"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Antonin Scalia R.I.P.

First, let me say how disgusting it is that Mr. Scalia (whom I despised as a jurist, but will honor as a human being and fellow mortal) is not yet removed from Texas to return to his family before the ugliest side of politics is exposed by the likes of Ted Cruz.

That said, Kevin Drum gets it right:

This is going to set up an unbelievable battle in the Senate. I wonder if Republicans will even make a pretense of seriously considering whoever President Obama nominates?

And the answer to that is:  No.  As Josh Marshall points out, it took less than an hour to settle that issue.  Any nomination for the Court is dead until 2017.  Which, as Drum points out, isn't all bad:

In the meantime, the court is split 4-4 between conservatives and liberals. So even if Republicans refuse to confirm a new justice, Obama's laws and executive orders are safe for another year in any case for which the opinion hasn't yet been finalized. You can't overturn an action on a 4-4 vote. This means that EPA's carbon rules are probably safe. Ditto for Obama's immigration executive order. Union shops in the public sector are probably safe. Abortion restrictions probably won't go anywhere. One-person-one-vote is probably safe.

Either way, this is now the most important issue in the presidential campaign. Appointing Supreme Court justices has always been one of the biggest reasons to care about who wins in November, but it's stayed mostly under the radar until now. No longer. Both sides will go ballistic over this, and the Supreme Court will suddenly seem like the most vital presidential power ever. If you thought things were getting nasty before this, just wait. You ain't seen nothing yet.

So the GOP may run on this, hoping it gives them some traction.  However, what of the EPA?  What of immigration?  Unions in the public sector?  Voting rights?

How much pain will they put up with in hopes of getting one Supreme Court Justice, especially if their nominee is either Trump or Cruz?  How great a risk do they wish to take that those issues are left alone by a divided Court and dropped from its docket, perhaps never to return?

What's decided in an hour may well be repented upon for much, much longer.

There is a price to be paid for inhumanity and foolishness, and it is not always paid merely in clucking tongues and the disdain of those with better regard for the customs of decency.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Lenten Meditation

No, not drawn from scriptures; drawn from movie trailers.

Trailers for a movie, specifically.  It's the line spoken by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg):

"Do you know the oldest lie in America?  It's that power can be innocent."

Reinhold Niebuhr couldn't have said it better.

"Somethin' happenin' here, what it is ain't exactly clear...."

Nate Silver's analysis jibes with my experience among college and high school students, and the attitudes of my Millenial daughter.  True, she agrees with me on politics, but I'm much more radical about economic issues than she is.  I'm a child of the '60's, she's a child of the 21st century.  The '60's were a much less challenging time, economically, than she's ever known.

Just as “socialism” is becoming more popular with young Americans, so is another label that implies a highly different set of economic policies. Americans aged 18-29 are much more likely than older generations to have a favorable view of the term “libertarian,” referring to a philosophy that favors free markets and small government. Indeed, the demographics of Sanders’s support now and Ron Paul’s support four years ago are not all that different: Both candidates got much more support from younger voters than from older ones, from men than from women, from white voters than from nonwhite ones, and from secular voters than from religious ones. Like Sanders, Paul drew more support from poorer voters than from wealthier ones in 2012, although that’s not true of libertarianism more generally.

If both “socialism” and “libertarianism” are popular among young voters, could it be that younger voters have a wider spread of opinions on economic redistribution, with more responses on both the “0” and “100” ends of the scale? It could be, but that’s not what the data shows. In fact, on the General Social Survey question I mentioned earlier, younger Americans were more likely than older ones to be concentrated toward the center and not toward the extremes on the redistribution issue.

The cynical interpretation of this is that the appeal of both “socialism” and “libertarianism” to younger Americans is more a matter of the labels than the policy substance. Relatedly, it’s hard to find all that much of a disagreement over core issues between Clinton and Sanders, who voted together 93 percent of the time when they were both in the Senate from 2007 to 2009.

But terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” are fairly cynical also, at least in the way they’re applied in contemporary American politics. Rather than reflecting their original, philosophical meanings, they instead tend to be used as euphemisms for the policy positions of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Those parties’ platforms are not all that philosophically coherent, nor do they reflect the relatively diverse and multidimensional political views of individual Americans. Instead, the major American political parties are best understood as coalitions of interest groups that work together to further one another’s agendas.

What’s distinctive about both the Sanders and Ron Paul coalitions is that they consist mostly of people who do not feel fully at home in the two-party system but are not part of historically underprivileged groups. On the whole, young voters lack political influence. But a young black voter might feel more comfortable within the Democratic coalition, which black political leaders have embraced, while a young evangelical voter might see herself as part of a wave of religious conservatives who long ago found a place within the GOP.

