Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Being Elitist: The Oligarchy and Flyover America

December 13, 2016
Bristol, New York

From Richard Cohen today in the Washington Post, "...I will not concede that a greater wisdom exists in what is known as “flyover country." It has voted for a charlatan, a blinged ignoramus who has promised the past as the future. Trump... lives in a gilded bubble of his own..."
I just flew over. In fact I flew over my own house. I'm returning to the end of my semester, the fall of my 30th year as a college professor.  I am a liberal, elitist humanist.  What I would give to get on one of those Rightwing watch lists.  It's a personal aspiration.  What awaits me is a stack of sincere but crippled prose from young people trying hard to understand difficult ideas and write in complete sentences. They will get grades and my own deteriorating eyesight will be challenged. I was busy with other work this weekend and finally read some of the news too about the Russians and the CIA and the Congress.
I also read more of the desperate wishes of well-meaning liberals who feel the powerlessness, frustration, and astonishment of the on-going failure of our empire. About how Congress will be serious about this inquiry into Russia, about how the Electors can change the outcome, shall we go on? That is not going to happen. So, I opine, admittedly driven by a desire to delay All of the Above, which is also more than a little wishful.  I am not a cynic (well, maybe a little). I would prefer "critical realist" if there must be a label.  "Liberal" also works just fine because that word means someone of inclusive and critical temperament bent upon progress.  And what's America without another label?  Progressive? Dare I say, "elitist"? Yup, that will do too.  I have no qualms about wearing that one.  Being white and male has given me privilege and I intend to do whatever I can with that privilege to try to make the world a better place.  Call me "bleeding heart" if you like.
The majority of American elitists ---coastals with success, education, diversity, and hard working lives--- are not the .01% who are about to ascend the Presidency, fill every cabinet and agency post, and govern the other two branches of government. The majority of elitists are doing far better than flyover America because we go to work and live in States with better policies. We're mostly just about making it. I don't think I'm wrong when I say that most of us are a few paychecks away from real catastrophe. We persist. What makes us elitists is, in part, that we are working at jobs because we are coastal elitists and flyover America, except in elitist blue dots, known as cities, is suffering from everything that isolates them. Blue dot flyover folks are by this definition elitists too. Elitist is almost the equivalent of city dweller; flyover equals ex-urbanite.
The oligarchy too largely inhabits the coasts, so we know them within our shared geography. The oligarchy has the kind of money and so the power, with the skills and education, to understand exactly what they are doing. They have put self-interest and power over all other considerations. They have flyover America in their pockets or, more properly speaking, at their disposal. The oligarchy rules from the far Right with populist flyover America cheering loudly and voting in their small but effective droves. They will gain seats in Congress in 2018. 
But their news is not like our news. Their views are well-shaped by their masters' sources. Fake news is real. That is America too. Go look at Fox, please. Not just Breitbart and the white supremacist sites. Compare Fox with any reputable source. The oligarchy owns these folks and their votes as far as the eye can see, as it has for the last 20+ years. It's flat out there in flyover country. The dupe is complete, the con has won. 
So then there are the Russians and the CIA?
Big news, eh? Umm, no. Not. One.Thing. Will. Change. You see the Republicans got the result they wanted. That is all that matters to them. They may put on another show but will do nothing to jeopardize their power. McCain, Graham, the few squawking will fold, because they won too. They intend to keep things just the way they want: with every bit of power under their management. "Bi-partisan" will fold too, and it won't take long because nothing will alter their plans to _keep power_.
The only recourses we have are in the courts and the Congressional minority's ability to thwart the Right's efforts. Count on the Courts becoming more Republican day by day. Rural America will be fed from the trough of Fox ---please DO go read their website because the TV is even more foxy propoganda--- and then add in the fact that 146 million didn't vote. The vast majority of working people of all political demographics don't have time or don't care enough to be informed. They are not elitists. The fact is the oligarchy doesn't need to care about the elitists, even if they inhabit the CIA as stalwart, non-partisan patriots.
I often pause to explain to young people that their education confers privilege, not only in the material sense but because of their exposures and the requirements of critical thinking. There have been a flurry of pieces--- including an infuriatingly stupid piece from Nick Kristoff in the Times--- about America's liberal professoriate echo chamber and how conservatives feel left out. These are the same people who don't regard science as explaining climate change, whose religion demands belief over criticism, and who have willfully given the country over to an imbecile and oligarchs. Then, there is the claim of the wisdom of flyover America, the rural wise man. (It's nearly always men but rural women voted Trump by significant margins, so let's get the whole demographic in here.)
One of the many anachronisms of the American ethos, not merely it's flailing early 18th century Constitution that granted 80,000 rural voters from three States the power of the Presidency, is that flyover country possesses some kind of preternatural wisdom. Leaving aside how American history and law has favored slave owners, always the wealthy, and always whites, this idea that some jackass who chose not to finish high school in a diner in rural Wisconsin is _wise_ because he works every day really ticks me off. Why? Because the vast majority of working people are not these people at all but rather people who have more "elite" and "coastal" qualities --- like tolerance, inclusion, hope for science, and modest religion. Why should opinions so woefully uninformed be regarded superior? Jefferson was wrong about this: there is no superior wisdom to the farmer. And do note that only 2% of America today are farmers, most of that industry controlled by oligarchs.
We liberals suffer our own stupid bubbles but we ALL live in America the Bubble. It's all a matter of which bubble. I happen to live in Trump country, in a largely impenetrable bubble of failing people, not just people failing. And so I scream from inside the bubble of my own head, knowing full well that I am better off here, in the company of my own virtual bubble than I will ever be in dealing with the oligarchs and the flyovers. The quotation below is more from Richard Cohen's piece in the WaPo today about people living in the bubble, which prompted my echo chamber response. My elitist bubble, which is the plurality of American voters (some 2.8 million more, at last count), is in for some rough times at the hands of a flyover minority and their oligarch leaders. Read on from Cohen,
"...What I cannot understand is fellow bubble dwellers who tell me, with an air of impeccable condescension, that a vote for Trump was such proof of their own superior wisdom that it eclipsed all doubts about his qualifications, his temperament, his honesty in business and his veracity in speech. These people live in a bubble of their own. It is one that excludes the lesson of history and the demands of common sense. It will burst."

