Juneteenth, 2020

I think I’d like to pay some attention to Juneteenth this year. I remember hearing about it before, but only from a distance. Since last June, I have been thinking about the increasingly wide divisions in this country and how we seem to cling to them. With that in mind, I would like to think about how Juneteenth could be celebrated by “us” this year.

Juneteenth celebrates the announcement in Texas of the end of slavery everywhere in the U. S. in 1865. Here is what Wikipedia says: [1]

Juneteenth (a portmanteau of June and nineteenth),… is an American holiday celebrated annually on June 19. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free.

The end of slavery was a very good thing for the blacks who had been enslaved. It was a very good thing for the Union soldiers who were able to mark this as the ultimate achievement of a long and bloody war. [2] Those two simple statements provide the context for my reflection today, which is: Why is this “a black holiday?”

From my seat on the sidelines, it looks to me like a wonderful opportunity to celebrateJuneteenth 6 America, emphasizing its white and black components. A lot of Union soldiers died to get the Union troops to Texas. Before that, a lot of abolitionists were punished by their communities for urging inconvenient actions regarding slavery. This would be a great time to celebrate them.

For the slaves and their children in many subsequent generations, it doesn’t represent so much an achievement [3] as the celebration of a basic right that had been long denied them. There is every reason to celebrate this new status. Is there any reason to celebrate it together? Is there any reason why the children of the Union soldiers and the northern abolitionists could not get together with the children of the freed slaves and celebrate together? When you first think about it, it seems there is not.

I think you ought to think again.

In the first place, it is not at all in keeping with the cultural and political ambience of our times. This is a time for black Americans to emphasize their common victimhood and for white Americans to bewail their “fragility” and to repent of their “privilege.” Of course, both of those things are true. There is no question that they ought to be granted. There is a reason to wonder why they ought to be allowed to crowd everything else off the stage.

So if we were to begin to consider Juneteenth as the celebration of a new level of cooperation and comity between white [4] and black Americans, the first thing we would have to do is to claim a legitimate place on the stage. It is appropriate, we would have to say, to make a place for blacks and whites to celebrate together the ending of slavery.

juneteenth 1This is no more the time for deploring the evils of slavery than it is the time to dwell on the ugliness of early adolescence when celebrating a young woman’s nineteenth birthday. We all know there were those times. One of them might have been yesterday. The bills for some of them might not yet have been paid. But they are not the matter at hand, the birthday, and they will not keep us from celebrating the end of slavery together,

I spoke casually, above, about “making a place on the stage” and in doing so, I skipped over the fact that we would have to want to make that place on the stage. This celebration of the end of slavery by the white and black participants, is not going to take place if nobody wants it. It is not going to take place if the people who do want it allow themselves to be intimidated by people who think such a celebration is a disgrace.

So we have to proclaim a celebration that violates the cultural and political ambience. And then we have to claim—maybe muscle aside a body or two—a space on the stage to have this celebration.

The case we would make is that it is too good an opportunity to be missed. This a chance for blacks and whites to celebrate an aspect of our common history—an aspect that has something to do with race. How many chances are there to do that!

For people who want it to be a celebration for black Americans only, this is going to feel bad. It is like sharing with a neighbor kid the birthday cake that was supposed to be for the family. Frankly, it is a lot easier to orchestrate a black celebration than a black and white celebration. [5] That could mean that we go to our neutral corners and wait to see what happens. On the other hand, it could mean trying to work out what kind of celebration recognizes and honors all the participants.

Blacks who want the celebration to be all for themselves will accuse the whites of coopting “our celebration.” White liberals who are even more sensitive, sometimes, to slights against a group they think of as a client group, will argue the same from editorial pages. Whites as a racial group don’t have a direct stake in the game, as I see it. There is no Sons of White Liberators from Slavery that I have ever heard of, much less a culture to sustain it. But whites do have a stake in racial comity, just as blacks do and this is a chance to exercise it. If racial comity were a muscle, it would be in danger of atrophying and the blame for that can be very widely shared.

So if there is going to be a national holiday celebrating Juneteenth, I would like it to celebrate blacks and whites making a new start, celebrating what they have done together and planning to work that racial comity muscle until it gets stronger and less likely to tear when it is stressed.

[1] It also notes that Juneteenth is a “portmanteau word” of “June” and “nineteenth.” A portmanteau is a kind of suitcase. Lewis Carroll introduced the work into English, saying that it represented the sort of words he invented for “Jabberwocky,” — “two meanings packed up into one word.”
[2] If you will permit me a small note on punctuation, please note that there is no comma after “soldiers.” If there were, the statement would be demonstrably untrue. On the other hand, there were some Union soldiers for whom it was true and this phrasing includes them. Anti-black sentiment among Union troops was notoriously high, so that is a crucially important comma that is not there.
[3] You will note that “were freed” is a passive verb. It does not represent something the slaves did, but something that was done on their behalf,.
[4] I say “white” for convenience only. I intend “all racial and ethnic groups that are not black.”
[5] It would be easier, too, to celebrate a white event in a white style, but we seem to be in no danger of that.

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White women are vicious. Hm.

A recent column by Charles Blow, a columnist for the New York Times, is one of the worst I have seen anywhere. It stands out particularly in the Times, where the columns written by people who work for the paper are most often thoughtful and informative.

