utilitarian.  
  • Performative rather than strategic.  
  • Performative rather than logical.

I really want to say “Performative rather than serious.” but it is, in fact,  really serious that so many Republicans are acting out their belonging as partisans (Republicans) at a time when the country really needs them to act as citizens.

Douthat says that performative behavior is an act of storytelling, but I think it is worse than that.  It is an act of loyalty.  Maybe it’s just herd behavior, but at the very least it is rationalized as loyalty.  “The Trump” requires that we hold out to the end; that we say loyal and silly things.  You reason with this guy; he’s too much for me.

Here are two examples.

Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state, who will be casting an electoral vote for Mr. Trump, said,  “It’s almost laughable that anybody would think that President Trump should prematurely concede.”

Prematurely.  The long-term effect of this silliness will be to redefine the time for a concession to the last gasp.  Anyone who does not will, using Mr. Blackwell’s picture, have lost heart.

President Trump said yesterday that he is disappointed that not one court—including the Supreme Court—has had the courage to examine an electoral challenge on the merits.  

Courage.  It is a failure of courage, apparently, that all these courts fail to seriously consider Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.  It is not following out the normal standards of the law, it is not impartial jurisprudence, it is not responsible decisionmaking.  It is “cowardice.”

This wholesale subversion of language is a problem for me.  The whole subversion of the crucial processes that underlie democracy is a problem for me.  But if this is all play-acting and they know they are play-acting, maybe it isn’t so bad.  It’s just “performative behavior.”  [1] Maybe when the stage lights go down, Messers Trump and Blackwell will say, “Well, we gave it a shot.”

But what I fear, and expect, is that the normal processes of democracy have been weakened.  The courts will be judged on whether they have shown courage.  The concession of defeated opponents will be “premature” until the most bizarre challenges—legal, legislative, populist—have been exhausted.  

That language is now available.  It is modeled.  It is held up for approval, and people will have to decide actively not to use it. Before, it just didn’t occur o anyone.  I think that is asking a lot. 

[1]  And we are the ones that are odd for trying to reason with them.

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Civic Capitalism

“Socialism” doesn’t work

Socialism does work, of course.  All you have to do is look at the bloc of democratic socialist countries in northern Europe and you can see it for yourself.  In fact, even “socialism”—i.e., the word “socialism” works in Europe.  It is not argued for.  It is taken for granted by both liberals and conservatives.

But it has never meant in the United States what it means in most of the rest of the world and I think it is time to stop trying.  Those of us who are fans of the extensive (expensive, too) social programs in western Europe need to give up on the word and try something else.

I have a candidate.  “Civic Capitalism.”

For the rest of this essay, I would like to argue that this is a good name and that we ought to start using it.  In fact, if we are really serious about it, we should hire Frank Lunz, on of the most successful word-sculptors of our time, to do the job.  Lunz was the one who changed the designation “estate tax” to “death tax.”  Imagine that.  He changed the question from what the tax is on to when you pay the tax.  When he was done, it sounded like a tax on dying.  He’s the guy we need to sell the name Civic Capitalism.

What’s good about the new name?

I’ve already demonstrated what is bad with the old name.  Republicans have made it the rough equal to Soviet-style communism.  Thanks to them, policies that move in the direction of a more efficient sharing of national resources work like a poster that says, “Stalin for President!.”

So mainstream politicians cannot come out for “socialism,” even if that is what they mean.  Of course, a lot of people are willing to come out in favor of “capitalism,” but commonly, that means, “the system we now have.”  It is not the system we now have.  What we have has been wittily called “capitalism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.”  What is most insightful about that witticism is that people who have amassed power are unwilling to allow the market to work its magic.  They want to rig the conditions governing the production and distribution of goods and services so that they favor their own enterprises and not those of others.

There are two ways to sell the virtues of capitalism.  The outside one—the systemic one—is that supply and demand will act on each other so that each is held in check.  When you overproduce, the price goes down until you have to quit and then the market rebalances itself.  When you overprice, consumption goes down until the price comes back into balance.  It’s magic! Or, as Adam Smith said, it is “the invisible hand,” meaning that God actually controlled market dynamics.

The other way is to call it “free enterprise.”  Free enterprise is a way of arguing that government has no legitimate business “interfering” with the market.  It is an anti-regulatory approach that doesn’t even bother to ask what the purpose of the regulation is or what the outcome will be if there is none.  It is what laissez nous faire actually means.

But don’t you have to ask, at some point, why anyone would want to regulate an economy that worked for the welfare of all?  I would.  And do we really want to say that we elect legitimate governments to protect us from the depredations of foreign governments but not from the depredations of domestic corporations?  I don’t.

Which brings us to civic capitalism.  Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creation regime ever invented.  The firms that benefit most from it have no obligation to their workers, except so far as government regulations and protections go, and virtually unrestricted obligation to reward their principal owners.  Further, they have no ability to exercise care for the economic system as a whole.  And no reason to.

Nothing in that description, you notice has anything to do with the owners and workers in their civic capacity.  It has nothing to do, that is, with citizens.  That is the additional focus provided by what appears in my title as an adjective; it is “civic” capitalism.  That is the kind of capitalism it is.  It is not socialism in any way.  It is capitalism that exercises an active and competent regard for the welfare of the citizens of the nation.

Since there is no way for the firms the make up the heart of the economic system to do that (even if they wanted to), it is a job that should be undertaken by the government that citizens choose and that government should put the welfare of the citizens first.  That’s the deal.  The capitalist economy is free to provide as much wealth as it can provided that the government has access to as much of that wealth as is needed to support a certain kind of life for its citizens.

There is no way to produce the resources without capitalism.  There is no way to redistribute it adequately without government.  

And the basis on which each American receives these resources is that they are a citizen.  “Being an American” in this sense of the term means that you have a claim to some share in the national wealth.  You could call it a “citizenship stipend” if you had to call it something. [1] This share supports your ability to be active on your own behalf and to support [2] the political economic cooperation that makes the system work.

