Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Letter to Men, Part One. To Strive And Not to Yield: Moral Lassitude, Collective Responsibility, and Respecting the Shadow of Corruption

We have intimacy problems. Perhaps like we have never had before. Those problems are not only a feature of our gross failures as men since the beginning of civilization but a result of incremental strides forward as women have empowered themselves and pursued both equality and equity. Not all men resent progress though the majority or near-majority of all races right now support Trump or find him tolerable. That fact points to deeper moral failure; it is a symptom of more serious shortcomings. But even those in the minority who wish to further a progressive understanding of masculinity and relationships that take gender and identity seriously need to make greater commitment. Let’s begin with the difference between equality and equity, important enough to give us a first pause.

A useful definition:

“Equality alludes to the identical apportionment where dealings, values or qualities are concerned. Equity represents fairness, or what may be termed as the equality of outcomes. This involves factoring in aspects of the system that have put particular groups at a disadvantage.” 

(Read more: Difference Between Equity and Equality | Difference Between

We are not equal by certain measures of gender distinction since we are not identically apportioned. When it comes to matters, say, of birthing or perhaps even child nurturing those apportionments are facts of nature that turn to complex questions of human evolution. Our woeful ignorance of natural selection, cognitive science, and social theory is inexcusable, like the rest of our woeful ignorance. That we should be equal under the law and in matters of economics, political franchise, and other basic human rights and social facts seems to me beyond dispute. That we are nowhere near those benchmarks is outrageous and unacceptable. “The Census Bureau calculates that the median woman in the United States makes 79 cents for every buck paid to the median man. The gap widens by race, with black women earning 60 cents and Hispanic earning 55 cents to every white man's dollar.” (Cited from Wiki, dated Mar 8, 2016).

These social facts could be remedied by law in ways that would not even require men to evolve personally, or even espouse different attitudes and views. We could force these changes upon society and may well have to. Conservative men have never willfully agreed to relinquishing any of their privilege, power, or ideological claims to superiority. We have had to force upon conservatives the changes that bring greater justice, both in terms of equality and equity. American men elect men who refuse to act on even these basic matters of inequality and inequity. Alas, we cannot ignore values when they inform actions. We need majorities to change the law even if that causes deeper division and further polarization by gender: the majority of men in America are going to be required to be forced to change. And when has that not been the case? Matters of equality clearly cannot be separated from matters of equity. Our values have not evolved and this points to certain elemental failures I mean to address here first.

Insofar as equity marks fairness, it is in this respect particularly that we need to come to further reckoning of our intimacy values and our self-reckoning. We are failing as human beings and it is reflected plainly in political facts.

I rarely have a moment of patience for conservative columnist Ross Douthat whose prudish backward religiousity makes my skin crawl. Just how men can maintain a moral stance that dictates to women is beyond me, except that it is not: the history of patriarchy and efforts to control and impose our will can never be overlooked. Who willingly gives up power? Who ever wants their authority diminished over their personal preferences? More qualified persons than myself have written about patriarchy and particularly the ways religions have devised their own insidious coercions and rationales. I am reminded that the myths, literature, and poetry can be better than the people who use them for their own purposes but that too diverges from our current discussion. How men believe they can make choices about and over women’s bodies and lives is not utterly beyond me and that is what is so deeply disconcerting. How any person can decide for another in such deeply personal and painful situations is a fundamental violation of autonomy and freedom.

We are not perfectly free. Never as human beings are we beyond the paradoxes and impossibilities that stake out our best ideals. We cannot be free without boundaries and constraints. We want to be both safe and unbound and that involves mutual contradictions that require sophisticated choices. All human decisions happen under circumstances and constraints that are natural, social, and personal. Americans cherish the individual over the group or the State and yet we cannot live any kind of moral life without choosing to govern and be governed by terms that limit our individuality. We live in relationships that place our every choice in contexts of power and authority.

Until we address the relationship between power and authority more directly we’ll lack the tools to understand ourselves more deeply ---and this is no small topic in either form or gravitas. Again, a subject to which we must return. But men are particularly culpable here because we have had the power and what we fear is losing it. “Fear is a mind killer,” Herbert wrote, but it is not merely controlling fear that is crucial to our integration but bringing it into a deeper conversation as the shadow form of courage. We will not have the courage to change and evolve ourselves until we bring fear more resolutely into our conversations as a companion and ally, not merely an adversary. Shadow comes with light but we men, we love to deny the shadow and so burn rather an illumine the soul.

I reference Douthat however to make another point. In today’s New York Times (17 January, 2018) he references extensive surveys and an article by Ron Brownstein for The Atlantic. Douthat observes, “Relative to where American politics stood before his rise, Trump’s campaign polarized America more by class and gender than it did by race. And then, by jettisoning much of the populist economic agenda he campaigned on, Trump’s actual presidency has made class less important and gender more essential to understanding how Americans divide.” He goes on, “But if you’re looking at what Trump has directly changed…it’s with the large female backlash that may be poised to swamp the male backlash that helped make him president.”

And here is where I find myself in reluctant agreement with Douthat ---reluctant not because I take issue with his claim but because despite his reductionism, I think he is correct: “But there is strong evidence that our problems with sex and gender and male-female relations are worsening — which is why it’s understandable that they’re at the heart of how the country has reacted to the Trump presidency, and fitting that this year of public protests and intimate revelations have thrown them into sharp relief.” The current women’s movement is far more complex and nuanced than Douthat contends and that fact demands more equitable and thorough responses. But let us, for the moment, agree that Americans and particularly American men ---no, let us say, just men are in a worsening state regarding their identity and relationships with women.