This column is neither. Not only is it racist and sexist, it is dehumanizing as well. That third charge is the one I would like to start with. If I am still angry when I am done doing that, I will provide evidence for the other two cases as well.

The subject of Blow’s diatribe is “white women.” To this category, he is going to attribute knowledge, intention, and cruelty. It is true that along the path of this accusation about white women in general, he does use particular white women as examples.

He says that ‘a white woman in New York’s Central Park”—that would be Amy CooperCentral Park although Blow does not use her name— told a black man, a bird-watcher, that she was going to call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life. Blow could plausibly say things about what Ms. Cooper knew for sure and what her motivations were. It is possible to learn those things about Amy Cooper, the person. But when she is made an instance in a more general accusation about “white women,” the meaning of the charge evaporates. It is not true about “white women” and no listing of actual instances could make it true about the whole category.

The vicious killing of Emmet Till, Blow says, came about because “a white woman said that he “grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her.” …

A few years ago, the woman admitted to an author that she had lied.” The woman’s name was Carolyn Bryant Donham. She said, in an interview with, Timothy B. Tyson, that part of her allegation—that he had grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her— “that part is not true.”

Mrs. Denham has not provided much evidence about how she saw the situation, but she did give the Tyson interview and Mr. Blow is free to explain Mrs. Denham’s actions as best he can. What Mrs. Denham has in common with Amy Cooper is that she is not “white women,” which is what Blow is so hot about. Consider the following paragraph.

Specifically, I am enraged by white women weaponizing racial anxiety, using their white femininity to activate systems of white terror against black men. This has long been a power white women realized they had and that they exerted.

There is a category here: “white women.” It is argued that this category of people “realized” something: they realized that they had a power. Let’s pause for a moment to realize just how silly this is. Either we have a category realizing something or we have all members of the category realizing something.  You’re kidding, right?

In addition, this category acts. It (they) recognize the availability of an attitude in the more general public and they “weaponize it.” Again, this is not something categories can do and it is empirically untrue that all the members of the category do this.

Mr. Blow probably has the gender status shared by all white women in mind, but when he says “femininity” he is going way beyond the constraints of “femaleness.” “Femininity” is a particular style of behavior much admired and practiced by some women and vigorously deplored and avoided by others. To attribute “femininity” to white women as a category is not a good thing to do. First, it is, as the above uses show, silly. In addition, he risks the wrath of women who think the equating of “femininity” with womanhood is a gross calumny against all women.

This category of women is, in addition, “cruel.” This is not, just to make the obvious point one more time, a charge against any particular woman, with the exception of the examples he gives. This is a charge against the category as if the category itself were sentient and/or a charge against all the women in the category.

I expressed my anger at the beginning of this essay saying that Mr. Blow’s charges are racist, sexist, and dehumanizing. The charges are “racial,” obviously and “sexual” obviously. They have to do with race and sex. I charge, in addition, that they are “racist” and “sexist” using the -ist suffix to indicate my disapproval of it.

The case for “dehumanizing” is easier. Treating human beings as if they were no more than the attributes expected of the social categories they belong to obviously “dehumanizes” them. But maybe it would be easier to see if we looked at some other categories.

What are poor midwestern farmers like?
What are Africa-born black American citizens like?
What are autistic fathers like?

You see the problem. Everyone who uses the language sees the need for discriminating within the category when using psychological notions like “intention.” What intention do autistic fathers have? Thank goodness there is only one such intention because it is so much easier to describe what “it” is than it would be to describe the many intentions that “normal people” have.

Just one question, Mr. Blow. What intention (just one, please) do columnists have?

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Why does President Trump lie?

My father had a drive toward being a cultured gentleman. I see, as I look back, that it was much more powerful than I thought as I was growing up, but even then, I noticed it. He was raised on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania as part of an old order community and when he chose to leave that community, he faced a bewildering array of options. I think the intensity of his focus on “being a gentleman” and on trying to make his four sons into gentlemen came from the great distance between what he left and what he chose. [1]

Part of Dad’s aspiration to gentility had to do with politics. Dad wasn’t oriented toward policy; he wanted presidential candidates who shared his concern for good manners and good language. Partly for that reason, President Truman was a difficulty for him. The trait that newscasters celebrated as “plain-spoken,” Dad saw as “vulgar.” One of the first political stories I remember from Dad was that “the dictionaries”—he may have had Webster’s 2nd Edition in mind—had been using the rule that a word will be added to the dictionary when it is used by the President. They had to stop using that rule, he said, when Truman became president.

This led in time to a joke that Washington “couldn’t tell a lie.” Roosevelt.couldn’t tell the truth. And Truman couldn’t tell the difference.”

It isn’t Dad’s conservatism I want to point to in remembering that story; it is the moral vacuity of the butt of the joke—Truman in this case. [2] And I got to remembering this when I readMichael Tomasky’s column in the New York Times this morning. Trump is the most egregious liar in the history of the presidency. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, who has been keeping track, has Mr. Trump at 15.6 lies a day, “roughly one every waking hour.”

Why does he do it?

Lying 4As a (nearly) life long professor of political science, I used to field questions like this in class and the first thing I wanted to know from the questioner was, “Why do you want to know?” I would ask that because some reasons for wanting to know can be satisfied, even within the context of a political science class. Other reasons have no hope at all of being adequately addressed. In the case of President Trump, I have three answers in mind and none of them can be fully addressed by the social institutions we have now.