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Shadows of Grievance and Processes of Change

American men are indeed in deep trouble. This article puts together some of the facts and circumstances that point to our collective failure. But there is far more to the story than economic displacement and social injustice. There is the need to confront our history, our shadows and failures in ways we have barely begun to consider.  (Here is the citation from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/23/opinion/campaign-stops/men-need-help-is-hillary-clinton-the-answer.html)
I shudder to think the kind of sexism that a new President Clinton will daily endure as President Obama has the shameless, contemptible, and toxic racism that is all too evident in our social discourse. I am, however, confident that President Clinton will work for change that benefits those who oppose and obstruct her. But that is not enough. She will need more if there is to be real change.
Let us be honest: the majority of white American men, if our current election is any indication, are not up to these tasks of self-reflection and criticism. To become more educated, aware, attuned to the depths of structural sexism is vital to America's social progress and to our collective experiment. But it will require a level of reflection that America has yet to consider: that the greatness of the American Experiment was, in fact, set forth in the words of the slave-holder Jefferson whose relationship with Sally Hemings remains an inexcusable iniquity that points directly to our historical failures and need for collective transformation. Slavery, sexism, and homophobia are as seminal to the American story as are the animating ideals set forth in founding documents.
An important part of such reflection must come from the _minority_ of American men who are willing to do the work. Such work must do far more than legislate equality in the workplace and guarantee womens' rights: it must also commit to a more thoroughgoing education and needed example. Laws are important but they are not to be mistaken for change. What will boys become without instruction from men and a society committed to studying history with critical awareness to change the entrenched paradigms and structural failures? Will we address the American Experiment's on-going process that studies these errors rather than capitulates to Trump's insipid white male grievance?
It is not enough to reprove Billy Bush or disavow Trump and Trumpism: Americans require an alternative that emerges from within, one that also clearly replaces and disavows Paul Ryan's tedious and inane admonishment that we "champion and revere" women. Ryan's tepid Trump disavowal is still more patriarchy in the cloak of an antediluvian honor culture that must not provide the alternative to more meaningful change. Such vapid drivel has to be broken so it may be replaced with a more incisive body of criticism. And since when do the entitled take well to criticism? As much must be said, day after day, about structural racism whose very existence is typically denied in favor of fatuous claims to individual responsibility. Ryan and company appear clueless to the role they play in furthering a dominance interest that they, as white men in particular, must dismantle by reframing intentions, words, and actions. To this situation must also be added our structural homophobia, attached as it often is to self-validating religion, recognized and addressed as part of the paradigm of historical oppression.
The majority of American white men, I repeat, are _not_ yet up to these tasks. The rest of us must not become their enemies or enablers but instead provide a real alternative, willing to do the work that will change generations ahead while we care for the lack of self-care and volition that needs to accompany the processes of change. We are a sick society with impeccable _ideals_ as yet unrealized. We will require the words, the actions, and the examples that bring us, day by day, to better and more hopeful realizations.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Out on a Wing, Reclaiming Our Emotional Skill Set in the Age of Trump

