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Religion

Pathological Ownership

Beth Moore has left the Southern Baptist Conference. If you are unaware of her and what this means, you should look into it. Beth Moore has for many years occupied a special place within that community—a preacher without portfolio, one might say, as the SBC does not permit women to hold the title “pastor.” The straight-up “pure quill” fundamentalism they espouse holds the inferred Biblical injunctions inviolable in this instance, but she has been such a forceful speaker and operates such a large organization that they are loathe to relegate her to silence. So she held that special position.

Till now.

She has split with them over Trump. The schism is instructive. Ms. Moore cannot find common ground with the majority of her colleagues over Trump.

“He became the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America,” she said. “Nothing could have prepared me for that.”

Since 2016 she has been on the outside of the SBC over this issue. She identified Trump as an exemplar of everything they should stand against, and yet she was met with silence, then disapproval, then warnings, and finally with the loss of her publisher. She could not understand the attitude of her (male) colleagues in their support for this man she saw as a walking “poster child” for evil.

To be sure, this has puzzled those outside the evangelical camp all along. The slogans and protestations over perceived moral lapses in Democrats would seem to support a no-holds-barred moralism that should have found Trump utterly unacceptable. And yet we have been witness to very public campaigns of image rehabilitation all along. It has been with mixed incomprehension and horror that we have seen people who flew into paroxysms of condemnation over Clinton’s behavior make showings of almost servile support (bordering on worship) for a man who bragged about pussy-grabbing and attempted to pay off a porn star to keep her from talking about her paid services to him. The very public ridicule he heaped on anyone who did not fit a shallow model of Americanism that combined a host of clichés and segregated anyone who didn’t meet the standard—essentially the acts of a bully picking on the weak—seemed to gain favor with the very people who claim Jesus as their exemplar. Beth Moore saw this for what it was and tried to convince the SBC to abandon its support for him, and instead found herself more and more at odds with them, more and more isolated.

It is fair to ask what is going on with this enormous contradiction. How could the self-professed moral arbiters of the country, the Christian Right, support this?

Beth Moore’s ambiguous status holds much of the answer.

It is by now a convention that in many religions women are relegated to secondary (or lesser) status. One may puzzle about how this can still pertain in a time when the evidence for any rational justification for it has been shown to be nonexistent. Certainly it is an aspect of male privilege, but that does not satisfactorily explain the complicit acquiescence of so many women. Moore is a good example of the conundrum. (Just as with people like Michele Bachman, who espouses a paradoxical belief that women should be subservient yet she herself sees no problem with holding leadership positions.) In Moore’s case, she has been in accord with the evangelical attitudes toward women and accepted a lesser status even while she has risen to a commanding position in her community. She felt the larger message important and, no doubt, felt protected within the larger community.

But when Trump’s very public attitudes toward women became a very public issue, and she protested, that community seemed to withdraw its protection.

In my opinion, this apparent betrayal is due to a basic misunderstanding which is not only endemic to communities like the SBC, but to our society as a whole, and it has to do with Ownership.

The only reason to deny equality to women and then justify it, you have to understand who thinks who owns what.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, there is a scene early on which strikes the issue squarely. It is a flashback of the protagonist, Shevek, as a child in, basically, preschool:

…the fat infant was at this moment coming towards the knobby one rapidly…he approached out of boredom or sociability, but once in the square of sunlight he discovered it was warm there. He sat down heavily beside the knobby one, crowding him into the shade.

The knobby one’s blank rapture gave place at once to a scowl of rage. He pushed the fat one, shouting “Go ‘way!”

…The knobby one stood up. His face was a glare of sunlight and anger. His diapers were about to fall off. “Mine!” he said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”

“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use.  It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle inexorable hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.

The knobby one shook all over, screamed, “Mine sun!” and burst into tears of rage.

Baby Shevek has determined that things belong to him. Personally. Perfectly natural, to a degree. The world is centered on him, he feels he has a right to the patch of sunlight, that he can, in fact, own it. We read the passage with a mix of amusement and enlightenment. We recognize this to be an infant’s response to the reality of the world.

But.

Our culture is based, largely if not wholly, on an idea of ownership that was in the beginning a redress of imbalance. The idea that anyone, regardless of “station”, could own property was radical, especially in its unremarked egalitarianism. Communal ownership was more common, but this was not the aspect of ownership that captured the imagination—rather, it was the sole ownership, the possibility the individual, any individual, could own outright the equivalent of a kingdom that became the unquestioned ethos of the American experiment. This idea—so powerful, so very American in its expression if not its origins—fueled the growth of the United States and rocketed us to heights unparalleled in history.

And it underlies everything that is currently wrong with the republic. It has always had its dark side, it has never been free of abuse, but it has gone through cycles during which it was tempered—by circumstance, by public morality, by the very excesses of those most adept at acquisition. Boom and Bust cycles are the product of poorly controlled acquisition. Theodore Roosevelt knew it and attacked it. His relative, FDR, went further.

But it’s very difficult to regulate that which is an outgrowth of a cultural feature, part of our own mythology, our identity—our psychology. Any attempt to regulate it feels like theft.

This is not new, by any means, but it has become so dominant in our culture as to be like the very air we breathe, at least for some. Ownership has come to possess us as the only worthwhile aspect of anything and everything. If looked at from this perspective, all our present ethical and social conundrums clarify, from taxes to fashion, gun ownership to healthcare, voting rights to marriage, property to opinions, abortion to minimum wage.

What Trump has done for the membership of the SBC that puts them at odds with Beth Moore and seems so perverse to many of us is to reaffirm for them what they feel proprietary about, what they believe they rightfully own, that their claims of possession are legitimate. Beth Moore does not, for them, have a right to be shocked and repulsed by Trump because she is not an owner. They are. To put it as bluntly as possible, while perhaps most of them are dismayed and censorious about Trump’s pussy-grabbing, it remains a fact for them that the pussy is there for him to grab. His grabbing it makes it his, because the woman does not own it. Women’s sexuality is not theirs.

Beth Moore does not even have a right to her own voice—they have tried to take that away from her—but only has use of it because it serves the self-presumed owners.

Absurd? When you look back at the history of personal rights over the centuries, one thing becomes clear—it always revolves around some formulation of ownership. As the franchise expanded, those opposed railed against it out of a sense of privilege, that they are losing something which they act as if they owned. What we are seeing right now across the country is exactly that—people trying to limit voting rights, reduce them, take them away from those they see as a threat. (Because the consequences of such expanded voting might impinge on other things that self-styled elites feel are theirs.) Many reasons are given, but the presumption that such restrictions are even considered is based on a notion of proprietary civic ownership that goes back centuries.

Plato discussed communal space, where everyone in a polis “owned” things in common. Aristotle thought this was a bad idea since in his view (to simplify) common ownership like that would dis-incentivize care, that without the added encouragement of private ownership, no one would feel obligated to preserve, maintain, or build. Aristotle was the one “good pagan” that the Catholic Church used to build its own social ethics and so this idea came into the mainstream of thought through the dominant religions of the modern era. Plato and Aristotle approved of limited forms of democracy, but felt that not everyone was suited to participate equally and Aristotle made no bones about believing only elite males had a natural right to ownership, which meant the ability to participate in the politics of the polis. Hence the franchise came down to us from ideas of suitability and because so much history, property, conquest, and nation-building has accrued around these ideas since, it is difficult to tease them apart. They are the air we breathe, as I said.

There has always been a cycle of balances set against this. Simple ability to enforce, the reach of government and church, the situation on the ground at any given place and time—all have made a pure form of this hard to achieve and there has always been some push-back. But we cannot seem to be rid of it. One would have thought that by the Enlightenment, the categorical denials of agency necessary would have fallen by the wayside, and yet…

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696 – 1792) was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a patron of David Hume and Adam Smith, among others. He, with others, established the Philosophical Society of Scotland. A precursor to the much more influential work of Adam Smith, he was concerned about the importance of property to society. The economics aside, when it came to the franchise, he wrote:

“Those who depend for food on bodily labor, are totally void of taste, of such taste at least as can be of use in the fine arts. This consideration bars the greater part of mankind; and for the remaining part, many by a corrupted taste are unqualified for voting.”

With some allowance for the passage of much history, this would have fit rather well with Aristotle (and even Plato). Specific justifications aside, the idea that it is not only permissible but desirable to exclude certain people from participation is clear.

The rest of the 18th Century, in terms of Enlightenment thinkers, wrestled with questions of nature, merit, innate value. Property emerged as a key concern and with the creation of the United States, the momentum of such concerns barreled on with increasing force until, today, property has become everything.

The United States, however, has an in-built conflict. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are neither one based on such blatant exclusions and form the basis of a tension that has grown along with the self-conception of the country. Property, as it turns out, is only valuable when made exclusive. Politics, however, always intrudes on the uses of property, which brings in the concerns of those excluded. Rights occupy a special space that seem beholden to the ephemeral even as the exercise of Rights inevitably impacts the temporal. Because we have a love-hate relationship with ideas of property that transcend mere material objects, the inextricable dependence of one on the other creates a conception of property that seems to encompass Rights and treats them as a species of Things Which Can Be Owned. My Rights, My Land, My Freedom, My Things, My Self.

The most accessible way to conceive of all this is as property. Which means that when Rights are expanded, some people will see this as an encroachment because it depletes the value of their property. And so, the question at the center of modern conservatism, whether stated explicitly or not (or even acknowledged), is: What can I own? The next question, then, would have to be: how can I maintain the value of what I own?  This becomes the justification to deny ownership to others.

For most people, historically, the goal was autonomy. The freedom to be who you are, unapologetically, without having to justify yourself to authorities. But autonomy—agency—is not the same as ownership. Unlike property, agency should not be—cannot be—a contract or title to the claims of self possession. It must be a given, unbarterable, nonfungible, and universal. The American myth is that here, we have that. In practice, most of us do not. It is traded away every day by the fact that without money—the means of ownership—we have nothing anyone feels obligated to respect.

So alliances are made, groups are formed, coalitions emerge. Churches are ready-made for this, because by joining one the agency we seem unable to possess on our own can be “borrowed” from the cadre. But churches aren’t the only method for becoming something by allying with many. Political parties, certainly, but the principle works with businesses, charitable organizations, clubs, special interests, schools…

All these things, however, exist—here—within a framework that has promised agency.

But that’s a slippery idea to pin down. It’s the thing implicit in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in the enumeration of rights to be kept free of outside (government) interference (or any other), like speech, freedom of worship, privacy, assembly, legal redress, and equal access to public determination. Agency. Rather than that, we have come to regard ownership as primary, as established throughout our history by repeated referral to property as a qualification for common regard. As time marched on, the meaning of the franchise expanded, and in each expansion the issue has been centered on ownership. In the beginning, only property owners could vote. While not so explicit today, there is still a property qualification (permanent address).

In the advance toward a universal franchise, those opposed to the expansion have insisted on more and more qualifications—amounting to proof of ownership—to bear on the people they wish to exclude. After 250 years (here) of this, we have come to a point where almost everything has been, in some sense, transformed into a commodity.

Things that can be owned can be controlled.

How does this relate to the Religious Right’s support of Trump and their censure of Beth Moore?