A young, secular white voter might not have a natural partisan identity, however, while surrounded by relatively successful peers. In part, then, the “revolutions” that both Sanders and Paul speak of are revolutions of rising expectations. We’ll explore this theme more fully in Part II of the series, and consider some alternative explanations for Sanders’s success.
The highlighted portion is something I've come across before:  this isn't a revolution across class lines, it's more the discontent of the middle class.  Not to disparage the middle class per se, but the "revolution" Bernie offers is simply what the country had when I was in college:  cheap tuition (at $4 an hour it was cheap even in the '70's) and job opportunities when you graduated (although we graduated into the '80's, when the economy was slowing down for the first of many booms and busts unknown since the end of the Great Depression.  New Deal Programs were already being undone, a process that accelerated as we stepped on the economic rollercoaster).  It's not a revolution Bernie Sanders offers; it's a nostalgia trip.  It's a different version of trickle down:  if we just make the middle class secure, everyone will be happy.

But the experience of the New Deal was actually that the working class prospered, which made the economy prosper.  The Great Depression ended with war-time spending, but that money wasn't into middle-management jobs and professional salaries:  it went to manufacturing and construction and mining, and from that middle-management was needed.  The money flowed up from the bottom, not up and down from the middle.  What Bernie promises is to make the middle-class middle-class again.  But even if he had a Democratic House and Senate he couldn't do it; not without upending decades of economic theory and introducing massive government spending that would return the country to what it will never have again:  a manufacturing and technological base that dominated the world the way America did after World War II, when so much of the world that could compete with us lay in shambles.

There was a reason "Made in Japan" meant "junk" even into my childhood.  But there's also a reason it never will again.

I learned in seminary the simple wisdom of the prophets:  that if the king took care of the poor, all would be well with everyone.  Money that bubbles up, to use a water metaphor, is better for the oikonomos than money that trickles down, because "trickle down" is always, as the feller said, what you get from the horse after the horse gets the oats.

We do need a change of economic theory, as well as a change of heart (what else would it be if we suddenly cared for the poor as if their lives mattered to all of us?).  And it needs to start somewhere.  But if Nate Silver is right and the revolution Bernie Sanders is leading is a "revolution[ ] of rising expectations," the real change that is needed won't start there.

Even the prophets knew that promises were one thing, but production was what mattered.  They also understood that society was built from the bottom up, not from the top down.  Until we learn that lesson again, we will continue to be disappointed with the outcome of our hopes and dreams.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Waiting for the Big One

This may just become my preferred image for Lent.

I've been holding onto this post for some time.  Now, thanks to Southern Beale, I have a reason to revise and release it.  I'll start with the original premise, and adjust it below:

These statistics may be completely bogus.  Assuming they aren't, they are quite interesting:

While self-described atheists and agnostics tend to be highly educated, 77 percent of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” haven’t finished college. Many of these people, largely white, aren’t necessarily hostile to religion; they’re simply as alienated from their local churches as they are from other institutions, including political parties and labor unions. Almost half of those who claim no religion but consider religion important earn less than $30,000 a year. These struggling, detached, impious whites are a crucial part of Trump’s base.

I don't care about the "Trump's base" part, I care about the "nothing in particular" description of religion.  Here are the "nones" you hear so much about in certain quarters.  "[T]hey’re simply as alienated from their local churches as they are from other institutions, including political parties and labor unions."  "Bowling Alone" is not a new phenomenon; but it has yet to trickle down to the common knowledge of the "knowledgeable" on the interwebs.

Daniel Dennett says the rising disaffection with religion (and presumably religious belief) is caused by the rising information level available due to the internet.  I'm guessing people who make less than $30,000 a year don't make high-speed internet, and the computer to access it, a top priority.  I'm also thinking people who haven't finished college are not, by and large, that concerned with the latest "proof" of atheists espoused by Richard Dawkins or Pharyngula (if they've heard of either person).  Daniel Dennett, of course, is not alienated from institutions; like Dawkins and Pharyngula (and Sam Harris and Bill Maher), he makes his living from an institution, and relies on other institutions to carry his thoughts abroad and make him famous from them.

The gap between Mr. Dennett and his running mates, and the people identified in that quote above couldn't be any wider.  One might say they can't even see each other.

The irony of the quote lies in this:  the founding figure of Christianity lived as, and taught as, one alienated from institutions.  He lived and walked among the ptochoi, the homeless; the invisible.  The Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes in the Gospels are not historically rendered figures but representative, just as the shepherds are:  the former represent the institutions of life in Judea; the latter represents the people alienated from those institutions.  The people Jesus spoke to were not learned and wise, not educated and powerful.  They were quite the opposite.

If the time has truly come that the institution of the Church, in all its forms and guises, is no longer serving the people of God, if it no longer reaches those "struggling, detached, impious" people described as supporters of Donald Trump, the problem for the church isn't political.

It's existential.  It's fundamental.  It's theological and ecclesiological.  It's, pardon the apparent pun:  institutional.  I am not saying it is absolutely the sign of the end of the ecclesia; but if the ecclesia is leaving those people behind, then what, or who, is the body of Christ and the clouds of witness for?