We all know, I think, about the debilitating and stifling features of shame.  America’s Protestant history includes putting the wayward in the public stocks as well as the endorsement of pan-religious commitments to guilt, shame, and blame for acts of non-conformity.  To be shunned, in social worlds or in matters of conscience, for expressions of dissent, disobedience, or any breach of normative expectations has proven an effective tool of repression and control.  Simply being oneself ---by race or ethnicity, gender identity or politics---has too often resulted in rights abrogated and identity voided, with serious repercussions for all involved, including the oppressors.

Power’s most dangerous companion is authority, which rarely remains amorphous when it can become actual.  At least half of America is reaching into that primitive desire to rule and be ruled.  Our project of self-governance is at risk because it is the alternative to monocracy.  When there is only one view we place ourselves in the gravest jeopardy of losing our empathy and our decency.

In today’s New York Times op-ed Ross Douthat, who opines from the Right, representing himself as a conservative Catholic, makes a familiar argument that liberal social gains are forcing themselves on the recalcitrant traditionalists without, of course, admitting that his own views have created the normative expressions that have historically denied human rights and asserted the dominance of the status quo.    Here’s the link to his piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/21/opinion/campaign-stops/clintons-samantha-bee-problem.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0

Liberal views have finally entered the public discourse to imply a new norm, one of inclusion and tolerance---and intolerance of those who would reject them.  There is, I think, no other way to pose the dilemma.  We are always to considering just what we will tolerant and what we are prepared to do about matters we deem intolerable.  The concomitant criticism and shunning of those advancing “conservative” views is not only for their antediluvian illiberality but also for their insistence on maintaining the old norms of power and authority.  This opinion isn’t simply a viewpoint or vision, as Douthat suggests, but also the assertion of a certain constituency’s claims to power.  Precisely who claims authority reminds that the claims themselves will have real impact on everyone.

America’s older white population feels their loss of power and opportunity, coupled as it is with their unwillingness to innovate, to migrate towards jobs, to move from their views and into other possibilities.  In effect, Douthat argues correctly here that the Left would do to the Right what the Right has always done, which is to impose itself not only as the claimed-majority view but with exclusionary prerogatives.  Failure to move with change means being left behind and that is precisely what is happening economically and culturally.  This insistence on transformation-as-status-quo is what majorities do, they create dominance and must ask themselves at whose expense and with what sort of implications.  Atrophy is the hobgoblin of power so long held that by the time its grip is challenged it is too late to admit error or failures of complacency.  To move forward then becomes nearly impossible and those who have moved become increasingly intolerant of the conservative's failure to learn.  Even fellow hillbillies point their fingers and write their elegies (I mean you, J.D. Vance).  How does requisite intolerance co-exist with tolerance?

Douthat cites Samantha Bee and others’ avidity for imposed decency as a stratagem foisted on those who would prefer their own familiar dogmatisms and bias.  Those arguing for a more inclusive and tolerant world are, once again, made out to be the oppressors, something the Right wing press seems content to embody every day in the persons of President Obama and Secretary Clinton.  The irony notwithstanding, the dominance of conservative white males is at last being challenged and, as Trump demonstrates, they clearly don’t like it. 