Trump is all about ownership. His “brand” is everything. He is admired (by some) for having things. Having things is the hallmark of success in this country. Not “who you are” but “what you have” matters more to most people, because the former requires a sense of Self that is neither publicly evident or reliably fixed (people change).  (Also, who you are may be terrifying to other people, so it is easier to reduce the Self to a set of traits that you “have”—implying that you can trade them in, get new ones, swap them out, or just put them away.) Success at Having Things is understandable, accessible, universalizable. It also validates for others the presumed right to have things.

Trump is popular among certain groups because he does just that—he validates their view of what it means to be an American, which is entirely wrapped up in Having Things.

One of the things he “has” is the prerogative to deny agency to those he sees as inferiors or, at least, unworthy of consideration.

For evangelicals this includes many of the kinds of people of whom they disapprove. While Trump’s “manner” may offend their sensibilities, they do not find fault with his presumptions. In the case of the “pussygrabbing” it comes down to the fact that the pussies he is grabbing are attached to “fallen” women. After all, their wives would never be in a position to be so treated, because they are not “that kind” of woman. They know better than to put their pussies in such circumstances.

I phrase it that way because below all this, the reality for these men is that their wives’ pussies belong to them. Because this is a factor of our culture that underlies much of our disconnect over women’s rights and equity. For them, women don’t “own” their sexuality. They carry it around until a man claims it. Which is why so much of the anxiety and anger over gender equality remains a muddle for certain people.

And Beth Moore? She had the temerity to express the idea that Trump’s pussygrabbing was in all cases immoral, obscene, and deserving of censure. But she can only make that charge if women are their own persons, whole and worthy of regard as free agents.

And agency is the one thing evangelicals cannot grant outside the confining circle of their faith, which is a club of limited membership, very exclusive, and cannot admit to any kind of baseline equality. Doing so would require they change their message on so many fronts and accord respect to people and persons they a priori consider beyond the pale. Unredeemed. Damned.

Just the fact that Beth Moore has for all these years been disallowed from holding an equal position within her chosen conference demonstrates that the principle of ownership is in force to deny her agency, because she cannot own what her colleagues already claim for themselves. They see it as their prerogative to grant status and people outside their selective regard have no right to claim anything for themselves.

Consider their stance toward transgender persons: this is a threat to their purview because it is individuals taking possession of their Selves and claiming agency. That they would have to know that Self intimately enough to move beyond the reach of simple possession is a denial of the message of “salvation” through superior agency (Christ). And, on a more basic level, it frightens because gender orientation is one of those things that is “owned” and often regarded as a separate thing to be scorned (denial of the flesh). That it is fundamental to identity creates too many confusions and contradictions for the smooth apprehension of a theological proposition which is supposed to be Otherworldly.

But in practice it comes down to an ownership issue.

Consider an example outside of questions of Self. The rejection of government economic support for the poor. This would seem paradoxical. If the point is to alleviate poverty, what does it matter where the aide comes from?  But it matters if you consider the dispensation of that aid proprietary. They see it as charity and according to their own philosophy, charity comes from the heart. Governments render this moot, because it becomes a matter of economic systems. There is no “charity”—hence no Good Works, no affirmation of moral mission, no opportunity to demonstrate one’s christianity. Charity has become a wholly-owned trademark of religious expression and no one should take it away, least of all systems that might render the matter solved.

Beth Moore ran afoul of an unexamined aspect of American culture as expressed through a religious lens. Trump may be an immoral, foul, odious being, but he affirmed for them the basic right of ownership of so many issues, and hence condemning him and withdrawing support was not possible. It might have played out a little differently had a man in Beth Moore’s position done what she did, but it still would have intruded on the majority’s presumptive rights of ownership—in this case, the ownership of male privilege.

On an even more perverse level, Trump was also the proof of government corruption—he fit their idea of what the government already was. If the end game was to destroy the beast, why not support the one who best exemplifies everything they claim to hate? Putting a good man (or woman—unthinkable!) in that office would seem perverse, because what could a good man accomplish? It would only delay the advent of freedom from what they see as secular attempts at creating a baseline equality that denies their “right” to judge.

And here it generates endlessly stranger ideas of what may have been going on.

But Beth Moore turned on the juggernaut and was trampled by the unstated assumptions of the inner circle. That evangelicals can show a history of their own indulging in all the things she condemned Trump for doing ought to have been a signal that she misunderstood just what she was dealing with.

Agency, as I assume it here, is something beyond ownership. But it’s personal, and it’s malleable, and it is uncontained by convention. It actually cannot be owned, so it becomes necessary to prevent its manifestation.

I do not here claim everyone is so ensconced in this morass of what I’ve termed Pathological Ownership—but then it never requires many people to subscribe to an idea to have an impact on how the culture responds. Because we have a rather nebulous set of alternate models, the idea of Having Things being a substitute rather than an expression of Self can distort all out of proportion to the numbers involved. It helps if we know what it is we’re talking about, identify the issue at hand, instead of stumbling on assuming a different set of values at play.

Just about everything in the divisive cultural and politic mess we’ve experienced for the last few decades can be explained by this idea. The GOP won’t cooperate with the Democrats? Why? Because they seek to own the issues. If they cooperate, then they must share, and sharing is the road to ruin, because no one can own what is shared. The moment you share something it is no longer exclusively yours,.

Too many people just want to own everything.

 

 



Sifting Babel

Richard Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy by basically one vote per district across the country. Contrary to the popular myth that grew up around JFK, he was not even close to a landslide, and had Nixon challenged the outcome in court, which many of his advisors were urging him to do, history might have been different. Nixon demurred. He said he refused to be the cause of a constitutional crisis, took his loss, and congratulated Kennedy. Despite who he was and what he later did, he had a line he would not cross.  For the good of the country.

Nixon’s later administration set the conditions which eventually brought us to this year.

Nixon was still part of a culture that embraced common goals between adversaries. Simply put, both Democrats and Republicans believed in the same basic principles, they simply differed on the appropriate paths forward. Oh, certainly there were disconnects, but there had been a core of ideas and aims held as givens.

That no longer seems to be the case.  For large portions of the electorate, it would appear there are wildly different outcomes desired. The possibility for working across the aisle, compromise, and envisioning a common future has fractured. The exaggerations fueling the animosity are becoming more pronounced, to the point where at times it seems two completely separate languages are being spoken, languages which share vocabularies and even syntactical and conceptual similarities, which are becoming more and more unintelligible to each other. What the two sides mean by things like Progress, Patriotism, Tolerance, Law, and Rights require interpreters.

I have been wondering for years now just what some people want to see happen. What do they want their country to look like if they win?

With the era of Trump, I think I know what those who support him, even now, want. Partially anyway.  If I’m even close to correct, I can definitively say it is nothing I want. More than that, it is not something they’re likely to get even if they somehow get their way politically.

When one works through the rage, the foul language, the insults, the chants and slogans, it sounds like the goal is an American Empire that acts entirely by decree. But decree that is almost entirely directed outward, at the rest of the world. The Mexican border wall is exemplary of this. Keep the world out. Keep what is American in, at least in terms of ideology, wealth, and community. Tariffs go hand in hand with this.  Certainly much of this has to do with jobs.

Following upon this is some vague desire that the economy be one which supports a large middle class that is somehow self-sustaining. One based on high wages and low prices and rests upon the dominance of American manufacturing, which should be mostly if not entirely contained within the borders of the country. It should be robust enough that some version of the single-income household can re-emerge so the culture itself ceases to be whipsawed by questions of equity fueled by low wages which require segments of society to seek work when that same culture wishes them to labor inside the home.

And all of this is to be achieved without regulations or unions or systemic wealth redistribution.

There are pundits and ideologues aplenty telling us all this can be done, but for liberal influences which privilege multiculturalism, globalization, and a variety of individual empowerment programs that seek to hamper industry, destroy the family, and deny American Exceptionalism. Charts, graphs, power-points, and pedigreed lectures reinforce the belief that we have lost our way because some of us are at heart anti-American.

The possibility of achieving this utopia of nationalist privilege is unquestioned in this instance. Facts, theories, projections, and basic reason notwithstanding, the aesthetic triumphs because accepting anything else is terrifying.

The possibility of sitting down with those so frightened is small, because fear impedes the ability to reason, which is itself terrifying to those trying to reverse damages seen as suicidal in their unchecked eventualities.

The point, though, is that we are confronting less a set of principles than an aesthetic movement. I have suggested for years that a certain element of rightwing malcontent is not doing this for sound economic or political reasons so much as it hates what the country looks like. Momentum has been gained because opportunists have fed them on their own bile for a long time. So much so and so effectively that now some of them are all but apologizing for what they did because they didn’t think it would go this far. The manipulations are not, therefore, theoretical—the Kochs and the Murdochs have admitted it—and were done for simple greed and power.

The simple reality is that people make poor decisions when they’re afraid and buy all kinds of stuff along the way. Keeping the pipelines open has been the primary aim of these people. Pipelines? The ones the money flows through.

Wartime economies run hotter than peacetime economies. We have been operating on such a footing since Vietnam. Well, since WWII really, and that military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about is anxious to maintain the flow of capital.

It is an absurdity to suggest that someone, anyone—say, Jeff Bezos—“earns” seventy billion dollars in five months. It only goes to him because that is how the system is set up. This is hydraulic capitalism and it has nothing at all to do with “deserves” or “earn” or “make” or, really, fairness. But by keeping enough people frightened of the world more or less constantly, the political and social will to change it simply never coalesces.

And now add to that this aesthetic element fed to people about what America “ought” to be, and the confusion multiplies.

But wait. Such a machine cannot operate as well as it does without a certain truth to its claims.

Globalization has impacted our economy, in some ways negatively. When you are losing your business it is difficult to look at the so-called bigger picture. And both political parties have for a long time served the same masters at the expense of the middle and working class. And the poor? Individual politicians have cared, here and there and from time to time, but the poor have been disenfranchised as a matter of course and thus do not vote, at least not in sufficient numbers to be heard. This is the unfortunate legacy of those days when both parties shared broader goals and only argued over the details of how to Get There. It is easy to understand, if we care to, how someone like Trump can come along and persuade a lot of people to vote for him when he poses as their champion against a common enemy—Washington. We cannot forget that many who voted for Trump in 2016 would have readily voted for Sanders, who is about as opposite as one can get from Trump, but who represented the same possibility—overturning the D.C. applecart.

The utility of that possibility was and is debatable and we will discover in what ways in the coming months and years, but both were lightning rods for a basic frustration.

What we have now is a roiling mass of inarticulate dissatisfaction that has grown into a social movement, and social movements are often aesthetic as much (if not more so) as political.

Aesthetic?  Look at the targets. LGBTQ rights; separation of religion; the rage over immigration; the dichotomy between demanding one set of social conformities be put into place while others be rejected, often with extreme prejudice. And, as always in this country, issues of race. Any one of these can be demonstrated to be strawman issues, but appearances—ah, appearances, and what they say about who we want to be.  Or at least be seen as. Absent the concrete aspects arising from analysis and an understanding of the components of social dynamics, the aesthetics become the binding commonalities of what amount to tribal affiliations and roll onward as if all the rest needed for cogent response to civic policy were already part and parcel of the call to action.