“The national wealth,” which I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is the share of resources produced that belongs to the government for the purpose of sustaining the welfare of the society.  Substantially higher levels of taxation will be required for that, of course, but there is no other source of the money needed to support the system.  We tax the rich for the same reason Willie Sutton paid the bulk of his attention to banks.  It’s where the money is.

Civic capitalism is society-supporting capitalism.  It is sustainable capitalism.  It does not seek an equalization of resources.  People who have natural advantages and who are lucky or who outwork their peers are going to wind up with more money, as they should.  Everyone who works hard and succeeds will be better off economically than anyone who does not work hard and/or does not succeed.

But these successful people will have advantages no successful person now has.  These people will be free to live in a society where the most brutally toxic social ills have been addressed.  The poor can house themselves and the hungry can feed themselves and the ill can get access to medical treatment because the society as a whole has decided that support is owed to citizens just because they are citizens.

Conclusion

I could go on.  I almost did.  Then I remembered that the announced goal of this essay is to propose “civic capitalism” as the term Americans should use to refer to the political/economic system that Europeans call democratic socialism.  I have proposed the term and described what I mean by it.  I have given the rudiments of the case that can be made for it.  So I think I will pause for a little while.

[1]  And you should call it something because its enemies will call it “the dole” if you don’t.  Or even if you do.

[2] In a republic, that means “require your elected leaders to support…”

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The Seductions of Narrative

Some years ago, I ran my best half marathon time ever.  There were some special circumstances in this race.  I can think of two classes of such circumstances.  I’m going to tell you what they are because I am still confident that they are true.

But this essay is not actually about them.  It is about the pressure on me—some of it I experience, some of it I can only infer—to make this a better story.  The more times I tell it, the more pressure there is to make it a better story.  The further I am from the event itself, the more permission I feel to give in to the pressure.  It is that gradually acquired sense of permission that I call “seduction” in the title.  That’s what this essay is about.

I am the first example; the gospel according to Matthew is the second.

The Half Marathon

I think my time was 1:32 and a few seconds.  I was in my mid-50s somewhere and it was markedly the best half marathon I had ever run.  It was the Lake Oswego Half Marathon.  If you live anywhere in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon, you will know Lake Oswego.  I got trapped at the start in a bunch of young greyhounds who were running together and enjoying themselves.  It would have taken a lot of energy to break out of the pack, so I didn’t.  I was dumbfounded to hit the 9 mile mark in 63 minutes.  I never had any intention of running that fast.  By that time, the bunch had loosened up a bit and I detached myself from it and slowed down some.

That’s half the story, but it isn’t the fun half.  Within a mile or two of leaving the group, I

started to feel the grind of the race.  I was tired and it was a long way yet to the finish line.  At that point, looking around for something to distract me, I saw a girl running alone way up ahead of me.  Maybe half a mile or so.  From my distance and with my need for distraction, she looked really attractive to me.  OK, I said, let’s see if you can get a little closer. [This isn’t her, of course, but you get the idea, and they did get the blonde ponytail right,]

So I did get closer and several miles later passed her.  I regretted that but she had begun to slow down even more than I had and I really needed to focus on what would get me up the last hill.  So she and the young greyhounds combined to produce my best half marathon time ever.

The Cheerleader

That’s the kind of “attractive” this girl looked like to me from half a mile back.  Now as I said, I have told this story quite a few times in the last 20 years or so.  The point of this second half of the story is that I fixed my attention on an attractive young woman and used that to run faster than I otherwise would have.  Given that that is the point, let me ask you this:  How attractive was the young woman?

At this point, we leave the attempt to describe accurately what happened.  If I am right about “narrative seductions” it is a lost cause anyway.  As the narrative focus takes over, I leave the area of the question “What really happened?” and go over to “What does this story need?”  My argument, as it pertains to Matthew and me, is that as the story is retold over and over, the grip the teller has to the specific and accurate details begins to loosen.  Not only that, the commitment to remember the details clearly and to tell them accurately also flags a little.

For me, that means two things.  The girl gets more and more attractive and the place in the race where she shows up gets more and more dramatic.  I can fill in what the girl looked like from the “cheerleader type” characteristics I have put together from a long career of teaching in elementary and secondary schools and from seeing movies where cheerleaders were treated as a “type.”  So I can say confidently that this girl had a great body, beautiful long blonde hair, and a graceful easy stride.  I “remember” that she wore her hair in a ponytail and that it was curled.  (Was it actually curled?  How would I know?)

The point of making her so attractive is the comedic effect.  Here’s this tired old guy running a long race and he looks ahead and sees this vision of loveliness and it so inspires him that he runs the race faster than he would have otherwise.  It makes me a comic figure and the more attractive she is, the more comic I am.  The story really needs her to be really attractive and in the telling and re-telling, I respond to that pressure, whether I feel it or not. [1]

And when in the race did this girl show up?  I don’t really remember, but it has to be after I left the young greyhounds, because I didn’t need her until then.  Also, in the last mile or two there was a nasty and unexpected hill.  You come around a corner somewhere between 10 and 11 miles (the race is 13.1) and all of a sudden, there’s this hill.  Oh no!  I can’t get up that hill!  Can I?  I have to!  Now that would be the perfect time for the girl to come into sight.  I come around the corner and there is the hill—but there is the girl too.

From the standpoint of the story, that is ideal.  If the girl had shown up a couple of miles earlier, while I was running through an undistinguished farmland, it would have been a waste of narrative resources.  Much better to delay her until I have seen the hill and was feeling the despair.

Matthew’s Scribes

Now for a change of scene.  We are still talking about narrative seductions and we are still talking about the writer as the one vulnerable to them.   But we are not talking about cheerleaders anymore; we are talking about the way Matthew describes the role of the scribes in the Birth Narrative he offers.

It occurred to me this year that Matthew intended to set the Jewish scribes against the gentile magi—to build up two solid blocks of “these guys” and “those guys.”  What I need to do now, in the materials, I am preparing, is to focus on the polarities.  This is not to say that the magi and the scribes have no commonalities.  Both groups are made up of learned men, for instance.  It is only to say that I am not going to emphasize those commonalities; I am going to attend to the traits that distinguish them from each other.  And I am going to argue that in doing that, I am following Matthew’s lead.