Three plausible reasons

The first follows from Dad’s joke about not being able to tell the difference. President Trump’s overwhelming interests, it seems to me, have to do with self-aggrandizement. Some say he is besotted by the quest for power, but it isn’t power to do something; it is power to avoid restraint.

Tomasky’s column notes that previous lying presidents have lied within the structure of existing political institutions. Even Nixon and George W. Bush recognized that there were other political institutions with their own legitimate powers and they needed to be dealt with in some way. Tomasky says that Trump doesn’t recognize any other legitimate powers at all. The center of moral worth is “the Presidency,” (meaning himself); before that, it was the campaign, (meaning himself); and before that it was his several businesses (meaning himself).

There is, in the President’s mind, a massive moral equivalency between “greatest” and himself. “Greatest” naturally inheres in himself. That is why the crowd at his inauguration is larger than any other crowd ever. It is why all Americans are safer and happier than they have ever been before. These are assertions that do not need confirmation—facts that bear on these assertions are irrelevant to him. “Facts” are just tools to support a “truth” that is obvious to him, which is that he and his are the greatest. So assertions of “fact” are not, principally, true or not; they are useful or not.

The heart of President Trump’s lying, in this view, is that “truth” has no merit at all apart from utility. He asserts that it is true if it is useful. [3]

The second reason he lies is to defame his enemies. The core of President Trump’s base is angry at the way they have been treated. The Trump style of campaigning not only defames these enemies, but makes fun of them. He says they are bad, in other words, and also makes them objects of derision.  I love the idea of “leaving the sociopath,” but it will require winning a very important election to do that.

This is a separate reason for lying. It has no direct connection to the Trump fetish about Lying 1being the greatest. This is giving “talking points” to people who was to “hit back.” These people are aggrieved, remember, and whatever they do, is something “back.” They are “retaliating.” Notice the re- in retaliating; It represents the “back” in “hitting back.” And not only does it give talking points, it gives permission to say things like that. These are social slurs or ethnic slurs or class slurs. These are things that until recently, were not OK to say in public. The avalanche of Trump lies addresses these two problems: it justifies language that used to be “bad manners” and it scripts the charges against their enemies. And…of course…their truth of falsity is not an obstacle. Not for a man who tells 15.6 lies a day.

The third reason is that it puts the news media in an awful spot. The game the media have been playing has been the fact game and that game has been further inflamed by the “both sides of the story” game. President Trump’s drumbeat of outrageous lies causes the media to fail at both of the games they are accustomed to playing and that is another reason, as I see it, that he lies so much.

The match President Trump wins by lying in ways the media cannot afford to pass unchallenged is the match of the narrative against the facts. President Trump’s narrative presumes a factual basis, although it is false. The media can demolish the factual claims one by one but the revelation that the facts are fraudulent doesn’t damage the narrative. The both sides of the story game requires the media to give equal weight to the most sober investigation and the most transparent lies on the grounds that they represent two “sides.”

Lying 3The most recent response by the press is to aggressively call President Trump’s lies for what they are. This doesn’t work either. This is equivalent to the referee starting a fight with a pitcher who threw a beanball or with a defensive end who laid a late hit on the quarterback. The referee cannot become a participant and still adjudicate quarrels between players. The New York Times cannot challenge the Trump administrations claims as intentional and unconscionable lies without being “an opposing player.”  The guy in the yellow shirt, no matter how severely he was provoked, is no longer refereeing the game.

So in response to the lies of the Trump administration, the media has three options, all of which set the President up to win. And that is the third reason he lies so much.

President Trump’s lying is, in other words, overdetermined. Any of the three reasons for lying consistently is adequate to maintain the pattern.

I am very much encouraged, myself, by the fact that some lies are federal offenses. He won’t win that one.

[1] There was still a lot of distance to cover for the sons, because being the children of a father who grew up on a farm in an old order community was an identity we had to cope with.
[2] It’s really not a bad joke. It switches the meaning of the verb “tell” in the middle of the joke, from “speak to “distinguish,” so that “tell” in the last use means something different that it did in the two previous uses.
[3] Try to imagine designing a lie detector test this man could not pass.

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A “Permission Structure” for Republicans

Let’s start with this paragraph from Jonathan Martin in the New York Times.

Yet it would be a sharp rebuke for former Trump administration officials and well-known Republicans to buck their own standard-bearer. Individually, they may not sway many votes — particularly at a time of deep polarization. But their collective opposition, or even resounding silence, could offer something of a permission structure for Trump-skeptical Republicans to put party loyalty aside.

That is the paragraph I want to follow up on, but I do have a longstanding grievance against people who offer a quotation beginning with “Yet…” It always makes be wonder what it refers to. Here is what it refers to: “And polls today indicate that rank-and-file Republicans are squarely behind the president…” [1]

“Something of a permission structure,” Martin says. Not an expression I have ever heard before, but I know exactly what he means by it. [2] A whole world of possibilities is called into being by the action of these “well-known Republicans”.

And another piece of this same puzzle if offered by Heather Cox Richardson who, in her June 7 “letter” [3] says:

The protests, and perhaps even more, the declarations of military leaders, have given anti-Trump Republicans room to buck the president.

The military leaders are saying that President Trump has put the whole structure of military readiness in peril. Nothing about what these leaders are saying sounds partisan or political. Rather, it addresses the primary mode most Americans use it thinking about patriotism, which is using the armed forces to repel attacks by foreign enemies.