Unfortunately, this makes it all the more difficult to address, because it is very like ( a perversion really, but still) of matters of taste.

For my part, I reject the basic aims of this mass of inappropriately-named conservative ends. They are illusory for one thing. Hollywood codifications of far more complex phenomena. For another, we long ago passed the point of comfortable isolation. We no longer live in a world where we can ignore each other. Globalization may have been poorly handled (although I defy anyone to explain how something that dynamic can ever be “handled”) but it is inevitable. We all live on a single planet, and we have run out of room to run away from the effects we have on each other. We can’t behave like lone gunmen anymore.  Too many people will get hurt, killed, and our own legacy will be one of ignominy and ruin. We here cannot close the borders, either physically or culturally, and hope to survive, and if we keep trying the world will abandon us and we will not be part of a better future.

We have for a long time been reversing the shambles of Babel, but recently it seems some of us are trying to reinstate the fear of that idea, when everyone was utterly alone and terrified because no one could speak to each other.



Reason and Intelligence

This will be brief.

The other day during a particularly fine conversation with a coworker, the subject of “true believers” came up, specifically with regards to Amy Coney Barrett. It is often said people of a certain religiously-inclined mindset, on certain topics, are, well, not that bright. “How can they not see?”

I realized then—or at least finally codified—the basic problem with this.  It conflates intelligence with religious belief and not in a flattering way. Any cursory glance at history will show this to be erroneous. One cannot look at people like Aquinas or Augustine or even Erasmus or Calvin and make an argument that these were not intelligent, indeed brilliant, people.  In conversation with our contemporaries, we find the whole spectrum.  Yes, some folks aren’t very bright, but then others are quite bright, even near the brilliant end of the scale. The question confronting those of us who are puzzled at their adherence to ideas and creeds and conclusions which to us seem obviously dubious, even absurd, has of late been couched in the wrong terms. It’s not intelligence, not even learning.

The factor I conclude that separates one from the other—say, the credulous from the critical (and I’ll stipulate that even that formulation is freighted with certain biases that make it inaccurate)—is a question of certainty.

The one barrier I have come up against time and again in discussions with people who hold opinions of debatable integrity is Certainty.

They are certain. Absolutely so. They have staked out a patch of intellectual or ideological ground and named it inviolable because here, they claim, is absolute truth, absolute reliability, absolute morality. In the face of that certainty, there is no purchase. Unless and until one can move them to entertain the possibility that they are in error, the argument is pointless.*

Certainty.

So here’s my thesis. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Arguing that people (and here we can insert a wide, wide range of belief and opinion, much of which is not even religious, but has the appearance of religious conviction) who hold certain beliefs do so because they are “not that smart” creates a secondary problem, because now you have made a fundamental error in judgment. We are not dealing with intelligence.

We are dealing with a question of Reason.

And by reason, I mean the ability to apply critical analysis.

We have to ask about an ability to reason. And one’s ability to do so is contingent upon many things, but I think it viable to contend that one loses that ability in direct proportion to a failure to suppress certainty.

The unreasonable is a hallmark of a failure to suppress, even for just the space of the dialogue, certainty.

I find myself automatically mistrusting someone who has no doubts. Doubt is necessary to the useful application of reason. Doubt even as a tool of modeling.

I think it might be useful to shift our perceptions in this. Attacking intelligence only entrenches. Fostering a positive capacity to intentionally doubt is conducive to reason.

Something to consider.

 

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* I will also stipulate that they may still retain their opinion and that is fine, but they will have engaged in a process whereby reason has a chance to allow other viewpoints, other conclusions, and perhaps create a more productive ground of mutual respect and consideration.



Stone Cold Memory

I have always been a little perplexed by statues commemorating some historical figure. Public memorials to long dead people who may or may not have done what the memorials claim for them seem dubious at the outset. A form of idolatry, though not in a religious sense (not for me). The commemoration has less, it seems to me, to do with who these people were than what they represent for the people putting up the statues.

Abstract statues are different. The soldiers in certain war memorials, who, while perhaps based on living people, are not of said people. They embody All Who Were Concerned and go to the events memorialized.

Of course, certain statues of specific people over time become abstractions in much the same way. Enough time passes, few know who that person was, its place in public life changes and its meaning shifts. It stops being about the person, even about the history, and becomes decoration. At best a distillation of some collection of civic sentiments having virtually nothing to do with what it was intended to represent.

Along comes a sudden awakening of that same public consciousness and revelations emerge as to who and what that statue was all about when it was erected and now we are divided over what to do. Just as these monuments were almost never about the people depicted but about the sentiment of those creating the memorial, so too are our deliberations about what to do with them now that the underlying history has become very publicly visible. It’s less about the memorial than about current sentiment.

Now before anyone thinks I may be about to dismiss that current sentiment, let me put it to the forum: if the contemporary sentiment was valid enough at the time to serve as justification for erecting a memorial, why should present sentiment be in any way less valid as justification for removing them?

We’ve changed. Our values are expressed differently. It is completely understandable that what was held up as representative of who we were once should no longer represent what we are now. Statues to Confederate “heroes” should rightly be reassessed and dealt with accordingly, especially as the history of the memorials shows us that when and under what circumstances said memorials were erected had virtually nothing to do with the persons depicted. The vast majority were reimaginings, revisionist representations of glamorized if not outright false characterizations of actual history. In a very real sense, many of them are simply lies.

As are most such things, if we dig deeply enough.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of sanding off rough edges. Sometimes it’s a complete rehabilitation

But there are also those which have aged out of any relevance other than the æsthetic impact of the work itself.  (The outrage the world felt at the Taliban destroying the Buddhas in Afghanistan was driven not because of who or what Buddha may have been but because those statues had become a cultural touchstone as works of art.)

The question is, how long is long enough to distance a piece of art from the shortcomings of its source material.

When, in other words, does a monument lose its original intent and become a part of culture apart from that origin?

Take the latest debate in my hometown over a statue of Louis IX. St. Louis. It stands before the main entrance of the St.Louis Art Museum, a noble figure atop a horse, right arm raised bearing a sword. (The sword was stolen at one point and recovered after a much publicized hunt. I may be misremembering, but when it was put back, it was done so upside down, which made the sword over into a cross, but that could just be my faulty memory.)  There is now a debate about removing it because—

Well, because Louis IX was an anti-Semite and led two Crusades and burned books. (He is the only French monarch to ever be canonized, which suggests that all these traits were at the time seen as positives.)  He died in 1270. Because of his sainthood, place-naming in his “honor” became popular.

The town of St. Louis was founded in 1763, almost half-a-millennium after his death.

I doubt many of those first colonists knew the details of his actual life. Even less do I think my contemporaries know much about him or have even given him a second thought. The statue is cool in a kind of Victorian bronze-revivalist way. At the time of my hometown’s founding, Louis XV was on the throne, soon to be dead and succeeded by his son who would be beheaded by the revolutionaries in Paris. If anything, the naming was as much in his honor as the reigning French monarch with a nod to the Catholic Church through the only sainted king. In other words, purely political.

In what way is the life and opinions of a 750 year dead French king relevant to the current spate of monument removals?

Obviously, his life and deeds are in many ways odious to contemporary sensibilities.  But the fact is, he was completely one with his time and place. He exemplified mainstream European thought. Catholic Europe was almost entirely anti-Semitic and the Crusades were popular as ideas (if not as actual enterprises, since by Louis IX’s time they were beginning to show signs of stress). He expanded the Inquisition in France and he burned the Talmud. Few if any of those for whom he was a leader gainsayed any of this.

The same cannot be said of the Confederate leaders. The debate among those who clearly identified as mainstream was heated, public, and led to actions not supported unilaterally at the time, and constituted a repudiation of certain ideas and actions which were under question and which would soon lose to a groundswell of moral reaction. Monuments to the leaders of the rebellion are political statements in ways the statue of Louis IX simply isn’t, nor was when erected. In short, the statue of Louis IX is an abstraction as opposed to a statue to Robert E. Lee, which was not and is not today. Louis IX has become a malleable nonspecific symbol representing another abstraction, namely the place-name of a city which is itself become dissociated from its origins by virtue of changing hands thrice.

In case there is any doubt of my motives, I intend only to shed a light on causes and impulses. We’re caught up right now in a spate of trying to redress grievances.  A perfectly legitimate movement and in many cases long overdue. Personally, I never did understand the whole Christopher Columbus thing. He bumped into the Western Hemisphere expecting to land somewhere else and then set about acting the power-mad little tyrant until his titles were stripped. A good navigator who still got he actual size of the planet wrong and managed to not only unleash misery and desolation on the natives he found but got a lot of his own people killed as well. All in all, a serious screw-up. The continents weren’t named after him but after a mapmaker, so I always wondered, after learning a bit about him, why the veneration? His only significant legacy was the establishment and justification of trans-Atlantic chattel bondage and the introduction of syphilis to Europe. Why anyone put statues up to him in the first place (here) always baffled me. He hadn’t been the first one from over there to find this side of the world and he wouldn’t have been the last.  In my opinion, his idolization was a species of self-congratulatory holiday creation, an excuse for a celebration (of what?) and a propaganda tool to flense the past of dubious aspects in the name of making a “purer” set of founding myths. Motives should be questioned at all levels.

Perhaps it ought to be considered that hagiography ought not be allowed in public memorials. Abstract sculptures, idealized forms, universal archetypes, fine. We can argue over ideas and representational elements. But to cast a statue in the form of an individual for things which may be of dubious moral provenance is probably a bad idea, with very rare exceptions. (What is done privately, on private land, is another matter.)

But there is also the question of actual relevance, both pro and con, when it comes to revising our national ethos. Making snap decisions resulting in vandalism and arbitrarily lumping certain styles and periods into a one-size-fits-all reaction may not be the smartest thing. (Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee represent very different legacies, but if you don’t know history—and, lord, so many people don’t know history—then it might appear that tearing them both down for a single reason is justified.

For myself, I have serious problems with the whole idea of veneration. This country is not a theocracy, erecting statues to our presumptive “saints” is not a tradition I care to support. Famous for being famous does not merit a public monument on public grounds, especially given that what may actually be the reason for praise does not equal the sum or even much of a part of the individual.  (As I say, what is done privately, on private grounds, is different.)

And it is all propaganda. Consider: the Russians understand this very well, which is why after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. all the public monuments to “great” Soviet leaders were removed and stored in “graveyards.” They knew that in order to move on, they had to rid themselves of the visible instantiations of a past no longer valid for them. They couldn’t do that with all those dead ideologues watching them from every public building, park, and square.  Such things matter.

There will, however, be those instances where the object in question no longer has that function. It has become a work of art, apart from, severed, from what it may once have represented, and now is just a thing of beauty (depending on one’s taste).

We have the relative luxury of knowing the history and provenance of all those Confederate statues. We don’t have to guess at why they were made and placed where they are.  Remove them, by all means. They are propaganda of the most base sort.

Remove Louis IX  as well, if must be. But Europe didn’t even know this side of the world was here when he was a monarch and his policies, while in many ways repugnant, are not the stuff of current controversy. His statue symbolizes nothing (to me) beyond a naming protocol for a new town and his legacy…well, I suppose one could make an argument that he was one of a thousand years of ecclesiastical abuse and moral dubeity, but I can think of many closer to our time far more worthy of repudiation, none of whom (probably) took any inspiration from a 13th Century Crusader who died of dysentery.

