Sticky Discrepancies

There are so many different ways something can be funny. I have been blessed with kids who wonder just why it is that something is funny. That’s a good thing for me because it means I have someone to talk to about it or, when necessary, to argue with about it.

Max Eastman in The Enjoyment of Laughter says that two things are required. There needs to be a sensed discrepancy and the discrepancy needs to be taken playfully. Those two things.

That seems simple, of course, but you don’t need to be able to say just what the discrepancy is to find it funny. “There’s something about that sentence,” people will say, or, meaning no criticism, “There’s something wrong with it.”

My son, Doug, has recently begun producing what he calls “sticky comics”—“stick” for “stick figures.” I love them. Having the stick figures there allows you not to notice that there is nothing really there but dialogue. There are no “raised eyebrows,” for instance, so Doug has to give someone a line that would be said by a person—a person who had a conventionally equipped face—with raised eyebrows.

We almost always agree on which ones are really funny, but lately, we have been coming up with different answers on just why they are funny. That’s what I would like to work through today. Here’s one, for instance.

We have an introductory question. These comics are published in an internal newsletter, so “someone here” refers to the organization to which all the readers belong. Then there are four highly stereotypical responses, none of which appear to be an answer to the question, but as we see in the questioner’s second speech, they actually do answer the question. And the correct answer, the one implicit in that second speech, is confirmed by the last line. But not directly.

Three things happen after the question is posed. First, an answer is given. Just how it is an answer is the artistic achievement of the panel. Second, the answer, still not named, is recognized: “Never mind. I think I know.” We may not know yet. Or we may know, but have not yet called it anything. Third, the correctness of the answer is confirmed, still without directly saying what it is.

That’s a lot that’s left hanging. “Left hanging” runs the risk of gravity and gravity is the enemy of levity. This comedic form really shouldn’t work, but as you see, it does. “Left hanging” runs the risk of alienating, or at least failing to connect with, readers. But the last line can’t confirm that “what’s discrepant” is really what the reader suspects. It needs to indicate, but not to confirm.

Comics that play with meaning that is almost there really shouldn’t be this funny. I guess that’s the true art. Imagine that the three steps worked like this: a) I hear someone is running for office, b) Yes, I am the one, c) Ah. These are the ame steps. Not funny.

I think we are meant to be still assembling the common element in the four mini-speeches, trying to think of what name to give that common element, when the first speaker nails it for us and has the guess immediately confirmed. This is a comic for people who are saturated with American political images. Only in that way can Doug afford to be as indirect as this and still count on our arriving with him at the same conclusion.

Note, however, that the most significant step toward meaning comes in the penultimate speech. The rhythm is da da da DA da. I am not saying that da da da da DA would not be funny nor am I saying that da da da DA DA would not be funny. I am saying only that those other forms would not be funny in the same way this form is. This form, I am saying, is characteristic. It is very close to “defining.”

Let’s look at another one.

I don’t think I will have to be so wordy this time. There is the opening question again. There is the “answer” again—a set of seemingly unconnected remarks with a implicit commonality. Then the realization of what that commonality is; then a response indirectly confirming the correctness of that answer. It goes da da da DA da, just as the previous one does. You might think that an answer as wordy as the last speech (12 words, including a high flown cultural reference) doesn’t deserve the lower case “da,” but I think it does. I gives the answer “I was on hold for a very long time, thanks for asking” simply by adding the third “achievement” to the first two.“

The internet was out” is necessary, but it isn’t funny. It has no relationship to how much Red got done. “On hold” supplies that. It is the DA. But is followed by a nice small da. Ah.

On more. This one looks simpler, but it isn’t really. There is no introductory question. That would introduce some conversational distance between Red Dog and Blue Dog and that would be fatal. Blue says ‘I do this” and Red says “I do that.” We have no way of knowing whether those are to be set against each other or not. If Red responded, “You do? Really?” it would be understandable. But that’s not what is going on.

This one is all about the commonality of the two dogs. There is what to call it—the title calls it the heart of dogness—and then there is how to appreciate it. All that is accomplished in “your work.” That is a line that belongs to another kind of conversation, one artist to another—painters, screenwriters, standup comics, landscape gardeners. We don’t expect to find it here and that is the discrepancy.