Without establishing a strict causal chain, I want to propose that declarations like that of retired Admiral William H. McRaven, who said, “President Trump has shown he doesn’t have the qualities necessary to be a good commander in chief.”

permission 1Admiral McRaven, speaking on the 76th anniversary of D-Day said “those wartime leaders inspired Americans with their words, their actions, and their humanity.” In contrast, he said,” “Mr. Trump has failed his leadership test.”

That is about as blunt as it can get. As I look at the structure of Admiral McRaven’s denunciation of Trump, I head Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s powerful denunciation of Vice Presidential nominee Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” [4] In both cases, the contrast is carefully prepared (wartime leaders” in the case of the admiral) and then the hammer descends.

And again, without postulating a strict causal chain, I note that President Trump’s support for the Republican candidates in most of the interim elections has not helped them. This is potentially critical. As President, President Trump is head of his party, the party that nominated him as the standard bearer. But the party wants as many Republicans as possible to be elected and each candidate has a sense of what will help and what will harm his chances. A whole fleet of Republican candidates distancing themselves from the leader of their party, trying to enhance their prospects, will be catastrophic for the President.

If the party elders, the George W. Bushes snd the Mitt Romneys, are speaking out about their concerns for what is left of the Republican party and the party foot soldiers are trying to distance themselves from the top of the ticket, it is going to be very hard for the core of Trump’s support to stand firm.

This is what Martin means by “permission structure.” People make decisions and evenpermission 2 more make public announcements that they feel they are allowed to make. Broadening the boundaries of the things people are allowed to say about President Trump could be devastating and may be under way. The patriotism card is compromised by the Joint Chiefs; the national intelligence card is compromised by the complaints of recent intelligence leaders; the party elders’ card is compromised by the clear refusal of some to adhere to the leadership and the announcement by some that they are going to vote for a Democrat this time. The Republican candidates will have to find a way to navigate these difficult currents but the permission structure opens a lot of options.

I’m encouraged.

[1] There are also people who say you should never use a quote ending in an ellipsis, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Trust me, you don’t really need to know what is represented by those three dots and if you do, click the hyperlink and see for yourself.
[2] I imagine “permission structure” is a version of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s “plausibility structure,” which is the foundation of their whole sociology of knowledge. A “plausibility structure” is that set of assumptions that allows societies to agree on the shape of the social world they are living in and to decide together, how to approach it. See The Social Construction of Reality if you are interested.
[3] I feel free to call it a “letter” because her blog is called “Letters from an American,” a play, it seems to me, on J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur’s (1782) Letters from an American Farmer.
[4] With McRaven, as with Bentsen, the power is in the setup. Bentsen’s rebuke, “You’re no Jack Kennedy” was the fourth item in a series. The whole series went like this: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

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Strategic cockroach

Yesterday, my husband thought he saw a cockroach in the kitchen. He sprayed everything down and cleaned thoroughly. Today, I’m putting the cockroach in the bathroom.

That’s one of the cute little reports included in a paper called Funnies, which has been circulating here at Holladay Park Plaza. This one caught my attention particularly. You have already enjoyed it (or not) so all I’m going to try to do here is speculate about why I liked it so much. [1]

There are certain words that control this little fantasy and they might not be the ones you noticed on your first time through. I want to pick “a cockroach” and “the cockroach” as our first stop. The wife, from whose point of view this is being told, knows all about the cockroach from the beginning. She is deliberately misleading us when she says her husband saw “a cockroach.” The deception is enhanced by “thought he saw.”

Why is that deceptive? “A cockroach” reflects the husband’s perspective. It would absolutely not work if the husband were to say, “Honey, I saw the cockroach in the kitchen.” It would sound as if it were a pet. But the husband is mistaken. He saw “the cockroach” and didn’t know it. “The cockroach” is a tool, we later learn. He was in the kitchen on assignment and will be deployed in the bathroom tomorrow.

The second point follows directly from the first. There is not so much as a hint of disapproval in the wife’s assessment of the husband’s behavior. It could even sound laudatory. “He sprayed everything down and cleaned thoroughly.” What a guy! My hero! I’m so lucky to have a husband who takes care of things like that.

In fact, the husband is a chump. He is being manipulated shamelessly by the wife. That means that his cleaning may very well be first rate, but he is a fool. [2]

Finally, like a lot of good jokes, everything in the beginning—in this case, that is the first two sentences—points in one direction. The last part turns it around entirely, and it does so without using the kinds of words we ordinarily use to change the direction of meaning. There is nothing like “on the other hand,” or “nevertheless.” It’s just cold, as if the second part flowed directly from the first part, which it does not.

I really like this joke and it is this kind of thing that I had in mind when I called the blog “the dilettante’s dilemma.” Jokes like this just delight me.

[1] I have friends who cluck gravely at me when I do this because they think it is the opposite of enjoying the humor of it. Not at all. When I have added to my enjoyment the extra enjoyment of knowing just how it works, I get twice as much.
[2] I think it would be really cool—not very funny, unfortunately—if the husband were to confide in a friend, “My wife put her cockroach out in the bathroom today. It’s her was of asking me to clean the bathroom. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”

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Feeling no pain

Mostly, I’ve heard that phrase as another way to say that someone was drunk.  “He was feelin’ no pain,” someone will say, rolling his eyes meaningfully.  I want to use the phrase a little differently.  This will sound like a grammatical gripe, of which I am entirely capable, but it is not.

