Speaking facts to power

That’s not a typo. If you were expecting “Speaking truth to power,” read on.

In December, 2015, a blogger named Jade Greear, began a piece with the well-known expression “Speaking Truth to Power.” [1] Greear continued:

Those four little words comprise a powerful expression, one you’ve probably heard a lot this past year….Coined by the Quakers in the 1950’s, “speaking truth to power” is certainly not a new way of taking a stand and mobilizing society around change.

There is not one truth. That is sad, in a way, but a truth is a narrative and the narrative you build is based on where it starts. There are many perfectly valid starting places so there are many valid narratives. A contest among these “truths” is the common condition of large complex societies.

The people who rule a nation are the beneficiaries—often they are also the instigators—of the ruling narrative. The narrative “uses” facts. It “deploys” them as so many pawns; valuable but disposable. Speaking facts that are contrary to the narrative is usually—not always—a futile business and very often a dangerous business as well.

Greear cites Judith Sherwin, an attorney and Adjunct Professor at the Loyala School of Law:

“Sir Thomas More did it at the cost of his life when he spoke truth to power against King Henry VIII; Martin Luther King Jr. did it at the cost of his freedom when he ended up in the Birmingham jail and eventually at the cost of his life.”

More and King

Let’s take those two as test cases. Thomas More was convicted of treason and beheaded for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII. Is it meaningful to say that Henry was or was not “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” I say it is not meaningful.

facts 1About his execution, More is reported to have said, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” It is More’s claim to the ultimate sovereignty of God and the valid, but subordinate, claim King Henry has on his loyalty. More took his stand and paid the price as many honorable men and women have done through the ages. But what he said to the king, cannot be said to a “a truth.” Nor can it be said to be a fact. It is a witness. [2]

I would say the same of Martin Luther King Jr. The authorities in Birmingham forbade public protests. Dr. King participated in such a protest—thereby breaking the law—and they put him in jail. It is true that the powerful in Birmingham discriminated against black people. It is true that Dr. King broke the law.

Better truths

The relationship of one truth to another will always be uneasy. It would be easier to say that one narrative was more moral than another. Justice for all Americans, regardless of race, is “moral” and the suppression of some Americans because of their race is “immoral.” That makes perfect sense to me, provided that one is not said to be more nearly true than another. My view is that one is more nearly right than another.

It is one of the great weaknesses of liberalism in America that we continue to believe that the views of our opponents are “mistaken” rather than “wrong.” A narrative doesn’t have to be factually supportable in order to be an effective “truth.” If the truth is in the narrative, then facts—some facts— can be marshaled to support it. You don’t undercut the “truth” of the narrative or diminish its power by pointing out that it has the facts wrong.

Take global warming, for instance. Here are two relevant truths. The average global facts 3temperatures have been increasing at rates unprecedented in the modern era. The elites have nothing but contempt for “people like us” and will say whatever they want with no concern at all for our welfare. One of those is not “truer,” as we like to say, than another. Each “truth” determines the subsequent actions of one community or another—the scientists by the first truth, the “climate deniers” by the second.

Ask yourself whether one of these is “really true” and the other not. Both are true. They are not competing for verification. They are competing for air space. This is a perspective on truth and factuality that is denied by liberals by and large, both in principle and in practice. We still think that the truth can be established by the facts. We would choose the facts, of course.

There are some settings in which that is true. The examples of Thomas More and Martin Luther King Jr. don’t lead in that direction, but it is a direction worth pursuing anyway. I have an example that helps to illustrate this difference even though it shows scientific agreement in too favorable a light.

“Executive Monkeys”

In 1958, Joseph Brady published an article in Science called “Ulcers in ‘Executive’ Monkeys: It used monkeys who were yoked together so that a bad choice produced a shock both for the monkey that had made the choice—hence “executive monkey”—and for the passive partner who had not. Brady found that stomach ulcers, a measure of stress, were much more prominent in the executive monkeys than in the yoked partners.

In 1972, Jay Weiss published an article in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology showing that, in fact, the opposite was true. It is the yoked animals not the decision-making animals, that experienced the stress and showed the ulceration.

What’s going on here? Weiss was able to show that the results of Brady’s experiment were an artifact of which monkeys were chosen to play which roles. Brady reviewed the research design and agreed. The conclusions he had drawn were produced by a bad research design and were appropriately corrected by Weiss. End of story. (Well…it isn’t ever really the end.)

facts 2What we have here is a clash of narratives each supported by experimental data. The narrative supported by Brady’s findings is about the stress of decision making. The monkeys bore the burden of choosing and paid the price. The narrative supported by Weiss’s findings is about the stress brought on by powerlessness. The animals (rats in Weiss’s case) received shocks with no opportunity at all to avoid them and that is what produced the stress and the ulcers.

These are both worthwhile narratives and it may well be that they are both true in some setting or another. They are “truths.” But using the same narrative, a change in methodology produced different sets of facts and only one truth was supported by those facts. So the unsupported “truth” was withdrawn and research continued in the direction of the narrative that these facts support.

Speaking facts to power

I bring this idealistic instance of scientific controversy up in order to show how different it was from the Martin Luther King Jr. and the Thomas More examples. It is different from most scientific controversies too, but I have a further point to make too.

I want to talk to the liberals who think that establishing the facts is going to make a difference to the truths that the reigning powers preach. These liberals—I am a liberal but I am not one of those liberals—think that the entrenched elites will respond to Dr. King the way Brady responded to Weiss. They think that Henry VIII will respond to the “truth” told by More or than the Birmingham police will respond to the “truth” told by King in the way Brady responded to Weiss. I tell you them will not.

Here is a “truth,” a narrative that is continually affirmed despite the clear factual evidence against it. The U. S. is among the most taxed nations of the West and out business success suffers because of it. That is a truth claim and it supports some proposals for taxation and undercuts others. So you an economist and you do a study of the comparative tax burden of western nations and you find what everyone finds: the U. S. in one of the least taxed nations in the world.

Now is your chance. You are going to tell these facts to the people who have been denying them. You are going to “speak facts to power.” People hold the “truth” they are holding for reasons that have almost nothing to do with factuality. Speaking facts to power is a waste of your time.

What is not a waste of your time?

Telling another truth is not a waste of your time. Producing a counter-narrative is not a waste of your time. These narratives will be impervious to the facts, of course. You don’t built truths out of facts the way you build walls out of bricks.

Let’s take this as a sample truth. The more nearly equal the incomes of a country are, the better will be the health of the population. A lot of facts can be adduced to support that. I recommend The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The book version is more complete; the TED talk by Wilkinson, which you can see here, is shorter and easier to grasp. He shows in painstaking detail that for a whole range of desirable social outcomes—good health among them—the more nearly equal the incomes in the country are, the better the results.

That is a truth worth telling to power.