Note that there is a shortage of das here. I would call this on da da DA da at the most. Maybe just da DA da. It is crucial


Finally, here (just below) is the one that got Doug and me talking about his patterns. I don’t think I have a criticism. I’m not sure. I might. What I am sure of is that I read it prepared for da da da DA da and didn’t get it. I think the last DA is too big…has too much weight. Or something.

Blue asks the question. Red goes overboard in answering it. That’s how I read it. The chimney sweep line is almost nasty. The next one (contemporary) is useful, but unusually prescriptive. That is what makes us read the penultimate line as DA. It is Blue’s response to the snarkiness of Red. But given that, shouldn’t the last line, be simply a recognition of Blue? That is the way the other two function. They go da da da DA da. This one goes da da da DA DA.
It’s very upsetting.

Doug doesn’t read it that way and the two of us are just beginning to develop humor formats (which are not funny, I grant you) for the sticky comics he writes, and which, in the proud papa’s judgment, actually are funny.

So what do you think? Is the final DA too much?

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Reminding ourselves (again) of authoritarian populism

I will not surprise anyone by observing that authoritarian populism has taken hold in the United States. Donald Trump never made the slightest pretense of valuing democracy as a system of choosing leaders. There were other things that were much more important, such as, for instance, “Making America Great Again.” In light of that, it occurred to me this morning that we might pay for attention than we have to the various Hitler centennials. [1]

If we did that, we might begin that observation with a paragraph that starts like this

On July 29, 1921, Hitler assumed leadership of the organization, which by then had been renamed the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party

For this part of Hitler’s career, we might take the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 as an orienting event. This connection came to me a little late, so I failed to notice that only 77 days ago—that’s a century and 77 days, of course—Hitler became the official leader of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party (the NSDAP) in Munich. By starting there, we would have laid a good foundation for us to begin noticing what he did to plan military-style action (premature, it turned out) against the state.

It would be fatuous to claim that the rapid rise of populist authoritarianism in Germany in the 1920s would look just like the rise of populist authoritarianism we are facing in the United States. On the other hand, it would be just as silly to refuse to see the similarities. Here are three:

Hitler believed, as did many Germans, that Germany had once been great and that its greatness had been stolen from it. All he wanted was to “stop the steal” and return Germany to the status it deserved.

Hitler believed that democracy as a system was weak and specifically, that it was inadequate to the present crisis. On the other hand, especially after the failed military action in Munich in 1923, Hitler saw that the democratic system was the best chance for the Nazi party to take power. It could be—and was—discarded after that.

Hitler drew on the economic difficulties of a large swath of the German people after the war. They were angry anyway. Hitler only needed to focus their anger on useful projects and on vulnerable populations

Macht Deutschland wieder gross

English and German don’t line up all that well as languages, but I notice that Hitler’s Stormtroopers the Sturmabteilung wore something that looked very much like an American baseball cap. That being the case, I can imagine MDWG—Macht Deutschland wieder gross—printed across the front very like MAGA is used by Donald Trump partisans. My German isn’t all that good, but I claim that is a plausible version of “Make Germany Great Again,” which was, in fact, the heart of Hitler’s early rhetoric in Munich.

It could be objected that this is simple mockery, but I don’t think it is. There are certain steps that the Nazis of Munich saw to be necessary if they were to become the dominant right wing party in Munich, in Bavaria, in Germany. These steps can be illustrated by the events of 1919—1923 as they played out. Each event can serve us, a century later, by drawing attention to what that event meant in southern Germany and by asking ourselves what a similar event would mean in the U. S.

I think that may be worth doing and I have a first example in mind. Hitler and a group of young strong “lads” [2] started a full scale riot in the Löwenbräukeller. The Bavarian League was meeting there and their leader, Otto Ballerstedt was speaking. Hitler and his group turned out the lights and attacked the meeting in the dark. The police were called and closed down the meeting. Hitler was given a warning. A month later, in a speech, Hitler defended the violence by saying, “We got what we wanted. Hallerstedt did not speak.”