He was a patron of the arts, though, and credited with revitalizing architecture in France and contributing to the Gothic school. Which is one reason his statue is in front of an art museum.

And it is a cool statue.

 

 

 



March (the Ides of)

And I haven’t posted anything substantial since the beginning of February. February turned out to be a difficult month. I came down with some species of flu-like yuck and ended up home in bed for a week. I’m still getting over it, whatever it was, but I am managing to get back to the gym and work on new stories and all.

So I thought I would do an update.

The Ides of March will be here soon.

The current issue of Analog has a new story by me. I’m rather pleased with it. I think I managed to do some things I’ve always wanted to do and never felt quite good enough to pull off.

I’ve been working my way through a few stories that are proving reluctant to complete. I’ll get there.

I’m behind on finishing the last couple of batches of photographs. But that will keep for now.

Donna and I are coming up on an anniversary. Forty years since our first date. I took her to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and to a Chinese restaurant afterward, both of which were new experiences for her. The theater and the restaurant are long gone, but we try to watch that movie and eat that cuisine every year. (We might change up the movie to 2010 this year.) I’m working on my thoughts and feelings about four decades with her. I can’t imagine anyone else being there with me through what has been a long, strange trip.

We’re making upgrades. A couple of new windows going in, some other details in need of tweaking. We probably won’t be going on any major trips this year. Might be a good year for review and reassessments.

So…

 

…what with the chaos and instability of the last year and a vague set of possibilities for the next, I thought I’d make a couple of observations about—well, about us. Humans.

It has brought me up short to discover that certain people whom I hold in considerable esteem and respect support the current administration. As has been my wont through most of my life, whenever confronted with something like this, I do a long, deep diving analysis of my world views to see if I’ve missed something. Perhaps things are not as I perceive them. Perhaps I haven’t recognized the “big picture.”  My reflexive reaction to our president has been consistent since before the election and I’ve gotten used to certain attitudes which, maybe, I should rethink.

I’ve been doing that for a couple of months now.

My conclusion is that no, I haven’t missed a thing. The fact is, I want something different than those who support him. My expectations are distinctly other than theirs. That’s fine, people are welcome to their viewpoints. If the problems were mostly a matter of style, I could even live with the differences.

But they are not. They are matters of, to me, moral judgment.

The first problem is the least tractable. The election which put him into office was deeply problematic on several levels. Fifty-three percent of the electorate turned out to vote and he in fact lost the popular election, which means that he, as has been the case for many years now for most of the so-called Right, is in office based on at most a quarter of the adult population’s support. I say “least tractable” because the only solution to this is higher voter turnout and I do not know how to achieve that. Some have said it would have been higher had any other candidate opposed him but Hillary Clinton, but I don’t buy that. This is not the first time low turnout has been an issue and it does not excuse the indifference exhibited at state and local elections. You don’t like the presidential candidates, fine, don’t vote for them, but show up and vote for your senator, your representative, your state offices. If this had been the first or only one a few elections with this problem, I might be inclined to agree with the “wrong candidate” excuse, but it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.  Americans seem to be lazy. They don’t want to be bothered. Then, when things turn out badly, they complain. Loudly.

A partial solution to this would be to make election days holidays. Mandatory. Even state and local elections. That might take care of part of it. Add to that making voter registration automatic upon one’s 18th birthday and tie it to your social security number, so this nonsense of lacking an address no longer can be used to deny a basic right. You’re the voter, not your house. With modern databases, it would be easy to track your voting record and see that you vote once.

But inspiring people to actually vote? I like Australia’s system, where voting is required by law, but I rather doubt it would work here. We’re too punitive at the best of times.

When we had a pool of educated, semi-responsible people in government, this wasn’t as big a deal. The country would run along regardless. We didn’t have people in congress conducting a guerilla war with each other.

Where did that come from?

Many places*, but the chief one seems to be that our sense of national character has been weaponized and turned into a do-or-die cause. The chief problem with that is, no one can actually define what is or isn’t our “national character.” It changes. The genius of our system up to this point has been its ability to adapt so efficiently to that changing landscape that from generation to generation there seemed to be widespread coherence and agreement about what that character was, with the illusion that it is at any given moment what it has always been. With the loss of rationality in our representative offices, the revelations that we have from time to time been less than faithful to our assumed ideals has scraped nerve-endings raw.

We hear that the country, the nation, the People, need a new narrative. Why? Because left to our own individual devices we can’t seem to find one that works? Evidence would suggest such a factor, but I’m not convinced. We had a pretty good narrative. The problem hasn’t been the story we tell about ourselves, but in living up to its requirements. If we throw up our collective hands and say “Well, we can’t do that,” it doesn’t mean the narrative is a bad one, as if to say “That’s too hard, so let’s get a new one that’s easier.” For one thing, swapping out national narratives is not so easy, and anticipating outcomes is even dicier.

But no, I don’t believe the narrative we had was so bad. What happened somewhere along the way was the additional thread that told people that if they didn’t like it, they could opt out.

Or blame someone else.

There has always been a degree of this all along, people who don’t like the way things are feeling that they can just pick up and leave. Once upon a time, there was something to this, but it meant actually leaving, heading west, risking oblivion if you failed. Interestingly enough, every time enough people migrated and settled, they dragged along all the community-based accoutrements the first bunch supposedly fled in the first place. The Great Westward Migration was never primarily the individuality exercise our fiction made it out to be.

With the closing of the frontiers, though, the “opting out” became considerably more complex and usually a matter of antisocial resistance to group standards all the way up to actual criminality. Today it manifests chiefly in debates over not who leaves but who gets let in. (It, in fact, always was this debate, but the inclusion narratives are not universal nor as pleasant as we like to think.) Right now there is a flurry of voting poll closings in Texas ahead of the coming elections. Minorities, mostly. One part of the community trying to deny another part a say in how the community will operate by attempting to exclude their vote.

In its simplest terms, this is a toxic combination of NIMBY and “I don’t wanna pay for them.”

Or look like them. Or sound like them. Or eat, think, act like them.

In Strangers In Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild lays out another component of this, namely the notion of “keeping one’s place in line.” In other words, many of the constituency who put Trump in office have felt for a long time that undeserving people have been “placed” in line ahead of them.

“Like some others I spoke with in Louisiana, Jackie felt she had hold of an American Dream—but maybe just for now. Gesturing around her large living room, she says ‘This could all vanish tomorrow!’ She had worked hard. She had waited in line. She’d seen others ‘cut ahead,’ and this had galled her and estranged her from the government.”

What this has led to is the election of representatives who seem to feel it is their duty to interrupt as much of the federal government’s operations as possible in order to prevent a perceived Leftist takeover. On behalf of people clamoring for justice, at least as they see it. Combined with the erosion of trust in anything “knowable,” this has led to a situation in which the optimal condition is a free-for-all wherein no one idea can gain ascendance over any other. This is, naturally, untenable. Some ideas will rise out of the chaos, but with no reasonable discourse it will likely be the less nuanced, most emotion-laden, immediate kind of ideas that can solve little (or nothing) but “feel good” to those who think they’re defending “balance.” What results is anything complex gets shouted down or barred from consideration, especially if it seems to run counter to a preferred narrative.

In congress, Mitch McConnell is sitting on around 400 House bills and has stated categorically he won’t allow them on the floor for a vote. Same thing only at a higher, more organized and potent level.

I don’t care how you try to spin this, it is immoral. It is a denial of voice to people who are legally guaranteed to have a say. It is saying “My mind is made up, so fuck you.”

That’s all.

Very simply, whether that representative is yours or not, this is wrong. It is immoral.

McConnell has been rubberstamping Trump’s policies all along. Why? Because Trump is disassembling the regulatory apparatus that stands between powerful people and the rest of us. He has been taking apart the machinery that is designed to keep the predators from feeding on the body of the nation.

Look at the list of things that have come under the axe in this administration and, whether you agree with how they function or not, it is impossible not to see that the only things being attacked are protections.

Now, some people will loudly declare “I don’t want your protections! I can take care of myself!”

This is a flamboyant, boastful, egotistical bit of self-aggrandizing nonsense. You live in a community, which provides many things you may not, perhaps, even notice. Without them, you could not live the life you may think you’ve earned. But what I have observed among those who often make this claim is a contradiction: they do not pick up, move to the wilderness, live off the grid, and “take care of themselves.” If they did, we would never hear from them. They would have no means to participate in this dialogue. Instead, the statements masks the fact that these are people who either assume the services they use exist in nature (so to speak) and if everyone withdrew from supporting them they would continue uninterrupted or they are people who feel they have achieved a level of self-sufficiency that will allow them to isolate themselves from those parts of the community they don’t like, even while continuing to live in that community and availing themselves of the services.

Or they think they’re just denying these services to others of whom they disapprove.

Somewhere along the way they lost the thread of the actual narrative, the one that says “We are all in this together.”

Even so, hoarding is immoral. When you look at billionaires, you are looking at a species of hoarding.

Not that any of them keep all that money in a safe buried beneath (one) of their houses. No, they’re hoarding influence. The landscape shaped by economics. Their decisions affect people’s lives and those people—you and me, presumably, living on salaries (and that covers a wider range than a lot of folks seem to realize)—have virtually no say in how that manifests.

Again, we are muted, almost voiceless.

“But the Market!”

The market is a wide, wild river. It goes where it will and is only ever controlled grossly by those people hoarding the influence who build dams and levies. And they only build them to direct the flow into preferred channels and those channels may not be to anyone’s advantage but their own. Get over this idea that the Market means leaving those people alone. We labor under the myth of the Free Market. There is no such thing. All markets are at least nominally “owned” by someone and that ownership manifests in exclusions. (What most people likely mean by Free Market is Open Access Market, which is not the same thing. An Open Access Market is one that is inclusive, but in order to achieve that we need a system of wardens to keep the gates open.  Once in the market, freedom may be expressed at what we then can do inside, but even that is not the complete absence of rules some seem to believe should maintain.) We have been sold this myth along with several others by those with the most to gain from our accepting less in the presumption that eventually there will be more. So far, that has not been the case other than for specific groups here and there (not always the same ones consistently); never for the kind of universal improvement supposedly on offer.

There are over seven billion of us on this rock. It is not flat, we are inextricably part of its biosphere (nature), and our collective impact has progressively changed over the centuries and we cannot blithely go on behaving as if nothing we do has any consequences on the world we inhabit. Size matters and while you as an individual would like very much to be released from any responsibility to people you don’t know (including what they do to our environment), no one can absolve you from that. You are part of your species and we—WE—have responsibilities that extend beyond your backyard. Whether you like it or not, you are as much a part of the human race as someone in Guatemala or Indonesia or Chad or Norway and pretending you are either separate from them as an organism or superior to them as a member of a given polity is a surrender of conscience. The problem is, that conscience you’re so willfully trying to deny does not go away into oblivion but remains extant for someone else to pick up and co-opt and use as part of their argument. So you can either be part of the dialogue or a witless tool. but you cannot be apart from it all.

