Monday, August 29, 2022

What You Haven't Earned Is More Important

This week there’s been a lot of hubbub about forgiving student loans. I had them. I paid them. I am thrilled others will find relief from such onerous debt because why should they have to go through this? Just because I have?

Is this one of those Two Kinds’a People Thing? You know those who think everyone should suffer as they have to “earn their way” or maybe that others needn’t have to go through it quite so ? Do we all have to suffer more to somehow be better? I think not.

Don’t mistake me, as Spinoza reminds us, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” But there’s always room for more care, compassion, and insight than self-important claims to meritocratic virtue, most of which ignore how they’ve been built on privilege, luck, and appanage. The value of an education is not merely a job, a profession, or in what you've earned. It's in the heart that can open to a deeper appreciation of what might be possible.

“Merit” has its own complications---not the least of which is that its shadow is virtue. But when you have worked really hard for something it can lead you to work harder and harder and harder and then you forget to do other important things like take time to love what’s valuable.

Merit surely has value but not everything valuable comes from merit. We don’t need to earn love. Grace must have priority.


No one could possibly believe that this loan forgiveness is a "solution." It was not meant to be. It was a political effort that appeals to important elements of the Democratic Party. The question then is whether it is good politics in addition to whether it is morally adroit. I would argue that the former is open to debate and the latter is plain.

Republicans will use this to rally resentment and pose their grievances. This is, after all, their sole political platform. They have no ideas other than to anger and inflame their base with culture wars. This will suit them just fine. Nothing Biden or Democrats could do---and I mean NOTHING---would be acceptable to them in terms of any action or policy. Part of their grievance is simply to hate us, we the Libs.

So does it rally Republicans even more to vote? Purely a political question. More importantly, does it anger, estrange, or disaffect Democrats from voting and who does it incentivize to vote? I think the people most benefited by this policy are also unlikely to vote because they received it. In other words, I find Democrats unreliable voters on issues, on voting _for_. Dobbs will more likely draw voters, as Kansas proved. Thus I think the policy is likely neutral.

Nothing changes the venal Republicans; not much affects Democrats. Are there any Democrats estranged by this policy? Not enough to matter. Politics solved. However, this was bad politics insofar as it is a distracting talking point that cycles in the news. Biden and the Democrats must talk about how Republicans are a real and present danger to democracy---because that is TRUE and that message must dominate, penetrate, be made every single moment every day.
Was this a good thing? A moral thing that attempts to redress an onerous, horrid situation? Namely that education is unaffordable and yet so important that it drives people into debt? I would assert that to be paramount. This was a good thing and certainly not the best thing or a solution. There can be no solutions without the political will to alter systems and structures. In today's America, that is a pipe dream. So Biden did what he could, appealed to some segment of his diverse coalition, and helped a ton of folks who are most in need of such relief. It is a fact that the majority of beneficiaries will come from under represented communities and working class families. It is a good thing and that might be the best we can hope for under the circumstances.





Welcome to the Department of Irrelevance and Dead Languages


You will notice from the chart above that I teach the least popular, perhaps the least important subject in the humanities.

Our Department is Religion & Classics.

As professional fields these are two very different worlds---journals, conferences, guilds, etc. Our original intent was to rescue a failing Classics program (circa 1986) but also to form a Religion Department that demurred from the apologetic description as "Religious Studies." We meant to say that we are of course NOT a theology or advocacy department (or supposed to be) but rather critical secular historians and linguists, etc.

They don't call the people down the hall from my office "Historical Studies," so "Religious Studies" is an apology implying a distinction that might be useful for some but is essentially insulting and wrong-headed. We imagined that we are NO DIFFERENT from every other subject: assumptions, evidence, reasons, conclusions, these are the things we do and we investigate. So far, so good, right?  We who study religion professionally have always had to argue for our legitimacy in the academy.

Of course the problem is exacerbated because so many Religion Departments are filled with religious people who shamelessly advocate one (usually) or another (or many?) religions. This undermines our mission.  Being religious doesn't disqualify you from studying religion but neither does it have anything to do with teaching religion.  In fact, the conversation about being religious only complicates and confuses the matter.  There should be a wall of separation between studying religion and being religious that is taller and more formidable than church and state.  Keep your religiousness out of the conversation.  I don't talk about my personal chemistries in chemistry class do I?