Reactionary behaviors are not limited to Douthat’s style of argument: anyone at a Trump rally cannot mistake the shameless denunciations and calls for violence against the “other.”  The militancy of the Right has always assumed the mantle of  “law and order” confers immunity on those with the guns.  “Protecting” your 2nd Amendment rights is a euphemism for the encroachment on the authority of those powerless to thwart the changes that empower others.  And so too the shameless displays of power meant to intimidate and manipulate, nowadays with the added purpose of enriching those dedicated to selling the hardware of your Amendment “rights.”

And this returns us to our point of departure.  For all its debilitating and exhausting bearing, we humans experience in shame a hedge against our own shameless recalcitrance to decency.  It is, in fact, when every shard of self-reproach evaporates into self-approval that we fail to establish boundaries for ourselves.  What are we willing not to do?  What do we feel about how we feel about ourselves and how we treat others? And at what point are our own principles and values worthy of some form of abashment so that we don’t become the oppressors we abhor?

Tolerance accepts others’ views without endorsing, approving, or even countenancing opinions.  Acceptance only means people feel and believe, even when such beliefs obtain the threshold of unacceptability: we are required to understand boundaries and ask ourselves what we are prepared to do about breach.  We are too small a world, too global a world, too connected in ways we don’t fathom to reject each other’s humanity.  With that humanity comes differences, many of which are irreconcilable.  But at what point are views so discordant that there is no room left in the room for the expression of such opinions?  In a genuinely polarized America this issue raises serious questions about inclusion and the meaning of tolerance.  What discourse needs to be permitted in a free society?

My point is to take seriously the double-edged sword that is tolerance itself and to reconsider how the liabilities that come with experiences of shame shouldn’t lead us to disempower our need to cultivate and create empathy and understanding.  It may be asking too much to feel along with the bigots whose fears appear impenetrable and whose views are deplorable and apparently irredeemable because they do in fct refuse to reconsider themselves.  Making America great again is a phrase loaded with the worst forms of nostalgia, the kind that rings with falsehood because it asks for the past when the present invites a very different future.

This call for the past is now utterly shameless--- the dog whistles are audible at every frequency--- and those shouting the loudest to “take back” their country know that there is nothing left to say or do but reject all differing views as other --- and that is the problem.

And there too lies the key to a more “constructive shame” or perhaps we might call it self-purposing conscience, one that insists we not only argue for our views but argue with them.  Even when the “other side” regards their certainty implacable and resorts to whatever ruthlessness suits their agenda, it is the task of reflective conscience to remain critically attuned to the need to tune itself.  It is too easy to become tone deaf to our own song of the self.  Listening to others can be painful but the failure to listen for one’s self means we have no edge to mark the contours and fringes of our self-created reality.

We must make our own first boundary, a boundary of critical self-reflection that imagines the unimaginable in order to fathom what is all too real in those who would reject that same project of personal examination.  We may not need to tolerate the intolerable so much as fathom how to provoke change that has both the resilience and process of constant revision.  This may prove too challenging for those drawn to fear as their boundary-creator but like shame, fear too can provide productive lessons in understanding the complexity of feelings and play a role in fostering better worlds.  The issue at hand is not whether shame or fear or any other “negative” experience plays its part in our stories but rather what more complex role each plays in the constellation of human feelings.   We wouldn’t have these feelings if we didn’t need them.  So what are we going to do about that?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

It's not about the polls, it's about us.