It can be attacked, of course. Counter-examples can be found. Someone can point out that the burden of the case Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make is based on correlations. This level of inequality “correlates with” those health outcomes. It is tempting to try to say that the conditions the inequality supports “cause” the health outcomes, but that is a much harder case to make.

If you don’t think it is harder, look at how long we waited between the time when the correlation of lung cancer and cigarette smoking was established beyond debate and the much later time when some mechanism was found that could plausibly account for the correlation. For decades, the power of the correction was suppressed with anecdotes like “my grandfather smoked all his life and he lived to be 104 years old.”

What I am saying is that this truth—we could dramatically increase our health by narrowing the distribution of incomes—is a truth worth telling. It can be factually attacked and factually supported. But it is a truth worth putting into the arena with the current one, which is that the current provision of health and of medical care in the U. S. is the best we can do.

Liberals want to attack that “truth.” They want to show that it is factually incorrect. They are offended by unsupported assertions.  They want to speak facts to power. But the power is built on the “truth” that we have the best system we can afford and that in this system everyone gets what he or she deserves. The narrative and the power structure go together and neither of them cares about facts that do not support it.

What I would like liberals to do it to oppose that “truth” with another “truth,” which is that by reducing income equality, we can achieve much better health and much better healthcare. Both of those narratives—both “truths”—can be attacked and defended with facts. Neither can be defeated by facts. It takes a more comprehensive, a more important truth, the defeat a narrower truth.

So I say that telling facts to power will not do what we want to get done. To do what we want to get done, we will have to oppose one “truth” with another.

[1] huffingtonpost.com12/22/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated Dec 22, 2016
[2] It is interesting that the Greek work for witness is martyrion, from which English derives martyr.

Posted in Political Psychology, Politics, ways of knowing, Words | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weeding tares is way above your pay grade

The story Jesus told to his disciples about the wheat and the “tares” (a plant now called Bearded Darnel, as I understand it) is one of the least satisfying stories of Jesus’s ministry. (This story and all the others I will be using as references are in Matthew 13. ) I’ll tell you how bad it is. I once had a friend who was wearing a plaster cast and she developed an insistent and annoying itch inside the cast. “What shall I do about the itch,” she asked the nurse. “Do what we do,” replied the nurse. “Don’t scratch it.”

That’s how unsatisfying this story is.

Today’s question is straightforward: how shall we understand this story? There is an interpretive key I would like to recommend and one I would like to excoriate. You won’t have any trouble telling which is which.

Who’s asking?

There are three kinds of answers here. I am interested in two of them. The three are: a) who asked Jesus this question, b) who asked Matthew this question, and c) who in the story asks the question.

The answer to the first question is that we really don’t know and there is no real basis for informed speculation. That’s not to say that no one asked Jesus this question or that Jesus did not answer it this way. He almost certainly did, but the time, the place, and the asker are lost to us.

Furthermore, Matthew presents Jesus as a preacher of sermons. Very likely, Jesus wastares 7 not a preacher of sermons, but Matthew is really struck by the insight that Jesus is the new Moses. In order to make the parallel clear, Jesus needs to be a lawgiver and that requires that he give sermons, not just that he drop memorable anecdotes. So Matthew collects the Jesus material he has [1] into longer bodies of text; into sermons. And because these sermons are composites built from the Jesus material, we can’t tell the setting of any one part of the sermon.

But someone asked Matthew. This is a story Matthew draws out of the Jesus tradition to deal with a question that someone is asking. Matthew recalled this story because he thought it was a good answer to a question he was being asked or possibly a good response to the needs of the congregation he was addressing, whether they had thought to ask the question or not.

That brings us to who in the story is asking the question. We transition now from the uncertainties of history to the very direct evidence of the story. We know it was the field hands—servants, slaves, laborers [2]—who came to the master and asked the question because Matthew tells us that.

The tares as a kind of question

Matthew has grouped a lot of the teachings Jesus gave into blocks of similar material, so it might help us a little to see what other stories appear in this chapter and what questions they represent.

There are five other parables in Chapter 13 [3] There are: a) the sower and the seed, b) the catch of fish, c) the buried treasure, d) the yeast in the dough, and e) the mustard seed. The catch of fish (47—50) has a final division into good fish and bad fish, just like the wheat and the darnel. The buried treasure stories (44—46) say how great is the value of the Kingdom of God [4] and how worthwhile it is, therefore, to use all your resources to acquire it.

The other three can be seen as small encouragements to disciples who might be getting discouraged. Don’t give up, they say. It takes only a little yeast (verse 33) to make a big difference and a tiny mustard seed (verses 31,32) grows into a huge plant. And the seeds that are sowed don’t always produce very much (verses 3—9) because sometimes the soil is bad.

tares 8All of these are “don’t get discouraged” (DGD) stories. DGD, sometimes the soil is bad. It’s not your fault. Just keep sowing. DGD, some of the fish are unusable. Just throw the bad ones away and keep on fishing. DGD, it takes only a little yeast to raise a big lump of dough and only a little seed to make a tree so big birds can nest in it. DGD, no matter what this is costing you, the value of the reward is so great that it will be worth it. DGD.

So what questions are being asked?

All of Chapter 13 is given over to DGD, so I think it will serve us as a good interpretive background for the wheat and the tares.

Question 1 Why are there weeds in your field, master? Did you use inferior seed?

Answer: No, the seed was good. The weeds can be accounted for by the hostile actions of an enemy. This is not carelessness, as some of you have apparently been thinking. This is sabotage.

That seems pretty clear.

Question 2 So what shall we do about it?

Answer: Nothing. Tare discernment is way above our pay grade.

And this is why I said the story is so unsatisfying. Yeah, it’s the master’s field and all that, but it is where I work. And I have the master’s interests at heart. And as much as I value the wheat (low level long term appreciation) I am really angry about the tares (short term highly motivating emotion) and I want to do something about it NOW. “Do what we do,” said the nurse, “Don’t scratch it.”

At the level of the story, this is clear instruction at least. Agriculturally speaking, there is no question what is a “weed” because the farmer intends some particular crop. Other plants in that field are therefore “weeds.” But when we come to the theology behind the story—which is the reason Jesus told it and the reason Matthew remembered it— it’s not so easy. Let’s imagine that the disciples of Jesus, the field hands of the story, in announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God come across people who are preaching a different message or just a different form of the message. That would be a “wrong message” from the standpoint of the disciples.  It would  be a weed.

Why are those other people here? Some explanation needs to be arrived at which does not put the blame on Jesus. [5] This story gets that job done. It recognizes that there are weeds and accounts for their presence by saying that the Devil has done it. This is sabotage. You just keep on preaching.

The next question is what to do about the weeds, and particularly why doing that is a good thing to do. The servants in the story—the disciples in the Jesus movement—offer to undo the evil that they see being done. Jesus tells them not to.   Thinking of Matthew’s use of the story as a practical application, we are brought to asking why Jesus would not want his disciples to be opposing these other messages.