Here are the elements that come to mind.

  • The magi were gentiles and the scribes were Jews.  That’s the easy way to start.  
  • The magi were scholars of “nature;” [2] the scribes were scholars of the Law (both written and oral).  
  • The magi were so moved by the star at its first appearance, that they travelled immediately to Jerusalem and when the star reappeared to guide them to Bethlehem, they were “filled with delight.”  The scribes are described as people who have knowledge of the scriptures, but who have no personal attachment to it at all. [3]  
  • The magi are free to act independently on whatever their findings show.  The scribes are called in to offer their expert advice to the king and the topic is where the king’s replacement is to be born, so the king might be a little touchy about what they tell him.  They are, in any case, immediately responsible to Herod and the magi are responsible to no one at all.  
  • The magi carry through the project.  They find and worship the Christ child.  They give highly symbolic gifts. We never hear another word about the scribes.  For Matthew’s purposes, they are called in for their special knowledge; they give it and then go home.
  • The magi receive guidance in a dream—the same kind of guidance Jacob has been relying on—and so are able to evade Herod on their way home.  The scribes, as I said, have no further part in the story. [4]

Matthew’s distortions and mine

No one ever argued that if the events Matthew discovered had been captured by a good video camera, it would look just like Matthew’s account.  Of course it wouldn’t.  Matthew is duty bound to emphasize some things and to skip over others.  He is telling a story after all.  And I, following Matthew’s lead, am trying to catch the main elements of the story and the way they relate to each other and to further emphasize those elements.

That makes the scribes blacker and the magi whiter (those are moral, not ethnic judgments); it makes them less diverse and a group.  But it does what the narrative “asks” to have done; it is why the narrative provides inducements. [This picture tells us more than we really know, but you would be surprised how hard it is to find a picture where Jesus is a little boy and where the magi come to a house to see him, so I’ll take it.]

Now if the facts of the case are materially important; if we really need to play the journalistic accuracy off against the thematic clarity, then there are reasons to be more careful.  But always, there are the selective inclusions and exclusions that will make it a better story.  They work on your mind like gravity works on your body.  You have to have a really good reason for working against them.  And I do sometimes.

[1]  And, not that I think about it, there are all kinds of attractiveness—the classic, the erotic, and the athletic come to mind—and I would be a very odd kind of storyteller if I did not allow the response of my audience to move my account in one of those directions or the other.

[2]  When you believe that “natural events” tell us about human events, it tells you how “nature” was conceived of at the time.  As moderns, we can say that we understand differently than they did, but we cannot say that 

[3]  You could argue that Matthew’s lack of interest in their emotional involvement in this quest is not fair and is, in fact, a part of Matthew’s prejudice against them.  That might very well be.  My interest here is only in relaying how Matthew portrayed the two groups.

[4]  They do in Luke’s account, of course.  We are looking at Matthew this year.

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Hector lives

There are so many things to like about Steven Spielberg, but among those I cherish his one-liner about The Terminal.  A reporter asked him whether the part of Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) was “a Christ story.”  I didn’t hear the tone of the response, of course, but I imagine it as a little on the snappish side.  “Why would I write a Christ story?,” he said.  “I’m a Jew.”

Why indeed?  I’m guessing that was not the first time he had been asked that question.

On the other hand, I caused my children to despair (mock despair, I hope) by finding “Christ stories” all over the place in books and movies where they were sure it was no part of the author’s intention.  There is always the chance that they were right, of course, but I would like to plead my case and then I would like to offer an example from the TV series, Longmire.

Jerome Bruner says in a well-known article about perception, [1] that if you are out looking for apples anything that catches your eye as a “could possibly be an apple” will be brought to your attention, where it will be more rigorously examined.  Is it really an apple or no?. [2]  I would deny that I am “out looking for Christ stories,” but I admit that there is a collection of properties that bring Christ’s story to mind.  And then I examine the story more rigorously to see if it really does strike me that way.  This one does.

So that’s really my defense.  If, for whatever reason, an author presents a character who, through no fault of his own, is forced into a situation where he or she must pay a fearful price in order that someone else might receive a great benefit or avoid a great punishment, then it is not my fault that the little red “Christ story alert” light goes on in my brain.  I see what I see.  What the author put there for me to see is their business, not mine.

Hector

The Hector I am talking about [3] is a vigilante on the TV show, Longmire.  Hector (played by Jeffrey De Serrano) [4] is Cheyenne, he is an ex-boxer, and he does bad things to people who do bad things to his people.  In this Christ story, I am telling, no one actually plays the part of Christ.  It isn’t Hector.  Hector was a thug and he was killed by another thug.  On the other hand, part of his thuggery was killing bad guys and knocking their teeth out.  He is not a Christ figure.  The hat belongs to Sheriff Longmire.

On the other hand, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips, in the best role I have ever seen him in) knows a good deal about Hector’s career.  He knows it from a distance and he is required to “not know” a good deal of what he does know, but after Hector is killed, Henry is faced with the breadth of Hector’s activities.  And every new action that Hector is discovered to have taken is a generous, taking care of the women and the children kind of action.

That is where we come to the first significant post-Hector fact.  Henry puts a sign on a big sheet and hangs it on the rock wall where people have placed requests for Hector’s help.  As you see, the sign says, “Hector Lives.”  It does not say “Hector is alive!”  Why doesn’t it say that?  How can “Hector Lives” possibly be different from “Hector is alive!”

I don’t really know the answer, I’m afraid, but I am confident that for some reason, “is alive” is more specifically physical than “lives.”  The phrase “is alive” directs my attention and memory to welfare of Hector’s physical body.  Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does, and the writers knew it would.  “Hector lives!” by contrast, makes the claim that some part of Hector’s life continues.  In this case, it is his mission.