I would regard myself a man of many foibles and faults, complexities and failures with respect to life and human intimacies. I would also, without attempting apology or excuse, suggest that being a student of literature and criticism, religions and philosophies has brought special attention to certain issues of masculine intimacy. To wit, I have a few opinions about our problems and a few suggestions about what we need to do. Say what we might about the puerile mockery that comes with drumming circles and tearful confessionals, I think Robert Bly has over these past decades done us a serious solid. Every American man should, I think, make a careful study of his Iron John, The Sibling Society, and his Small Book on the Human Shadow. And more importantly, we should not undertake that task without first understanding that the content and concepts of these works highlight more fundamental problems. Let me make this a twofold issue. First, one of individual moral responsibility and choice, and second, one of our collective failure and need.

Men have not learned how to evolve much inner conversation, the real and deeper conversation they need to have with themselves. This conversation must not only look at personal history but it must also take history and sociology seriously, it must take matters of psychology and mythos to heart, it must evolve in ways that dedicate life to a kind of serious personal literacy, enquiry, and self-education. We are ignorant of ourselves, ill informed about nearly every serious subject, and unwilling to do the necessary work of auto-didacticism. We don’t read, don’t take time to contemplate and think, and we estrange our feelings and emotions because we have not created the required resources to develop any serious inner conversation. We cannot hope to become better human beings unless we commit to the content of our humanity as individuals with histories and needs. The constraints of modern life ---time, capitalism, and our willful anti-intellectualism--- are all part of the rationale we make not to work on ourselves. Garbage in, garbage out. We will not have much to work with if we don’t do any work. (Truth to tell, I think I can help with this. I’m not much for carpentry but I know a thing or two about books, ideas, and learning to learn.)

So our first major issue, I submit, is our individual moral lassitude. We will have to go to real lengths in this age of distractions and endless labor to make these efforts to learn more about what history, literature, and art can teach us. We are going to have to make time to think and feel, to register these ideas and our learning by integrating into our own personal stories. We are going to have to learn to write our own story and live with that. When we fail the humanities, we are sure to fail as human beings.

Most of us have never been taught to learn or to think; most of us have had debilitating, enfeebled education, and that means we don’t even know what we are missing because we never acquired much skill or pleasure from “book learning.” It’s not just a matter of poor schooling. Lincoln became himself by little more than his own temerity and without any encouragements from men in his childhood. He was depressed, beleaguered, and suffered but he made the effort to consider who he wanted to be by sheer dedication to self. And more pointedly, he took seriously words and ideas when others rejected his interests. In this age in which nearly all the resources of learning are available for free (it requires little in the way of privilege to access), our inaction and weakness reflects personal commitment that has never been properly kindled or inspired. We don’t do the work for ourselves because we have not been taught by those who have, and too few are willing to teach.

Somewhere between apathy and exhaustion we find every reason not to do for ourselves what would make us better. Better for ourselves and in the vital relationships that are demanded of us as human beings. Scolding like this may not help but it sure can’t hurt. The failure lies not only individuals but in groups, in our collective and how we act collectively. I call this enervation and ineptitude a “moral” failure for at least two reasons.

First, we will require extraordinary efforts. By this I mean extra, more than we are easily willing to admit or to do. We are going to have to make time and make commitments to ourselves. In Sanskrit we call this vrata and I’ll have more to say about that another time. Suffice it is rich and helpful but the core of it is that we are failing at a self-obligation because we are failing others by failing ourselves.

Second, the work is not going to be easy or necessarily fun, and in fact will likely be painful, tedious, and require industry that we’d rather forsake. There is not likely going to be a monetary payoff anymore than there is going to be less ardor as the work goes forward. It’s going to be hard and get harder. And--- you’re not going to like this either--- our proclivity to be doers over thinkers and feelers is going to also get in the way. My second point is that learning to learn and doing the work is going to feel a lot like an unwanted, sometimes hopeless task that’s going to make us feel stupid even as it threatens to bore us to death.

Tough luck, that’s part of the reason it’s a moral sensibility: it requires doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because the bottom line might bring some pleasure or success. Now it’s not all just walking barefoot on Legos ™ for forty-one days in a jungle that is trying to kill you--- though I’d be happy to do that with you too. I’m not even kidding. It’s that as it goes faster and becomes more do-able, the work needs to go deeper and gets harder still. The reason why men have done so little work doesn’t reduce to this point but these disincentives are surely an important moral obstacle. We must face our moral obstacles and decide who we want to be. But to do even a little of that we must see our first level of obstacle as moral. We have to want to do good by becoming better. That’s a lot to ask and what you want may not be what you become but without that desire, well, you’re nothing.

Given these facts, we can’t count on much progress because most will not sign up for the work, much less do it. It’s unsafe and un-fun because we would have to change (a lot) and we’d have to think and feel with the same ardor that we seem to willing to do when things are easy and pleasurable. Katha Upanishad admonishes us not to mistake the good for the pleasurable and however we know that to be true, we have to commit to the deeds that make the difference and the distinction real. What we lack in mentors and leadership, which we so desperately need, we could possibly compensate some with if we were willing to make, as Bly suggested, a collective effort. Nothing quite motivates men to act like the competitions and coercions of other men. How to learn to learn from one another without allowing those challenges to devolve into anger, jealousy, and greed is another matter for our serious consideration.

There is nothing inherently wrong with competition ---there is nothing more natural about nature--- and when it is coupled to the paradox of cooperation we come closer to how we can both survive and flourish. We need a moral commitment to both so that we can act in collectives. Men need to check in on and check other men. Leadership needs to guide with competence and compassion but our strength will at last depend on our willingness to participate in ways that create more permeable and willing boundaries. We need more giving up to get, not loss of autonomy or personal choice as we manipulate ourselves to believe, but with a greater sense of compromise to advace the better angels of corruption. Let me explain that idea a bit further.

Men lock themselves up in certainty, conviction, and habituation. The older we get the harder it is to listen, to doubt, and to change. But to learn we must develop these resources and that means that we will have to move off our marks, sometimes compromise our most cherished or guarded convictions. 