The crucial organizing principle of the NSDAP was the “Führerprinzip.” This principle demands that a strong leader is to be obeyed unconditionally. Or, more practically, that “the leader’s personal authority replaced majority voting in the party.” [3] Think for a minute what that means. It means that loyalty is not given to the “party principles” if any; it is not given to the nation. “Make Germany Great Again” is folded entirely into “Make Hitler the chancellor with complete power.” The two are the same thing.

The implications for the U. S. are troubling because the worse things are, the more appealing actual leaders are and the less important principles are. In good times, all the members of the party are expected to “support” the party platform. Now when large-scale economic change is under way and the mechanisms of democracy are under threat, “supporting the party platform” just doesn’t seem enough. We feel a need to support the party leader.

If the party leader himself/herself supports the the platform, the extent of the damage will not be apparent, but this puts great pressure on the party leader. If support for the leader were contingent on the leader’s support for the platform, the leader would be insulated from the worst of those pressures. Failing that, the choice must be made over and over whether to seek fidelity to the platform or concrete and immediate political success. Every leader will lose that eventually.

That is why veneration of some “Glorious Leader”—the very heart of today’s authoritarian movements—is so important to such a movement and also why it is so important to the rest of us, who are committed to democracy as a way of choosing and constraining our leaders.

[1] This does not require that we celebrate them, of course, but it might be worth our while to begin tracking them.
[2] His term for them according to Ian David Hall’s
Hitler’s Munich, p. 94
[3] Hall op. cit. also
Mein Kampf, pp. 349—350..

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“Our Vision”

It is early in the morning at Starbucks. Customers have drifted in and have left. I am the only one here at the moment. The store manager, Geoffrey Mlady, takes that moment to assemble the baristas. He wants to check out who will be doing what job for the next few hours.

But he begins by asking them, “What is our store vision?” I could hear that clearly from where I was sitting. The answers were hesitant and muffled, but eventually one of the baristas gave the answer the manager was looking for. I couldn’t hear it, so I went up to him and asked him what it was.

Here’s what it is: “Grand and Awesome.”

Obviously, that requires a little context. First, I would like to note that the founder of Starbucks, Howard Schulz, wrote a book about how he wanted Starbucks to work and he called it Pour Your Heart into It. So the manager of this Starbucks is clearly playing on the home court.

Second, each store in Portland is listed by its location. This store is located at—the nearest major intersection is— the corner of Grand Avenue and Lloyd Boulevard. The “convenience name” of the store is “Grand and Lloyd.” That’s what the manager is playing with. Grand and Lloyd is a location; Grand and Awesome is a way of saying what their vision is. It is who we are or at least who we can be at your best.

A vision isn’t a blueprint. It’s an artist’s rendering and if Geoffrey Mlady is, as I suspect, the inventor of that phrase, then he is the artist. He wants his staff looking in the direction of “who we could be.” He wants “We are awesome” to be part of the background of the decisions the baristas have to make. Some of those are easy, at least at the beginning of the shift. It’s just serving coffee to people who have come in because they like Starbucks coffee.

But some are difficult in principle. People come in off the street and want to abuse the facilities. People, in this lingering COVID era, want to sit at tables that are marked TABLE TEMPORARILY CLOSED and they have to be asked (awesomely) to move to another table. Or refused (awesomely) a free coffee on a cold morning.

The reason the manager wants “are you being awesome” reverberating in the back of everyone’s mind is that it is not a question that comes up naturally all the time. And it doesn’t require the same kind of behavior from you all the time either, which is why he said, “Whatever that looks like to you, do it.” You have to be firm sometimes. You get to be friendly sometimes. You have to compensate for “customer error” sometimes. “Awesome” looks like different things at different times and you have to make those decisions on the fly and you won’t make all of them right. Keep going. We are Grand and Awesome.

And we aren’t if you aren’t. Good job, Geoff. That’s awesome.

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A New Trick

I have been watching a British cop show called New Tricks. [1] There has been a nearly total (one holdover) substitution of new actors for old. That may be the difference I am noticing. But I also think the writing has gotten better. Certainly I find myself enjoying it more.

I have an example.

In Season 11, Episode 1 there is this exchange between a very unattractive man and a very attractive woman.