I want to consider here the difference between “feeling no pain” and “not feeling any pain.”  Following the wording carefully, we see that you are feeling something in the first formulation and you are not feeling something in the second.  That is the difference between feeling and not feeling.

So how can you feel something that is not there.  Pain, in this instance.  It’s not as hard as you might think.  How can you “find” anything not to be there?   How can you discover the absence of your favorite coffee mug from the shelf in the kitchen cabinet where it always is?  Well…you look with the expectation of finding it and you find it not to be there.

So let’s move away from the coffee mug.  You can experience the absence of anything you pain 1expect to find.  So, for instance, if I am accustomed to lower back pain as I get out of bed in the morning, what should I say about the morning when I start to get out of bed and am startled to discover that I am not feeling the lower back pain I was expecting to feel?  

I think it is perfectly proper to say that I am feeling—I am actually experiencing—no pain.  That requires, as I said in the first paragraph, that I feel something.  I expect, certainly, to feel something.  I sent my early sensors to the site “knowing” what they will find and they report that absence of what I knew I was going to feel.  That is why I feel justified in using the verb “feel” to describe it.

To tell you the truth, I have been puzzling over this “absence of pain” problem for awhile now.  It was only yesterday, on a bike ride, that I thought of the “feeling no pain” formulation.  That seems to have kick-started everything.  I wrote a piece a few years ago called “Names as Superchargers,” in which I reflected on the amazing burst of energy I get for a project once I think of what to call it.  I played around with my doctoral dissertation materials for awhile before the title “Undimensional Man” occurred to me. [1]  And once I had that name, I felt a lot of energy for the project.

That is what happened with this “feeling no pain” title.  I’ve experience the lack of pain recurrently for several months, but only when I thought of what to call it, did it become something I really needed to write about. [2]

[1]  It was a straightforward, and in the context of a campus in the 1970s, an unmistakeable reference to Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.”

[2]  I know that’s a little quirky as a reason for doing anything, but this is the first post the my second decade with this blog (just how deep into the decade I will actually go remains to be seen, of course) and it has just the right flavor of dilettantishness.

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The First 10 Years: Part III

Tomorrow I am going to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog.  I’ve been working up to it by reflecting back over the last ten years.  This is the third and last of those essays. It doesn’t seem all that likely that I will have another chance to look back over the last ten years of blogging—that would be 2020 to 2030—so I really should give this decade a thorough look. [1] Apart from politics, (the subject of Part II)I wrote most of the posts about religion in some sense and that is what this reflection is about.

The posts I tagged as “religion” posts were about three kinds of things. Most were about biblical exegesis. I am involved in several Bible studies and in preparing for them, I run into new and interesting ideas and I like to write about them. Some are theological. I am not entirely settled in my theology and every now and then, discrepancies show up and I fuss with them in print. I got to wondering in February 2017 what the re- in the word “resurrection” refers to, for instance. The third category involved some public issue. Lots of other people write about religion in the public sense of the term and I sometimes reply. Nicholas Kristof, one of my favorite New York Times columnists, interviews prominent Christian leaders from time to time and winds up the interviews asking whether they think he is Christian. Most of the answers to that question have been really bad, but I am still sympathetic. What would a good answer be based on?

There is a regular cycle to the religion posts that is entirely absent from the political posts. I caught that right away in January 2011 when I began “a new blogging year” just as Advent was wrapping up. The church calendar can be plausibly said to begin at Advent, so I thought it might be convenienCana 4t for me to do the same. To help in that, I invented my “Blogging Year (BY)” which runs from December 1 to November 30, taking the date of the ending year. So I am currently in BY 2020 and in December, I will begin BY 2021.

The regular cycle is caused by the regular recurrence of Advent and Lent. I hear a lot about those during those seasons so I think about them and read about them and write about them. Raymond E. Brown’s work has been very helpful in keeping that recurring emphasis. I read some part of his The Birth of the Messiah and The Death of the Messiah (2 volumes) each year. Always I find new and interesting things.

One of my favorite Advent posts was called “He Said/She Said.” in December 2013, so it was the first month of BY 2014. It had just occurred to me that the birth narrative Matthew tells is all about Joseph and that the story Luke tells is all about Mary. Mary doesn’t speak a single line in Matthew’s account and Joseph does not in Luke’s. I picked a title that I thought made it sound like a dispute between them, just for fun.

Every now and then, I hit some realization that is so clear and so persuasive that I am embarrassed I never saw it before.  I tend to write about those. One had to do with the first of the cycle of miracles recorded in John’s gospel. It is ordinarily referred to as “turning water into wine” and that is the spectacular part of the story, certainly, But I came to the conviction, eventually, that is what the availability of all that water that was the real significance. It is true that Jesus changed it into really good wine, but it was there for the ritual cleansings that were necessary and the point of the miracles was not the wine but why those cleansings were no longer needed. I had a lot of fun with that.

I can illustrate the theological emphasis with a post on a Christmas season campaign by the local atheists. They took out some billboard space in Portland to claim “you can be good without God.” I appreciated their bringing the question forward. It isn’t the kind of thing you can answer, of course, because of the terms to be clarified. I expressed my appreciation and raised some definitional questions that I thought would help.