Now, standing alone that's just a critique of the church, and a rather simplistic one.  But let us never forget the church reflects the culture; how else did the Roman church become part of the empire, it's hierarchy reflective of the model of Rome?  Where else did Protestantism come from, but the massive social changes that were already shaking 16th century Europe?  So Southern Beale, in a "coincidence?  I think not" post, tells me this:

Those who don’t vote tend to be younger and less educated, according to the Pew Research Center. More than half of those who sat out the election in 2012 had no more than a high-school diploma and less than $30,000 a year in household income.

Those are the people Sanders has to get to the polls if he hopes not only to win the Democratic nomination, but also to lead troops of the party’s congressional candidates to victory in the general election, establishing the legislative majority his agenda requires.

At least in New Hampshire, though, younger, poorer and less educated people did not turn out in disproportionate numbers for the Democratic primaries, according to exit polling data gathered on behalf of major television networks and the Associated Press in 2008 and on Tuesday.

Nineteen percent of Democratic primary voters — which, as it happens, can include independents under New Hampshire’s rules — in New Hampshire were less than 30 years old, just one percentage point more than in the state’s primary in 2008. Thirty-one percent had less than $50,000 a year in income, compared to 32 percent in 2008. And the share of primary voters without a college degree apparently declined from 46 percent in 2008 to 40 percent on Tuesday.*
To the politics of that let me add that Hillary went to Flint, Michigan to sympathize with the poor there suffering from the abuse of a state government more concerned with money than people.  Sanders, after New Hampshire, went to Harlem to eat lunch at a famous restaurant with the Rev. Al Sharpton.  Which figure seems more concerned with the poor?

But this isn't about politics, it's about the response to politics, politics being how we do business as a national government, as a society.  At least it's part of how we do business (I use the metaphor advisedly).  The other part is how we treat each other simply as human beings in everyday life.  And the rude fact is, especially in these days where the internet is taken as the vox populi, especially by those who spend all their time on it (raises hand guiltily, points finger down toward self), there are a lot of invisible people out there.

Who speaks for them?  Who is speaking to them?  Who is noticing they aren't showing up?  Hillary went to Flint, Michigan:  that's a safe photo op.  Bernie went to Harlem, to a restaurant.  That's an even safer photo op.

When either one of them is seen among the poor, as LBJ and RFK were seen once upon a time, let me know.  We're still afraid of the poor in this country:  in our politics and in our churches.  And nothing about our national condition is going to change until we change our hearts and minds on that subject; until we pay attention to the people we keep invisible.

* and just as in Iowa, the turnout in New Hampshire for Democrats was down from 2008.  Where is that blasted revolution?  Maybe it will take something more than politics to improve things around here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Moral Man and Immoral Society

Thou hast committed fornication. 
But that was in another country and besides, the wench is dead.

--Marlowe, The Jew of Malta

When people complain, with justification mind you, that bankers were not punished for the near destruction of the world financial system, and CIA agents and private contractors were not punished for torture and inhuman treatment of captives, not to mention kidnapping disguised as "extraordinary rendition," I want to say:  Quelle surprise, huh?"

American-trained officers also directed the rape and murder of four American church women in El Salvador early in 1981. The heroic US ambassador who swore that the killers would never get away with their crime, Robert White, was fired days after Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency. Later Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that the women might have been killed in “an exchange of fire.” That was a signal to Salvadorans that the United States would help cover up the truth about such killings.

President Reagan steadfastly supported the Salvadoran military despite overwhelming evidence of its crimes. So did Haig and other senior officials in the Reagan administration. It is a parody of justice that their legacy remains honorable while triggermen who did their bidding are demonized.

Writing about one of the former Salvadoran officers now targeted by American justice, two former Reagan administration officials recently asserted, “He was there when the US needed him.” They know. One of them, Edwin Corr, was ambassador to El Salvador at the height of the killing campaign in the mid-1980s. The other, Elliott Abrams, was assistant secretary of state. Their commentary was insightful but did not go far enough.

The Salvadoran justice system has every right to prosecute Salvadoran officers who tortured and murdered during the 1980s. For the United States to feign outrage at their crimes, however, is unfair. Those officers were pawns in a game directed from Washington. True justice would target the people who conceived, blessed, and financed El Salvador’s counterinsurgency campaign. Executioners’ faces are always well hidden, but in this case, they speak English, worked in Washington during the 1980s, and remain respectable cocktail-party guests.

There is, of course, no real prospect that the American masterminds of El Salvador’s killing campaign will be brought to justice in this world. Next best would be for Americans to accept a measure of responsibility as a nation. That might lead us to pause before giving blank checks to regimes we know to be murderous.
On the other hand, at least some of the minions will be held to account.

No more cocktail parties for Col. Morales, eh?  And will the revolution include a national accounting for how we got here?  Or will that have to wait for the next revolution?

"This man's gift and that man's scope": Ash Wednesday 2016

Ash Wednesday is a good day to stop and consider that we need the community of believers, the "clouds of witness," if we are ever to have a gospel.