I don’t think there is any sound basis for speculation, but it may be that Jesus, as tares 2Matthew understands the message, is concerned about conflict among the preachers of the Way. If we think of the “weeds” as other interpretations of Jesus’s teachings, it may be that Matthew was counting on the continuing context of the Torah to keep the church together. It is only Matthew (13:52) who imagines both the old treasures and the new being brought out of the storehouse.

Or, if we imagine that the weeds are actual opponents, Matthew may have felt that it was too early for Jesus’s disciples to be opposing them. You just keep preaching what Jesus told you to preach. A later time will be better for dealing with preachers of “untruth.” That means “at the final judgment” in the story, but any later time might be good enough for Matthew.

But why wait?

It is the rationale for waiting that I find most intriguing. I summarized it in the title of this piece as “Way above your pay grade” and I did that because Jesus said it would be up to the angels to make the decision. “And,” he might have said, “I know that you are not angels.”

It is clear that the master does not want his laborers mucking about in the fields. Why? It might be because the two kinds of plants are so interconnected in their roots that uprooting one will damage the other. That would work for this story, but not for the fish (13:37—40).

It might be because you really can’t tell which is which until the head of grain appears. At that point, even the servants can say this one is wheat and that one is darnel. That fits really well with crops of grain, but the story is supposed to point to controlling the message Jesus is bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16) that you can tell what kind of plant it is by the kind of product it produces. Wheat plants produce wheat, barley plants produce barley. But it isn’t true about people unless who a person is going to turn out to be is a direct outcome of the person he is now and if that were true, there would be no need to go around preaching about the Kingdom of God.

What is equally true of wheat plants and people is that there will be a time when the natural outcome of that life will be judged. It isn’t now because it isn’t the harvest yet. And it won’t be you, for reasons the story doesn’t specify. In Jesus’s commentary on the parable, he says it will be the angels doing the harvesting, but in every version, the workers are told to leave things alone now.

Psychologizing the parable

So there are puzzles in applying this parable to what we imagine to be the present life of the church that Matthew is instructing. Still, the elements are clear: a) there is an immediate problem, b) this problem comes from an outside and evil force, not from God’s lack of foresight or provision, c) is it a problem that cannot be successfully dealt with now, d) at harvest time, the end time for a plant, when the plant has produced its fruit, is the time to deal with this, and e) the weeds will be utterly destroyed while the good wheat will be collected and stored.

Any application that meets those criteria could be said to be “applying” the parable. It would be hard, however, for an exegete, let alone a preacher, to say that all action can be safely deferred to the end time when it will be turned over to God’s agents. What is a preacher to do?

One kind of answer is to “psychologize” the story. That doesn’t mean just that we are going to talk about people rather than plants. It also means we are going to talk about motivations rather than actions.

tares 4I recently heard a sermon in which the preacher identified the “weeds” with “the shadow side” of the self, as Carl Jung calls it. Jung’s use of “the vast part of the self that the ego does not know about or will not accept” is broadly attractive in a lot of ways. It is hard to get a handle on, as you might expect, just as the Freudian unconscious is hard to get a handle on. But it would be deeply unorthodox (heretical) to identify the shadow in psychoanalytic theory with the weeds in Matthew’s story. The shadow side is an inevitable part of us and although it is “dark,” it is not evil.

The wheat doesn’t have a shadow side. The field has been infiltrated by weeds.The weeds are not part of “us” in the sense that they are part of each plant. And there is no “salvation” for weeds. There is only identification and then destruction.

A further difficulty is that once we have mixed the fields, with their good and bad plants, together with the persons, with their lit and shadowed sides, we can no longer predict what God will do. In other passages—none that I am aware of in Matthew, but it is common in the writings of Paul—there is the idea that the evil in us will be purged and we will be reckoned holy by the grace of God. God does not have, in any theology I have read, any constructive use for the evil in us. [6]

So psychologizing this particular parable brings us to a difficult pass. Taking the story in its context provides an analysis of the situation, but no real ideas about what to do. “Cool it” is not a proposal for action. Similarly, the time when this is all going to get sorted out—the end time, the harvest—when the angels will deal with the matter, also does not help.

On the other hand, if by psychologizing the parable, we can refer to those dark parts of ourselves—it’s hard to say in a sermon just what those might be—and to say that God has a use for them might feel very freeing. We are a mixture of good and evil, this line of thinking goes, and God has a place in His Kingdom for both the good and the evil. You see how that brings us some difficulty about God and evil.

For myself, I think I’d rather stay with Matthew’s use of the story and align all applications to those Matthew would like. But then, like Jesus, I am not a pastor and the effect on my congregation isn’t something I have to worry about.

[1] Scholars believe that Matthew had access to previously written sources as he composed his gospel. He certainly had a copy of Mark before him. He seems to be drawing on a “sayings source” known as Q (short for the German Quelle, meaning, “source.” And he seems also to have had access to another body of material, which Mark and Luke did not have. It is usually called M. Out of these materials, Matthew forms the “sermons” that Jesus preaches in his gospel.
[2] The Greek douloi is used for all those roles and for this story, it really doesn’t matter.
[3] A chapter doesn’t always define a “block” of material, of course, but it does here.
[4] The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s account.
[5] Jesus says that God is the sower of the seed, but the disciples know where they heard it and their opponents are not casting their opposition to the message as opposition to God.
[6] There may well be parts of us we dislike or of which others disapprove, but if they are not evil, God may find a use for them that will surprise us. We need to look here at things God disapproves of, not things we disapprove of. If we persist in disapproving, we may be told to wait until the harvest and see what fruit is borne of them.


Posted in Biblical Studies | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alyx Amber, Miss Portland 2017

I want to reflect a little today on Alyx Amber, [1] who is currently Facility Services Coordinator at Holladay Park Plaza, where Bette and I live. She is also Miss Portland 2017. I put her name in the first sentence because I want to start with Roger Federer, for reasons that will become clearer as this essay takes shape.

I was happy for Alyx when she won the Miss Portland competition and headed off to Seaside, Oregon to compete for the Miss Oregon title. But it never occurred to me that I wanted to write anything about it; to share Alyx’s journey with you. That happened when I was listening to an interview with Roger Federer, who at age 35, has just won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon.

Alyx 4I’ve been a fan of Federer’s for a long time now. It’s not just that he is a superb tennis player. I like the way he sees the game. I like the way he sees his life, with the game as part of it, rather than all of it. I like the way he admires and supports the other players, even while he is doing his best to defeat them.

That is going to sound a lot like Alyx Amber before I am finished here, but let me give you a little Roger Federer first.

How does this sound, for instance?

Sometimes you’re just happy playing. [Sometimes] you have to go back and think, “Why have I started playing tennis? Because I just like it. It’s actually sort of a dream hobby that became somewhat of a job.”

Or this?