This is Tamzin Outhwaite. She is the new head of UCOS, That’s the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad. The very unattractive man she and her colleague Gerry Standing are questioning, expresses a real interest in dating her. She just keeps on being the cop doing her job. He is disappointed. He says,

You know, I was seriously considering asking you out.

Her response was as dry an anyone could wish.

I think I’ll learn to love again.

[1] The joke is that a new unit of police has been invented and they have no personnel budget so they have to use retired cops. Old Dogs, as were.it

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Paying Attention to Hitler: Some Centennials

September 18, 2021

I will not surprise anyone by observing that authoritarian populism has taken hold in the United States. Donald Trump never made the slightest pretense of valuing democracy as a system of choosing leaders. There were other things that were much more important, such as, for instance, “Making America Great Again.” In light of that, it occurred to me this morning that we might pay more attention than we have to the various Hitler centennials. [1]

If we did that, we might begin that observation with a paragraph that starts like this:

On July 29, 1921, Hitler assumed leadership of the organization, which by then had been renamed the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party.

For this part of Hitler’s career, we might take the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 as an orienting event. This connection came to me a little late, so I failed to notice that only 52 days ago—that’s a century and 52 days, of course—Hitler became the official leader of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party (the NSDAP) in Munich. By starting there, we would have laid a good foundation to begin noticing what he did to plan military-style action (premature, it turned out) against the state and the strategy he adopted afterwards.

It would be fatuous to claim that the rapid rise of populist authoritarianism in Germany in the 1920s would look just like the rise of populist authoritarianism we are facing in the United Statess in the 2020. On the other hand, it would be just as silly to refuse to see the similarities. Here are three:

Hitler believed, as did many Germans, that Germany had once been great and that its greatness had been stolen from it. All he wanted was to “stop the steal” and return Germany to the status it deserved.

Hitler believed that democracy as a system was weak and specifically, that it was inadequate to the present crisis. On the other hand, especially after the failed military action in Munich in 1923, Hitler saw that the democratic system was the best chance for the Nazi party to take power. It could be—and was—discarded after that.

Hitler exploited the economic difficulties of a large swath of the German people after the war. They were angry anyway. Hitler only needed to focus their anger on useful projects and on vulnerable populations

Macht Deutschland wieder gross

English and German don’t line up all that well as languages, but I notice that Hitler’s Stormtroopers the Sturmabteilung wore something that looked very much like an American baseball cap. That being the case, it is easy to imagine MDWG—Macht Deutschland wieder gross—printed across the front very like MAGA is used by Donald Trump partisans. My German isn’t all that good, but I claim that is a plausible version of “Make Germany Great Again,” which was, in fact, the heart of Hitler’s early rhetoric in Munich.

[1] This does not require that we celebrate them, of course, but it might be worth our while to begin tracking them.

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Opprobrium Entrepreneurs

September 9, 2021

People who like to write about or think about or argue about American politics (overlapping, but not identical categories) owe a debt of thanks to Cass R. Sunstein for the term, “opprobrium entrepreneur.” Opprobrium is the imputation of shameful conduct. [1]

It’s a little harder to say exactly what an entrepreneur is, but it is about the front end of a development. The people who determine the demand for a product—the “product” in this instance is the unacceptability of certain words—or who organize its popularity or who popularize it among audiences who were not initially engaged.

Sunstein, in his 2018 paper , “The Power of Normal” proposes a way new norms are popularized. It is the mastery of this process that qualifies someone as an OE. Sunstein says:

Once conduct comes to be seen as part of an unacceptable category — abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment — real or apparent exemplars that are not so egregious, or perhaps not objectionable at all, might be taken as egregious, because they take on the stigma now associated with the category.

This is a logic-driven process. It isn’t very good logic, but the general argument—if X is bad, Y, which shares some of X’s traits, is also bad—is the kind of argument one finds in logic. So if, for instance, racial hatred is bad, then racial stereotyping is also bad and inattention to the widespread use of racial stereotypes is also bad and the refusal to become reliably enraged when one hears about an instance of racial stereotyping is also bad, That series should illustrate why I called “a kind of logic” and also why I said it wasn’t very good logic.