And that the gospel is never something we take with us away from that community.  The gospel is not something we know in our individual hearts, and which we rescue from the church, the congregation, the people, who are the corruption of it.  If anything corrupts the gospel, it is our selfish certainty that we know the truth, and that the truth has set us free; free from the need to struggle with God, to struggle in the community of faith, to humble ourselves and know God in the other.-The Desert Fathers did not flee into the wilderness to keep their holiness pure from the taint of the congregation.  They went out in humility to find the presence of God in their service.  They set themselves apart from the laity, but not above them, for they were laypersons themselves.  If the hierarchy of the Church has any advantage for us, it is to teach us to be humble before at least one other person, to recognize the spiritual authority of God in the physical presence of at least one person.  It is not an authority of control and superiority; it is an object lesson in humility and how much we truly need each other.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Big Mo

The last three presidents who didn't win New Hampshire in the primaries were Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

So in the last 24 years, New Hampshire hasn't picked the winner.

New Hampshire is supposed to be all about "retail" politics.  I heard it again today, in a news story on the radio, as the "reason" why New Hampshire has the first primary, and why that is so important.  Because you can't do that kind of politicking in Texas, and that kind of politicking matters.  Except Donald Trump held big rallies, the kind he could have held in Texas.  And tonight he won New Hampshire decisively.

As I go to sleep, Bernie Sander has a 20 point lead on Hillary Clinton, and so he is the "winner" in New Hampshire.  And yet the AP tells me Sanders gets 13 delegates tonight, and Clinton gets 15?  And people were complaining about the outcome of the Iowa caucus?

So what does "winning" in New Hampshire mean?  Big Mo?  Last guy who claimed that was George H.W. Bush.  In 1980.

In this age of super pacs, the early votes don't even winnow candidates.  What imperative is there for Jeb! to drop out anytime soon?  He's got plenty of money to spend.  So does Cruz, who was bested by Kasich.

Tell me again why we care about Dixville Notch?  Or Iowa, for that matter?

"Because I do not hope to turn...."

I'm going to pluck up a huge chunk of this because it explains why I'm not too excited about Bernie Sanders, and why I grow less excited as I hear more from him (as if that really matters to the world, right?).

Here goes:

“A lot of the Republican candidates are funded by the oil industry?” someone offered.

“Exactly,” Sanders said approvingly. “It’s not very hard to understand.”

The campaign donations don’t hurt. But is it the whole story? People—yes, including many working and middle-class people—enjoy cheap fossil fuels, even if they’re aware that it’s poor for the environment. And the oil and gas industry is a major employer: Consider the 2.7 percent unemployment rate for December in North Dakota, the postcard state for the fracking boom. If congressmen or senators representing North Dakota—or any of the other states enjoying great wealth from the presence of oil, gas, or other fossil fuels under their feet—are looking at a bill to move away from those sources of energy, their opposition isn’t entirely the product of a peek at their campaign coffers. It’s about maintaining and creating working and middle-class jobs for the people they represent, however myopically. For all the control that billionaires and corporate special interests do exert on the political system, the largest special interest is still millions and millions of people who like the securities that they do have and reject the root-and-branch changes a candidate like Sanders proposes.

As Obama’s example has shown, a candidate can promise systemic change, but if the theory for achieving it isn’t airtight—and it rarely is—the disappointment of unmet expectations can be crushing to those who allow themselves to be captivated. That appeal to caution and realism is even more central to Sanders’ chief Democratic rival now than it was Obama’s chief Democratic rival in 2008.

Let me stop right there:  the theory can be as airtight as a sealed space capsule, and it doesn't matter.  Theory doesn't change hearts and minds:  efforts and desires do.  Martin Luther King (a little appreciated leader of change, admired though he is for having "a dream") worked hard with people to practice non-violence in the face of very real and very personal violence.  As he says in his famous Letter:

We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

It may be "theory" that engaged those people; but it was their bodies, their effort, their beatings and imprisonment and endurance, that changed the hearts and minds of Americans.  I daresay it was the ugliness of the reaction to passive protesters simply walking the streets of American cities, protesters who were beaten by police, knocked to the ground by water cannons, mauled by police dogs, that began to change the hearts and minds of Americans, that made them realize just how ugly racism is; and that we long before Dr. King announced his "dream."  Frankly, you want to bring change, that's how you do it.  Not by proclaiming yourself the leader of a revolution because you are challenging for the Democratic nomination for President.  You do it by engaging in the hard work of developing followers who want to bring pressure to bear for the needed change, and then getting them to bring that pressure, from the ground up.  That's the effort King was a part of, and that Jane Meyer and Rick Perlstein have chronicled in American right wing politics, and frankly I don't see any one politician running for President who is going to effect change absent such a grass roots effort.

Just ask George McGovern.  Or, for that matter, Barack Obama.  And it's true:  the oil industry does employ A LOT of people; and many of those people don't work for multinational corporations, or the oil companies you think of when you think of "oil companies." "[T]he largest special interest is still millions and millions of people who like the securities that they do have and reject the root-and-branch changes a candidate like Sanders proposes."  How many of those millions and millions are voting in New Hampshire tomorrow, and how many more will vote in November across the country?
Hillary Clinton has limited patience for opponents who speak in terms of political sea changes. She would have hoped that Obama’s inability to bring about a paradigm shift away from gridlocked politics would resign voters to a candidate who’s only ever promised the grind. But here we are again.