Lincoln gives a good example here of what I mean. We can say honestly that he corrupted his personal convictions when he refused to side unequivocally with the cause and actions of the Abolitionists. He knew he was doing as much; he knew this was a serious moral failing on his part.  He accepted that failing and took to heart the shadow that came with his choice.  He suffered for it and will be ridiculed for it.  But what he did was important: he chose his shadow by reflecting seriously on power, authority, and moral failure.  He burned and he was illumined by this shadow, which entailed a reckoning with corruption.  He did it because, as McPherson and others have demonstrated, he made a political calculation that were he not more incremental and willing to corrupt his personal views then the politics around him would have left us far worse off. To wit, the end of slavery might never have happened had he lost the election on the basis of his uncompromised convictions, or it may have gone on another hundred years. But the argument is that he knew he corrupted himself but did it for a purpose deemed worthy, a more calculated but less justifiable morality. The same can be said of the story of Yudhisthira the Prince and Arjuna on the battlefield that is the Bhagavadgita. But the point is the same: To change we must admit some form of moral corruption but not fail the tests of moral lassitude or lose our moral conviction. We will need real learning and contemplation to know the differences here that can make all the difference.

So let me summarize this, our initial missive:
First, men must commit to themselves as individuals, as persons by recognizing their own desperate need for self-education and improvement. We are failures of personal character and this is moral failure because there are no amoral choices in life. Not to choose or to commit is to lapse. When those failures manifest in power then we get the likes of Cheney, Weinstein, and Trump. We torture, we abuse, and we fail in every way to create decency, integrity, and clarity of purpose. The process of change is going to be hard and that can’t be said too infrequently.

Truth is, I am not sanguine that our necessary project will trickle down or become in any way “popular.” If that were the case then the hard lessons of Mahabharata, Iliad, the poets and critics like Bly, Hitchens, and McCarthy would be our true guides. Instead the majority of men are deciding for Trump. We need to understand why that is true. To be reductive, it is true because are failing ourselves, we are not doing the work either as individuals or in the necessary collectives of conversation

What else would we be doing? We would be listening and reading women’s works to understand better our need to learn; we’d take these matters to heart and, honestly, that seems unlikely. Most would rather watch the game, ignore the issues, or vent their complaints by electing the worst manifestation of their shameless ID in the form of Trump. What it will take to evolve is going to be up to you because you’re not going to get much help from the majority of other men. Remember Thomas Lincoln had no use for Abe’s idle reading and talk. Who do you want to be will require courage because that is the prerequisite to virtue. We will not become good or better without that courage to engage. We will be few but that can make a difference even if it fails to make all the difference.

Second, we need to do this work fwith leadership and in collectives. It’s time to look each other in the eye and work on the material we need to learn together. We need a vast canon of conversation and we’re going to need more emotional intelligence to deal with one another. Bly long ago now lamented the lack of leadership and our unwillingness to act in collectives. We need ways to engage the shadow of our corruption and become better for it.  We cannot do this without acting together to understand these choices and experiences of success and failure.  No matter what you do for yourself and by yourself, that will not be enough. We need each other to compel the better angels.  

The poets are critical, so let’s for now end with one. Take this bit to heart and see what happens. This is not a process that brings immediate results nor can we expect enlightenment or breakthrough as much as the slow, often painful recognition of little by little, again and again. Tennyson is underestimated and while he may suffer from all sorts of shortcoming, the message here should not be forgotten:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

---Ulysses, lines 65-70

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Few Words about Dr. King and Donald Trump: A Reckoning with America's Light and Shadow

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In celebration of Dr. King today it strikes me as particularly important to begin with the truth. We need a reckoning with truth itself and, as I see it, we are both succeeding and failing in our aspirations. With Trump the truth itself is under siege. What he deems “fake” is true and his alternative narratives, the ”alternative truth”--- better known by it’s real name, "lying"--- holds nearly half the population in its throes. The very structures of democracy depend on credibility and trust as we contend for meaning. However we have contested in the past for policy and ideology, we today contest for the facts and for the integrity that is necessary to sustain even a semblance of decency. Truth will only fail us if we fail to tell the truth.

We must ask ourselves who we want to be by examining who we really are, who we have been, what we could become. Only by facing the truths of history will we find the better angels of our nature. We have never been wholly truthful or honest with ourselves as a nation and so have yet to enter this conversation as seriously as we might. Now is a particularly good time because Trump is everything about America that we know we have been and the very form of all we must not be or become.

So let us be plain: we have before us in Trump--- this vile, corrupt racist and incompetent narcissist---an example of all that America must never _truly_ become, the very rejection of our ideals, a person who fails even the most elementary tests of decency. In Dr. King's teaching and in his memory we can create an alternative that speaks to an America that we might become, one that is more honest, decent, and true to its impossible propositions. In Dr King we have a chance to ask ourselves about both our failures and our hopes. We can learn about an America that has in its shadow a more vivid possibility for understanding our true identity and our possibilities. That true identity includes the institutions and structures of systemic white supremacy that are as real as our most cherished and valued propositions of equality. We have failed to take our shadow seriously and today, on Dr. King's birthday, I think we have yet another opportunity to reflect. Everyday could be a "new birth of freedom" if we choose King over Trump.

Let us begin with Charles Blow who offers us a useful definition: "Racism is simply the belief that race is an inherent and determining factor in a person’s or a people’s character and capabilities, rendering some inferior and others superior." Trump is racist. Period. This is what Blow and all of us recognize to be a fact. There is no alternative fact or plausible interpretation of his words or behaviors.