Among the things that have been allowed to drift into the control of those who do not have your best interests at heart:

1: Climate change is real. Stop for a moment and just look at it this way—in order to live, we burn things. It does not take much to understand that the more we burn, the more residue is released. When there were only a few million of us, this was negligible. There are over seven billion now. It adds up. It is the height of wishful thinking and willful ignorance not to understand this.

2: Vaccines have been the most effective weapon against disease ever invented and a refusal to vaccinate your children is criminal negligence. The only reason you might think otherwise is because you have no direct experience of uncontrolled diseases like measles. The only reason you lack that experience is because of vaccines. This nonsense is self-entitled, trendy, pop-culture propaganda and it will kill people.

3: Evolution is real. If it were not, vaccines would not work. Modern medicine would not work. We would not, ever, find new species, anywhere, and quite possibly there would be no life on this planet at all. The only reason to deny evolution is so you can maintain a privileged view of yourself as somehow apart from and above Nature. Which view allows all those corporations to feed you lies about how pesticides are safe, climate change is a hoax, and Democrats are evil. You have put gullibility on like a bad suit and it will kill you some day.

4:  Economic systems are just that—systems. We built them, we run them, they do not exist in Nature, and consequently we can control them, modify them, tweak them, and revise them to suit circumstances. Labels have no actual valence, so calling something by a label you do not understand because you’ve been told it is evil and will inevitably lead to dire consequences, you contribute to the lobotomization of our collective intellect. Ayn Rand aside, Capitalism is neither a philosophy nor an ideal and in the hands of those who see it as a game of one-upsmanship, it can be used to hurt you. Stop assuming all controls and regulations are there to hurt you. Haven’t a lot of us been hurt by their absence? (The answer to that is Yes.)

5:  The Civil War was fought over slavery and slaves. This is not up for debate, despite the continual and continuing attempts to rewrite history into something more noble or innocuous, like States’ Rights. Most of the articles of secession published by the Confederate States list the preservation of slavery as the number one issue and if that were not enough, Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech (he was vice president of the Confederacy) made it about as clear as it could be that it was about maintaining white supremacy. A great deal of our subsequent history has been maligned, ignored, disputed, and twisted over this and whether you like it or not, the facts are not in question. (Why this is an issue now is complex but the fact of the matter is we have a resurgent white supremacist problem, much of which hinges on this issue as a matter of patriotic nostalgia.) The Confederacy was illegal, the instigators were essentially traitors, and no one should use this as an excuse to be either a bigot or a nationalist.

6:  Presidents are not messiahs. Resumés matter. Being inspiring is nice, being competent is vital. We are not crowning a king, we are hiring a manager. Policy is at issue, not endorphins. Stop voting with your amygdala.

7:  Following upon that last, stop thinking the only election that matters is for the president. Congress matters more. I don’t care if you’re bored, staying home because you can’t be bothered to vote is, especially today, inexcusable. (There are reasons for not voting that are, voter suppression being one.)  We have been ruled by quarter-population mandates for too long.

I suppose I could on, but you get the idea. I felt the need to get that off my chest.

I have been told that confronting people with accusations of idiocy, stupidity, venality, and so forth do no good, that it just makes more enemies. That may be. But the soft-touch approach has been used against us for too long. I don’t believe in shaming, but I am tired of living with the consequences of people who probably should be ashamed.  Ashamed of their feckless disregard for what we euphemistically term “common sense.”  (I believe there is no such thing. I know what it’s supposed to connote, but that kind of acuity and wisdom has never, in my experience, been common.)

Because ultimately it is a result of a refusal to trust. Perhaps an inability. But when you look at the decisions of some people, especially with regard to who they elect, the only common factor seems to be that such choices leave one free of having to think about what to do next. The bombast, the denials, the questioning of every single inconvenient fact, is designed to allow some of us to posture over “balance” and retreat from considered argument because “both sides are just as bad,” which leaves us off the hook morally. It’s a refusal to take the kind of steps to find out and be informed and then make decisions that are not just masked motions designed to wash our hands of a situation we don’t understand.

Corporations did not want to pay for their messes or admit to culpability or even float the costs of changing the way they did things, and so embarked on a campaign barely dreamt of by postmodern onanists.  Evangelical churches wanted to maintain their lock on our consciences and so embarked on a similar series of campaigns to convince people that science was just another religion and nothing could be known but “god.” Politicians wanted to get re-elected and maybe get rich by appealing to both these sectors and so abandoned their civic responsibility to hold themselves and the nation accountable to reality and principle.

November is approaching. I’m not as concerned about who ends up in the White House as I am who becomes the next Senate Majority Leader. In order to preserve our democracy, we have to actually use it.

These are the kinds of thoughts occupying me. Thank you for your time and attention.

___________________________________________________________

*For those who wish to lay actual blame as a matter of first causes, you can blame this on the corporate actions to undermine legitimate science in order to avoid the costs of cleaning up messes. What began as a fairly simple tactic to call into question facts which pointed to the need to change certain practices in order to prevent enactment of new regulations (and later undo existing regulations) got away from them and became an evangelical movement to deny any fact that did not fit a particular view. It has led to the discrediting of any kind of authority, valid or otherwise, and hamstrung us when collective action is necessary. The method has become a politic position.



True Belief

For several years, we have seen shots across the bow from advocates of either pure capitalism or some form of socialism, and except for a few instances of informed theoretical discussions based on a thoroughly de-romanticized view of history, we are treated to schoolyard fights between factions that never seem to care for reasoned discourse, only for planting flags and claiming loyalty.

This is not religion, but for so many people it gets taken as such, and the results are rarely edifying. What is amusing (in a tortured way) is the assumption by such advocates that any move toward the reviled system will somehow strip us of our intellect and render us stupid, incapable of managing things to our benefit. That, for example, “socialism never works” must be based on the same assumptions made during the Cold War that communism somehow turned its followers into mindless robots. Of course, the inference here is that Capitalism does not.

“Look at Venezuela!”

As if that is the only indictment necessary to discredit what is essentially an economic theory that in no way demands to be taken as an all-or-nothing proposition.  Look at Norway. Or Sweden. Or any of the other modern states that have taken socialism and applied it as needed to alter a social contract between the state and its citizens to the benefit of both.

Venezuela is suffering the consequences of decades of corruption and elite pillage, which can happen in any system. The reason we here are not facing a similar meltdown is more a tribute to the sheer size of our economy and the fact that we have adapted certain mechanisms which, depending on the decade, have been decried as “socialist.” But in fact, we are experiencing pillage and have been since we shifted Right in the 1980s. Systematic, legal, well-sold pillage. Every time a tax cut goes to the benefit of the upper 10%, it has to be paid for, either by a commensurate decrease in services we all use, or by borrowing against future securities the cost of which comes out of everyone’s pocket. In time, the effects should be obvious, and they are, but we are still so big and in many parts so comfortable, that we can’t seem to muster sufficient, useful outrage to do anything about.

Right now, because so many of us think the alternative is Socialism, which has been made to appear the end of any kind of civilization we consider good.

This is religion. “You can’t credit Them with a just argument because they are the forces of evil!” Why? “Because they are not like us!”

To which, the question must be asked, “And what are we?”

But to my original point: the assumption seems to be that A System is pernicious, that it has a mind of its own, and once engaged it has certain inevitable consequences that our only defense is to reject it. Utterly.

If true of Socialism, why isn’t it true of Capitalism?

It’s an absurd argument not because it’s so wrong but because it’s so ignorant. I mean “ignorant” in the precise meaning of the word, which is not, in spite of a century of misuse, “stupid.” Ignorance is a condition of lack of knowledge, information. Being ignorant is a curable condition, entirely addressable by becoming informed.

But I do not believe on the level of individual citizens the debate has much of anything to do with the efficacy of systems. In order for that to be the case, a fairly solid grasp of those system would be required, and economics is not amenable to casual understanding, not at this level. Instead, it is entirely personal. it is born out an apprehension of threat and a promise of salvation. Examples are given to bolster shallow arguments, but examples with considerable apparent weight, which would require equal study to see as anything but mythic constructs arrayed in battle for the soul of civilization.

In short, religion.

Now, I use the term Religion in the sense of a system.  (Again, systems.) Religion, questions of deities aside, are systems of organization designed to bring people together in an aesthetic cohesion around a statement of rightness. Rituals, arcane texts, sophisticated propaganda feed into a broad community-based set of practices that identify people to each other as sharing beliefs and preferences in behavior. Once you extend past the village level, it becomes a System. People can sign on to participation by agreeing to acknowledge the forms and refrain from questioning the underlying premises. This has benefits to the group primarily, but for the individual as well.

What it does not require to operate is broad understanding of the components, justifications, or origins. It is designed to operate without that. A hierarchy is in charge of the “mysteries” and the actual decisions on how to apply it all, but the populace in general need understand little.

Economic systems are similar.

And the results are very much the same—average people, admittedly or not, treat the system as if it were some kind of natural phenomena, correct and good. Who in their right mind would question it?

The chief beneficiaries of such a system prefer people feel that way.

The question, though, is why such persistent dedication when there is no justification for it? I refer now to people who benefit little from maintaining a system that they understand poorly at best. Not that they couldn’t understand it, but seem unwilling to even crack a book to check whether the barbed euphemisms handed to them by politicians and pundits hold any value.

According to Edward O. Wilson, in his recent book, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, it’s tribal:

For most of history, organized religions have claimed sovereignty over the meaning of human existence. For their founders and leaders the enigma has been relatively easy to solve. The gods put us on Earth, then they told us how to behave. Why should people around the world continue to believe one fantasy over another out of the more than four thousand that exist on Earth? The answer is tribalism…Each of the organized or otherwise public religions as well as scores of religion-like ideologies defines a tribe, a tightly knit group of people joined by a particular story….The members of the tribe are inspired by the special status the story gives them.

A telling phrase in that is “religion-like ideologies.” This would include all nationalistic creeds as well as less politically determined programs that serve to tell us who we should be in order to find conformable situations within a group. Economic systems, for instance, which is relatively new on the scene. Marx arguably set the terms of this new ideological initiation by making everyone aware that such systems not only serve to enable trade along rational lines and distribute goods and services in more or less efficient ways, but come to define us in terms of class and status and, eventually, popular philosophical disposition.

Whether or not a given system “works” better than others has become less important currently than our allegiance to it, which serves to separate us into easily-identifiable subgroups. The battle is not now over what might work “better” but over identity. We here saw this as a flaw in the soviet system, because so much of it failed to work to the benefit of the people, but recognizing the apparent blindness in others has not allowed us to see it in ourselves.

Because it aligns with another oft-unacknowledged blindness, which is the need to feel superior. Or, at least, not feel inferior.

We could certainly adapt aspects of Socialism to our system and make it work for us. We already have. It was called the New Deal. It worked well enough and the only reason to tear it down was that it threatened someone’s sense of importance and security of power. So we already have evidence that it will not eat us alive like some cancer and there is evidence available from all around the world. What we see when we look at it is a mixed bag, ranging from very workable to a shambles. But usually the broken examples are broken from a multiplicity of problems not necessarily inherent in Socialism. Any such system can be made to work badly.