I also argued from the outset that Arabic, Sanskrit, and other languages we teach (not Modern) should be treated as "Classics." This angered the Classicists who saw it as undermining their guild, even their subject. You can only study Sanskrit in Religion and Classics yet Sanskrit is apparently neither religion (because it is not) nor is it classic (because the Classics guild hold that "classics" means only Greek and Latin and are ill-disposed to admit others in their sandbox).

At a place like Rochester we originally in R&C made a BFD out of our secular identity and insistence that we are not advocates.  I think that no matter how clearly or frequently we have made this case it doesn't much matter.  It is too culturally ingrained, too nuanced a point, and we are too unwilling to learn this important, nay vital distinction.  All we can continue to do is shout about it and hope someone/anyone listens.  Maybe it doesn't matter that much either.

I would not personally describe myself as advocating or adhering to any religion since that is irrelevant to my profession and work. However, our method in the study of religion is secular, I happen to be both an atheist and a Hindu measured by the duck test. Does it waddle? Quack? But so what? Who cares? BEING one IS NOT qualification of expertise.  (I might describe my own religiousness as utterly secular too inasmuch as the method and the "belief" is nothing but what I also do academically.  Secular critical study is as much my "religion.")  I am biological and chemical but that is no qualification for expertise in the study of biology or chemistry. Being "religious" is ZERO qualification for the critical study of religion. '

Being "religious" is data, it is what we study. One's personal relationship to a religion must be irrelevant if the subject belongs at all in a university. Most scientists are so ignorant about what we do as scholarship that they think we are advocates and dismiss our subject or would prefer to abolish us.

That said, now imagine how students or, worse, their parents understand NONE of these points and arguments. Religion is worse than Art History, which even Barack Obama told us could not be any longer justified. But why? Because costs make college prohibitive.

I will continue to rant.  And this is shameless advocacy but not for being religious.  If you are religious I might study you.  If you are religious I might not care if you don't make your religion my problem.  Many religious people do make their religion my problem, like Samuel Alito or Clarence Thomas. 

Unless we study history, literature, language, and culture we will be under exposed and ill informed citizens and humans. How can we presume to organize socially and politically if we have so little appreciation of what we might learn about being human from one another? The Humanities are not a luxury but a necessity, especially if we have any hope at the more complex and precarious human endeavors like the rule of law or the public good.  

However the same necessity of inquiry frames topics in science. Because we are culturally illiterate we are unable to fathom climate science. Because people are under educated, ill-informed, and under exposed to the truths of science, we frame debates about vaccines and disease in ways that should embarrass and shame us all. We look stupid. Worse, because we don't know how to study religion and how opinion, faith, belief, and unexamined data operates on the human psyche we confuse religion with science. Then we are worse than stupid because now what we feel or believe has more weight than reasoned argument.

We are human, imperfect and science is not infallible. But it is the best we have and if it is a test of personal belief versus the evidence of reputable academics, there is no serious choice. Are you with the magical goatherders of the Bronze Age or do you understand what academics has in fact done to advance the human cause?

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Confederate Party of Lincoln

When Lincoln wrote that the nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal he knew this wasn't true because it had not been realized. He proposed a new birth of freedom of, by, and for the people. These phrases are so well known we likely don't fully appreciate how radical it was to say in its day.

Lincoln was conceiving the United States that had been merely United States. In that he was targeting the Confederate oligarchs who had maintained a minority rule and a federal government that secured the rights of all people. In their view government must not be the peoples' unless it serves the interests of the few who are competent to decide for the collective. Reverting to claims of State's rights was their means to secure power in the hands of the few thus insuring that the will of the people could not interfere with their cultural claims and financial interests.

It is the combination of these two Confederate features that has once again seized control of our system. The minority means to govern and if they cannot govern with the consent of the majority or use the system to secure their power, they mean to rule by any means. Should that process fail to maintain their power they have demonstrated the willingness to use violence. Rule over the majority by intimidation and force are key elements of fascism.

It is no small irony that the current Republican Party and the illegitimate and corrupt Court that imposes their will over the majority mimic the interests and agendas of the Confederacy that Lincoln brought to defeat. At some point I think the impositions of minority rule will once again not only splinter us but will bring the kind of civil unrest and protest that we may not be able to resolve using the mechanisms of liberal democracy.