Our American racism is built not only on a history that includes the institution of slavery as lawful but on the value of white supremacy as its foundational basis. The history of our politics is the history of these facts, Trump's facts. Trump is a white supremacist, racist as the day is long and the night longer still. This implicit claim to white supremacy is as _fundamental_ to the origins of America as the immortal words of our self-evident truths and ideals. This is America’s shadow truth that follows its light.

To be clear:
White supremacy values, which appear plainly in the American Constitution as law, in the correction of the 13th Amendment, in the entire history of our inequality under the law, are the great shadow truth of America. Lincoln, Kennedy, Johnson, Obama, and King particularly give voice to _both_ the light and the shadow that forms us. They all knew that the words of the Declaration are but half our story, the light of impossible but beautiful declarations of human possibility. We are _not_ ALL light, not in politics, not in spirit, or in any honest assessment of human reality. We are humans seeking a more perfect union with our better selves only when we are willing to see the shadow that follows along with the light.

Trump makes it plain that we are failing and that his very presence in the office of the Presidency is a reminder of our failure. That failure is both political and moral, it is factual and deeply embedded in our national character and in our individual experiences. We speak as if there is only the light of freedom to which we must aspire, but the truth cuts more deeply. To understand America is to see those higher aspirations in the burning light of the truth of our pain, our failure, our shadow that is so vividly presented in the person and in the presidency of Trump.

There will be no American greatness until we embrace both the shadow and the light of our deepest truths. Jefferson the slave owner put into words our light, our most precious ideals, as did the incrementalist and flawed presidency and person of Lincoln. Today we celebrate Dr. King, himself a complex person of great light and real shadow. We know he had his own demons and personal failures. Are any of us exempt? Had he lived I believe he would have had the opportunity to confront these facts of self and politics with even greater honesty.

But what King brings so vividly to our Amercian story and to our spiritual hearts is the acknowledgement that our shadow is just as real as the light that burns brightly. King understood that our founding was not only rooted in uplifting aspirations of the Declaration but in the facts of the Constitution that reveals our deeply flawed American character.

As a nation have not prepared ourselves to do that work, we show little interest in engaging our great task. We argue with and about Trumpism but what we are seeing is a citizenry unprepared and largely unwilling to contend with the contradictions of our history.

In Trump we have a tragic opportunity: he is that darkness of our shadow. Today we celebrate King as the light that can look into that shadow. Dr King gave us an alternative, a land of hopes and dreams that will not forsake the immortal words, even if they were composed by a slave owner, ensconced in our flawed immorality. He taught us, and invited us to look into our souls and to see the darkness as clearly as the light, to examine and contend with the shadow of America so that we might yet create a vision of the shining castle on the hill. It is a day to celebrate King's possibilities and to refute just as plainly the falsity and corruption that is Trumpism, America's latest failure of its greatest promise.

Monday, December 25, 2017

“Religion” We Can Live With: An Essay on Belief and the Impossible

I was born to believe and I’ve spent my life trying that on. It’s not for lack of trying but I’m a believer in nothing supernatural. And I’d rather not quibble over what “supernatural” means either. I won’t substitute either a belief in humans or some claim to the goodness of humanity. What’s important about belief is that we need it, like the air we breathe, just to do the next thing, however ordinary or sublime. Belief is the task of reckoning with what comes next. Belief is how we address the possible, for better and worse.

Now, if there is anything left of “belief” by the time I am done with this, it will be that belief needs strange company to do its job, to perform the tasks of making do. That companion is religion, which when I am done with that, will be nothing more than reckoning with the impossible.

As a religion professor I think about what “religion” means all the time. I cringe just to say that about myself, or even confess to my chosen profession. I’m often embarrassed to say that I am a University Professor of Religion. Truth is, religion and the professing part chose me and I’m usually none too happy about either of those things. When we are really lucky in life we not only do the thing we need to do, we find a way to make a living doing it.

I used to defend religion as a subject, the one that can be our catch-all for all that is culture--- the place to study art and music, history and language, the refuge for a humanist who wants all that philosophy, politics, and human reflection can create. Add into the mix the irrational, the indirect, the mythic, poetic, and the pageantry of ritual, consider how the truths of feeling write over reason at every turn, and there you have it, a subject to embrace for its humanist possibilities. I still make that argument when I need either to defend my place in a humanities curriculum or console myself for a lifetime of choices. But nearly all of that is apologetics, self-consolation, mere rationalization. Religions deserve no excuse, certainly warrant no privilege or exemption, and still we must study them.

No sane person can dismiss religion’s role in oppression and horror and, more occasionally, in altruism and beauty. And given the fact that nearly everything about religious belief that is not art and imagination invites charlatanism, absents seriousness, and calls upon stupidity, we are all left wondering how to collect ourselves, where to put the stories that endure past the individual memories that possess them. We can say we are socialized with religions but that is something we can study too. We need nothing from religions to be moral, however much we need to learn how to be moral to be human. We long for irrefragable values or principles to guide us, but however we take a stand for more enduring truths, our most noble confessions serve us better as ideals and beacons. It is the power of questions over answers that will occasionally save religion from itself.

Let me pose the matter in more candid, even less romantic terms. If we can make religion a question, I would make it this: how can humans create more than cruelties of self-interest? Religion may offer ideas, even examples, but humans prefer to reject the tawdry facts of power and the criticism that must follow from honest questions. We instead prefer to look for immaculate answers and tell ourselves there is a plan, a mystery, an anything to console the pain or justify the unjustifiable. We must find room to celebrate and illumine hope because without those things, well, we know what will happen without those things. Life needs to celebrate life, not merely endure its tragedies.

It’s taken me nearly a whole life--- and my entire professional life--- to realize ‘religion’ is not my favored subject, at least not “religion” by any conventional definition and all of the historical unraveling of the strange human phenomena it features. My subject preferred subject is our humanity, with a special turn towards thinking about the impossible. For just one moment, maybe even just here, I want “religion” to mean the entirely human pursuit of holding the world together. We do this with words and art, with ideas, values, with the collective power of institutions, the unconscious, and the longing for life and liberty. We want a world that holds together, and if that is the meaning of “religion” then we’re on firm ground. That definition would take us back to the etymology of the word “religion” itself but we need not digress there.