Sunstein follows the mechanism this way. An action or an attitude is declared to be objectionable. Then it is located in a category. Then anything else that falls in that category is also objectionable. So if raping a woman you met at a party in college is bad, then asking the woman if she would like to have sex with you is also bad, then asking her out on a date the next weekend is also bad, and so is saying that she is attractive. If you take the trouble to devise a category like “taking an initiative toward a woman at a party,” then anything that falls under the category “initiative” bears the same opprobrium.

Sunstein offers a list of common categories: “abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment.” But the whole notion of “category” is notoriously hard to pin down. There could be a category of irrational behavior, or of excessive appetite, or of deficient appetite, or even “inappropriate behavior”—which requires a whole new set of standards.

Consider, for instance, “lack of patriotism” in Sunstein’s list above. If we think of patriotism as a love of one’s country, then obviously, it is the display of this love, at appropriate times and in approved modes, that is being considered. So hating your county would fit, if you kept talking about your hatred. Not caring much one way or the other [2] could be seen as a lack of patriotism. Not displaying your feelings when such a display is called for could be seen as a lack of patriotism. Failing to praise others whose displays of their own patriotism are to be taken as the new norm—that too could be seen as a lack of patriotism.

You see how it works. Once the category is developed, weaker and weaker and weaker stimuli cue the same response that strong stimuli once cued. I love the story I heard in the 1970s of the college girl who was organizing recycling for her dorm and put signs on the paper bins: “white paper” on one and “colored paper” on the other. A friend, just to tease her, scratched out “colored paper” and wrote “paper of color.” As a joke from a friend, I thought it was funny. It wouldn’t be funny of the girl was accused of racism and kicked out of school, but she really should have been more sensitive to the possibility that someone would respond to the signs as if they were racist.

Really?

There is a solution to this problem. It’s simple in principle. It is to divide responses like this into too little, too much, and just right. I said it was simple. Rather than establishing “patriotism” as an undifferentiated good, for instance, we could say that there are expressions of patriotism that are too little, others that are too much, and still others that are somewhere in the middle. We could also allow large categories of everyday life where “patriotic acts” are really not required at all.

This would allow us to distinguish acts with racist intentions and expressions from others which bear only tangentially on race at all. The Opprobrium Entrepreneurs establish the category (bearing on race = racist) then label everything in the category as equally objectionable. Intentions are not required. Attitudes are the same as behavior. Insensitivity (to the categories I am selling) is the same as racism. And so on. And on.

Thomas B. Edsall, in his New York Times column of September 8, cites a number of scholars who think that the pushback against this kind of entrepreneurialism has begun. I hope so.

[1] It hasn’t had to develop much from the Latin root probrum, “reproach, infamy.Apparently it is one of those ideas tucked in near the foundation of society.
[2] Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris did some really interesting studies of young people at the time the European Union was being developed and the new thing, the better thing, was not to be “French” or “German,” but to be “European.”

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Evangelize your friends. Or else.

Today, I opened a Facebook post from a long ago friend. Still a “friend” in the Facebook sense of the term.

The Bible…says Matthew 10:33 “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which art [sic] in Heaven. [1]

If the Holy Spirit moves you and you’re not ashamed, just copy, and make this as your status update.

I admit that I am not sure I am up to current Facebook language and practices, so I might have misunderstood what “status update” can mean. I imagined that it signaled some piece of information about her family or something new about her job or maybe some new idea she wanted to put up for comment. Having read its contents, particularly the part I have excerpted above, I now believe it signals nothing at all about my friend except possibly that she can be shamed into doing something that someone else wants her to do.

My friend received a post from a conservative Christian minister. He asks her to make this post of his “your status update.” My friend very seldom posts on Facebook and when she does, it is about her family, which is large and devoted. My first thought on reading this “update” was that she must have had some reason for posting it. But when I read it more carefully I saw that it says that God will be ashamed of her if she does not.

He starts with this passage in Matthew in which Jesus argues that how we live our lives here will have eternal consequences. If you proclaim me here, my Father will proclaim you there. And vice versa. The message focuses on the versa.

And what does my friend have to do to earn God’s acceptance and to avoid being rejected? Only to re-post the minister’s message and call it “your status update.” That doesn’t sound so hard. All you have to do is post something implying that it is about you and your family, leaving your “friends” to learn on their own that you are just being used as an outlet for someone else’s message.