But then we have to ask what we mean by that. Work badly for whom? It can be argued that certain groups in such systems may benefit tremendously by the apparent failures to work as advertised. It’s interesting that we assume a system fails when it injures the general population. The application of it certainly fails a large demographic, but I think it is an error to see this as a failure. Someone got just exactly what they wanted and for them it was a raging success. It’s more interesting when we fail to recognize the same kind of “success” going on here.

Every time the argument is made that communism “never” works, it is fair to ask where and when communism has ever been honestly applied. If the state in question ends up with an autocratic governing body or even a dictator, then it is equally fair to say that is not communism. So the “failure” of communism, in my opinion, has yet to be demonstrated because I have yet to see a single example of it at the state level that was little more than a set of promises to allow a new king to take the throne. That’s not communism.

But I’m not here to argue in favor of it. I’m more interested in urging people to stop giving blind allegiance to what amounts to a set of recommendations that require tweaking as circumstance dictates. Adapting an economic system whole (which is another assumption that requires examination, that any country could just adapt a system wholesale and wake up tomorrow with it in place) is not likely to work any better than denying the possible benefits of mixing and matching multiple systems. It depends on what you think you want done.

What we do have, because we operate tribally, is a set of prejudices that predetermine not what system would be best for people, but what kind of people would best suit a system. We aren’t, apparently, interested in economic justice or community care or rational monetary policies—we’re interested in sorting people into groups and shutting out those we feel do not conform to what we believe. Too many people don’t want to hear arguments about universal health because some of them think there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to have it. Same thing with fair housing practices, education, and even universal franchise. Finding the best system which is the most inclusive may be what we claim to want but in practice a lot of people want the opposite.

Since it’s illegal these days to discriminate on traditional bases, we use financial status to do so. Changes in that system which might lead to closer equity and broader civil rights threaten the status of enough of us to trigger irrational arguments over things poorly understood.  For the time being, a large segment seems quite content to see the upper 1% get more of the pie as long as it keeps the supposedly less deserving from getting anything at all.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion those folks are going to lose in the long run. But until they do, this is going to be frustrating, bitter fight, one made harder by tribal pride and a kind of sacred ignorance.

 



Unintended Consequences and Reagan’s Legacy

Trying to understand our present circumstances can easily take one into a kind of archaeology. How did we get here from…where?

I see a lot of people putting up old videos of Ronald Reagan making statements which the present Republican Party would not support on a bet. The argument over Social Security being one of them.

Listening to Reagan today feels odd, like he was some kind of kindly old uncle who patted the air and told us all to calm down and eat our vegetables and play nice. He is, however, held in such high esteem by people who wouldn’t tolerate his old school moderation for a minute, and you have to wonder why.

That he’s dead and no longer around to criticize helps. But it doesn’t explain the heart-felt gratitude of those who are so far to the right of him that it’s surprising they’re still on the map.

To a younger generation, it must seem strange. What was it about Reagan that has turned him into an icon for people who seem bent on dismantling everything he seemed to have stood for?

Knowing what he stood for, though, is a problem.

He was elected as a reaction to the public perception of his predecessor as a weak president. Reagan was the modern era’s first MAGA president.

To be fair, he was elected at the end of a decade of lows in American history. A president left office in disgrace, we ended a war in ignominious defeat (though many believed otherwise), the economy was reeling from the combination of major cuts in spending for war materiel, the demobilization of millions of servicemen, expanding job opportunities for women and minorities, and a general malaise. The Seventies were split between those who wanted to party and those who wanted the kind of presumed clarity of the WWII era. Jimmy Carter was a genuinely good man in an impossible position, although in hindsight he was dealing with things, and given another term might very well have solved many of these problems without the consequence of fueling a rising cronyism and the beginnings of the deep divisiveness we’re living with now. The debacle in Iran did him in and we elected The Great Communicator.

He had another nickname—the Teflon President.  His administration resulted in 138 indictments and/or convictions for scandals, the largest of any president.  Scandals from grant rigging to the savings & loan crisis (a test run for 2008) to the Iran-Contra Affair. Somehow, none of this managed to tar his image and no hint of any wrongdoing was ever successfully laid at his feet.

And yet.

In my opinion, we are living through the consequences of Reagan and what I feel to be the greatest disservice he did to this country.  Done, I have no doubt, from the best intentions.  He saw himself as a savior, willing to do just about anything to rescue America from its own self.

A few years ago I was in attendance at an event with James Rosebush. He served as Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff. He had published a book, called True Reagan, and he was touring. The book is about Reagan’s religiosity. Apparently, Rosebush had had many conversations with Reagan and as the two of them shared deep religious convictions, many of these conversations revolved around that.  Rosebush contended that Reagan was a Biblical scholar. During the presentation, there was even a hymn sung, Reagan’s favorite (no, I do not recall which it was).

Rosebush said something that night that sent a chill down my backside but which almost immediately put the last 30 years in a clear context. He claimed that one of Reagan’s core beliefs was that government, especially large government, was an obstacle to people knowing Jesus. That it was one of his missions to do something about that.

Hence the whole shrinking the size of the federal government thing he kicked off.

But it also makes one of Reagan’s most famous statements make a completely different kind of sense.  “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Mileage varies, of course, and individually people will have different experiences, but when you consider the size and complexity of this country and all the services our governments, state, local, and federal, have performed, the United States has had possibly the most successful government in history. Never mind the mean-spirited detractors who spin it with hearsay and lie and chafe under regulations.  Now that we have someone who actually is tearing things apart, as these institutions begin to fail we may come to see how well they worked before because we never noticed them till they no longer functioned.

But to the point that Reagan saw government as a barrier to god, that statement takes on a wholly different meaning.

The problem, of course, is that we did not know he believed that. Rosebush said Reagan knew he could never say so in public, because he knew he could never get elected.

I’m sorry,  but that’s fraud. I believe we had a right to know that’s how he felt. Because most people who voted for him did so no doubt under the mistaken belief that he intended to make government work better.  I can say that because throughout our history, that has been a basic assumption in ever election—vote for this guy because he’ll make things run better.

Not tear them apart.

Reagan’s antipathy toward the Soviet Union clarifies with this as well. Granted, most Americans thought of the Soviet Union as an enemy, but there was certain fervor Reagan brought to it that went a bit beyond.  He raised the deficit and the national debt to field a war machine the sole purpose of which was to spend the Soviet Union into penury. But the fact remains that he was Republican, running in a party that traditionally viewed itself as the more fiscally responsible of the two major parties, and he began a decades-long cycle of mounting debt incurred under Republican administrations. Along with this was the rise of the Grover Norquist arm of conservatism which sought actively to suffocate the federal government.

This is the legacy of this unstated and unrevealed philosophy. The reversal of the parties in terms of spending and fiscal responsibility can be put on Reagan.

Two other things he did which, combined with the above, put him the running for one of our most destructive presidents. He opened the door to a politicized religious movement that has vexed us ever since and he initiated the Second Gilded Age with the absurdity of trickle-down economics.

Neither of those two had the kind of apparent impact they later manifested, but he started it, and, I believe, in support of his unstated belief that government must be reduced to a size where it can do almost nothing for people.

Because, after all, government gets in the way of people knowing god.

At this point, it would be useful to point out what may be, for some, a distinction without a difference. We are often challenged by charges of anti-religiosity when a programmatic measure is resisted or struck down as unConstitutional. School prayer, for instance. What seems obvious to those with less ideological intentions is that the idea of banning school prayer is absurd. No one can do that. Prayer is personal. How can it even be monitored? No one can stop a child from praying in school—silently, at any time. What is demanded, however, is not prayer but recitation in support of attempted conformism. Those who insist on such demonstrations, whether they realize or admit it, are not seeking a freedom to pray—which is private and personal and unrestricted—but the permission to force adherence by public observance. The difficulty should be obvious in any example of divergent religious beliefs.

This, among other things, becomes a rallying point for the belief that government interferes with religion. The day the government sends agents into a church and orders the congregation to cease worship is the day you will have that.

I point this out to make it clear that what has resulted from Reagan’s unstated beliefs is not in support of religion as a personal expression but an ongoing debate over the texture, tone, and tenor of our public identity. And before it is taken that I mean something akin to a fashion statement, it is important to remember that when you insert these changes into public discourse, you are making a statement about what is acceptable, which eventually can become matters of law. This is not benign. The simple answer to school prayer has always been: let each child pray silently according to his or her own creed, which has never been acceptable to the vocal advocates of formalized school prayer.

Because Reagan also allowed the intense politicization of the Religious Right in the form of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. As an example, he could not have been more obvious in his preferred form. Falwell was strident, divisive, arrogant, and something of a charlatan. His was a programmatic christianity that sought, in contrast to all past fundamentalist movements, political influence if not direct political control.  Apologists will say Reagan only used them to stir up a base of voters with no real intention of ceding anything to them. If so, then that, too, would have been a species of fraud, but one we have become accustomed to, at least in a naively cynical way. By the end of his presidency, however, the lines had been clearly drawn and we see the battlefield in stark terms today.

At the same time, this movement, such as it was at the time, was gifted with an issue that allowed it to shift debate from the tractable to the unanswerable: abortion. What this did for those who have fueled the divisiveness is allow for transfer of concern from systems to identity in a way that had not been done since christianity overwhelmed pagan traditions.

Most problems in human relations can be addressed if not solved through practical methodologies—systems. Most of the 20th Century in the United States and, arguably, throughout the world has been a period of aggressively creating institutions and systems for dealing with what at one time or another have been profound problems, from food distribution to health care to legal equity for citizens. We were actually getting pretty good at it, so much so that it seemed possible that we might solve all the major problems and establish the kind of continental if not global future once considered the pipe dreams of science fiction. (We’re still on track in many areas, present calamity-politics notwithstanding.)

Granted, no system is perfect, and granted something always go awry. People get overlooked, ignored, sometimes trampled.  (But if you want to look at an example of how successful our system-building has been, as a rough measure, look at how much free time and access so many people have today to complain about how bad they have it. Not that many people don’t have it bad, but compared to 60 or 70 years ago, more of us are enjoying the benefits of effective problem-solving to the point that too many people have no idea what it is they’re trying to dismantle or how bad things would become if the dismantling is successful.)  But we can look back and see a clear progress. We’ve been getting there.

But systems are complex and understanding them, especially in terms of why something hasn’t been fixed yet, requires the kind of time and attention most of us do not have. When election time rolls around, many of the issues are abstract, heavy on detail, and necessitate a grasp of nuance in causal relationships that, frankly, we pay our representatives to understand so we can get on with our lives.

Along comes Reagan and, more importantly, the iconoclasts riding in on his coattails. In order to sell their program—and in order for the Religious Right to gain and maintain traction in the political sphere—the attention of the voter has to be moved from the mind-numbing tangle of systems to the clear-cut, heroic lines of indentitarianism. Namely, the struggle of Good versus Evil.

Abortion was tailor-made for that.

Reagan was less concerned about that, though, than about the Soviet Union, and given his apparent belief that government interfered with people knowing god, the Soviet Union for him could be nothing but an exemplar of Government As Satan. For him, this was not a struggle over competing economic systems and their concomitant expressions of colonialism—this was about Right versus Wrong, Virtue versus Sin, God versus godlessness.