Henry is simply unwilling to say that Hector’s mission has ended.  Hector has ended, however, so if the mission is not to end as well, there will have to be a new “Hector” and it is Henry.

The first time we see this new arrangement, we see Henry visiting a physically abused mother and her young son.  Henry is wearing a costume, but he presents himself as someone who knows what the problem is and who is prepared to help.  He knows what the problem is because the boy has left a plea at “Hector’s wall.”  The contents of the note are confirmed by the cuts and bruises on the woman’s face.  The costumed Henry says, “Meet me in the part at noon.”

But noon comes.  The woman and her son arrive.  No costumed person is there waiting for them.  Only Henry Standing Bear.  They are confused and begin to retreat.  Henry asks them to wait.  Then he says the words that caught my attention and that quieted the woman’s fears.  He says, “Hector sent me.”

Did he?

I don’t see an easy answer to that, but I now see how much better “Hector Lives” is than
“Hector is Alive.” “Hector Lives” can mean that the things Hector  cared for will continue to be cared for.  That is, in fact, what it does mean here.  Henry was moved by discovering the many acts of generosity and care Hector performed—along with the simply thuggery.  Henry isn’t a thug, but he is generous and caring, so he “becomes” the personification of (that part of) Hector’s mission.

A Christ Story

It was something about the phrasing of Henry’s reassurance that caught me.  A little poking around located what it was.  It was this: “Brother Saul, I have been sent by the Lord Jesus…”

I had to look up the rest of it.  That line was delivered by a disciple of Jesus named Ananias.  Ananias lived in Damascus.  He was a member of a new and rapidly growing sect called “The Way,” followers of Jesus Christ—the Jesus who had been so ignominiously crucified in Jerusalem.  Saul was a Super-Pharisee with a pocket full of warrants and he was out arresting followers of “the Way” and when God called Ananias to go and heal Saul, Ananias reminded God of that.  

‘Lord, I have heard from many people about this man and all the harm he has been doing to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14He has come here with a warrant from the chief priests to arrest everybody who invokes your name.’ 

Seems reasonable to me.  But God said, “Go anyway.”  So Ananias did.

Had there been a “Jesus Lives!” sign anywhere on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus, it would have made a really good graphic close for this essay.  But there wasn’t one.  And I don’t really need it.  This is a Christ story, after all.

At least it is for me.

[1] Jerome S. Bruner, “On Perceptual Readiness,” Psychological Review, Vol 64, No. 2, 1957

[2]  The same thing is true of things you a fearful of.  Is that a branch in the path or a snake?

[3]  Not, of course, the Hector that Achilles killed, although there are some similarities.

[3]  De Serrano is probably Native American too, but no one seems to want to say if he has a particular tribal affiliation.  Besides being a Native American, he is also very likely an Indian, since he grew up in Cleveland.

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Trying to understand vigilantes. Failing.

Amber Elliott, currently director of the St. Francois County public health department in Missouri, resigns today, November 20.  She and her family are being harassed by angry citizens.

Kelly Vollmar is director of the Jefferson County Health Department and has faced the same kinds of abuse. [1]

I want to think about the case that is being made by the citizens who are doing the harassing and why they think this case justifies such actions.

That’s the topic.  But I really can’t just go to that question; there is really no way to simply ignore what these neighbors have been doing.  Here is a selection.

Ellott:

“There’s been many over the course of eight months, to personal attacks on Facebook calling me every name in the book, to calling me and cussing me and saying I’m stupid and I’m incompetent and I don’t know what I’m doing, of course the pandemic is fake, and all those type of things,” Elliott said.

People told her they were following her, that they were watching her. They took pictures of her, her husband and her two elementary school-age children in public and posted them online with remarks she doesn’t want to repeat.

Vollmar:

Vollmar said she has experienced harassment being a director as well. As a domestic violence survivor, she had worked to keep the location of her home private, but people searched her tax records, divorce records, committees she’s served on and posted information online to determine where she lived, she said.

A gun shop owner in the county uses his Facebook page to attack her credibility, warning that gun owners will “decide they’ve had enough of the lies.” Someone, she said, called her husband saying she was out with another man. People posted pictures of her on social media, altered to make her look like Adolf Hitler or comparing the health department to Nazis.

I am reminded very much of the use of the stocks as a public shaming device.  Some official body, church or town or both, decided that someone was guilty of something and put them of display so they could be ridiculed by their neighbors.  That always sounded really awful to me.  Consider, however, that these cases in Missouri are instances where anyone can put anyone else in the stocks for their public humiliation without any decision having been reached by any public body at all.

Really?

The first point I want to focus on is the allegation that the whole “pandemic thing” is fake.  “Of course the pandemic is fake” is the way Elliott puts the charge against her.  Some subset of an angry citizenry (gun owners) will decide when they have had “enough of the lies” in Vollmar’s case.

Is this possible?  My first instinct is to say that it is not possible.  I have no doubt that the statements that are being reported have actually been made, but could they have been made because they were instrumentally necessary rather than because they were truly believed.  I say what I need to say, in other words, but I don’t necessarily believe it.

In the world I live in, there is a lot of evidence for the reality of the pandemic.  I could read the news or watch TV.  I could go to the city health department.  I could go to the hospitals to verify that the beds are full of COVID patients. [2]  I could talk to my neighbors who are having first hand experience with hospitalization.  The people who are making these charges don’t live in that kind of world.

I’ve been told that there are mental disorders, paranoia, for instance, where the whole world seems untrustworthy and hostile.  There are treatments for paranoia but these treatments come one patient at a time.  What if the issue comes in cascades of angry and mutually reinforcing neighbors, all of whom share the same paranoid vision and all of whom justify the most vicious treatment of public officials?  What kind of treatment is there for that?

It is easy—facile, really—to blame President Trump for this, but he has never, so far as I have heard [3] said that there was no pandemic.  I have heard him say it will be light and transient; that it is an attack by China; that public gatherings are perfectly acceptable; and that it will soon be over in any case.  I think the President can be fairly charged with popularizing the “it’s all fake” culture, but that culture also preceded him and there are other reasons why people maintain that particular delusion.