I have quite a few friends who read an article or a blog post and find it to have some merit and put it up on their Facebook page with a note that says something like “I thought this was a really good argument. What do you think?” Or “I thought this was a beautiful poem and wanted to share it with you.”

This isn’t that.

My friend looked at this post and its argument that the only reason you would NOT post it as a status update is that you are ashamed of it. [2] And if you are ashamed of this message, it is like being ashamed of me, which is like being ashamed of Jesus, which is like being ashamed of God—and you will pay the price for that, you may be sure.

That’s what this is.

What you have to do to avoid God’s wrath gets easier and easier. Just post my letter and call it “a status update.” The consequences of not doing that simple little thing get harder and harder. “My Father will be eternally ashamed of you.”

I imagine as I write this that I will not be reading any more “status updates” from my friend unless they say what they are about. And if others like myself do that, my friend’s pool of friends will become more and more homogeneous—more and more like a silo. And that will be a shame.

[1] I am not entirely sure why the King James grammar requires “is” as the verb here, where “art” is required in the Lord’s Prayer. I suspect that “art” is required by direct address (Our Father, who ART) where the normal usage (My Father, who IS in heaven). Can anyone help me on that?
[2] You could argue that the other element of the appeal—if the Holy Spirit moves you—is important as well, but I am quite sure that my friend will not be certain that the Holy Spirit has moved her. She will clearly follow the “shame logic.”

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The Nap Ministry

I learned to nap when I was a teenager. I was working at a lumber yard—my brothers and I all did that in the summers—and I remember walking a few blocks to lunch at home and then lying on the floor in the living room for a quick nap before going back to work. I remember sleeping soundly for fifteen minutes and waking refreshed and going back to work.

As I look back, I am not quite sure how much of that actually happened but I remember it all clearly and my brothers, who sometimes keep an eye on this blog, will all have views.

Fast forward to grad school at the University of Oregon. I began to work with the idea that the “problems” we tried to solve were of our own making. We encounter difficulties of all kinds because of who we are and the way life is organized in our society, but how we construe them [1]—formulate them as problems to be solved—is up to us. There are, accordingly, “good problems” and “bad problems.” The good ones help you see what to do next and call on your best efforts.

In this morning’s New York Times, Cassady Rosenblum wrote a column called “Work is a False Idol.” In that column, I first heard about “the nap ministry,” which, as an actual organization (see thenapministry@wordpress.com) I have no interest in at all, but with my background in napping and in the formulation of useful problems, I can hardly stay away from it.

What’s the problem? That’s often a way of asking, “What’s wrong with it?” That’s not the way I use it. What I mean is, “What problem have you constructed to give a useful shape to this collection of events?” So, how about the one embedded in this headline: Work is a False Idol?

Idols are objects of worship. Why are we talking about worship? And if we are going to talk about worship, why specify “idols” which are false by definition. [2] This is a terrible problem, although it is probably not a bad headline.

The group Ms. Rosenblum cites, “the nap ministry” has a heading that is even worse. They ask, at the top of their page, “How will you be useless to capitalism today?”

The goal suggested in this problem formulation is that you find a way to be useless to capitalism. “Capitalism” in most journalistic contexts, is a word much like “idolatry.” It’s hard to say just what it is, but we know it is bad. We used to hear about attempts to “overthrow” capitalism, a problem with its own difficulties, but aspiring to be useless to “capitalism” is not even a thought worth having. “I have succeeded today! I have been of no use at all to capitalism!” Woohoo!”

There is no distinction, in these problems between work that really needs to be done and “fill the time” work. There is no distinction between work through which you express yourself and in which you find great joy. It’s all “work,” presuming you receive monetary compensation for it, and so runs the risk of being “useful” to capitalism. Oh dear.

There are lots of ways to formulate meaningful problems, problems that are actually worth solving, At the national level, you might ask how the goods and services we need could be produced without causing so much human cost. That’s a good problem. You can come at it either from the end of causing less damage or from the end of repairing quickly and effectively the damage that is caused. Those are both good problems. They help you see what to do next and they mobilize you to do your best work on them.