Truman 2Wheaton College, one of my several alma maters fired Larycia Hawkins (left), a political science professor, for a very public, but ill-defined offense. (December 2015) The theological faculty voted unanimously that she had not violated her obligations to the college in anything she had said or had done. The crux of the issue was really, what do we mean when we say “God?” The face of the issue was this professor’s wearing a hijab in solidarity with her “sisters.” One of the things she did was, apparently, conduct unbecoming an evangelical.

I was surprised, in looking back over the ten years, how many movies pushed me in the direction of theological or biblical reflection. An example that has continued to affect me is The Truman Show (October 2010). The Truman Show is, actually, a TV show and Truman is, unwittingly, the star. When he catches on to the whole charade and decides to leave the set (the world in which he has lived his whole life) Christof, the director,truman 1 addresses him directly from “heaven” and urges him to stay. He makes every appeal he can, but every appeal shows that he has no idea what living Truman’s kind of life is like. He has never been there. And that brought the power of the Incarnation to mind. “He pitched his tent among us” is a claim that is central to Christianity and it is utterly unavailable to Christof.  Here Truman (Jim Carrey) makes one of the best exits ever.

I have no idea what the next ten years of blogging on religious themes is going to offer. I’m just going to let it surprise me. lL

[1] On the other hand, I don’t want to give it up entirely. There are quite a number of people at the Senior Center where I live who are the age I would be in 2030 and who are perfectly capable of writing such a retrospective.

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The First Ten Years, Part II

The first pass I made over my first ten years of blogging considered the foundational questions. Why blogging? Why the “dilettante” theme? Today I want to review what the political arc of the first decade has been. You wouldn’t think I would be surprised by it; I did write all of them, after all. And they all seemed appropriate to what was going on at the time.

Still, different things were going on at the time and there is an arc that has, as I look back along its shape, a predictability to it. Almost, but not quite, an inevitability. Looking back, I think, “Well of course I wrote about that; and then that; and now this.”

Part II, 1When I started in 2010, we were half way through Obama’s first term and I assumed, as most people did, that I was only one quarter of the way through his whole presidency. The first political blogs took the Obama presidency and the kind of politics in which it was set, for granted.

At the end of June 2010, for instance, I wrote a piece called “Obama’s Waterloo,” in which I took him to task for not making better use of the Gulf Oil Crisis and thereby violating Thomas Friedman’s maxim, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

In August, I wrote “Good News for President Obama.” The good news was that the Republicans were looking like they were going to control everything for awhile, so it was time for the President to stop hiding out in the Congress—trying to get Obamacare passed—and come out in public again.

In November, right after a very discouraging election, I wrote “November 3, 2010: Day 1 of the 2012 Campaign” about how things were setting up nicely for Obama’s 2012 bid for re-election.

But then, the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives didn’t go away as I Part II--2thought it would and it stymied the Speaker of the House, John Boehner and that was when I discovered Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book about the Tea Party. Strangers in Their Own Land helped me understand why “the Tea Party”—which was about to become the Donald Trump gang—wasn’t going to go away. [1]

At that point, I began to get seriously interested in how broad the support was for Donald Trump. Trump himself is just a flamboyant narcissist and for all his outrages, he never really interested me. It was the culture that produced and supported such a leader that interested me more. And that brought me to March 2016’s post, “The Donald is Just a Weed.”

The major metaphor there was that your lawn will produce what thrives best in that particular soil. You can treat what the soil produces, killing the weeds, but it will continue to produce what thrives best in that particular soil. It wasn’t a particularly subtle point. American society is constructed in such a way that candidates like Donald Trump are successful. To change that, you need to change the makeup of the polity itself. You simply cannot have high rates of poverty and high rates of immigration without producing populist resentment and Donald Trump is the expression of that resentment. That’s what the “soil” of the U. S. is like now.

Since that time, there has been a recovery of some of the institutions that will be necessary to oppose Trump himself and the political expressions of Trumpism. I am all for that democratic recovery, but nothing I have seen looks like an amendment of the soil that produced the Trump weed. It takes a great deal more than being anti-Trump to be anti-Trump-producing soil.

Since I realized that, I have become more interested in, and have written more about the soil. The soil has mendae (flaws) [2] in it and taking them out ex- mendae is “amendment.” We are more likely to think of “amending” as adding something to the soil than as taking something out, but you could argue that adding something is taking out the imbalance.

On February 6, 2019, I finally got around to proposing some amendments.

The first is the large value discrepancies in our society. The second is the completely inadequate system of economic distribution. The third is the “warring tribes” model by which the previous two inadequacies are translated into the governmental impasse I referred to above.

The value discrepancies were dealt with, briefly, in a post in May of 2019, which reflected on the work of Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, especially their Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. They were willing to be specific about what kinds of attacks have been made on the values of white working class Americans. I had read a fair amount about the “backlash” without wondering just what “back-“ referred to. Backlash is a “hitting back” but there is almost nothing in the press I read that talks about what has been taken away from anyone, so the “back” of hitting back is mysterious.