I could say that these angry people have a goal in mind—harassing public officials, say—and are willing to say they believe anything that superficially justifies the things they want to do in any case.  There is, in fact, an online community somewhere that celebrated the ingenuity of the person who located Kelly Vollmar’s house by searching the tax records.  That person was duly celebrated by their peers.  There are lots of rewards for doing things like this over and above actually believing it to be true.

Still, I think they do believe it.  Presuppositions that you use for awhile because they are efficient tend to slide, eventually, into beliefs you consciously hold.  It’s just easier.

The second question these events raise in my mind is the actions that the beliefs justify.  If there are people who have been hired to direct a program aimed at “protecting the public” (that’s what their employers told them to do), what actions against them are justified?  How about a letter to the editor?  How about appearing at a public hearing sponsored by the Health Department where you could assemble in order to seek a redress of your grievances? How about a gathering outside the office where she works?  Peaceful, of course.

These are, by the standards of American politics, pretty aggressive, but they all treat the person as an officeholder.  These tactics, direct as they are, move deliberately past the roles of mother, wife, private citizen, member of the community, and member of a local church and attack the person as a person.

This person—take the case of Amber Elliott—is not any of those things for the present purpose.  She is a tyrant, intent on taking away our liberties and maximum pressure needs to be brought against her.  The only questions being asked here are tactical questions: what would cause the most pain?

This stripping away of all the roles could properly be called “dehumanization.”  Ms. Elliott is s tyrant RATHER THAN a mother, a wife, etc.  Everything about her is irrelevant; only this one part of her life is relevant.  She says that what she is doing has a vital public purpose, but we don’t care about the purpose—we care only about the means.  She says things like “flatten the curve;” we say things like “To hell with your mask mandate.”  You say things like, “The law requires…”  We say things like, “We will find you and punish you until you stop.”

It is common to strip away from intended victims all the aspects of their life that would allow members of your movement to have some identification with them or some sympathy.  Sometimes names like cockroaches” (Rwanda) or “rats” (Nazi Germany) are used.

So of the people who are harassing Ms. Elliott and Ms. Vallmar, we may say two things.  The first is that they believe in the legitimacy of the charges they are bringing.  They believe they are factually accurate (there is really no pandemic) and morally urgent (our rights are being taken away).

The second thing is that they are within their rights to act as vigilantes.  They have the right to persecute “tyrants” to “take away our freedoms.”  It might be seen as a duty.  It is certainly a praiseworthy action within their primary communities, which are probably mostly online.

What to do

I’m not really sure.  No one forces these people to assemble together and hatch conspiracy theories.  They do it because they want to.  There is no available force to oppose the vigilantes, particularly when so much of the harassment is conducted online.  This is not a police problem.  This is a little cells of fanatics problem.

The two formal solutions are to put these people in touch with the world of publicly confirmed facts, and to prevent them from acting, outside the law, on the delusions they hold in common.  Those two.  I don’t know how to do either of them.

[1]  See the article by Michelle Munz in the St. Louis Post Dispatch for October 30, 2020

[2]  I wouldn’t get any further than the information desk or the public relations department.  I might not get any further than the security officers.

[3]  I might have fallen a tweet or so behind.

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Lasting Damage to the Republic

I want to write this post as a rebuke to myself.  I want to look back on the day I wrote this and say, “This helped me avoid making a really bad mistake.”

Here is the mistake: “At last, the frightful Trump era is over and we can go back to normal.”

OK, that’s three or four mistakes, but the one I wanted to pay most attention to is that the Trump era inflicted grievous losses on the Republic and we may never fully recover at all.

This is a thought I have been getting ready to think for awhile.  Then, on November 11, Jonathan Gienapp offered this observation to Thomas Edsall:

Trump’s refusal to concede and his congressional allies’ refusal to object to what he is doing is indeed most dangerous. If it continues to be given oxygen, it’s hard not to think that there could belasting damage to the republic.

And this during a COVID 19 pandemic where a lot of people get sick and never fully recover.  There are long-term implications, in other words, and according to the CDC, these include:[1]

  • Cardiovascular: inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Respiratory: lung function abnormalities
  • Renal: acute kidney injury
  • Dermatologic: rash, hair loss
  • Neurological: smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, memory problems
  • Psychiatric: depression, anxiety, changes in mood

These, according to current thinking, result from losses of function in these systems.  We don’t “get over them” the way we get over a cold.  These are permanent liabilities for further loss of function and permanent reductions in the quality of the life lived.

When I say that I have been getting ready to think this thought, it is the confluence of these two ideas I have in mind.  What if the Trump era has caused permanent loss of function?

Somewhere, in some classroom, I picked up the acronym PERSIA [2] to refer to a set of categories that are useful in looking at how societies function.  It is a list very much like cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, dermatologic, neurological, and psychiatric.

There is no natural place to begin because when things go wrong, every deviation  from sustainable practices reinforces every other deviation.  I, myself, am inclined to begin with the economic effects, because the social effects seem to be taking an undeserved priority.

So let’s start with the economy.  The continued maldistribution of the income and wealth produced by our economy has changed the time horizon of many Americans.  In the traditional immigrant experience, for example, the parents suffered great economic hardship in order to provide the foundation for the success of their children. [3] That is a time horizon.  But what if it doesn’t work for the children?  Or for the grandchildren?  What if a permanent underclass forms, from which there is no realistic hope of escape for most members of that class?  That is also a time horizon.

There are real rewards, now, for making do with poverty (I am defining that as living paycheck to paycheck in an economy where jobs simply disappear) as a condition.  You don’t aspire to what you used to call “success” anymore for yourself or for your children.  You raise your children to succeed in the conditions of your life because their lives will be like yours.  Giving up on “success” for your children allows you to deny or revile the people your children will never become.  They will never become, professionals, administrators, cultural elites.  So you are free to unleash the venom against those people and their culture which you have been withholding because your children might join them—eventually.