Clinton accepts straightforwardly that the battle in the country is between Democrats and Republicans who believe in different things. There is no realignment coming. You cannot disappear powerful special interests, but you can manage them. The important thing is to elect a Democrat—namely, Clinton. Sanders spends little time talking about Democrats, Republicans, or even himself. He speaks in broad, start-from-scratch terms about, say, “creating an economy” that works better than the current one. Clinton speaks of building on what’s already been built over the past seven years and keeping the White House out of Republicans’ hands. Sanders’ economic history of the last 25 years is simple and straightforward: The rich and powerful have gotten richer and more powerful at the expense of everyone else. Clinton’s pitch is that the economy has either been good or bad depending on which party was in control of the presidency.

“[Bill Clinton] inherited a recession,” Clinton said at a Jan. 22 town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, to a standing-room crowd. “He inherited a quadrupling of our debt in the prior 12 years. … At the end of eight years, we had 23 million new jobs, but most importantly, incomes went up for everybody.”

“Well, unfortunately, along came George W. Bush,” she continued. Boo! “We had a balanced budget and a surplus. We had an economy that had created rising incomes. And they want back to the same old stuff: cut taxes on the wealthy, get out of the way of corporations … and you know what happened: the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

Obama had “done nothing to create the mess he inherited, but it was up to him to fix it,” she said. “And I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves.”

Ir's not exactly a Niebuhrian analysis of original sin and human societies, but Clinton is right.  Her husband wasn't the ideological figure Sanders' supporters long for, but he did more good than harm.  The ideological figure was George W. Bush (more accurately, Dick Cheney) and the people he surrounded himself with.  Andrew Jackson was quite sure of the rightness of his positions, too; but I don't know too many people who think the Trail of Tears was a triumph of single-mindedness and determination.

Which is to say, yes, I'm still an Obama guy, despite all that has happened:

Obama himself, who once envisioned entering the presidency with a mandate for broad change that would translate into a “big bang” of bipartisan legislation on health care, climate change, and financial reform, appears to have gravitated to Clinton’s view of eternal partisan struggle. “The truth is,” Obama told Politico in a recent interview, “in 2007 and 2008, sometimes my supporters and my staff, I think, got too huffy about what were legitimate questions she was raising” about his vision. Obama used to mock what he perceived to be the Clintonian focus on small-ball measures like school uniforms after their own top legislative items were stymied in 1994. Now he’d be lucky to move forward on something anywhere near as sweeping and comprehensive.

That eternal struggle is, in Niebuhrian terms, the struggle of good against evil.  But in Niebuhrian terms it is a struggle taken on with humility, recognizing that your "good" is as likely to turn evil, or even to be evil, as it is to remain purely and wholly good.  Clinton's not exactly a Niebuhr disciple, but at least she doesn't think she's bringing change that will, in itself, be an unalloyed good.  That kind of conviction the Greeks called "hubris."  Today, we usually call it "messianic."  Either way, it's a delusion about the perfection of your intentions.

To return to the analysis:

Bernie Sanders abhors those who look at politics as “stagnant.”

“There was once a time not so many years ago,” he told the students of Concord High School, “where people felt that someone, because the color of their skin was different than mine, that person should not have the right to vote. … It took a very, very long time, and a whole lot of people to say, ‘That is wrong.’ It took a change of consciousness.”

“So the first point I want to make to you,” Sanders leaned in, “and I want you to be thinking about it, is: How does change come?”
The change he's referring to didn't come through the ballot box, or even from the legislative superpowers of LBJ.  It came from the combined efforts of the Civil Rights movement and the President from Texas, who understood the power of bipartisan cooperation.

What powers Sanders and his campaign, even after Obama’s failure to move the country to a sounder political system, is a sense that what’s happening now is untenable. Both in terms of an economy killing all but the rich, and a political system of such dysfunction that its constitutional design has been called into review.

If there is a bipartisan strand of thinking that’s caught fire this cycle, it’s the idea that promises of bipartisan cooperation from the top-down are the most unrealistic promises of all. Though the two parties are so gapingly far apart on policy that they’re not even addressing the same policy questions—one party feels that climate change is the greatest threat to world peace and security today, for example; the other is either agnostic or outright hostile to its very existence—their most surprisingly successful candidates are addressing the same structural question of tenability.
Obviously I'm not a fan of top-down changes in systems.  Maybe it's because I failed at it myself, and learned the lesson that change doesn't come that way.  I like to think it's just because I'm old enough to know better.  But the comparisons of Sanders to Trump are myriad; and there's not that much difference between the appeal of Trump and Cruz, either:

Sen. Ted Cruz offers a near mirror image of Sanders’ theory of change, promising to bludgeon the establishment “Washington cartel” into submission by appealing to the vast grassroots movement he’s sought to build. Donald Trump speaks of “dealmaking,” but his vision has less to do with ushering bipartisan cooperation than with him wielding his own personal strength against the “losers” who oversee the current, broken system.