When I was at a crossroads in 2004 and became world No. 1 for the first time, I thought, “Ok, do I want to stay there, or just enjoy the ride and see how long it lasts before it fizzles out?” I decided I would love to squeeze more of these moments and play the right way with the right mindset and the right flair, but also with fair play and also to represent the game well, which is very important to me.

Or this, from his post-finals interview at Wimbledon?

“…my heroes walked the grounds here…and because of them, I became a better player.”

Alyx doesn’t play tennis at all, as far as I know, but she understands the relationship between competition and life, between the journey and the destination, in a way that sounds like Federer. Alyx has great respect for the other people who are competing for the prize that is just as important to them as it is to her.

That’s not how she became Miss Portland 2017, but it may be how she was able to enter the competition with such a positive attitude. Does this attitude sound familiar at all? Below Alyx meets at the Seaside competition with friends from Holladay Park Plaza; from left to right, Auzhanae Upton, Latricia Jones, Xasha Upton, and Debra Jones. [3]

“On June 26, I will depart for Seaside, Oregon where I will compete for the Miss Oregon title one last time. I will compete with 19 other incredible young women whom I admire and am proud to call sisters. I have gained so much from this program not only personally, but educationally as well.

alyx 3

Alyx wrote that for the Plaza Review, our in-house newspaper at Holladay Park Plaza. That means not only that she approached the competition with a very positive attitude, but also that she wanted to share the experience with a lot of people at a senior center, all of whom probably think that if there had been any justice, she would have been chosen Miss Oregon.

That’s how we felt about it—some of us, at least. But that’s not how Alyx felt about it.

Tonight was incredible and this first picture truly captures the evening. I am so proud to be the 2nd runner up to Miss Oregon 2017, Harley Emery. I have walked away from this week with thousands of dollars in scholarships, the love and support of my family and friends and some of the best memories of my lifetime. Thank you to everyone who made this journey possible.

I met Alyx on February 23, 2016. [2] She was working at thIMG_0041.jpge front desk at the time and I was checking out Holladay Park Plaza to see if maybe Bette and I wanted to move there. I remember thinking that the lobby looked like the lobby of a really good hotel and I remember thinking that the woman behind the desk looked like she belonged in a really good hotel. I had been touring senior centers at the time and I had never visited one that caused that thought to come to mind. I liked it.

And as I was getting ready to take this shot, I asked Alyx if she would wave to me. I thought it would give some human perspective to the shot and would serve as a focal point. Alyx didn’t have any reason to do what I asked. I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. But she gave me this wave and the smile that went with it. I was not surprised to see, last week when I first saw this picture, that she has that same smile. Here, it’s under a crown, and I think that adds a little something to it, but it’s the same smile. It is not, in other words, a “beauty queen smile;” it’s just Alyx.

Colluding with your competition

“I will compete with 19 other incredible young women whom I admire and am proud to call sisters.” That’s the way Alyx sees it. Note, for instance” “compete with.” I think I want to call that an attitudinal preposition. Mostly, you hear “compete against,” and although there’s nothing wrong with that, it points to a different attitude toward competition. “Compete with” means something different.

It is true in the Miss Oregon competition, as in the Wimbledon competition, that one will win the prize and all others will not. But Alyx told me that the women who had to change costumes quickly as part of the contest were helped out by the women who had the time to help them. The others—the “competitors”—laid out the clothes and helped the women on tight schedules get into them. “Compete with” allows that; “compete against” does not.

I was surprised to hear that there was so much cooperation among the contestants, but this wasn’t just a few unusually helpful women. Alyx said this is the way the whole competition was organized. The Miss Oregon pageant is under the leadership of two people, Stephanie West and Teri Leeper, who have an idea what a collegial and fulfilling competition would be like. It wasn’t like that in the past, when the women competed more aggressively against each other. So there was guidance from the top. Furthermore, Alyx was one of a group of women who had been in these contests for several years and were able to provide some leadership to the women who were there for the first time. “O.K., girls, “they would say. “Here’s how we do it in Oregon,” and go on to describe the elements of “competing with.”

It could be argued, I suppose that the goal of being Miss Oregon is so valuable that it would justify even an abrasive and bitter competition to win it. But if you can organize the competition so that both the journey and the destination are things to celebrate, why wouldn’t you?

And when Alyx says “ I have gained so much from this program not onlyIMG_4482.jpg personally, but educationally as well,” she is talking about the experience she has had. She is talking about the “journey” part of the competition, about the friendships with the other contestants, about all she learned about presenting herself, about, about taking a leadership role in making the contest what it was. These are things that she gets to keep no matter who wins. And when she won the Miss Portland crown, she crowned the journey with the destination.

Why I care about this topic

I would care just because I like Alyx and wish her well. That would be enough. But it is also important to me because I live here at Holladay Park Plaza where Alyx works and it will not surprise you to learn that there is a good deal of this same generosity and helpfulness here. I see a direct relationship between the kind of magic that transformed “compete against” into “compete with” in the way the staff relate to the residents here.

Here where Bette and I live, someone sits down with the staff and says something like, “Now remember, this is the way we do things at HPP. To make this the kind of place we promised to the residents, we have to keep it clear in our own minds.” Here’s an example. Alyx and her friend Debré Jones (far right in the picture of Alyx and friends at the contest) were explaining the relationship of staff to residents one evening last March. See the context of that discussion here.)

“You live here,”[Alyx] said, meaning me in my resident status, not me personally. “We just work here. It’s your home and we need to make it a good place for everyone. We do that, by putting the interests of the residents at the center of our concern. We want you to have the kind of life you had in mind when you chose Holladay Park. That’s our job.”

When I think about what that means to me, I almost think it gives me some insight into what it might feel like to be one of a group of “competitors” all of whom are helping each other be their best selves and do their best work. I do see the differences, of course. Because I am not a fellow competitor with Alyx, I don’t have the opportunity of returning the favor. It will never work out, the way it did in the contest, that she helps me when my time in tight and I help her when her time is tight. It isn’t like that.

On the other hand, it can be like that, apparently, among the staff here. Consider this:

Since the moment I began working at the front desk I have realized that here at Holladay Park Plaza, we are family. The love and support that all of you have shown me in my journey to Miss Oregon has been overwhelming and sharing this experience with all of you is so special to me

That’s from an article Alyx wrote for the paper that all the residents read. If it is really possible for the staff to work toward making our home—the residents’ home—the place they promised, it would require a staff that feels like family. From a family like that, you could get the support and the presence of mind to do your job. To do your job, as Roger Federer says, “in the right way.”

That’s how Alyx does her job. It was a pleasure to watch her do it long before she became Miss Portland.

[1] Properly speaking, Alexandra Amber, but it says Alyx on the name plate on her desk.

[2] I had no idea that was going to be a significant date and I made no effort to remember it, but there it is on the calendar in the picture.

[3]  I saw Alyx going to a meeting here is a really terrific looking black dress.  “Oh,” she said, “it’s Debré’s.  We’re the same size and the front desk people are pretty close.”