At the personal level, you could aspire to live a meaningful and satisfying life by doing work that will compensate you adequately and by refusing meaningless competitions or display. Those specifications set a very low bar for “adequately” and they enable a whole host of interesting tradeoffs in the choices you make. That’s a good problem too, for the same reasons the systemic formulation is a good problem.

So…not to beat this to death, “staying useless to capitalism” is not a good problem. It will not do for you what needs to be done. “Refusing to worship the idol of work” is not a good problem either. Aiming at defeating abstract forces is just unlikely to bring you the intentional clarity you will need, so reject such aims. Make good problems instead. And then get to work.

[1] We get that word from a Latin verb, construere, which means to build. How very appropriate!
[2] Etymologically, idolatry is the worship of images, the Greek is
eidōlon. If you really want to do it, you should call them icons.

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The Use of Conflicts in the Gospel of Mark

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus responds unevenly to the opportunities he has to engage in conflicts. There is an easy way to demonstrate this, although I am sure it would not persuade anyone who wasn’t willing to be persuaded. You simply array the conflict situations Mark describes and note when Jesus chose to engage and when he didn’t. Then you plot them out from mild to severe and see how they line up.

I’ve done that twice recently, once in a secular setting and once in a religious setting, and found the question thoroughly engaging. The situations were mostly familiar, but the approach—how did Jesus choose how to engage in these conflicts and for what reasons—was unfamiliar. There is something of a “gentle Jesus meek and mild” aura that seems to persist from week to week, even as we dismembered it week to week. For that reason, and perhaps for some others as well, it continues to be a surprising study.

As I looked for a way to convey what appears to be a series of strategic choices, I happened on the notion of a manager choosing the series of opponents for his young boxer. The idea that Mark is the manager gives room for us, as readers, to imagine the strategic choices Mark made in assembling the gospel. He can’t use all the materials he has, even if he wanted to, and he needs to turn these materials into a narrative that will make sense to readers. There is, therefore, an order these conflicts must have. It would be unsettling to have the intensity decrease markedly as Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover conflicts.

So the fantasy that Mark serves as Jesus’ “manager” allows us to look for the strategy in his choices. Also, as in the stories, the manager would choose just the fights his fighter needed to build his skills. This stretches the metaphor just a little, but it is clear that some of the conflicts feature challenges to the power Jesus has; others to the authority he has. Some pit Jesus against the Pharisees, some against the scribes, some against the Sadducees. Some conflicts require Jesus to define his ministry, others to define his nature.

So overall, seeing Mark’s account as a boxer’s manager’s choice of conflicts—though fanciful—offers some very sensible choices to the reader.

Some Examples

For instance, in Mark 2, the Pharisees challenge Jesus about his disciples’ refusal to engage in fasting. Why is that? Jesus responds by saying that this is a special time.

19 Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot fast while the bridegroom is still with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then, on that day, they will fast.

The claim this makes is among the mildest of Jesus’ responses. The disciples behavior is related to the time they are with their master and when that time is over, they will again pick up the valuable practices of observant Jews.

But three verses later—in this metaphor, “three verses later” refers to where Mark places these two conflicts in relation to each other, not to any fixed elapsed time—the Pharisees criticize the disciples for violating the Sabbath and Jesus responds much more robustly. He does not appeal to the differences among the various rabbis about just how strict to be. He appeals first to the practice of David, later King David, who took liberties with the Sabbath.

Then he crowns that conflict with a very powerful reference—no less powerful for being puzzling:

27And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; 28so the Son of man [many translations have Son of Man] is master even of the Sabbath.’ [1]

There is no question, however, that in this conflict, Jesus moves from less controversial claims to more controversial ones.

Examples could be multiplied. We dealt with twelve of them, all from Mark, in these sessions. In some, Jesus simply refused to be baited. In Mark11, Jesus asks his opponents—chief priests, scribes, and elders, in this instance—a question they dare not answer in public. When they refuse to answer, Jesus says:

‘Nor will I tell you my authority for acting like this.’