That moved me to the question of social media, a way for angry people to pass around anonymously the most scandalous charges against their enemies. I get an article on my Facebook page and it alleges some awful thing that has the effect of justifying my anger, so I send it out to all my friends. I “share it” as we say. I don’t ask whether it is correct; it just stokes my anger so it must be right. In January 2019, I wrote a post called “Thou shalt not share false witness,” to protest against this practice. [3]

In the summer of 2019, Bette and I visited Scotland and I learned a lot about clan politicsdecade 3 that was new to me. There was nothing democratic about how clans worked. The clan chief was the principal legislative, executive, and judicial force. That is why clans worked, internally, and why there was always warfare between the clans. I learned while I was there that Clan Donald was one of the major clans of the period and it made me feel right at home. President Trump’s inclinations are all clan leader. He wants, in what is supposed to be divided government—that’s what Madison thought is was— to have in his government only “people he trusts fully.” What he trusts these people to do is not always clear, but it appears to have very little to do with the impartial administration of the law. That is why he has turned to firing inspectors.  Here, Dr. Amy Acton of Ohio makes a contribution to democratic politics.

But most of my thinking and writing have not been about the administration. They have been about the value discrepancies that are afflicting us and about the decline in the value of “truth.” Once, a hypothesis could be supported or not by examining the facts carefully and impartially. Global warming, for instance. Now that there are only “your facts” and “my facts” there is no way to resolve disputes. The old dispute resolvers—scientists—have been declared to be “really on the other team.”

This great flaw—summarized this week in the aphorism “truth is tribal”—is hard to deal with. Science is supposed to be the law and order of dispute resolution. Without law and order, it comes down just to firepower. But nobody wins a “just firepower” war. The armies just retreat to some safe place from which the battle can be continued by guerrilla means

The last decade seems to me to have been as long slow slide from government into social institutions and on into the free sharing of false information.

[1] I was enthusiastic about Hochschild’s book. The post in which I described it was called “Read this book!”
[2] The “amendment” series was built around the realization that the Latin menda means “flaw, blemish’ and and to amend ex + menda means to take out the flaws. I forgot about all that until this review essay.
[3] I liked the title because it identified “sharing lies” as lying, which I think it is. It also suggests the phrase “bear false witness” which is the way the King James Bible translates that particular prohibition.

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Strong women

Where I live, people want women to be “strong.”  That is the official sentiment, at any rate.  That seems to me to be asking for too little.  Maybe I can introduce my concern by coming at it from the other side.

For years now, I have misremembered a line from a poem by Charles Kingsley.  I am not embarrassed that I misremembered it; I am embarrassed by the fact that I like the wrong version—mine—better than the right version.  Here’s the way I have always thought it went:  “Only be thou good, sweet maid/and let who can be clever.” [1]

So…what are we talking about here?  We are talking about gender norms.  What kind of “behavior” [2] should we prize in women? [3]  It would be nice, one might think, to say that it depends entirely on the woman.  A woman “ought to be” what she wants to be and we should all root for her success.

That never works.  I have never heard of a society without gender norms.  It makes a contribution to the society, somehow.  Usually, what is meant, when someone says that a woman should be free to be whoever she wants to be, is that she should be free to be whatever kind of woman she chooses to be.  There is still, in this model, an “OK for women” space and this argument holds that a woman should be able to choose anything she likes from within that space.

strong 2So now that we have corralled the question to a certain extent, we can ask it more meaningfully.  What kind of traits—among the traits that are virtues in women [4]—should we emphasize?  The current choice, made by the staff of the Senior Center where Bette and I live, is that woman should be strong.  The Mother’s Day [5] featured a little card, along with a beautiful flower, that said this: “Here’s to Strong Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

This emphasis, bracing as it is, violates most of the criteria set out above.  It presupposes, for one thing, that the women in question want to be strong women.  So it is a challenge to the individuality norm.  It presupposed that among the various traits women might have, strength is the most important one. [6]  It is more important than gentleness, for instance, or good humor, or good manners, or wit, of adept communication.

It will be protested against this indictment, that there is nothing about being “strong” that prevents it from being joined to any number of those other virtues.  That is true, in principle, but we are talking here about salience.  Some are more important than others.  We are not talking here about the best combinations.  We are talking about what is to be prized at the expense of what.  It’s a salience war.

Strong 3Let’s pause for an example.  In my political science classes at Portland State, I used to try to teach the importance of salience.  We can treat that, for today’s purposes, as “What is the question we are addressing.”  I began by noting that in what are now called “the abortion wars,” no one takes a position called Anti-Choice.  Similarly, no one chooses Anti-Life.  Why?  Because you will lose if you do that.

The argument proceeds, instead, as a conflict over which question is salient.  Is it “Should the life of the fetus be preserved?”  Is it “Should a woman be free to choose what happens to her own body?”  You tell me what the question is and I will tell you who is going to win.  Why?  Because salience is everything.

And that brings us back to strong women.  Strong rather than what?  If you establish “Should women be strong?” as the question, then I think “rather than weak” is the proper way to complete the question.  That makes it a pretty aggressive question:  “Do you want women to be strong or weak?”  Hint: there is a right answer.

In Julia Ward Howe’s original Mothers’ Day Proclamation, women were thought of as the sources of caresses and affirmation, something nearly any man would desire.  Here’s what she said:

Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage/for caresses and applause. 

The point there is that men should not be free to wage war, as they often want to, and then return to their wives for the hero’s welcome.  Absolutely not.  We mothers will save the caresses and applause for the times when the men do what we want them to do.  In this case, that is to forego war and pursue peace.