Pundits, operatives, and other in-the-know types expected more prosaic candidates like Clinton and Jeb Bush to coast to their respective nominations as voters, having witnessed what awaits a president-elect who promised an epochal shift, settled for a more realistic view of the political process. But voters have resigned themselves to a competing realism: that a greater level of political audacity is in order, because what we have right now isn’t working.
On that last sentence:  well, maybe.  We've heard from a little over 200,000 voters in Iowa so far, and there the polls were all off the mark of the results.  It's a bit premature to decide the polls have decided this election slated for November in February, so I'm more inclined to say the voters have resigned themselves to the realism that nothing is really going to change just by going to a caucus or a primary.  After all, 2500 voters turned out for the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2008, and Barack Obama, a virtually unknown black man with a funny name, garnered 940 votes.  The more familiar, and very white, Clinton and Saunders nearly evenly split less than 1400 votes between them.  I'm not seeing the "greater level of political audacity" just yet.

Still with me?  Time for the big finish:

Sanders’ proposed solution is a long shot, and it is not without its arguable premises. But the fact that he’s the one who’s most up-front about its difficulty is what gives his supporters the impression that his campaign is one worth joining. What Sanders knows, though, is that his own election or defeat in this primary cycle is a minor part in the movement he’s trying to create that needs to last for years and not just to spike during election seasons. That means insisting that people continue to think of big changes in their politics, not small ones—even if they’ve been burned before.
But you see, I don't think Sanders is up front about the difficulties at all.  He think's he's going to spark a revolution, one that will burn with or without him.  I'm not only old enough to remember the McGovern debacle (and the electoral revolution that wasn't after the passage of the 26th Amendment), but also to remember the "revolution" promised by Ross Perot (who yes, was a flake and a flameout, but without him the third party he was supposed to be starting withered away).  Bernie Sanders is a challenging opponent to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries; or he may be, depending on the outcome of the rest of the primaries; but he's not a leader of a movement.

And he's certainly not about to start a fire that won't be put out.  Winning to the White House would unleash a deluge of water on those sparks.

I realize this is my second long post on Sanders as a POTUS candidate.  I thought maybe it was just me, hanging around the "wrong" parts of the intertoobs.  Then again, maybe it isn't just me.    I am weary of the charade that politics is in this country.  It does feel like we've been anticipating New Hampshire's primary since the inauguration in 2013, and if I never hear about Dixville Notch again in this lifetime, it will be too soon.  The "tradition" of Iowa and New Hampshire being first in the nation is not a tradition, it's an aberration.  But it isn't going to change, so there's no use complaining about it.

Even though I just did.

SB's statistic, that Clinton and Sanders voted together 93% of the time when she was in the Senate, is telling.  I read a lot about what a "sellout" Clinton is, and how pure and noble of heart Sanders is; and I'd attribute that to his zealous supporters if Sanders wasn't declaring himself the vanguard of a revolution, language that is either messianic or delusional, depending on your point of view.  Political revolutions really don't have much legitimacy:  the English overthrew their King, then asked him back again; the French did the same, after suffering first the Reign of Terror.  The Russians threw off one dictator in favor of another.  The American Revolution only succeeded when the Constitution was adopted, and we're still fighting over what that "victory" really meant over 200 years later.  But a revolution that will end revolutions, that will upend the political and national culture and usher in the thousand years of peace and prosperity?

Not really in the cards, simply as a practical matter.  The Danes and the Swedes have the government they do because of their culture, not in spite of it.  We are too British to go that route, and every declaration that this time we will succeed in overturning 500 years of American history is merely the foolishness of the young who think history started shortly after they were born.  Would I like to see it happen?  Yes.  But I'd also like to be young and healthy until my dying day, and to pass painlessly and comfortably from this realm.

That's not going to happen, either.

Monday, February 08, 2016


Oh, probably:

"She borrowed it off one of the Roman soldiery in 'Hail, Caesar.' Seemed to want it for something.  Well, good-bye, all," said the assistant director.

P.G. Wodehouse, "The Juice of an Orange."*

But I'd like to think the Cohen Brothers are serious Wodehouse fans.

*Alright, you need the context:  "The Juice of an Orange" is one of Wodehouse's "Mulliner" stories, told by Mr. Mulliner to the regulars in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest.  Some of those stories reflect Wodehouse's experiences in Hollywood in the '30's (or so).  The "she" in the quote above is Hortensia Burwash, prize star of Perfecto-Zizzbaum studios, and she has gone on a rampage because she is displeased with some aspect of her newest movie.  When I read the story again the other night I got to this quote and thought, "Hmmmmmm....."  But I've found absolutely nothing so far to say it wasn't pure coincidence.  Of course, if there's a gorilla, or even an orange, in the film.....

Thursday, February 04, 2016

When in worry, when in doubt

Still wondering after all these years 

"Run in circles, scream and shout."

So here's the latest tempest in a teapot:  Union Theological Seminary needs money, and is willing to sell real estate to get it.