So he began the tradition of sapping our national wealth to fund a crusade against evil in the world in the form of the Soviet Union.

There was, frankly, never much enthusiasm for trying to find common ground with them or, given victory in the struggle, providing aid to see them through into a workable polity. Because that would have meant building exactly what Reagan thought was wrong in the world—a viable and rather extensive government.

This also undid him in the Iran-Contra Affair. His convictions about communism being irreconcilable with godliness led him to fund brutish men who used those arms to destroy schools and clinics. He could not see past his preconceptions to understand that, while he might disagree philosophically with the Sandanistas, they had been duly elected by their people, and the targest of the right-wing Contras were sick people and children along with federal troops. It was a shameful abuse of his office.

Reagan exhibited a deep and largely innocent faith in people being basically able to do anything they needed to do, without state assistance of any kind. He must have felt that without the tremendous burden of soviet state apparatus, the Russian people would just naturally have developed into a benign community of self-sufficient American clones. If he felt that way, he did not understand the nature of his own people, either.

Consider another action he took that has resulted in a massive problem today: according the Rosebush in the same lecture, Reagan “did not believe in psychiatry or mental health problems.” He gutted HHS, if you recall, and shut down the mental health institutions that had been caring for the disabled. They ended up on the street and many remain there because there is nowhere for them to go. PTSD does not exist, bipolar disorder is a myth, and I suppose schizophrenia is possession by devils and the sufferers only need to find god.  However far down the line he actually thought this through, the result has been a chronic homeless problem that had the added “virtue” of demonstrating the insufficiency of government of solve problems.

As for his economic policies, that was clarified as well. He based his program—supply-side or, popularly, Reaganomics—on something know as the Laffer Curve. I wrote about it at the link. It has been obvious for a long time that he did not understand economics well enough, if at all, to see this for the nonsense it was. (His vice president understood, hence his smoke and mirrors comment, but by the time George H.W. Bush was in office we were wedded to it.) I don’t believe it would have mattered. It looked like a way to get the government out of economic regulation, which by extension would have ultimately crippled the government, which would be consistent with his unstated beliefs. For what it’s worth, I also do not believe he expected it to really hurt anyone. I think he naively accepted reassurances from business that if he “took the chains off” of course they would do right by the country.

(A side note here: Reagan oversaw the pillage of our high-tech industrial base. Not many people are aware that during his two terms over 280 companies fell prey to the corporate raiding of the day and were purchased by foreign owners, primarily British and Japanese. These were not companies that just made lightbulbs and tv remotes, but many companies doing classified work for our government and had developed very sophisticated methods for building very complex things that gave us a considerable edge globally. Upon purchase, though, those methods if not necessarily the products became foreign property and we lost vital edges. Many of these companies petitioned Washington for protection because of the highly-sensitive nature of what they did, but Reagan grandly declared that we “have no industrial policy” and allowed them to be sold out of the country. To my mind, this shows no Machiavellian long-game, but a fundamental disconnect and a lack of understanding about the nature of what was happening and what we were losing. But it is consistent with his opinion, apparently, that government should stay out of everything. See: Anthony Campagna, The Economy In The Reagan Years)

They did right by themselves, which has resulted in the morass of stagnant wages and endless arguments over cost-of-living, and the obscene imbalance in wealth.

Once begun, the diminution of our public faith in our institutions proceeded apace, to the point where we collectively mistrust everything and grope for tangible meaning that might once have simply been there had we known at the time what it was this man, who remains for many one of the greatest presidents we ever had, truly believed. Now we are faced with these pocket movements of denying everything from the Holocaust (a perennial favorite) to the Anti-vaxxers and climate change denial. These are all aspects of systemic knowledge and in the case of vaccination of systemic problem-solving (successfully, I might add) but which have been tied to big government and somehow in opposition to a moralistic self-image that rejects codification.

So, based on these things—supply-side economics, the decoupling of institutions from public faith, and the shift in public discourse from problem-solving to indentitarian posturing—I put in my bid for Reagan being placed near the bottom. And the irony is, he probably had no idea it could get so bad. He was basing his iconoclasm on a firm faith in the very institutions he had launched his supporters to destroy. He had a deep, quaint faith in American Goodness that was unsupportable then and seems badly mauled now. The average American probably is, by most measures, a good person, certainly not malevolent, but once you rise through the layers to where power politics and money mix poisonously, Goodness is only something talked about at the bottom of a ledger or the tally of a poll.

Government interferes with people knowing god.

There are two major things wrong with that idea. The first comes out of a twisted notion that people only go to church when things are bad. So if we solve problems and fix our institutions and secure the common wealthfare as we can, this belief says we will lose faith in god.  Why worship god when we can do this all for ourselves?

Well, that’s a rather punitive and stunted view of religious faith. Not uncommon. But even if it were true, for the adherents to justify wrecking the well-being of people they don’t know in the cause of pushing them out of necessity into a set of beliefs that may not be free and genuine is vile.  (Of course, there is a corollary belief that successful states are automatically decadent and this is ungodly. Well.)

The other thing wrong with this, is a simple misapprehension of that old saying about deities working in mysterious ways. What if those successful institutions are the natural expression of a faithful community?

Either way, to hold such a conviction and then run for high office and allow people to believe you will do the right thing by them—well, you may, regardless, but to withhold that information means you don’t trust your own message or the people you’re delivering it to. We had a right to know the man we were electing as well as possible.

Now we have another of these Make America Great Again people in office, only there is no good-natured, naive uncle in that suit but a venal, corrupt narcissist who likely would never have gotten close to this had the stage not been set by a man still worshiped and longed-for who could not now, as he was then, get elected to a state legislature for the party he once led.

Government interferes with people knowing god.

And we wonder why there is a separation of church and state built into our constitution.







In What?

I had no idea till yesterday this was a thing. The Toronto van killer apparently was a member of a supposedly oppressed group that wishes to declare open rebellion against—

Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I think I understand. They have adopted a cognomen, which took me by surprise, one because it has the sound of something clandestine, serious, a thing with heft and glamour. But when you discover what it actually stands for there is a moment of dismay and…really?

Incels.

The incel rebellion is upon us.

Involuntarily Celibate.

Take a moment. Or two. This has emerged from something else with a label I had not heard before (because I don’t, apparently, pay attention to the people or places where I would hear such things), the Manosphere.

Involuntarily Celibate.

In other words, people who can’t seem to get laid.

And are convinced it’s not their fault.

They must all be 15 years old.

I am torn here between dismissive ridicule and being deeply serious. In another time, another age, no one would so publicly proclaim this condition, but since a way has been found to make it sound like a civil rights violation, it can now be a group identifier with significant political weight. Evidently so, since people are now dead because this guy doesn’t know how to deal with a personality problem.

There seems to be no middle ground on which to stand. Every adolescent who ever looked in a mirror has doubtless felt the despair of not being attractive. Most of us grow up and out of it and realize that it was just part of the learning curve of being human. Too many of us probably forget how awkward that whole part of our lives was. But some few no doubt never figure it out.

This is now a serious issue because it is being politicized, along with all the other aspects of what it means to live in the world, and in this instance it is based on a serious misapprehension of the entire question of sexual freedom.

After the Sexual Revolution, two notions seemed to become widespread that actually conflicted, although at the time it may have appeared to a lot of people that there was no contradiction. The first was that people now had the right to express themselves sexually and it was no ones damn business but your own. The other was largely, I think, a male reaction “Holy shit, now we’re gonna get laid more!” It didn’t occur to the latter that part of the personal ownership of one’s sex life meant saying No was now easier and a right. In the party that we witnessed that carried on through the Disco Era and started to stumble in the Age of AIDS, not a lot of attention got paid to the idea that women, especially women, could now pick and choose and say No without being castigated for it. (Men, it seemed to be assumed, didn’t know what to do with a right to say No. This is a stereotype, but one backed up by a LOT of circumstantial evidence.)

Fast forward to today when everyone is talking about Rape Culture and power arrangements and other aspects of civil rights and women’s health is threatened by political activists who clearly don’t like women having the ability to decide for themselves, and what do we have now? The same feckless arrested adolescents declaring their inability to get laid is because those people over there have oppressed us!

They apparently think it has to do with looks.

Let us put this out there now, clearly and succinctly. Sex is a gift. It is a wonderful gift people give to each other. You have a perfect right to have it when offered. What you do not have is a right to expect it and demand it. It only  counts if it is freely given and willingly indulged by all parties. You have a right to own your sexuality. You do not have a right to anyone else’s.  If you take it, it is not sex, it is rape. If you do not offer it and it is wrested from you, it is rape.  If you ask for it and are told no, move on. To do otherwise is to prove to all involved that you have no clue what this is all about.

To go out and run down a bunch of innocent people because you get turned down for sex is criminal narcissism. You aren’t being denied sex because you have been oppressed, you’re being denied sex because on some level you don’t know what it is. You’re throwing a tantrum, stamping you feet in petulance, and killing people because of a problem which is pretty much all yours.

Incels. My ghod, are you serious? Like they came to your house and clamped a girdle around you, like a chastity belt, and issued a restraining order to prevent you from having sex?

If women (and, possibly, but given the rhetoric I’ve seen, not likely, men) turn you down (and of course one has to wonder if that is actually happening or if conversation leading to a refusal ever actually occurs), it is not because you are ugly (what does that mean anyway?) or because they’re “castrating bitches” and you have a dick. It’s because you are a dick.

I don’t know what the cure is for that, but it’s not revolution.

But there is also the likelihood that many of these males (I refuse to call them Men, that has other connotations having to do with character which may be problematic in this instance) are not celibate so much as intolerant. They cannot stand the idea of being refused, as if women, in their view, simply have no right to turn them down.  They want slaves. They want to live on Gor. They can’t find women who will put up with their unexamined misogyny. (But of course there are plenty of males who are like this who have plenty of opportunity for what for them passes as sex, just not from wholly willing partners. Abuse has many faces.) There may well be males involved in this who have political litmus tests, or religious criteria, or—

Or have no fashion sense and zero conversation.

Sex, at the end of it all, is conversation. A dialogue (or more). If you don’t know how to talk to people…

Which is an adolescent problem.

Forgive me for going on about this, but I am genuinely annoyed. And stupefied. It is difficult to take it seriously, but it is a serious thing. Next we’ll be hearing from them that they think the world of A Handmaid’s Tale is a good idea, a utopia. They will completely miss that this is satire, dystopic, a warning, an altogether Bad Thing, and long for the instantiation of Gilead.

Boys, if you’re having trouble talking to girls, start with something easier—talk to a person. And then get it through your skull that women are persons. Until then, instead of wasting all this energy trying to get a political movement going in order to get laid, get some counseling.  And stop hurting people.

Grow up.



Ol’ Time Deaf & Blind

Recently I had one of those exchanges which can be intensely frustrating, more so for the thoughtful participant than the antagonist, who often seems to feel that ramping up the frustration of the deponent constitutes a “win.” Never mind the substance of the argument.