If you want to say something other than “strong and not weak” or “weak rather than strong 4strong,” you are going to have to change the question that is being asked.  Should women be praised for other traits as well?  Or is it just being strong?  Could we say, for instance: “Here’s to Smart Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”  As an exercise, I tried googling “nice women” and I got pictures like this.

Or could we say: “Here’s to Nurturing Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Or could we say: “Here’s to Resilient Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Or even: “Here’s to Beautiful Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Some of those traits are currently fashionable for women; others not so much.  But the objection would be likely to be one of two kinds.  Either it will be that all those are good and one should be simply added to another as “appropriate for women.”  Or it will be that each woman should be able to choose for herself what traits to emphasize in her own life.

Those are both good answers, of course, but they do not serve the proponents of the “strong woman” campaign, because they undercut their goals as well as all the others.  It’s not a problem with a solution.

There is one thing, however.  I am nearly panting with my enthusiasm over the trait that will be chosen for Fathers’s Day.  What is the current “virtue” for men?  Watch this space.

[1]As I looked it up, I discovered that the actual line is: “Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever “

[2]  Including all traits here, including styles of cognition, intention, and emotion, as well as actual actions.

[3]  I think you ought to start getting ready for another post on Father’s day.  Gender norming, in the view from the trenches, is not for the faint of heart.

[4]I always savor the pun that is buried there.The word “virtue,”—meaning any virtue at all—derives from the Latin, vir, = man.So, etymologically speaking, every virtue is a “manliness” of some kind. This is most ironically true of the classic virginal maiden who, in preserving her virtue, is preserving her manliness. Etymologically speaking.

[5]  The placement of that apostrophe is of climactic importance.  The original choice was “Mothers’ Day,” the day of the mothers.  It was a call for peace, rather than war; for femininity, rather than masculinity.  The current style, “Mother’s Day” is the day dedicated to good ol’ Mom and especially in light of all the ways she helped us along when we were children.  You choose your apostrophe placement, you choose your battlefield.

[6]  Or, if not the most important one, the one most in need of praise and support.

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Rhetorical mastery

We have gotten accustomed to the kind of rhetoric we hear from Henry V before the battle of Agincourt.  It is gorgeous!  It is so stimulating that it is hard to pay attention to just how it works, but I would like to call your attention to just one part of the appeal.  Then I would like to pivot to Ohio’s handling of the COVID 19 crisis.

Henry 1The king promises his soldiers, mostly ragtag peasants, that in the future, some wonderful thing will happen to them.  There are two elements of this I want to point out. The first is that the reference point is in the future.  This is very comforting to soldiers confronting a battle; it imagines that they will have a future.  It doesn’t say so.  That would be cheap.  It just takes it for granted, which is much more powerful.

The second element is that is promises something they really dare not hope for.  A manhood that their social betters can only envy.  The king wants to promise them something they want, but that they can’t say they want.  Here’s that part of the speech.

This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Here’s where the power is, I think.  “Gentlemen” and “any.”  It’s easy for us to miss that because “gentlemen” has come to mean virtually nothing.  At its farthest reach, “good manners.”  But for them, “gentlemen” was the name of a class they dared not aspire to; a class that looked on people like them with disdain.  And these gentlemen will think themselves accursed (no damage done there) and hold their manhood cheap in the presence of “any” who fought in this battle.

Any of you, says the king, will outrank those gentlemen.  When any of you speak, they, your social betters, will fall silent, recognizing just who is the true man.  Any of you.

That is a powerful promise because it promised something that dare not be aspired to openly and it is powerful because it asks these men to look back on this moment from a time certain in the future.  You ask these men to look back in pride at deeds THEY HAVE NOT YET ACCOMPLISHED!

Wow!

Now let’s look at Ohio’s response to the onset of the COVID 19 crisis and particularly at the work of Dr. Amy Acton.  The New York Times for May 5 has the whole story.  I want to excerpt just one scene from it.

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 7.08.11 AM.png

Ignore the colors for just a moment.  Look at this line first: “I know someday we’ll be looking back and wondering how it was we did in this moment.”  It’a nor Shakespeare, but it plants the flag of the popular imagination in the future, just as King Henry did, and asks you to remember how you did. [1]  This is the power of the future.  Put yourself there are look back at this moment.  What will you be glad you had the strength to do?

The second element, remember, is that the king promised them something they wanted.  It was comparative social standing in his case.  “Hold their manhood cheap while any speaks who fought with us.”  Dr. Acton promises, instead leadership, engagement, and community.  Does that seem a lot?

OK, now look at the colors.  The light blue “I” is leadership.  I am calling on you to do something.  Five “I’s” in quick succession and one more later.  Here’s what I want from you.  The browny-orange is “you.”  I want you, I need you, I want you.  In another context it could be a love song.  It’s personal and it’s powerful.  The rose color represents community; it represents all of us together.  Note the “our,” and the “all of us” and the “we’ll” and the “we.”

The commentator saw a strategy to the sequence.  Lead with I, follow with you.  Then, with those established, follow with “us.”  I’m not so sure about the sequence, but I am completely sure about the three elements.  And this same pattern of elements shows up in briefing after briefing.  It wasn’t a happenstance; it was a strategy.

I love it.  I don’t know if I have ever seen it done better.

[1]  Henry’s strategy is better, I think, because he presumes success.  Dr. Acton reminds us that when we look back, we will have two confront just how we did–whether we did well or poorly.

 

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