This has inflamed Chris Hedges who, in yet another bid to help people, has written an essay critical of UTS.  This, of course, will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, because all the people in Harlem affected by the UTS decision will flock to Truthdig to ponder Hedge's invocation of Tillich and Niebuhr and bask in how his righteous written wrath makes life just a little easier for them.

Few of them, I expect, will note how badly Hedges misuses Tillich and Niebuhr, or how much he relies on them as authorities "liberal" Protestants will listen to and be chastened by.  Because this, apparently, is where we are:  worshipping dead white men whose work is over 50 years old, and whose mere mention (name-dropping!) is sufficient to present an argument against the demons today.  Hedges reduces the author of The Irony of American History and The Nature and Destiny of Man *[sic] to a complete misreading of Moral Man and Immoral Society and takes Tillich's warning against idolatry completely out of context, all to make it easier for Hedges to have a whipping boy.


Hedges has prompted responses which defend the UTS decision, or at least examine it; but I'm a little more interested in what Hedges actually says, because he seems to imagine himself a prophet; or at least a privileged scold who can stand apart and denounce without denouncing himself:

The wisdom of Tillich and Niebuhr has been borne out in the precipitous decline of the liberal church and the seminaries and divinity schools that train religious scholars and clergy. Faced with shrinking or nonexistent endowments, mounting debts, dwindling memberships, a lack of employment for their graduates and growing irrelevancy in a society that has little use for tepid church piety and the smug arrogance that comes with it, these institutions have fallen into physical and moral decay.
So the liberal idols of Tillich and Niebuhr were the prophets warning of the decline of Jerusalem and Hedges is the Jeremiah (or at least Micah!) who points out the problem is the irrelevancy of a liberal church that practices "tepid piety" and betrays "smug arrogance."

Actually, I think the smug arrogance is his, for imagining he, too, is a liberal Protestant, but not "that kind" of liberal Protestant.  As for the decline, as Mark Hulsether  puts it, Hedges "echo[es] right-wing talking points about the dysfunctions of the Protestant left: fomenting conflicts, exaggerating weaknesses, and presenting dilemmas in the least flattering light."  Hulsether notes:

... let’s grant a steep decline for the sake of argument. Decline to what level? Hedges notes that Catholics, who still have a 21% demographic slice, are “being decimated,” yet this is seven times more people than watched the Democratic Presidential debates. That number, combined with 36 million liberal Protestants (with “growing irrelevancy”), is just a bit below the viewership for the Super Bowl.
Does Hedges, like right-wing Christian leaders, long for a return to an America that never really was?  Maybe to the church as it existed in the early 20th century, when a now UCC church in St. Louis (established before there was a UCC) was the major church of a major city, attended by politicians of the city and the state, with its own china and silver, and cooks employed full time to service all the functions of the privileged in the city.  There was no "decline" then, but neither was there any liberalism to speak of, so perhaps Mr. Hedges would brush my example aside.  Then I'd have to point to the "liberalism" of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and ask how many churches they led, how many followers they had, how much power they exerted in the world.

Or how much power Jesus had, for that matter.

When Tillich called institutions "demonic," he was warning against the idolatry of the institution, against setting it up as "God" and worshipping it as the provider of truth.  When Niebuhr pointed out that institutions are not and cannot be moral, he was opposing the idea that societies could be just without replicating Omelas, where somebody has to lose so many can win.  Niebuhr said we have to live in Omelas, but we have to do it with eyes open and hearts humble.

There isn't much humility in Mr. Hedge's outrage at what UTS has chosen to do, or with the fact that seminaries are in decline from their glory years.  Is this because Protestants are doing it wrong?  Or because change is the only constant in this life, and even the institutions of the church have to change?  Maybe there is physical and moral decay; then again, isn't there always?  Were seminaries and Protestant churches in a prelapsarian state once upon a time?  Or has it always been this way?

According to Hedges it all began in the 1930's, and it's all because liberal churches don't feel the Berne.  Whoops, wait, that's not quite right; but it might as well be:

The liberal church committed suicide when it severed itself from radicalism. Radical Christians led the abolitionist movement, were active in the Anti-Imperialist League, participated in the bloody labor wars, fought for women’s suffrage, formulated the Social Gospel—which included a huge effort to carry out prison reform and provide education to prisoners—and were engines in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Norman Thomas, a longtime leader of the Socialist Party of America, was a Presbyterian minister.
Irony alert:  the reference to Niebuhr Hedges opens his argument with, is a reference to the very work which buried the Social Gospel with a wooden cross pounded into its heart.  Matters are never as simple as writers of diatribes want them to be.

Has the "liberal church severed itself from radicalism"?  Which radicalism would that be?  According to the fundies and evangelicals, it's the replacement of atonement soteriology and "only saved through the blood of Jesus" with a more ecumenical and less soteriological emphasis (and in some cases, as in that of yours truly, rejecting the atonement/blood sacrifice soteriology altogether).  The fundies and evangelicals would find Crossan and Bruggemann and the Jesus Seminar "radical," but that isn't the radical Chris Hedges is worried about.  His radical is political; but that's precisely where his analysis founders.