This holding the world together is something we do all the time; something we need to do no matter how we acknowledge it or pursuit it unwittingly. That historical religions have been dishonest in offering serious answers about ‘holding together the world’ is a feature of power, not an absence of human imagination. There is phrase in the Gita that makes this idea I am calling “religion” plain; it’s actually a simple compound in Sanskrit, lokasamgraha. Literally it means “grasp together the world.”

“Holding the world together” is what Krishna says when he is asked why he acts at all. Yeats knew too the fact we all know: the center cannot hold. The Buddhists made it the very feat of liberation to release into that void, claiming there was never a need to hold on to anything at all. But no matter who we ask, we all know that we cannot hold the center, and neither can anything else. So I add here: not God or Buddha, certainly no self-proclaimed or, far worse, declared to be saint. Our more human task is the impossible, and that is something I can embrace, something I can believe in.

I can love the impossible not because it is someone or anything that can solve our problem or answer my question. Not because Krishna will save the day any better than anyone else. I can love the futility and abhor the hypocrisy of “love thy neighbor,” “may all men [sic] be created equal,” that we are “dedicated to a proposition,” you name it: a thing of beauty is a joy forever. The list goes on, doesn’t it?

I can love the impossible because I can also reject the implausible ---may that I walk on water, find the god to save me, be freed from suffering and all beings be happy. If that can’t happen then I can go about the more dangerous business of admitting to the terms of a shared humanity. We aspire to what cannot be and are better for it, or we can be better for it if that is what we aspire to be.

We can seek a humanity that knows love is always imperfect, knowledge always provisional, life’s conditions permit only human achievements and certain failures. I can’t achieve anything impossible, but I can believe in impossible things like freedom, life, the majesty of imagination, and the consolations of human touch. Our human arc towards the impossible sometimes touches greatness but that greatness fails to be perfect, or just fails, does not dishearten me. To love the impossible tells us we can be more than our cruel self-interest, however flawed we might be for the trying, however the center does not hold. We are not going to be free when we know that and nothing special is going to happen; we gain no privilege when we create impossible beliefs, but we might gain a few reasons to love life. We are going to have to try, no matter what, until we can no longer. When we give up on the impossible that serves self-delusion and cruelty, the impossible that is left is worth our hope and every effort.

Religion has created all the worst impossibilities and yet features the impossible as its most important claim. To study the impossible is to ask what is worth living for and how we might hold this world together when we know that will not last. To study those impossibilities is to examine human folly in the midst of great creativity, aspiration, from inside a heart aspiring to decency and goodness. People have always used religion to hold their center, which is another way of saying that whatever we use to hold our center is our religion. However that may be too loaded, too uncomfortable a definition because of all the things religion already is. But we can still say the impossible matters in human life. I revel in the impossible task that claims this being born human is a wonder and a chance to savor what is possible by seeking what rages and burns, what soothes and consoles, all that engages and inspires us to revel in the impossible.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Moving Aside and Moving Forward: The Rot vs. The Circular Firing Squad

Today's one screed is brought to you by multiple editorials in the WaPo, NYT, etc., all inspired by Righties embarrassed but not enough by being Republicans. They are still wrong. The Left, meh. Not a winner. You needn't read further if you just came for the 411.

As a kid I thought the best version of the Star Spangled Banner was Hendrix, the best version of a politician was Bobby Kennedy and Shirley Chisholm, that a judge should think like Thurgood Marshall, and then much later than that Presidents could look like Barack Obama. Everything, and I mean everything, that those leaders thought should be the future is under threat, being rolled back, or destroyed.

As soon as we stereotype we lose the difference between a likely demographic, which has documentable features that can point to expected patterns of behavior, and incipient bigotries, blanket condemnations. I submit that the Left is just as likely to fail to make this distinction as the Right. Substitute the stereotype for the demographic and there's any easy choice that is, in truth, not going to prove helpful. (Let's use "Left" and "Right" rather loosely enough, okay?)

On the Left there are substantive differences in viewpoints and policies. Or are there? There are certainly other kinds of real difference in terms of age, culture, ethnicity, etc. There are substantive differences no matter what leadership thinks or what people want. The Left is likely to shoot its dissenters. On the Right there is in both substance and fact no important differences--- I will return to this point. The Right in America is white, older, and almost all members of the same religion (or that weird other thing that makes evangelicals put Israeli flags next to their Confederate flags--- I have -seen- this where I live.)

But first, Lefties might have some spectrum of economics and different priorities based on ideological, even ethical views. For example, on the death penalty or 2nd Amendment rights, people inclined to vote for the Left may have substantive differences. Lefty leadership might want to think twice or more about imposing litmus and purity tests or it can be happy to stay in the powerless wilderness with their principles intact. I am not sanguine about any Left leadership. I am an anachronism. Bobby, Thurgood, and Hendrix are dead. Obama can't help us because the Right had an effective plan to render him largely ineffective. They succeeded, for the most part, because he failed to rally the Left and the Left failed to make its case. Left leadership coming up the ranks seems to me, well, just as lost but I am willing to concede any role to them. Let them try. Personally, I'm on to do the last 15 years of my own work.

Much of the criticism of the Right about Lefties silencing and censorship, purity tests and branding whole groups as enemies has at least some merit. What they say about academia may be exaggerated, often silly, but it is not entirely wrong. I work there and there's plenty of ideological loyalty standards for someone to be in or out. It's not a friendly place unless you're on one and the same bus. Righties are, however, far, far worse hypocrites. I choose the lesser of two weevils.