These are not conditions that make the present culture war inevitable.  Economic deprivation and stagnation are bad, but they don’t cause alienation at the current levels.  What the economic failures do is make the question of cultural status always relevant.  It is always on the table.  It is always an irritant.  A lot of what we call “cultural problems” would go away if economic despair could be dealt with.

That’s why I want to start with economics.  A more just distribution of our wealth wouldn’t solve the conditions that wind up on the front pages of newspapers and blog sites all over the country, but they would allow other things to become more relevant.

It is easy to stoke permanent distrust among people who feel they have been denied a fair chance.  It is even easier when networks of social media make the display of this distrust rewarding.  It has become a team sport.  But what happens of “our permanent disenfranchisement” begins to show signs of weakening?  What if there are more important things to talk about?  Will we be willing to let go of knee-jerk animosity just to live better?

This is a simple point, really.  The divisive cultural answers—the QAnon-style answers—are answers to questions that are kept permanently relevant by the system’s economic failures.  We move right away to attacking the answers because they are so abhorrent, but this argument—the COVID 19 analogy—is that they are symptoms.  We become permanently more vulnerable to social dysfunctions because of the economy and there is no hope of addressing it without addressing the economy.

The cultural alienation is hateful, but the economic deprivation is fundamental.  Robert Reich says there is an old Russian story about a peasant whose neighbor is finally able to afford a cow, something the peasant could never afford. He prays to God is great distress and God promises to grant this peasant one wish.  The peasant’s wish?  “I want my neighbor’s cow to die.”


This is a malevolent social hatred, but once upon a time, it was economic.  We can urge the peasant to be nicer to his neighbor, but when his economic deprivation in the midst of plenty is always on the table, no other answer can be expected in the long run.

These economic and social interactions will provoke political reactions in a nation that relies on voting.  The Trump Era, and the Tea Party movement before it attest to that.

Let’s consider the long-term intellectual effects before time runs out.  The COVID 19model I am using as a principal analogy suggests that even in people who have “recovered,” there will be lingering vulnerabilities.  Trump’s revulsion against news sources—the origin of “fake news”—has grown into a denial of facts as a category of argument.  It is a denial of facticity itself. [4]

How do we get that back?  Are we going to be permanently lamed, now, in our public discourse where nothing is more or less true than anything else?  If persuasion is really impossible. is power the only force left to enable an orderly society?  There must be—soon—a rejection of mere assertion as an adequate ground for public debate.  Assertions unrelated to what is demonstrably true need to be rejected.  If they can be called an artifact of an earlier illness (Trumpism) that might make it easier.  But real trust cannot begin to grow back before this debasement of public discourse has been healed.   Then maybe.

Let me close with Jonathan Gienapp’s point: “there could belasting damage to the republic.”  I think he is right.  There is a great tendency for people like me who have tried to hold their breath during the whole Trump presidency, to feel that finally “it is over” and we can breath again.

I know that is wrong.  We will be feeling the effects of this for generations to come, even if the crisis passes and we are formally “out of danger”  The permanent loss of function I am pointing to means that “it” will never be over and that we need to learn a new way to be a democracy and to affirm neighbors who are not like ourselves.

[1]  If this list had been put together by a congressional committee, it would certainly spell something.

[2] Political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and aesthetic.  I routinely skip over the aesthetic category because I really don’t know anything about it.

[3  Joan C. Williams, in her book,Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.  gives a powerful case for this effect.

[4]  Trump’s use of “fake news” in his 2015-16 stump speech wasn’t that bad.  “It’s fake news,” he said, “They don’t have any sources.”  I am no fan of unsupported claims myself.

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To take arms against a sea of troubles…

As the Prince of Denmark considers his options, “taking arms against a sea of  troubles” is the one he considers first.  Presumably that “taking arms” would be preceded by some notion of just what comprised that “sea” and the troubles it produces for him.  I know just what he means.

Persons and Categories

You can try not to be angry.  My experience is that it doesn’t work very well.  Individuals have other resources, of course, but categories of people don’t.  “White men without a college education,” for instance, comprise a category of Americans who regularly show up in studies of every kind as angrier than the rest of us.  “Categories,” I am proposing, do not have the resources for managing anger that persons have.

On the other hand, persons don’t have the options we often think we have.  We think we can “not be angry,” but we can’t.  We can (try to) not show our anger.  That works over short periods of time and it works better if we have honed that skill.  We can try to change the conditions that we are angry about. We can confront people who have made us angry and try to resolve the issue.  We can deny the conditions that made us angry or simply try to stay away from the people or the circumstances that have made us angry.

All those things work sometimes for persons.  None of them work for categories of angry people.  And this is amazingly applicable to us in this moment in time.  Here’s something to think about.

David Byler, a data analyst, believes, according to Thomas Edsall’s election day column in the New York Times:

In his view, the center-left and center-right coalitions represent a structural aspect of contemporary democratic political competition and that they are likely, over time, to alternate control of the government…

On the other hand, in Isabel V. Sawhill’s view:

Should Trump win, it would be a signal that our cultural divisions have gone past the point of no return, that demographic and cultural change has come too fast for many people to handle, that a backlash has reached hurricane proportions.

Consider for a moment, the difference between a regular alternation between a center-right and a center-left coalition; and the “backlash has reached hurricane proportions.”  They can’t both be right.

In this context—the anger of categories of people rather the anger of a person—let’s consider our political options.  My argument has been, from the early emergence of Donald Trump in his political incarnation, that he is an effect, not a cause. [1]  We have allowed “Trump-favorable” conditions to flourish and when they have produced democratic anomalies, like Trump himself, we have allowed ourselves to be surprised.  

When circumstances that will cause [2] me to “be angry,” then I have a range of choices for dealing with that; I listed them above.  If these circumstances are affecting a whole category of people, we tend first to condemn the behavior.  We never get as far as considering the causes of the behavior.  Considering the behavior is widely thought of as justifying the behavior.  That’s not where I am going at all.