As rights are taken away---and Roe is just the beginning of that dismantling---people will actually come to realize more palpably the oppression that the minority means to impose. There is a forthcoming ruling of the Court that will likely effectively eliminate the ability of the federal government to delegate regulations to agencies, thus wrecking havoc on the EPA, FDA, well, all of it. The rules will somehow belong to the States where business oligarchs will make sure, as they have with guns and climate, that the majority's will has no power.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Seven Point Plan

Cheney declared there was a “sophisticated seven-part plan,” and future hearings will dive deeper into its components She did not enumerate the process, so I thought I would suggest the process.
(Kudos to Susan Glaser for the core listing references.)

1. Trump’s spreads election misinformation;
2. he plots to fire the acting Attorney General in order to get the Justice Department to further his false claims;
3. he pressures Vice-President Mike Pence to block the counting of the electoral votes, and he pressures military, CIA, DOJ and others to confirm his lies,
4. he pressures Republican officials in the States and Republican-led state legislatures to switch their electoral votes and scheme to send fake electoral certificates to Congress;
5. he coordinates with violent conspirators, including Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, largely through his proxies, like Stone
6. he summons the mob to the Capitol on January 6th;
7. he refuses to do anything to stop them once they are there, rampaging in an effort to stop the vote count (removing Pence from the scene, declaring the votes illegitimate, and eventually getting a stooge like Grassley as Pro Temp to do the "re-count.")
Voila. The Coup almost works.
Don't think they haven't learned from these mistakes. Next time they mean not to fail. Next time means the next election they lose and will never again admit to losing. Tyranny is not quite here but the grounds for democracy are gone. What remains are we the people responsible for establishing the rules for free and fair election and compelling integrity.

Willful Ignorance, Critical Thinking, and the Matter of Unknowing

If we want to understand why Republican America is so blithely ignorant, misinformed, and disinterested in the truth about a seditious insurrection conspiracy led by a grifting, lying, fraud who is mentally ill and utterly unfit for any political leadership we need to understand from whom they get their news.

This trail of misinformation and manipulation helps further explain why those who could know better---persons less mentally deficient than Trump in Republican leadership have decided to ignore the truth. Their relationship to money and power precludes their interest in the truth. Rep Cheney made that point crystalline this week.

But after we account for willful dissimulators, what do we make of the vast swath of Republican voters and other ignorant Americans who care not for the tasks of citizenship?

Two articles appeared this morning that caught my attention. The first appears in The Atlantic. Here David French outlines what so many in his circle of Republican friends don't know and how little they do. He also outlines the putative misdeeds that these seemingly "good" people attribute to Democrats. You can easily find this piece via the googlemachine.

We can dismiss the majority of Republicans as pathetic, unfit for democracy but it is as important to note how they have been manipulated and corrupted. In true Orwelian doublespeak fashion this is what they say about those of us who read The New York Times or other journalism that might actually have a shard of integrity.

We might retort that if you can't believe "the media" then the January 6th Committee invites you to believe your own eyes and the sworn testimony of those who suffered "carnage" and "chaos", police officers beaten and slipping in blood to fend off the mob that Trump brought to support Proud Boy and Oath Keeper white nationalists bent upon overthrow of the duly elected government. Facts are not alternative.

In our culture getting "eyes on" is more important than any form of written or spoken word. American short attention spans, illiteracy, and willful disinterest in matters of import cannot be underestimated.

That said, what half the county prefers is Fox News, another Orwell-worthy name since the propaganda channel's shameless efforts espouse the Trumpista claim: whatever we say the dupes believe. In order to keep their dupes in line Tucker Carlson's show during the Jan6thComm hearing did not break for commercials for the first hour to keep eyes off the truth.
If you follow Twitter in the rightwing universe you are being told that the gravest threats to American democracy involve support for Pride. I kid you not. And of course the espousing of violence is shamelessly advocated without the slightest moral consideration since these advocates of hate deem themselves the true Christians. Abhorrent as this all is, it's like junk food: you become what you consume.

Eyes off is as important as eyes on. This means as The Atlantic and the NYT article below demonstrate that America is not only ignorant and manipulated by the power of rightwing propaganda, it has little critical ability to move out of its information silos.

We hear only what we want to hear while we are being told what it is we want to hear is true. There is no both-sides-ism to my point. The "left leaning" news includes the facts. Facts are pesky and difficult to create because they require serious human efforts that involve critical thinking. We have to trust, for example, in the methods and evidence of science and scientists when we are ourselves less capable of understanding the material ourselves. You might do as much when you ask Google Translate for a bit of help with French too. I mean simply when you don't know, you need help, you have to admit your vulnerabilities. Whether people have the capacity to understand what learning entails is another matter entirely.