When David Brooks, Scarborough, Gerson, Rubin, Wehner, along with Flake and Corker and Collins lament the fate of the Republican Party's turn to Trumpism, they all fail to acknowledge their complicity and hypocrisy. They did this. They cheered the Tea Party and the white nationalists until it just got to be too ugly. If the faces of those fanatics were just slightly less ugly, they would still be cheering. The real issue is that they are not _substantively_ different. All Alabama had to do was put up one of their candidates ---whose Senate votes would be just as regressive, driven by oligarchs, and proven failed policies-- and they would have won in a landslide. There is no _effective_ difference between Roy Moore and Luther Strange and Mitch McConnell and the rest of them know this.

Right policies are anachronistic, failed (think e.g., trickledown), and worst of all willingly and shamelessly imposed on the majority. They are also racist and sexist and that will eventually hurt them more than it does now. They have created non-majoritarian rule, not governance based on compromise, and there is nothing about any revision to the Republican Party that will change that. How many pro-choice Republicans are there?

In contrast there actually are on the Left views about abortion that offer some shades of difference. Interestingly, the Left is more libertarian than the Right, move live and let live. Or is it? But that's another argument. I'm not trying to argue a position here, I'm merely pointing out that Republican/Right _rot_ is entire, that there is nothing _at all_ about the Right that allows the rest of us, the majority, any room. The question is: will the Left make room for difference, the difference it claims to represent?

The issue I see is twofold. Democrats are the only hope for the republic's _survival_ since Republicans seek the End Times. Lefties who fail to acknowledge how the system works will, as usual, fail. Will they lead with shades of ideological difference? A real inclusive that means a "middle"? This means the Left has to find room for more points of view _or_ it can just become the Not The Right party. Divided we stand? That could work for now. I think the Right might force this position and they will still lose because they are extremists and the majority knows this.

But for Democrats to win and be _for_ something, they are going to have to take that big tent of their coalitions and try to avoid the circular firing squad routine. So far, they have not shown me they can do that. So I am not yet for Democrats, I am just wholly opposed to Republicans. That might be enough to get me through the bonus period of life. The future is up for grabs.

Friday, December 1, 2017

It's About the Feeling of "Us"

As the facts roll out about the impact of the tax bill we, the rational doing the math and, dare I say, secular wonder how is it that Trump voters swallow this toxic swill. Let's assume for a moment that they believed his populist backlash message: that elites had failed to deliver and that the vast swath of white working class America that has fallen hopelessly behind the curve of education, jobs, health, and well-being would get relief. Let's also believe that HRC represented all of that elitism, topped off with Obama's fast-paced social changes, like marriage equality and DACA. Hmmm, we're getting closer to their populism but now that is failing them too. This bill is nothing like the populist promises, so why still support him?

Now that the plutocratic shift of wealth from the lower and middle classes is on the verge of passing the Senate, a wishlist conforming to Ryan's Ayn Randism and McConnell's Kochism, let's assume too that Trump voters recognize this for what it is. Let's also assume that they understand this is _not_ the populism of jobs and economics that will in fact benefit them and is not what Trump ran on. Has Trump turned their backs on them? Why of course he has but from our point of view this is because Trump has no policies or convictions, he has only the desire for self approval. His malignant narcissism coupled with intellectual inadequacies and moral vacuity seem self-evident to us. But the Republicans in Washington know this too. They know he is sick and incompetent but they don't care. They want a tax bill and the culture wars that push back in the courts against women, minorities, religion, and the rest. Norquist was right: Ryan/McConnell really are happy with _anyone__ who will simply sign their tax giveaway, at any cost, no matter _who_ that person is, how inept or corrupt. The rest of the culture war is a distant second to the money but it's there too. And on this second point Trump is with them, just think Gorsuch.

So the question remains why is Trump still solid with his base when the polls tell us that the Republican tax bill is not popular? There are two immediate things that come to mind and neither of them has to do with the math.

First, Republicans evince a strong need for authoritarianism. This explains their religious preferences and claims, their confirmation biases, and the ways they look to God the Father to be safe, right, and in charge. In Trump they have a dissimulation of that need and a preference met. He may be an inept, erratic narcissist but they will assert he is crazy like a fox, that he _really_ knows, and that the rest is facade or mystery. Just like their, umm, mysterious God who is charge of the weather, consoles horror, and has a plan for the victims of the next mass shooting. It's all in God's gracious hands. So most of all he is Papa Bear, and Republicans love their patriarchy because their religion reflects their deep need for authority and security. The world is chaos, evil, filled with villains and warrants more guns but we also need a God in charge who will cut through all and any of it "to tell it like it is." If they need strongly redolent authority why not go for a whiff of cool Obama, who after all epitomizes, at least for many of us, the calm, sober, not always right but always measured authority. This leads us to the second point.

Republicans who do not fancy themselves _very_ religious or racist--- think of exurb, suburb types in your family--- believe they have _earned_ their way in the capitalist system. Obama did not, he's a phony, got a boost, didn't really serve his time, and advanced by privileges given, not earned--- this is not far from the surface of their feelings. No arguments about structural or systemic disadvantage, like racism, patriarchy, or their own privilege cuts through the idea that they got theirs by their own hard work. Now we can re-invoke the power of tribalism, which of course is redolent with racism and privilege no matter how much one denies it. It's got two sides, first, "we" need to "protect" what "we earned" and "they" want it and "are coming" for it.
Build a wall, get your guns, put up blue-lined American flags, and make sure that those rich athletes "respect" the system that pays them so well. It just so happens that those "takers" are brown, it's not racism, right?