Posted in Getting Old, Living My Life, sociability | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

He said, She said, and Russian Roulette

Rape is always a bad idea. Let’s start with that. On the other hand, doing “whatever is necessary” to prevent rapes–stop for a moment to consider what actions that standard justifies– is also a bad idea. Where do we go from there?

I would like to take a non-empirical look at policies bearing on sexual activity on university campuses. By “non-empirical,” I mean that this essay would not be affected in the slightest if it turns out that there is one false accusation of rape out of a million truthful accusations of rape or if it turns out that there are even numbers of true and false accusations. [1]  That is not what this piece is about at all.

This article in the New York Times says that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is starting to reconsider some of the Obama-era regulations. Some new balance is going to be attempted, apparently, so this is a good time to look at what “balance” means in this context.

  • Let’s look at the organized side of balance first.

“…advocates for victims and women …have spent the last six years waging a concerted campaign to educate college administrators, and the public, on students’ rights under the law, and how to combat what some have called “rape culture” on campus.”

It’s hard to think of anything good to say about a “rape culture,” which is, presumably, a culture that encourages or at least excuses the abuse of women by men. [2]

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that we now have an “accusations culture” which would also not be good.

“Rather, the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,’” Ms. Jackson said.

  • Then there is the rhetorical side.

DeVos 1All this is coming to a head now because Ms. DeVos (shown here) is bringing this balance up for reconsideration. The New York Times writers refer to the ongoing conflict as “a maelstrom.” [3] She wants to meet with groups who will be willing to represent the men, the disproportionately accused parties. Predictably, the women are not happy with the men who are being included, some of whom they call misogynists. I think it would be reasonable to assume that the men’s groups are going to call the women’s groups misandrists. English makes that pairing available and given the level of intensity this conflict has reached, it would seem almost odd if both were not used.

There is still the question of whether calling your opponents bad names is an effective political strategy.

  • And then there is the balance between the powers of the the Presidency and the powers of the Congress.

President Obama was fairly aggressive in using the powers of his office—not in changing the Congress’s approach to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act—to put the campuses on notice that they would accept the new federal programs aimed at reducing sexual assaults on campus or they would be rejecting the federal monies that would otherwise flow to the universities.

It would seem odd, I think, if President Trump did not make use of those same powers to try: a) to undo the gains of the Obama presidency or b) to restore at least the rudiments of balance between the accused and the accusers. Obviously, you can say it either way. The difficulty in both cases is that the law stays the same as it was and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, acting in the President’s name, makes whatever changes in interpretation their constituents require.

That is, as my father used to say, no way to run a railroad.

  • And finally, there is the Astroturf side.

In politics, they call it Astroturf if what is supposed to be a “grass roots movement” is entirely artificial. Women’s groups have been asking people to post their personal stories about sexual assault on Twitter, using the hashtag #Dear Betsy.

In the meantime, C. D. Mock, (pictured at the right) whose son was accused, says, “The young men who have DeVos 2been accused have gone through an absolutely horrendous experience,  They have had their entire world turned upside down.” He doesn’t say that he is promoting a Twitter campaign called #DearBarack, but if the Civil Rights Division is flooded with letters from women and men who have had their lives ruined by sexual encounters in college, that will be what I mean by an Astroturf campaign.

I tell my stories. You tell your stories. I ask for the electronic in-boxes of federal policy makers to be flooded by pathetic stories that illustrate my point. You ask for the pathetic stories to illustrate your point. At some point, the inboxes are all full and neither campaign has addressed the other.

If you learn that a friend of yours is spending his out of class hours in college playing Russian Roulette, you will have to decide when to tell him he is making a mistake. He does not begin to make a mistake when he pulls the trigger when there is a bullet in the chamber. That approach produces only stacks of tweets from people who didn’t die while playing the game and other tweets from the parents of students who did die. All the inboxes are full and no one has addressed whether playing Russian Roulette is a good idea.

[1] Ms. Jackson says, “Hundreds of cases are still pending, some for years, she said, because investigators were “specifically told to keep looking until you find the violation” on college campuses even after they found none — a charge her critics strongly deny.” Catherine E. Lhamon, who led the Education Department’s civil rights office from August 2013 through December 2016, called Ms. Jackson’s claims that investigators were told to fish for violations “patently, demonstrably untrue.” What I mean by “non-empirical” is that I am not going to inquire whether it was true or not. This piece is about something else entirely.
[2] The context of this whole discussion presupposes heterosexual relationships. There are difficulties of other kinds in other kinds of relationships, of course, but this article does not deal with them.
[3] No references have yet been made to a “femaelstrom” but the controversy has not yet climaxed so there is still time.

Posted in Political Psychology, Politics, Society | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Am I (being) depressed?

Today, I want to look at the kind of guidance our language gives us on depression, especially whether it can best be conceived of as active or passive. But before I do that, I have a very small admission to make. I have never heard anyone describe the experience of “being depressed” in the way I experience it. For me, most often, it is a conclusion I draw when I notice how my inner editor—a hypothetical agent over which I have no control at all—has organized my perceptions and my memories. “Oh, look at that,” I say to myself, “I am (being) depressed.” [1]

So my experience of (being) depressed may be unusual, but I think the processes I use to get out of it are pretty ordinary. Also, they have worked pretty well so far.

What the metaphor looks like

In the sentence, “I am depressed.” what part of speech is “depressed? I’m not all that good at this sort of thing, but I would say that it functions as a predicate adjective, as “orange” would in the sentence, “I am orange.”

depressed 5On the other hand, if you were the tongue in this picture, you could just as accurately say that you “were” depressed, but you would be referring to the effect that the little popsicle stick is having on you. “It is depressing me,” the tongue would say, “therefore. I am being depressed” Notice that “depressed” is clearly a verb now. The parallel sentence would be, “I am being strangled,” in which “”depressed” and “strangled” each describe an ongoing action being aimed at you.

So…I kind of like the verb version better. The adjective version describes you: remember that depressed = orange so far as the grammar goes. The verb version describes an action that is being taken and in which you are the object; remember that depressed =strangled.

And one of the reasons I like it is that it raises the question of the origin of that action. Who or what is depressing you?” The other version doesn’t ask that question.  And it leads fairly directly to the next question which is, “What can you do to get him/her/it to stop?”

I think that is a better question, but even that better form of the question is not quite as simple as I have made it sound so far. Imagine that I was going to an event that required wearing a tie and the dress code of this event required that the tie be really tight around the neck. Presuming that I am the person who tightened the tie around my own neck, the direct answer to the question “Who is doing this to you?” is “I am doing it to myself.” On the other hand, there is a distal force [2] that is not me and that requires that the ties I wear be really tight. So another useful answer to the question, “Who is doing this to you?” is “They are.”

I do feel pressed down (de + pressed) from time to time and this last time the experience struck me as having some interesting online parallels. I have three principal ones in mind. Let’s see how the similarities hold up.