Given the nature of global events it's fair to say that everyone is under-informed. I am distraught when matters of science done by actual scientists is dismissed just as I am when folks are unwilling to consider journalistic standards and efforts at professional integrity.

Republicans use "the media" to mean their political adversaries s when they are their propaganda advocates. I for one think there is still such a thing as professional, personal, and moral integrity. To discern that requires critical abilities. Those need to be understood, taught (they are not intuitive), and applied. Get on your Spock or your enterprise might crash into the sun.

Offering up our best understanding, being transparent about methods and sources, and holding ourselves to ethical standards may be a requirement for functional democracy. Confirmation bias needs its counterpunctual: how could I know if I am mistaken? Do your best to create the facts and interpret them honestly: this is what you are taught to do in college if you actually received an education. It should be what is taught by 8th grade but that is another discussion.

What we need to understand here is not that both sides are ill-informed or stuck in silos of preferred political values or persuasions. What we need to see that that a significant portion of the American electorate is participating in well-orchestrated conspiracies, subject to fraud, and can't tell the difference because they refuse to consider the quality of their sources and the agendas of those who would manipulate them.

Friday, June 10, 2022

All is Not Lost, Everything is a Footnote to the First Word

Another thought today about the January 6th Committee because it's important to mitigate our not unwarranted, perhaps overly cynical view that nothing will come of it. Is our government hopelessly lost to dysfunction?
The evidence is in. Not yet.
Take to heart this fact: the recently defeated president of the United States attempted to overturn the Constitution rather than accept the outcome of an election. He and his cohort conspired and executed a coup attempt. They failed. Why?

Brave and patriotic people stood up for the truth and stopped him. Brave and patriotic people now seek to hold him to account. In the future brave and patriotic people will likely have to stop them all again. This is not cynical anymore than it is pointless. This is the real work of citizenship. How quaint? This is your country. This imperative of citizenry obtains only if you care about democracy. Democracy has not yet failed.
Be one of those brave and patriotic people. Do not let our democracy fail. Continue to do the right thing. Insist that others join you so that we do not fail. If you don't we will fail because everything about democracy actually depends on We the People.
If you want democracy you will have to save it but not by yourself. We is the first word of the Constitution. All the rest is We too.

The Coup in Progress and the Committee

 In case you missed it there is coup-in-progress that is the continuation of the January 6th Coup Attempt that very nearly succeeded.  Republicans mean not to fail this next time.   The Committee is underway.  Last night was the first hearing and here's what I think.

Three Takeaways and Futures
1. It is the Committee's intention to demonstrate that this was an orchestrated, planned coup that Trump sponsored like a mob boss using his underlings to execute. It happened to fail.
This time.
AG Garland? Are you listening? If this is not the crime of seditious insurrection led by a former president what exactly is?
2. Republicans know that their voters explicitly or tacitly endorse the Coup. Last night Fox did not break for commercials while the Committee was in session so that its viewers would not be tempted to change the channel. Of course, Fox is culpable in establishing the narrative after the coup attempt that it was not a coup but "legitimate political speech" and that the big lie is not the clear and present danger it is to democracy.
Fox will insure that the vast majority of Republican voters, content as they are to endorse the coup, the lies that caused it and the lies that support the coup-in-progress, remain in line. Rep Liz Cheney telling the truth is being lionized for telling the truth while she is being run out of her party. Expect only more of the same. Minds are made up. Nothing about these hearings will move the electorate.
3. Should they lose the next election Republicans and Fox intend for their coup-in-progress not to fail. Democracy no longer matters (i.e., you must be willing to lose, as Democrats clearly are) and they mean to gain power and never relinquish it again peacefully. Their voters endorse their claim to power at any cost. Many would prefer a "peaceful" takeover thus seizing the government by destroying norms and using the law to carry out the coup-in-progress.
The minoritarian rule of white supremacist nationalism will prove more important to the Fox viewer than democracy. Wall Street will endorse the rise of fascism as the oligarchs secure power. If we do not act to protect democracy there will no recognizable America once Congress is Republican. As soon as 2023 we may well see their vindictive agenda at work: don't be surprised if they impeach Biden. Cruelty is the point: they are fueled by fear, grievance, anger, and revenge.