Second, "they" are getting undo, unearned privileges (like wedding cakes, welfare, immigrant status, etc.) that "they" don't deserve because they didn't "earn" it "like we did." Their interest is _to protect_ what's "mine" and to see "them" not as "takers." The Romneyn/Rya's takers/makers came through abundantly, clearly, and without "political correctness" in Trump. It's ugly, structurally racist and privileged but that neither matters to them nor will it penetrate their fear, their need for acknowledged worth ("we earned it..."), or their sense of "mine." Get off my lawn has become if "you" come on my lawn I will shoot you.

None of this is a long a step from a family relative, friend, or acquaintance that doesn't think she or he is racist or paranoid because they look out at America and nearly everything about it is deeply unfamiliar: fast technologies (older and undereducated people hate this), more diverse (the neighborhood isn't "safe" because it's not like me), and their jobs are obsolete, everything is _more_ complicated and that's now government's fault. If they are relatively well off, well, that is under threat because government is for everyone but "us." If all of these things would just be simpler or go away, everything would "go back" to "normal." That 99% of these folks are white, likely more religious (or authoritarian) than the rest of us, and don't live in diverse places tells them nothing about themselves no matter how much it tells us.

Authoritarianism and Tribalism can't survive without racism, sexism, and structural privilege but these feelings of disenfranchisement and cultural change also create a kind of plausible deniability of those facts. Think of how uber-religious conservatives like Ross Douthat of the Times argues that he doesn't believe Trump voters are principally racist. The argument we just made describes this mentality. Ross loves the Church of Big Hats telling women what to do with their bodies and promising morality and an afterlife. Let's leave the patriarchy, pedophilia, and manipulation out of it for a moment. It's about feeling safe in an unsafe world and this is how people cope and console themselves. But now we are at true turning point, politically and morally.

It doesn't matter how these authoritarian and tribal needs translate into this Trumpian populism. Trump is shamelessly, blatantly racist and unrepentantly guilty of sexual assault. To continue in any way to support him for _any_ reason is to be wholly complicit in these worst failures of human character. It is to be part of the worst arcs of history and failures of humanity. Does supporting a racist and abuser make you one? Are Trump's voters who insist this is not racism racists? At this point and at best it makes them complicit, it diminishes character, and puts them in the worst company ---and in all of those ways, one becomes part of the problem socially and culturally just as one's own character and integrity is fundamentally failing the tests of decency. Whether they acknowledge their racism and sexism, they are part of it and are morally culpable for complicity.

Trump voters will not give up on him though they are failing these simple tests of human association because they want what they want _more_ than their character. For the rich, that's more wealth, the kleptocracy; for the rest of them, it's culture wars by any other name over their own financial interests. For our part it is important not to underestimate the power of culture over people's choices and how self-affirming the tribe is when one's character is called into question. Ask the voters of Alabama. America the Tribal explains more than dollars or sense. Our tribe is not theirs because our needs and our hopes are not the same.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Our Darkest Demons and the Better Angels of Our Nature

When Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, the very foundations of country, both its hypocrisies and ideals, were being measured in blood, in the face of the continuance of the morally inexcusable subjugation of people treated as chattel, in a test that was not only for the immediate political future but for the generations to come.

By his Second Inaugural the flawed President was finally able to say that the war had always been about slavery. And in its aftermath, with that institution finally ended, the real work would begin. President Obama represented _some_ kind of evidence of that work. In fact, his Presidency, I would contend, was more than enough to reveal the true character of America. In Trump and Roy Moore, in a wholly complicit Republican Party we see right before our eyes the abject failure of the nation 152 years after our _first_ civil war.

Over the past few days, if it hadn't been clear before, with his race-baiting and religious bigotry on full display, Trump has made the shameless values of the Confederacy and the deep, tawdry underbelly of America's failure plain for all to see. Do we need recount what he said to Navajo code talkers beneath a portrait of Andrew "trail of tears" Jackson? Do we need repeat his tweets of a far right party in Britain espousing religious bigotry? Columns down in The Times and Washington Post because the news about our next horror floats to the top we also read of the quiet and calm now descending in Senate chambers as Republicans prepare to pass a tax cut that will at last pay back their oligarch masters and insure a future in which the poor and the middle class will pay their bills. Complicity accompanies Trump's intellectual incompetence, moral depravity, and sociopathic mental illness. Some 80% of Republican voters are _still_ prepared to support them all, no matter what the poll numbers may be on specific issues.

So let's put this plainly, and again in Mr Lincoln's own words. Because this truth could not be more self-evident. And we must be clear: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Our second civil war is upon us. The outrage has yet to take to the streets as we saw in the 60s but the crimes being committed by Republicans are as blatant, as barefaced, as utterly brazen as any committed against the thin moral fabric of this nation. We must be more than appalled and ashamed of what is before us. We must turn the political process around: those calling for "tolerance" of these white supremacist bigots--- because they are our neighbors and our families--- must ask themselves when tolerance is appeasement and tacit complicity.

Trump has the perfect ally in soon to be Senator Roy Moore. Will the voters of Alabama send a different message? Don't count on it. On Wednesday Moore told churchgoers in Alabama that the LGBT community is source of the sexual misconduct allegations against him. That's right, "good Christians" in church. In a speech described as "sermon-like" delivered from the pulpit of the Magnolia Springs Baptist Church, Moore told supporters that the “conspiracy” against him was concocted by “liberals, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, and socialists.” “They’re the Washington establishment... who don’t want to lose their power,” he said.

Moore's shameless bigotry mirrors Trump and, of course, warrants no comment from Republicans busy at the pig trough of their oligarch donors to pass their tax bill. Word has it that a few Democrats may vote "yes." But what you are hearing from Trump is not only the mental illness of a man incapable of understanding the job before him, what we are seeing is the decimation of the institutions that will hold our fragile American democracy together. This is the new regular order: Trump, Moore, and an entirely complicit Republican leadership that means to impose their bigotry and oligarchy without the slightest compunction. Their lasting damage, their dismantling of decency and the institutions of the republic tells us everything we need to know about Republican voters. Who could vote for this vile, bigoted nihilism? Sixty-two million Americans.