Other Readers

If you order a book from Amazon, they will tell you that other people who ordered this book also ordered, or also looked at, these other books. A friend recently asked me to read The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. When I looked it up on Amazon, I was informed that customers who bought this item also bought Do Not Become Alarmed: A Novel, by Maile Melde and A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, and Give a Girl a Knife: A Memoir, by Amy Thielen. These books are “brought into my view” together as a result of my looking up The Wonder.

You have to stop a minute to think how strange all this if you take it seriously. It isn’t mind reading or palm reading. Amazon’s computer is guessing that an interest in one book indicates a probable interest in certain other books.

Here is the analogy that struck me. I have lived a long time and have many experiences. I have organized these experiences into categories, although I didn’t do it intentionally and I don’t know what the names of the categories are. Here’s what I know: when I take an action or receive an action or have a vivid memory, a whole batch of “similar” memories and tastes and associations come to mind. If I do something really dumb, like asking a friend how his father is getting along only to find out that the father died over a month ago, I’m embarrassed. I get through the occasion, but after that—sometimes for days after that— I am bombarded by “similar screw-ups.”

depressed 6This is the way my inner organizer arranges my experiences for me. It is very much as if I had asked for a book called Captain Klutz and was referred to a list of books with that theme. Except these “books” are all about things I have done. These may be things I have never before considered to be related to each other, but somebody—whoever is organizing and presenting these other experiences to me—thinks they are related.


Imagine further that all one’s experiences can be represented as if they were coins with a heads (positive) side and a tails (negative) side. Clearly, one side of the coin is not more true than another. Let’s say I got tired of a job and decided to leave it for another one. But part of the same experience is that someone in the hierarchy had a grievance against me or thought I wasn’t doing my job well. “I got tired of it so I quit and went on to another job” is the heads side of that coin. “I screwed up and got fired” is the tails side.

When I do something like ask about my friend’s father who, as everyone else in the group knows, died last month, it is a faux pas. I am embarrassed. I apologize. But as I am walking home afterward, I see that all the coins have been turned so that they are all tails. These are completely unrelated events. There is the time I dumped tomato soup on my clean white shirt and the time I lost my cool and insulted an obnoxious guest and the time I went to a friend’s birthday party on the wrong night. Here I am, present in hand, and I am the only “guest.”

There is not, to my mind, any topical similarity at all. They are just things that this inner organizer gathers together and puts in a category of some sort and presents to me—like so many books at Amazon—one after another after another.

Peripheral Advertising.

A lot of web sites are paid for by advertising. They are able to customize the advertising to you because they know what you have been doing on your computer. Here’s an example that still makes me smile. I wrote an essay called “Attractive Older Women” and I searched around in Google images to find a good example I could put in the essay. Shortly afterward, advertising started showing up on the websites I used. These were ads “about” (not “from”) attractive older women in the Portland area who are looking for men who aren’t afraid of commitment. This went on for months.

depression 8Some one in the Gorithm family (Al, probably) is monitoring my use of the computer and notices that I was searching for images of attractive older women and concluded that I was in the market not just for the pictures, but for the women. I search for images every time I put an essay up on my blog site. I’d hate to think that each of these searches is taken as an indication of an “interest” that can be commercially exploited. But that is what I do think.

I think that if I wrote an essay about new cars—maybe I’m just studying what kinds of words are used to sell cars these days and comparing it to the words that were used when I was younger—pictures of cars on the lots of local dealers would start showing up in the advertising space. I think that’s how it works.

And that’s why I think the process might be a good indication of how that inner processor of mine works. The part of that process I’m thinking about in this essay is concerned about fears or anxieties or guilt of shame (now new cars or old women), but I think the process is analogous. I think there is something like an algorithm that monitors my experiences and serves up “related products.” I think that if I saw a situation on a local train and thought I ought to intervene, but then didn’t, I would leave the train feeling ashamed.

Words like “coward” and “culpable” and “complicit” and the pictures that belong to my life’s experience of those words, would start to show up in my mental “ad space.” I would think of times when I showed good judgment by not getting involved in someone else’s fight, definitely “heads” memories. And I would find that all those coins had been flipped over by this inner advertiser and now all those coins are tails. I remembered it as careful judgment, but when I look back, I see that it was cowardice.

I hate that.

On the other hand, looking at these coins and at these “suggested books” and at the peripheral advertising is the way I find out that I am depressed. Some people look “inside themselves” as if there were a tag or a sign. Or they just feel depressed. What’s the matter, Alex?” “Oh, I don’t know. I’m just depressed.” These people FEEL depressed. I notice it when I see that all the coins are tails up and the books are all about being a klutz. At that point I realize that however well I thought I did in responding to my friend, I realize when I see what “books” are being presented to me, that I must be depressed and it’s going to take a while to get “un-depressed.”

What I do when I notice

Sometimes it is true that I am being “depressed”—”held down.” It is also true that I wishdepressed 4 I were not being held down. On the other hand, I know what to do about it. It isn’t instantaneous, which would be nice, but it is reliably effective. There are things I can do that are kind of like “pushing back” or at least “getting out from under the thumb.”

They aren’t magic. I do things (actions) I am proud of. Sometimes I have to do quite a few of those. And I hang out with people (associations) who like and respect me. And I don’t talk about how I am feeling. I just let the natural effect of these actions and associations do what they always do.

And then I’m OK until I screw up again.

[1] I got to thinking about this kind of possibility when I read Daryl Bem, a social psychologist who said that what we call “insight” or “introspection” is really using the same kinds of clues about ourselves that our friends use. The example exchange I remember best goes like this. Q. Do you like rye bread? A. I guess I do. When I have a choice of breads, I always choose it.

[2] In my line of work, “proximal” is a word used to describe the immediate cause (the tie) and “distal” is used to describe the mediated cause (the requirement).


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Mayor Murphy and half-a-loaf politics

This might be the time to take another look at Mayor Murphy. We have all the True Believers and hyperpatriots we really need right now. We have a Congress full of people who have signed pledges of ideological purity and have promised not to compromise with the enemy—ordinarily, that’s the other party but sometimes another faction in your own party—no matter how bad the outcome looks to be. So maybe it’s time to reconsider Mayor Murphy.

I have three goals in mind for this essay. First, obviously, I am going to have to tell you about Mayor Murphy. Second, I am going to pose the question of democratic accountability as Edward C. Banfield has illustrated it. [1] Third, I am going to argue for the crucial necessity, in our time, of the kind of leadership Murphy illustrates.

mayor 1

The character himself is taken from Banfield’s pamphlet. In that little story, he is called “the Mayor,” but, in the words of the fictional journalist who interviewed him, the Mayor was “a little roly-poly fellow, very jolly and red-faced, and a real pro.” That, and the legendary success of Irish politicians in city politics, was enough for me to decide that I might as well name him Murphy.  I think this is actually Jack Germond, but his face fits the type perfectly.