So we take this view.  “Yes, I realize that the circumstances you face are outrageous, but we would like, nevertheless, for you to refuse to be outraged.  And particularly, we would like you not to express your rage.”  “The demographic and cultural changes,” Sawhill says,” have come too fast.”  I would add economic change; in fact I would feature economic change.

What are we really asking for?

The circumstances of your life are outrageous, we say, and what needs to be done is we need for you to control your rage.  We want you not to act out your rage, to justify your rage, or to support political actors who say in public what you cannot say.  About the circumstances, we say, “Well, that’s just how things go sometimes.”

Let’s consider the phenomenon called “blaming the victim.”  Liberals have been fond of that device for forty years that I know about, and that is just the time since William Ryan’s book of the name was published. [3]  But consider it in the present context.  The core of President Trump’s coalition is made up of non-college educated white men.  They are people who have seen all avenues for economic advancement blocked off, not only for themselves, but for their children.  Some have seen recent immigrants competing very successfully for their jobs.  They have seen the old certainties—values they held to more vigorously than they embodied them, perhaps—stripped away: gender norms, religious norms, speech norms.  They have been found guilty of embodying virtues their parents were proud of; guilty of engaging in behavior that was once widely tolerated. [Note that here, as always when race is an element, the blamed is black and the blamer, white.  This eliminates any sense that the whites are also victims.]

It is things like this that are the soil that produce a weed like President Trump.  It is things like this that have “made them angry.”  (You see now why I introduced that language so early; now is when I need it.)  Being angry, they do and say angry things.  The accuracy of the things they say is not their chief virtue; rather, it is how well it expresses the pent up anger.

Now it gets complicated.  In their anger, they say things against more vulnerable populations and sometimes act out their anger toward those populations.  They unquestionably support political actors who demean, defame, and destroy vulnerable populations.  These people who are the targets of these attacks are victims.  They are the victims of people the system is victimizing.  They are the victims of the victims.

It is nearly impossible for me not to condemn the working class white men who embody so many things that I oppose.  Seeing so much of such behavior puts me in a difficult spot.  I don’t want to condone it; I don’t want to be complicit in it.  Everything I can think of to say by way of criticism would be routinely disregarded because it came from someone like me.  For all I know, some things are said just to gall people like me.

And if that is true—if so many of the things that are said and done are attempts to get under my skin—then I am in a difficult place.  Taking arms against a sea of troubles is not going to help me if I am being baited into taking arms against a sea of troubles.  If the problem to be addressed is that our political-economic system victimizes white men, then I could stand up for the victims.  If the problem is that angry white men victimize other, more vulnerable populations, then I could stand up for that second set of victims—the victims of the victims.  

If standing up for either set of victims changes the subject away from what is wrong—what conditions are causing all the victimization—and shifts it over to my status as a critic of the first group of victims, then the war goes on and peace recedes from every attempts.  If refusing to be baited into futile class-based criticism looks good, I need to be aware that I am condoning not only the original conditions, but also the actions taken by the victims of those conditions.

Now what?

[1]  He has become a cause during his presidency.  He has organized and justified the grievances of the most aggrieved blocs and given permission for anti-elite violence.  Still, the cause part is small by comparison.

[2]  I know many people don’t like the language of “X made me angry” but it isn’t untrue and it is the sliver of the truth that I want to emphasize here.

[3]  I was teaching political science at Westminster College in Pennsylvania at the time and I used to assign the book because it ran directly against the attitudes many of my students brought with them into class.  I am writing this post for the same reason, but for a different clientele: fellow liberals, this time.

 

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And Remember to Breathe

I am writing this on the morning after the election.  You might think that a blogger like me would want to talk about politics this morning.  Not really.  I want to write about adjusting the balance between my life, taken as a whole, and how my life seems when I allow it to be squeezed down into one small part of that life. Even politics.

There are some people who are able to focus very intently on one reality.  This is a “reality” that can be lived in to the exclusion of the rest of your life.  I am one of those people.  

Recently, I have been focusing on politics.  

Very likely, you think that the problematic word in that sentence is “politics.”  Not really.  It is “focusing.”  Imagine that this tendency to focus so sharply that awareness of other realities goes away.  It would be like living in one room of your house.  It isn’t that the other rooms are not there; it is only that you don’t care about them while you are focused on the one room.

I wrote that so it would sound silly.  It isn’t really silly, but it is a mistake.  What I need to do is to remember the other rooms and then care about the other rooms and then make a decision to live in the other rooms as well as this one.  It seems obvious if we are thinking about rooms.  Let’s think about passions. [1]

I am madly in love with…oh….Darlene.  Nothing matters except my courtship of her and the possibility that she will accept me.  I put the proposition to her directly and she says no.  Maybe she even says, “Surely you are joking!”  My courtship of Darlene is the room, the one room, I have been living it.  I will very likely collapse in that room and feel sorry for myself for awhile and experience my failure and I humiliation.

But at some point, I realize that before Darlene, I was looking for a woman I could like and respect who also liked and respected me. [2]  So, after I am done feeling bad, I resume looking for a woman like that.  Darlene is now an episode; a dark episode, certainly, but one among many.  She is one room of my house and when I remember that, I can live differently.

What I need to do is to remember the other rooms and then care about the other rooms and then make a decision to live in the other rooms as well as this one. [3]  

Note the sequence: remember, care about, decide.  That’s the sequence for me.  Maybe you put them in a different order.

It may seem odd, but I have, on occasion been completely focused on whether my beloved Oregon Ducks—mostly football, but sometimes basketball—are winning.  It has become, for the duration of that time, either what I am doing or some part of my personal weather.  A dark cloud that follows me around, like Joe Btfsplk in Li’l Abner.  It is a very constrained and uncomfortable existence and it feels completely inevitable when I am in it..

What I need to do is to remember the other rooms and then care about the other rooms and then make a decision to live in the other rooms as well as this one. [4]  

For the last week, I have been engaged in national politics or have been hiding from national politics.  Last night, election night, I alternated between hiding from the tracking of the election results and attending to them.  For purposes of this essay, those are the same thing.  It takes a lot of effort to watch the election returns and also a lot of effort to pretend to be doing something else.  Both are living in that same room; both are caring only about how Darlene feels about me or whether the Ducks are playing up to their potential.  Neither is genuinely caring about something else.