Today the media is reporting that the new polls indicating a closer Presidential race are a feature of the American public at last "paying attention" as the election approaches. I demur. We shouldn't concern ourselves too much with these tightening polls much less place value on this assessment. America is not finally getting around to "paying attention" nor is there any shift in sentiment towards Trump. There is something much more elemental at work in the polarization of America that reveals something fundamental about our human nature. Let me put it simply: do we seek answers or are we more invested in the questions?
We can understand better Trump's voters when we try to fathom how he manages to appeal to certain evangelicals. It's not their Christianity with which he somehow resonants. There is, in fact, no such link: he shares not in their faith, has never been committed to their social agendas, and has no history with them. So what is it? It is, I think, their love of authoritarianism that addresses issues in black and white, and declares nuance, ambiguity, uncertainty, and questioning all the work of the devil. A local church out here in my own hinterlands declares on its yard sign: "We have the answers. We teach certainty." And there you have the essence of the first principle of divide. 
A significant portion of America does not want governance, which would involve all of those messy, devilish things involving human fraility---but rather rulership, the kind that sanctions itself by sheer din of asservation and faith alone. "Believe me, people, it's going to be great." No evidence or policies required, just faith. Such a desire for authoritarianism doesn't indicate a populous becoming attentive to its needs but rather one that seeks to defeat its imaginary enemies invented to relieve the burdens of having to pay attention or decide for oneself. Deciding for oneself isn't necessary when there _are answers_ and there are scapegoats. Such faith is not understood as an abdication of personal decision-making but rather as an unambiguous affirmation of an unassailable power. Catechisms, dogmas, black and white worlds appeal to those for whom authority is the answer, never the question. What once belonged solely to God is now on offer, right here.
We have come to that place where half of us accept the deeply sobering, and usually uncomfortable requirements of citizenship. We put our faith not in the candidate but in the fallible system itself because we believe that is actually all we have between ourselves and the leader's mob. This requires accepting a flawed candidate for a wholly imperfect, complicated world that demands our acceptance of those terms, like them or not. The contrast is with those who would prefer a world in which there really exist infallible answers that some _one_ unassailable can possess (even if he has no plan and never tells us those answers). For these folks, there _must_ be a savior ---and a bully---because the world demands order. When he declares only he can "fix it," they cheer. This is religion, not politics, except now it _is_ about half of our politics. The rest of us stand shuttering at the prospect that we who must believe in the system of our collective efforts might not be the majority. You see, there is no arguing with those for whom answers provide the foundation of their views. The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is certainty, and that is a commodity that is easily sold to the willing. For others their needs are to question and to doubt the surety of answers and so go to those vulnerable places where being wrong is yet another serious possibility to admit and change. Some of us are not looking for answers but instead for the questions.
So the question I ask is not why the polls are changing ---actually I don't think they are enough to sway the election one way or another. Rather I ask myself if the majority of the American people will prove themselves truly worthy of being called "citizens." James Madison said it clearly, "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." And that is why the polls divide us almost evenly. At issue is our human nature: Are we a mob wanting to be led by the one with "the answers" or are we citizens admitting to the messy business of governing?

Friday, July 29, 2016

Reckoning the Moment

Last night we were treated to history because after 240 years of occasionally great, barely tolerable, and too often mediocre men, a major party nominated a serious, steadfastly committed, and exceptionally accomplished woman.  It should seem unfathomable that gender has been such a barrier in an America that professes equality but it is hardly mysterious. 

The origin documents made clear that all men [sic] are created equal and few need reminding that a woman’s right to vote came after slavery was abolished.  Even if we choose to ignore, revise, or abide by the mere conventions of grammatical gender, the issues are too important to dismiss as past errors rectified, as justice somehow finally done.  There is something to see and to be seen here that demands our attention.  The onslaught of events will surely demand yet another refocusing, but we need to pause for a moment of reckoning.

Certainly a ceiling has broken, the old structure shudders, the system is at last somehow reorganized but the reckoning has not yet reached its crisis.  I mean more than election day.  I mean instead the test of our American character.  Are we “the good” who profess to greatness?  Secretary Clinton said last night, “America is great because it is good.”  And what does that mean?

It has taken 330 million little avalanches and however many unnoticeable tremors before the American sand pile has moved enough to create something new out of something possible.  Change doesn’t guarantee betterment even if we admit that atrophy insures decline.  The world moves and the pace is not wholly ours to determine.  We’re each a part of something far greater than our individual powers to determine.  Whether we can claim goodness is our most genuine challenge.

“I alone can fix it” provides us with delusion of the first order not merely for its dangerous demagoguery but because all things, even the single cell organism, exists within systems in which no one element is sufficient to define the whole nor will comprise the true meaning of an identity.  Even if we think we’re one thing, that one exists in relationship.  (Much to the chagrin of monists, oneness is meaningless without its comparison to manyness.) Metaphorically speaking, it’s that whole blind person touching the elephant thing.  We not only need more information than any one feature can provide, we need a plurality of factors and relationships to fathom our experience.  Donne was right, of course, “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.”  Pronouns notwithstanding.  Again.  We dare not choose to ignore the language for its influences, no matter how we address the sentiment.  Words too are moments of reckoning because we humans need them if we mean to become great and to be good.