The newspaper reporter in this case study is Banfield’s tool for collecting information about all the relevant players in an urban development drama. There are four principal positions [2] and the reporter’s job, as Banfield deploys him, is to show that each of them is inadequate. As a practical matter, however, we, in the Trump era, have only two choices as they bear on these positions. We could choose to adopt one of these four perspectives and go to war with the others. Or we could admit that we need them all and try to find some way of balancing their strengths and weaknesses.

The Problem the Mayor Faces.

Here is the nub of it.

“Well, we might as well talk frankly,” the Mayor said. “The reason I didn’t do it the way it ought to be done was that I just couldn’t. The people wouldn’t stand for it. I would have been out on my ear if I had tried to tear down that slum. I would have been right square in the middle of the worst row you ever saw.

The Mayor had the chance to tear down a slum, bring back the suburbanites who had left, increase the urban tax base, and redevelop the core of the city. Instead, he put the federally funded redevelopment project in an old warehouse district, and tastefully “refurbished” a small fraction of the old slum.

And he did that because “the people” wouldn’t stand for it. When I hear a phrase like that, I wonder the same thing you do. “What people are we talking about?” [3] Murphy has two kinds of people in mind:

  • those who are making profits from slum properties—“[that includes] some churches too” the Mayor adds,
  • the working class whites who just moved to the suburbs and don’t want public housing built next door to them—the classic NIMBY position.
  • Besides that, the Mayor is concerned about the racial unrest these public housing projects might cause and is not eager to put his town through that.

That’s what he means by “the people wouldn’t stand for it.”

The Reporter Pushes Back

mayor 5This is the “Profiles in Courage” rebuttal. The Mayor has said that he couldn’t “do the right thing” because it would cost him his office. The reporter comes back hard, “Maybe you should have made your fight and taken your licking,”

The Mayor comes back at the reporter just as hard and this rationale is the main reason I wanted to spend some time with him.

“Personally, I don’t look at it that way,” he said. “I don’t have any respect for a politician with such high principles that he can’t get re-elected. In this game you got to do what it takes to win. Either that or let somebody else play in your place. If you’ve got such a sensitive conscience that you can never make any compromises, you’re too good for politics. You owe it to your party to step aside for someone else. After all, the party wants to win, not just make your conscience feel good”.

I don’t know anyone who talks like that, even off the record, and I’m not sure I know anyone who would accept the Mayor’s case as he makes it. The people who populate my circle are more apt to say what the reporter said, viz. do the right thing and whatever happens happens.

I think there are four separate kinds of justification in the Mayor’s response, counting the snarky phrasing as one of the points. The first point, the most general one, is that getting re-elected is his job. Things that get in the way of his doing his job—“high principles” is the example he gives—need to be put aside in the present instance.

The second is that from the standpoint of the party, he is taking up space. The party wants whoever is in the Mayor’s office to do what is necessary to keep the party in control of the office. [3] If he can’t do it, he needs to get out of the way so someone else can. The Mayor owes the party something as well as owing the people something.

The third is that what he has done is “make compromises.” That’s what politics is about. It is not a place for True Believers (remember Eric Hoffer’s book?)—but a place for politicians who can get the best deal available for their supporters. And “the best deal” includes keeping potential disasters at an arm’s length.

The fourth “point”—the snarky one—comprises the language the Mayor chooses to demean the alternatives. “Such high principles” does that; so does “such a sensitive conscience;” and so does “too good for politics.” These are all disqualifications from the Mayor’s perspective. They might be virtues in private life, but they are vices in public life.

I think the Mayor makes a very strong case, but it is all phrased as a response to the reporter. Let me take a shot at phrasing it more generally.

mayor 2The Mayor is the exemplar of “democratic accountability” as Banfield sees it. There is no way for voters to choose a party (and the party’s nominee) unless the party makes good on its promises. There is no way for the party to make good on its promises unless its officeholders “do the right thing.” Being so committed to the revitalization of downtown that you cause a race riot is not the right thing. Alienating the working class voters in the inner suburbs and turning the Mayor’s office over to the other party is also “not the right thing.”

So the point is that if you believe in “the sovereignty of the people” in any practical way, you need to believe that there is a way for the people to choose a government that will do what needs to be done. Not a party strangled by its own “high principles,” but a party willing to cut the deals that serve its own base. The old notion was that “half a loaf is better than no bread at all,” but, of course, those alternatives require a particular kind of context.  That is how voters can affect policy, which is the heart of democratic accountability, which is the mechanism by which the sovereignty of the people means anything at all. It all links together and none of it allows a free-lancing Mayor.


My pitch, above, was that we might need to take all four of the positions and try to balance them. Today’s job was just to present the Mayor’s case as one that ought not be thrown out. Somebody needs to exercise the discipline that keeps the worst from happening and maintains the stability that will allow further steps to be taken later on. I am sure that is what Mayor Murphy thinks he is doing and he may be right.

[1]This was taken from pamphlet called “The Case of the Blighted City.” Banfield, later in mayor 4his career, became famous for such books as The Unheavenly City, The Unheavenly City Revisited, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Here the People Rule, Political Influence, Civility and Citizenship, and City Politics  .Here,very early in his career,  I think he was just trying to make a buck. This was written in 1959, which accounts for some of the ethnic stereotypes and some old words (“Negro”), but the political principles work just the same way now that they did then.  Here is Banfield as a very young academic.
[2] There is an economist, who represents the “free market” perspective, the city engineer, who represents the efficiency standard, and the citizen activist who represents the goals of a well-informed and highly motivated citizen. The mayor is the foil to all three of these.
[3] At some point, I need to say that the relationship between the party and the incumbent presupposed throughout this little study is that the party is dominant and the Mayor is their current representative. The party guarantees the Mayor a majority of the votes in “the organization precincts” of the city by exchanging job for votes. Given this relationship, it is not implausible that the Mayor would defer to the party’s interests.


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A Wedding, a “Declaration” and an “Address”

Written July 4, 2017.  Happy Independence Day!

I’d like to look today at Thomas Jefferson’s well-known statement that “all men are created equal.” Some critics have said that this is the height of hypocrisy, coming as it does from a man who owned slaves, but I don’t think so. I think Jefferson was talking about something else entirely.

In this essay, I’d like to say what I think Jefferson was talking about and why I think that. I want to approach this text the way a biblical text might be approached by a careful scholar. We will have to start by keeping in mind who wrote it and to whom and for what purpose. We will give more weight to ways of construing the text that seem in line with Jefferson’s rhetorical needs and less to those that seem tangential.

The Wedding at Cana

Let’s take a simple example to illustrate this technique. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is declaration 3represented as performing a series of actions that pointed beyond their plain meaning. For that reason, they are not called miracles; they are called “signs.” [1] That means that they point to some meaning beyond themselves. What they have in common is that they look at some major element of Jewish practice—we are going to be looking at the wedding at Cana for our example—and then declare it to be surpassed by the present ministry of Jesus. So each of the signs “means something” in the same way; they point beyond. The meanings themselves differ as the occasions differ.