It was over the question, now almost continually asked, “How can those self-proclaimed christians support Trump now that_____?”  Fill in the blank. Of course, most of these are rhetorical, “gotcha” memes that do not seem to really want an answer.  The answer is not all that complicated. A few weeks ago a friend of mine relieved me of the burden of trying to over-analyze the question by pointing out, in a marvelous example of applying Occam’s Razor, that the question assumes all the wrong things. They support him for the same reason anyone supports “their guy.”  They’re partisan.  There’s no mystery, it’s not rocket science, and we who might legitimately wonder about the conflation of theological militancy and dubious standard-bearers often jump down rabbit holes of historical, theological, and psychological analysis.  Much to the mirth, I imagine, of those we seek to understand.

For the majority of evangelical and/or fundamentalist supporters of our current president, this answer is more than sufficient. We who lean a bit more to the left do the same thing, albeit perhaps less dramatically, excusing lapses we may decry in our elected officials when they aren’t “our guys.” The simple fact is, purity of ideology and private life are chimeras not to be found. No one, on either side, will ever meet that standard and we are wasting our time and energy hoping for one.

(I’m not altogether sure I would trust someone who appeared to meet those criteria. I want my leaders human, thank you very much, warts and all. Saints tend to have or develop agendas that are eventually at odds with human needs and, if convinced of their specialness by undue popular acclaim, stop listening when they start acting on such beliefs.)

But there are a couple of instances where the question has ancillary aspects that drift back into the office of the analyst. One, the biggest possibly, has to do with the leaders of such groups who loudly conjoin a biblical spin with support. Of course, they’re ridiculous, but the problem is, people listen to them, and here we do see the source of the original question.  The answer remains the same—they are partisan and they have agendas, usually along the lines of condemning homosexuality, ending abortion, and bringing back some kind of Mosaic aesthetic to apply to civic and private life. This is as political as you can get, but they wrap it in the sugarcoating of “god’s will”and sell it along with the hundred dollar bibles. There’s no way to tell how many of their adherents actually act on their preachments and I believe they are in the minority, just very, very loud, but it cannot be denied that there is an element of perhaps very cynical theological redaction going on. How can they support this guy out of one side of their mouths when they claim to be christians out of the other? More to the point, when they make the argument that this is wrapped up with supporting their guy. As I said, like anyone else, they’re partisan and, like most people. they compartmentalize. How can they preach that this guy was chosen by the lord to do whatever it is he’s going to (presumably what they hope he will do) and gloss over the incompatibilities over things they would never hesitate to condemn someone who is not their guy for doing? Because they are opportunistic shams who are more worried about their own power an influence than anything genuinely christian.

Now a couple of things happen when I say something like that. The first is a lot of people assume I’m talking about them when I’m not.  The label has an unfortunate effect of categorizing people of many different philosophical and personal attributes into a single group. Just as terms like “conservative” or “liberal” do. We use these labels to define what we’re talking about at the moment, unfortunately casting too wide a net and causing defenses to rise where none are needed. One consequence of this is a lot of people will start making the “well, they’re not real christians” argument, distancing themselves. Since what we’re talking about has far more to do with political partisanship than actual religion, this is unfortunate, because it’s just one more wall between people.

What to do? If someone insists on self-identifying that way and then claiming they vote in accordance with that identity, how does one deal with it without acknowledging the problematic aspects of the issue?

If you start engaging with someone over these questions by delving into what the bible actually says and how it might not be what they think it is, you discover a couple of things right off the bat that makes it either a very short or a very frustrating encounter. Firstly, your conversant may not know thing one about what you’re talking about. They have not read the bible. Not all of it, not nearly enough of of it. (I am speaking now of averages; there will always be someone who does not fill this description.) At best they have studied the parts they’ve introduced to in church. After all, those are the “important” parts. Secondly, you run into the problem that this person probably, maybe, did not come to his or her belief by a reasoned process. Which is why when you start examining the bases of their belief, they are completely at sea, and react as if threatened. Because you are threatening them.

However and for whatever reason they have come to this place, they have staked their identity on this ground and to suggest it might be sand is very, very, very threatening.

It’s not your place to tell them they’re wrong.

The best you can do is offer—not impose—more information. Or walk away.

However, when someone steps up to willingly engage with you over this and makes a show of being open to dialogue, things change.

In the encounter I mentioned above, two things were thrown at me that I found no way to deal with effectively because they represent a mindset that a priori rejected my arguments. The first that I am “misguided” and the second that I am “rebelling against god,” which is the sole reason I fail to swallow his counterarguments.

I’ve written before about how I feel that those gentle busybodies who knock on your door to bring you the good word, without intending to, are very insulting. Because in order to presume to do that they have to make certain assumptions, one of which is that you must be stupid. That something  this important just never occurred to you to think about ever before. No, they do not consciously think this, but when confronted by someone who informs them that, no, I have considered all this and chosen a different path, they conclude that you either misunderstood something or you’re in league with the devil. The discourse runs aground on the shoals of mutual incomprehension because the places you’re arguing from are wildly divergent. If you stand your ground, I suspect they think you think they’re stupid. But at some level where space for being able to acknowledge the possibility of a different view should be, something else has filled it and communication is subsequently made far more difficult.

But the judgment that I am stupid is wrapped up in that “misguided.” Clearly, I am not getting something, which is so simple and so self-evidently true a child ought to pick up on it. Because, conversely, I can’t possibly have a worthwhile point. No, of course not. That would be impossible, since it appears to  contradict the convictions of your conversant. He didn’t seem to even register those points where I agreed with him (and there were) because I kept insisting, I suppose, that there were doctrinal problems with some of this. So I’m misguided.

And I am misguided because I’m rebelling against god. I have to be. The only reason I would argue along the lines I do is if I were angrily rejecting a god I know in my heart is really there. Because that’s the only way you can rebel against something, is by rejecting the authority of something real.

This is a fallback assumption, which is one of the reasons we see the logical absurdity that atheists worship Satan.  This is flung at us with no hint of irony.

The existence or nonexistence of god aside, this is a human inability to consider the possibility of Other Views. Even to dismiss them.

But I made the observation that, no, I am not in rebellion against god. If anything, I am in rebellion against people who insist that I’m misguided. I suppose this was ignored because, on some level, the notion that people and god can be separate in the sense that I meant is inconceivable. To be in rebellion against god’s messengers must de facto mean I’m rebelling against god.

Loops within loops.

So extract god from the core question and we come back to—they’re partisan.

(This is not, in fact, inconsistent with this brand of christianity. They are stuck in the Old Testament with all its punitive constraints and vengeance and parochial judgment. You can tell because they go all Levitical on you to defend their presumed moral superiority. Yahweh is a partisan god. Look at the jeremiads against “foreigners” and the instructions on how many of another people the Israelites ought to slaughter. He is a blood-soaked deity who has chosen a Side and promised to bless these people if they do what he says. This is partisanship.  It is not at all inconsistent, given the rhetoric about building walls, reinstating intolerances, banning programs that award benefits to people Yahweh would have had put to death. He’s their guy the way David was.)

I uttered two words that sent my opponent into eloquent condemnation—doubt and skepticism. Since he felt I was misguided, I realized he saw no utility in either of these, at least not when it came to religion.

This is not confined to religion. I want to stress this. The kind of filters in place I perceived are by no means an exclusive attribute of this view. Many people simply do not want or cannot manage to think everything through. It is perfectly human to want something, some core of philosophical reliability that goes without saying and need not be questioned. To believe is held up as a virtue. Whether it is or not, it seems to be a very human necessity. When that core is called into question…

But I would like to say this: you cannot be misguided if you are open to differing opinions and always on the hunt for questions that need answers. You can certainly wander down side roads, into cul-d-sacs, blind alleys, but if you’re still looking, it doesn’t trap you. You can only be misguided by a guide who does not have your interests in mind. Gurus, prophets, stump preachers, pseudoscientists, psychics, charlatans of all stripes who all share one thing—the desire to capture you into their scam (whether they feel it’s a scam or not) and make themselves feel “right” by the headcount in the hall.

And, really—you can’t be in rebellion against something you don’t believe exists. But then a lot of people find it difficult to separate out an idea from an actuality.

But as to how all those “good christians” can support Trump? Partisanship. They may or may not be good christians, but they are definitely dedicated partisans.



Immorality Sweeps The Land!

Roy Moore lost. In a state so Red it could be on Mars, Doug Jones squeaked into the win by 1.5%.

Moore is refusing to concede. In some quarters, this is seen as principle. In the civilized world, sour grapes. But delusional.

“Immorality is sweeping the land!”

Says a man who allegedly hit on teenagers when in his thirties, and then relies on a biblical defense, something about Mary only being 13 or some such nonsense, and the fact that he asked their parents.  Forgive me if I find that whole scenario simultaneously dubious AND extra-creepy.  (But there is in the South, and presumably other places, a whole cult of True Believers who groom their prepubescents for marriage by parading them in adult drag in front of potential husbands, so maybe. If that’s the crowd he’s drawing from, you have to ask what standard of morality he actually subscribes to, because it isn’t that of anyone I know, even among my conservative friends.)

His issues are, in no particular order, The Bible, homosexuality as national threat, and abortion.  As far as I could tell, he had no stance of his own on education (unless it relates to the Bible), economic growth (unless that remark about slavery counts), foreign policy, the budget, or anything else that may be relevant to actual people living today.

Now, if you want to discuss morality, we can start with that: the complete apparent disregard for any issue that might have any real impact on his potential constituency. Irresponsible?  Surely. But in one of the reddest of the red states, where economic conditions still lag and poverty is a profound problem, concentrating on non-issues and counting on that to win the day, with nothing in his tool box with which to address the present realities, strikes me as a sign of someone who has a badly skewed moral compass.  Added to that the allegations of sexual misconduct, his blatant bigotry, and his disregard for law (he was a state supreme court judge and somehow did not care that he was in violation of federal law over the decor on state property)—this is not someone I would trust to tell anyone what is or is not moral.

That he relied on the entrenched aversion of the voters to anything labeled Democrat to see him into office is also blatantly arrogant, especially knowing full well that his state is one of the most problematic in terms of voter suppression.

I am not well pleased that it seems to have been the sexual misconduct allegations that lost it for him.  Maybe it wasn’t, but I would be happier if I thought people had finally decided to look at the issues and judged him an inferior candidate on the merits.  It is telling that while it appears white women voted for him in a majority, when you tease apart evangelicals from a more secular group, only evangelical white women voted for him as a majority.  White women who are not all caught up in the religious balderdash that passes for political value voted predominantly against him.

While it is true that one should not equate intelligence with religious affiliation, it is difficult to avoid when you see this sort of thing. Blindness, of course, afflicts different people in different areas, but damn, we have to stop pandering to the evangelical vote this way.  This is not 4 B.C. and this country is not, despite the aggressive wishing of many people, a christian nation, not the way they mean it.

But have it your way.  I’ll take a little honest immorality over willfully ignorant moral posturing any day.

But that’s not what we’re seeing.  Every single issue Moore saw fit to blather about, at base, was about stripping away civil rights.  Period. Dress it up any way you like, he longs for the days of the mint julep on the veranda as the master gazes out upon his plantation-fiefdom. He wants people “in their proper place.”  He wants an aristocracy.  I find it telling that people like him believe the way to achieve it is through the religious beliefs of people are afraid of the future.

Moral leadership my ass.




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