When I genuinely care about something else, politics becomes just another part of my life.  It is what it is, but it is only one of the things I care about; only one of the things I am acting on.  I am still, in all these other parts of my life, an “agent;” I am someone who is making plans and acting on his own account. [5]  

The specific things I care about are unique to me, of course, just as the mix of things you care about are unique to you, but there are some common elements too.  Take my body, for instance.  When I am entirely focused on how ballots are being counted in Wisconsin, I am not conscious of breathing.  I am not conscious of the sense of sitting on something or of the pressure of the floor on my soles when I walk around.  For as much good as it is doing me, I might as well refer to my body as “it” and say that it continues to do all those things while “I” exhaust myself with politics.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  I can withdraw myself from politics and invest myself in the sensations of my body.

What I need to do is to remember the other rooms and then care about the other rooms and then make a decision to live in the other rooms as well as this one. 

I need to remember that “it” is there and that I can pay a great deal of attention to the experiences “it” is having.  When I do that, they become the experiences “I” am having.  A really good deep breath can be a wonderful thing when it has been awhile since you have had one and taking that breath intentionally can be a wonderful thing if you have been passive before all those passions for a long time.

I am going to schedule myself fairly tightly today.  It isn’t that I have so much to do as that I need the help of the schedule to remind me how many rooms I really do live in most of the time.  That’s one of the nice things about obligations—you are tied to them. [6]  You might say, probably not out loud, “I’d really like to go on sulking in the one room of my house where I am living, but I promised Aunt Lois that I would do her shopping for her and pick up a book at the library for Uncle Harold.”

There’s no magic there.  It is just that having obligations helps remind you that other things are important too and that the life you live is diverse and that one part of it—currently the political part—is filled with tension and disappointment.

[1]  I have had a different attitude toward the word “passion” since I learned that it shares a root (the Latin pati, “to suffer,” with passive.  Passions, as seen through this lens, are things that happen to you.  They are active; you are passive.

[2]  “Liking” might seem pallid, but I think of it as something that grows, given the proper conditions and the proper nutrition.

[3]  It is just a little awkward to quote yourself from the distance of just a few paragraphs away, but I am hoping the will become a theme.

[4]  See how nicely that works?

[5]  Just in case the language of agent/agency is unfamiliar, acting for the benefit of others is included in “acting on my own account.”

[6]  The very helpful etymology is from the Latin ligare, “to bind.”  You can think of “being bound” as a negative thing, of course, but in the present context, we are talking about being bound to this or that or—more exactly—bound to one thing or to many things.

 

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Discontented Thoughts

Here is a passage I found in Middlemarch this week.  There is not the slightest indication that the author, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) or the character who thought them, intended these remarks to be taken in a political way, but for me, this is the week before the most fraught election of my life and it sounds political to my ears

For me, just for this year, I find myself wishing that election day were further from Halloween and closer to Thanksgiving.

We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement,

I’d like to examine this passage as a literary product first.  I think that is how it stuck me when I read it.  I had to go back and look at it again to find out what it actually said.

First, I liked “look…and see.”  We look passively and we see our figures [passive verb] being acted upon.

Second, once I got to looking at the actions, I liked the adjective + noun patterns.  Notice “dull consent” followed by “insipid misdoing” followed by “shabby achievement.”

Third, consider the tone of the adjectives.  It isn’t just, I think, that these are not words in common speech today; I think that they may be extraordinarily precise words.  Consider “dull” in “dull consent.”  There are lots of other words available to suggest that the consent is less that full and active.  You could say it was “grudging,” for example.  That is probably what I would have said.  Or “thin,” setting up “thick” or “full” as a better grade of consent.  I think “dull” is better than any of those.  For one thing, “dull” is the kind of thing you can feel.  You would’t want to say that you had given “sharp” consent, but you know that when you are sharp, you would not give dull consent.

The Latin adjective is sapidus, “tasteless.” [1]  If we may consider misdoings to be sins, it gives us “tasteless sins.”  In the modern imagination “sins” are daring violations of God’s “law” or even of society’s laws.  We imagine “sinners” to be bold adventurers, daring the consequences.  But a sin that didn’t even have an interesting flavor…that wouldn’t be much of a sin.  It is, plausibly, the kind of sin into which one might be led by dull consent. [2]

Before we get to the third one, achievement, note the pattern of the last two: we have misdeeds first, then achievements.  “Wrong-doings” and “right-doings;” neither of which meaning much of anything to us.  With that quality of consent, neither deeds nor misdeeds provide a significant experience.

So, finally, we have “shabby achievement.”  I like it that it was a failed attempt at an achievement.  This is an actual achievement, but it is shabby.  “Shabby” is a tone word.  Behavior that is not “wrong” exactly, can still be shabby.  One person can treat another shabbily.  Shabby behavior is overused and under-maintained.  It is not polished and fit for the task at hand.  It is functional, but ragged.

This indictment is not a powerful charge against any human or any kind of human.  It is really more of a reflection; something one might mull over about oneself.  That is why I especially like “experience words” like dull, insipid, and shabby.  They are words that anyone with a good vocabulary might use in thinking about their own life and their behavior.

It is an altogether exalting passage.  I am glad that something stopped me and made me go back and celebrate it.

[1}  Ironically, the verb form, sapere, is also the source of sapient, and carries the root meaning “to be wise.”  It is why we are called homo sapiens, although it must be said that we gave that name to ourselves.

[2]  There is a recent Polish film, Ida, in which Ida wants to be accepted as a nun, but due to some events, she is required to leave the convent for awhile, comes into a bunch of money for awhile, and commits in rapid order all the sins she has heard of.  She moves down her imaginary list, checking each one off.  All these “sins” baffle her.  She has given them her dull consent and they don’t really taste like anything to her.

 

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