His radical seeks power, the power to do good as Chris Hedges defines it.  And of course that power is the only power that should matter:

And today with most ministers wary of offending their aging and dwindling flocks—counted on to pay the clergy salary and the bills—this is even truer than when Baldwin was writing.
Today?  TODAY??!!??  What, in the mythical past congregations were happy to pay pastors to offend them, but now they're too old and small to put up with it?

Written by a man who has never held a pulpit, and never will.  Hedges only recently sought ordination in the PCUSA; I don't think he's going to be seeking a pulpit anytime soon, but if he does, I give him six months before they tire of being told how far they have fallen from the ideal Chris Hedges espouses.

Whether, like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King, Jr., he even tries to live up to it, is another matter. He cites those two luminaries, among others, as "prophets" whom we have lost.  Prophets they were; but what Mr. Hedges forgets is that the prophets did not preach from positions of comfort and ease and privilege.  Easier to condemn the church than to minister to the church and try to guide it back to the gospel you think it should follow.  Even Dr. King's challenge to the church written from the jail in Birmingham expresses more sorrow than it does anger.  Mr. Hedges model is apparently James Baldwin, "who grew up in the church and was briefly a preacher, said he abandoned the pulpit to preach the Gospel. The Gospel, he knew, was not heard most Sundays in Christian houses of worship."  True enough, I would say; but if you don't have the stones to stay in that pulpit and do the hard work of creating a relationship with a congregation so you can teach them the Gospel, so they can hear it, then don't brag about your weakness as if it gives you a privilege.

I have far more respect for the pastors who do that hard work, than for the critics who bail out and proclaim themselves superior because they couldn't do it.  No, don't do that, advises Mr. Hedges; instead, become disciples of the Chris Hedges school of social work:

What remains of the church, if it is to survive as a social and cultural force, will see clergy and congregants leave sanctuaries to work in prisons, schools, labor halls and homeless and women’s shelters, form night basketball leagues and participate in grass-roots movements such as the anti-fracking struggle and the fight to raise the minimum wage. This shift will make it hard to financially maintain the massive and largely empty church edifices, and perhaps even the seminaries, but it will keep the church real and alive. I had a dinner a few months ago with fellow teachers in the prison where I work. We discovered, to our surprise, that every one of us had seminary degrees.
Well and good, for the people who wish to do that.  The old people of the church, presumably, should go off and die, since they won't be capable of doing much of this kind of service.  And what of these people?

While self-described atheists and agnostics tend to be highly educated, 77 percent of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” haven’t finished college. Many of these people, largely white, aren’t necessarily hostile to religion; they’re simply as alienated from their local churches as they are from other institutions, including political parties and labor unions. Almost half of those who claim no religion but consider religion important earn less than $30,000 a year. 
Will they be "dis-alienated" if they work in prisons, schools, labor halls, and shelters, and participate in grassroots movements?  Maybe.  But if they aren't interested in that, is the church not interested in them?

The radical work of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King was to go to the people where they lived, and to live and struggle with them.  It isn't radical work to go to those people and tell them what they must do.  That's just replacing one imperial institution with another, and to the extent Americans are alienated from social institutions like the church, the solution is not to force them into the institution built in your own image.  And here is where the argument gets interesting, as well as wholly unaware:

The church, mirroring the liberal establishment, busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic “how-is-it-with-me” spirituality. Although the mainline church paid lip service to diversity, it never welcomed significant numbers of people of color or the marginalized into their sanctuaries. 
We are speaking of Protestantism, so "the church" is not some entity to which we belong, it is the entity we make up with our faith and presence and struggle to be congregations.  If the church "busied itself with charity, multiculturalism, and gender-identity politics, "that is simply a logical outcome of the Social Gospel Hedges praises.  It is also ordinary people doing the best they can with what they have.  The complaint of the narcissistic philosophy is true, but that's as much a result of the alienation from institutions Putnam wrote about (which Hedges cites approvingly) as it is the logical end of the Romanticism Kierkegaard recognized as the rot in the soul of Christendom.

As for churches paying lip-service to that which they never performed, that is profoundly true.  It is also because people are people,** and church is a voluntary organization (especially for Protestants), and you can't make people truly offer hospitality if they don't choose to.  Would a church be truly radical if it had no building but a prison ministry?  Or if it had a beautiful building open 24/7 to the homeless, the destitute, the immigrant (legal or "illegal"), the faithful and the faithless, the believer and the atheist, and especially everybody who didn't look, act, talk, dress, or love, the way the "members" of the church did?

One would fit Chris Hedges' paradigm; one would fit squarely in the gospel teachings about hospitality.

Which would be more radical?

*Not to mention Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Niebuhr's semi-autobiography of his days as a pastor.  Then again, that's not a book Hedges would relate his own life experiences to.

**and again, you learn quickly as a pastor that as you stand before the people and condemn them, you condemn yourself, too.  As Jesus said in a parable, it is the humble guest who is brought up to the seat of honor, and the humbled guest who is led away from the place of honor he thinks is reserved for him.