Polls this morning also reveal there is a partisan divide, a _partisan political divide_ over the revelations of sexual abuse and assault that infects every corner of our society. Need we say more about this here to understand how riven we are by our _fundamental_ differences in morals and character? We need a reckoning on every front that divides us. That we should be divided by party on these matters too strikes me as all of a piece.

As we head into the holidays I wonder what it will take for Americans to have _any_ reckoning, any acknowledgement that our sexism, bigotry, and racism are at the base of cultural and moral divide. Go to the streets? What will it take for that to happen? We know that the majority of voters oppose these unfit rulers and reject their values.

It is worth citing at some length what Charles Blow wrote today, "The Trump Doctrine is White Supremacy. Yes, he is also diplomatically inept, overwhelmed by avarice, thoroughly corrupt and a pathological liar, but it is to white supremacy and to hostility for everyone not white that he always returns...Anyone who doesn’t see this is choosing not to. They are clueless as an act of convenience, willfully blind and intentionally ignorant. Or conversely, they not only see it, but cheer it....Either way, the people who elected Trump and those who continue to support him are to blame for what they have inflicted on this country...Republicans had a choice of 17 nominees; they chose Donald Trump. The party threw its weight behind him. Many of the candidates who had vigorously opposed Trump, including on moral grounds, endorsed him. Millions of voters who had voted for other candidates also voted for Trump...So never let these people feed you the lie that they voted for Trump only because they didn’t have a choice and they wanted to vote against Hillary Clinton. They had a choice, and they chose the magnification of their darkest demons."

If America has better angels and if the better angels of our nature stand a chance then we must first acknowledge with candor those who choose the magnification of their darkest demons. If democracy in America is to survive, to even have a chance, we must put to the test our collective moral character.

We must not "listen to" with sympathy those who willfully, ignorantly, passively accept Trump, Moore, and the Republican Congress. Whatever compassion we feel for their plight gives Republican voters no quarter to be so wholly complicit in their failure of character. Their religion has apparently failed them or encouraged their failure, but what has failed is their hearts, their minds, their _character_. They are accountable to this, no matter how they suffer otherwise.
However we accept their frustrations with the failures of a changing economy, their economic woes and social failures pale in comparison to the moral call to arms. With whom do they stand? What really lies in their hearts? We must ask. We need to know.

My own tolerance for their religion, their "culture," their claims to disenfranchisement has run its course. We must rally to the streets to object to this moral failure of leadership and as soon as possible we must vote them into the margins. The alternative is unthinkable, or is it? Lincoln was elected to draw a line he so reluctantly writ in water until he was forced to say it plainly. Can America endure in this racist, bigoted, sexist divide? What will we do now that our darkest demons are in full view?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

About Wednesdays

It is a truth culled from India's genius that memory outlives those who possess memories, that time is the divine itself, _whatever_ we might mean by that, and so impossible things can be worth their failure because there is more to life than just success. Rajanaka is, at least in part, about these truths, if we can call them that. And like all things worth thinking about, these things can take some time. For it's part, time is unforgiving not only because mortality is fragile and indeterminate, but also because there is just so much left to learn. So much so that we could not ever finish. I revel in that, at least for now.

I have six students this semester taking my Classical Sanskrit Poetry Class, including an Eastman School violist and a few others quite exceptional. I actually regard them all as exceptional because there is no reason, _not one_ to take such a college class. I've written about this before because it is, with near certainty, the height of folly, second only to reading all four epics of India and Greece in a single semester. I plan on many such folly-driven academic charges of the light brigade and if no one shows up, I will rage at the walls and do it anyway. With luck, some good soul will walk into the room. Half a league, half a league onward.

Yesterday, I had failed to put the lamps on (those hideous florescent overheads are prohibited in my office world) when office hours started at 3pm. By the time one student tepidly knocked at the door, it was near 6pm I was sitting in the dark with lots on my mind, but I got up and immediately turned on the lights and, as I have for 30+ years, was sure to leave the door ajar. It's important to feel safe in an unsafe place, and learning difficult things is unsafe, which is why the rest must be easy. Anyways, she says to me, "Bob-not-his-real-name and I are curious about what you do on Wednesdays since you make a point of not being here."

I rarely answer questions about any self that is not "Professor Brooks," since I mean to draw a boundary that does not confuse one bit of our academic relationship. They must not make this about me and they must not feel compelled in any way to "please" me. Our conversations are about ideas and arguments and these include all sorts of feelings, emotions, and complex matters of being human. The conversation is hardly clear but the boundaries must be; they are there to learn, not to be indoctrinated. But because she asked the way she did I made a minor exception, or rather just let out a bit more. Such undergraduate rules don't apply here, and my Rajanaka life has few secrets. I aware of my luck, good fortune, my privilege here. I have the time that others don't--- so I try to use it in a way that maybe does some good.

"Well, in the last few years of her life, every Wednesday was devoted to spending time with my Mom. I would pick her up, take her to her faithful hairdresser, out to lunch, and home. Then I would sit with her the rest of the day and read, in her living room. She would sit with me, usually crocheting or reading herself, and pretty much not say another word, or she'd make me another cup of tea, silently. We'd had plenty of time to talk and now was a time to sit together. She just wanted company and I wanted hers. I'd wait till suppertime and announce it was time for me to go home. She'd protest but thank me for coming and I would tell her I was the luckiest kid who ever lived. Those were my Wednesdays. Nowadays, I try to have a day that honors her. So I write to friends, I try to read at least two books about things that have nothing to do with one another, always some poetry or an essay, and then I do my own work, I write, study, translate."

"We just wanted to know, so thanks for telling me."
I hope you have a great Wednesday or whatever day is Wednesday for you.