John tells the story of the first of the signs in Chapter 2: Jesus goes with his family and his disciples to a wedding celebration in the nearby town of Cana. They run out of wine and Jesus provides more. The sommelier is ecstatic about the quality of the new wine, not knowing that a few moments ago it was just water.

It is a story that is much abused because it is easy to care more about what we want to have in the story than in what John needs to have in it. For John’s purposes, the crucial verse is 6, which reads:

There were six stone water jars standing there, meant for the ablutions that are customary among the Jews: each could hold twenty or thirty gallons.

I am going to be arguing, shortly, against several interpretations of Jefferson’s language in the Declaration on the grounds that they are “tangential” as opposed to “central.” They lead away, in other words, from the purpose of the argument. Let me introduce that notion by looking at some of the tangential interpretations of John 2.

  • It was a miracle. This shows that Jesus was “divine” because he changed water into wine.
  • It showed his break from family life. He rejects his mother’s request and requests absolutely the rationale she provides for it.
  • It established a basis for the disciples’ belief in him because he “revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.” (verse 11b)

declaration 1I am calling those tangential. I am not arguing that they are mistaken; only that they don’t help John establish the point he is making. John has a use for this story and for this use, the central symbol is the six jars of water. All this water is necessary because “the Jews” [2] needed to ritually purify themselves. John’s point is that because of Jesus, all that water is superfluous. You can do something else with it, since you don’t need it for ritual ablutions. So why not turn it into some really superior wine?

The other interpretations “fly off on a tangent” rather than saying what the sign was and why it was important. That doesn’t make them wrong; it makes them superficial. We can be brought back into line by asking what John was trying to say.

The Declaration of Independence

The passage we are looking at today—the one that has the “all men are created equal” language—is part of a larger argument. I am asking you to give additional weight to interpretations of this much-debated phrase that support the main argument; that are not, in other words, tangential. Like John, Jefferson has a point he is trying to make and we would expect that the language he chooses would help him.

Here is the well known text.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, [3]that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Just before that, Jefferson says;

“…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The argument Jefferson is about to make, in other words, is one that will be taken as cogent according to the “opinions of mankind,”—of Great Britain, France and Spain in particular. And he follows this up by building on John Locke’s theories about the social contract, so that he can say that the New World colonies are no longer bound by that contract.

So…what understanding of “all men are created equal” will help him make this point?

Jefferson wants to make the case that all mankind are bound by a “natural” contract to a legitimate authority. That is the condition of mankind in general and Jefferson will make no exceptional claim for the North American colonies. If the sovereign violates his side of the contract—which, according to Jefferson’s extensive accusations, King George III has done—then the colonies are freed from their part of the contract. Any people bound to a legitimate sovereign would be freed from the contract when the king shows himself to be a tyrant, and therefore not a legitimate ruler..

A phrasing that would have established this would have been that any “people” whose sovereign has violated the terms of the contract, is no longer bound by it. This is true of all peoples—it is true of the Dutch and the French and the Spanish, etc.—and it is just as true of the “Americans.”

declaration 4It is not only the right of these peoples to throw off the yoke of tyranny, but it is their duty to do so. [4] This is true of all peoples—all collections of politically self-conscious people—so it is the general case. Someone arguing against Jefferson would have to argue that although it is true of mankind generally, it is not true of the British colonies in North America; or he would have to argue that Locke’s notions of contract were not valid even in their general sense.

This shows us that understanding Jefferson’s phrase “all men” to refer to “all peoples” moves his argument forward in a direct way. It is central, not tangential, to the argument. By contrast, thinking of “all men” as a comparison of individuals helps Jefferson not at all. There is no good reason, in fact, to think that Jefferson meant that.

The Gettysburg Address

There is every reason, on the other hand, to think that Lincoln meant exactly that. Lincoln made reference to Jefferson’s language in a way that Garry Wills (in an article in The Atlantic) calls “chicanery.” That might seem bold because Wills is a scholar as well as a journalist, but this is what the Chicago Times said at the time.

“The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States. … Is Mr. Lincoln less refined than a savage? … It was a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot view it as otherwise than willful.”

The “perversion of history” the Chicago Times had in mind was Lincoln’s claim that “our fathers brought forth… a new nation… dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Times is complaining, in other words, that Lincoln has willfully misunderstood Jeffersons words—that is the burden of this essay—and has set this misunderstanding out as the fundamental interpretive framework of the Civil War.

Using the textual analysis we have used in the Gospel of John and in the Declaration of Independence, we can ask how this way of construing Jefferson’s claim would have benefitted Lincoln. In Lincoln’s case, it is almost an answer just to ask the question.

declaration 5Lincoln has no use at all for the hypothetical equality of peoples, equally freed from their allegiance to a tyrant. What he needs is an understanding that puts white people and black people in the same scale—Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January of that year—and finds them to be equal in worth. It would be a violation of “Nature and Nature’s God,” to use Jefferson’s phrase, for one man to own another.

Lincoln could just have said that, of course, but what he really needed was an argument that America has always been about that. That was what our fathers meant when, “four score and seven years ago,” they brought forth a new nation—a nation dedicated to the proposition of equality. Not the equality of peoples, which is what Jefferson needed and what he meant, but the equality of persons, which is what Lincoln is saying the battle at Gettysburg was about.

Editorialists all over the country screamed, if not in the blunt prose of the Chicago Tribune, but people are not scholars. The idea that Jefferson meant something else seemed pale, when what Lincoln meant was so vitally present and so crucially important. What Lincoln said helped people make sense out of their world and the war was going to go on for another two years. What Jefferson meant, “back then,” is something for scholars to fight about after the Confederacy is defeated.

So it helps us, I think, to make the needs of the author central to debates about what he might have meant.  For Jefferson, this principle aims “all men” in one direction; for Lincoln, it aims “all men” in another direction.  Each of them knew what he was doing and I think we ought to grant them that.

[1] And the first part of John’s gospel, chapters 1:19—12:50, are often called “The Book of Signs.”
[2] John was written at a time of considerable conflict between the followers of Jesus in the Johannine tradition and the Jews of the post-Jerusalem period. As a result, John is at pains to emphasize every difference he can between Jesus and the religious setting in which he was raised. John’s use almost makes it sound as if Jesus was not a Jew, which he was.
[3] A good illustration of “tangential” would be an argument that paused here to say that Lincoln was asserting that man was “created.” It would be even worse to say that Lincoln stressed “created” to deal with Darwin, whose major theoretical work had been published only four years earlier.
[4] Here, Jefferson takes an entirely new step. The rights are specified by Locke’s social contract theory, but when we get to “duties,” we are entering a new territory. To whom would the duty be owed? “The laws of nature and of nature’s God” is pretty thin and that is the only plausible recipient of such a “duty.”

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