When the opponents ask a question like ones they have been asking—why don’t your disciples….?—Jesus simply explodes. (Mark 7:6—8)

6He answered, ‘How rightly Isaiah prophesied about you hypocrites in the passage of scripture: This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. 7 Their reverence of me is worthless; the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments. * 8You put aside the commandment of God to observe human traditions.’

There is nothing remotely like an answer to the question in that response. Imagine that Mark, the Manager, calls for a shift from defense to offense, sensing that the time is right. In this metaphor, we cannot judge whether the metaphor treats Mark as the “manager” of the career of Jesus or as “manager” of the needs of the narrative. In either case, the shift into attack mode is dramatic.

There is no need to multiply examples. If you build an array of the least offensive of Jesus’ responses to the most offensive, you find that the conflicts fill up the whole scale. We cannot tell from Mark’s account alone whether this is a well planned ministry or a well planned narrative, but the range is impressive and it gives a new and interesting perspective on Jesus.

[1] What does Mark want us to understand here? “Son of Man” is used in Mark’s gospel to mean several different things (see Mark 17:62 for a very high claim).

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The Distrust Party

In situations of persistent conflict, it is really hard to continue to wish good things for your self and your group without also sliding off to wishing bad things for “them.” That is one of the very large problems the U. S. faces at the moment. The COVID 19 pandemic has made that abundantly clear.

The Republican party has become the party of Distrust. One of the things that makes this possible is that it makes some undifferentiated THEM available as a scapegoat. You can urge the party faithful not to support anything that would bring aid and comfort to THEM without raising the question of the best way to respond to the present situation.

The old Republican party wasn’t like that. Heather Cox Richardson reminded me in her column today that President Eisenhower characterized his program as “a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands of the welfare of the whole Nation.” 

There are two positive formulations there. There are things we have to do for the welfare of the nation as a whole. Let’s do those. On the other hand, there is the freedom of the individual to consider, a freedom that needs to be respected. No modern Republican could make an appeal like that because the Republican party as become the party of distrust.

Ross Douthat noted in the New York Times this morning that the simplest way–he granted that there were other considerations–would be simply to pay people to take the vaccine. Among the reasons he gives for this approach is one I like a lot. It is cheap. The return to the society of this paltry investment in the nation’s welfare would pay for the expense many times over.

But…really? Have we been driven as far as that? A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that a lot of people don’t think the case for the vaccine has been made. And why is that? It is because the major institutions that oversee the health of the public can’t be trusted. And how do we know they can’t be trusted? Because the party of Distrust–the Republicans–have been shouting it from the rooftops for forty years. These formerly trusted institutions have become part of THEM.

So what would have become a trusting (and inexpensive) response to the unanimous judgment of the professionals has become a very expensive exercise in compliance that the government is forced to purchase. Providing the services the country needs to an untrusting population is really really expensive.

It can be argued that allowing everyone to exercise their own judgment is the best way to solve the problem. That’s a good looking approach at the beginning, but eventually, we need to say that it isn’t working. So it isn’t “a good way to solve the problem” because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. That would be the place where a sensible society would invoke Plan B, whether that involves punishing people who refuse vaccination or rewarding people so they will accept it.

But both of those treat those plans as ways to solve the problem. If “I get to make the choice for myself” is asserted as a right, then there is no Plan B. That brings us to President Eisenhower’s use of the word “untrammeled.” Untrammeled–literally “unbound”–individualism is the kind that will accept no amount of public benefit as an adequate reason to give up even a fragment of precious autonomy.

In the 1940s, they used to say “there’s a war on, you know” as a reason to do something for the public benefit that the government could not otherwise require you to do. “There’s a war on, you know” saved the government untold trillions of dollars in compliance they didn’t have to buy. Conversely, the persistent cultivation of distrust we have seen from the Republicans–oh, and the Russians, too–does cost those trillions. There isn’t a war on anymore.

And the Party of Distrust considers only the benefit to itself when crucial public programs fail.

That’s really the problem the Democrats face. Even the consistent achievement of crucial public purposes is not going to rebuild trust. Trust is built by explanations, not by achievements. Every beneficial program that can be explained away as “politically motivated” does not have the effect of building up our fund of trust. And “trust is cheaper than purchase,” true as it is, is not the kind of explanation that is going to restore trust.

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