And therein lies the point I mean to make today, we are always contending with systems of meaning, whatever more comes forth in complexities of language.  I will leave it to others more qualified to take up the many specific issues that should challenge our thinking and further awaken the feelings of this historic moment.  Let’s think for a moment what it means to be built-into systems, that we are part of structures, forms made of history, uncountable numbers of events remembered and forgotten, facts that cannot stand alone because facts are not isolates but relationships.  “It takes a village” is yet another way to say as much.

There are no islands without seas and continents; there is no meaning unless we look for things inside other things and the parts of parts of greater things.  However obvious this fact may be, our key to understanding is not to mistake the powers of adaptation and survival as necessarily improvement.  To improve, we must deal directly with features of the system that will not change until we recognize our advantage demands rearranging, rethinking, and reworking the system itself.  If we want to be good, we will need to find more meanings for “greatness.”  We can’t pretend we are immune to the systems that have created us and in which we exist but we can also create greater value if we acknowledge the relationship of the parts.

Last night the Democrats nominee for President Hillary Clinton said this: “I refuse to believe we can't find common ground here. We have to heal the divides in our country. Not just on guns.  But on race.  Immigration.  And more.  That starts with listening to each other. Hearing each other.  Trying, as best we can, to walk in each other's shoes.  So let's put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism, and are made to feel like their lives are disposable.”

I was astonished because Secretary Clinton actually said “systemic racism” and as wonky as she claims to be, the more prose than poetry candidate, she used the term as if we might understand it by context.  She was smart enough not to digress to explain the “systemic” part.  So allow me some of that digression, for which I am justifiably well known, sometimes accused and mocked, and nearly always unrepentant.

In more specific terms, the Wiki definition makes it clear enough that we are talking about values, feelings, and behaviors that exist within institutions and structures and distinct from that of individuals or informal social groups (here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institutional_racism).  Such a definition will do for heuristic purposes.  I think we might want to think more about what it means that racism exists as part of our American system, just as sexism and misogyny do within structures that can be revised and rebuilt only on the armatures of history. 

We Americans like to think of ourselves as individuals and that responsibility, for better and worse, redounds to singles, or sometimes smaller teams but not to all of us.  Trumpism is tribalism and that tribe wants the right to define and dominate all the rest of us.  Anything other than that would be deemed socialism or worse, which will take far more than Bernie’s-redef to become decisively positive in meaning for Americans. “Socialism,” like Trump’s explicit appeal to tribalism, is too is part of a system of meanings, of usages and memes that are perpetuated within a culture of implicit, often unexamined ideas and feelings.  Do remember “common sense” isn’t the common we all sense but rather the sense we each believe is common.  It’s hard to see into our selves, much less into systems that shape our beliefs.

Systems are like the armatures of the painting canvas.  The painting is not only itself in process but is also changed by all the previous paintings painted on that canvas, painted over again and again. And so is the canvas itself being challenged: is the structure sound enough to continue the process? And how do we “move on”?  How can we effect change that improves, that answers to the claim we are good, rather than merely adapt to survive?

First thing to notice, these aims are complementary.  We’ll not survive without change.  The question rather is, will we be good?  We can choose to improve because destroying the system is only one among our options.  Sometimes we’ll need to peal off so much paint that we’ll get all the way to the canvas again.  Is that the revolution being discussed?  But this is not the only important process.

We need to find boundaries and forms that make up the armature, that give us access to the structure’s format.  To discover what the system what can offer we must look for the reality it has established as the beginning of possibilities.  We cannot create what is beyond the possible.

An America that began in structures claiming freedom, life, liberty, and opportunity is also an America built on slavery, sexism, and myriad other forms of exploitation.  To improve upon that system is not to deny the reality of any of its parts but first to acknowledge their roles and relationships.  We don’t progress without that deeper awareness of what lies within and then beneath the surfaces.  America must decide not only upon the future of its system but the depth of its character.  To revise the meaning of freedom and to create opportunity we will have to do more than merely admit that the deeply problematic is part of our history.  We will have to bring that shadow into the light and create something greater from all of our histories and all of our parts.

This is, as Secretary Clinton said, a moment of reckoning.  The system that stakes its claims on opportunity and possibility is being tested not only for its content and expression ---complex and volatile as that is.  The system is being tested for its character, its mettle: for the greatness it seeks must become as well the pursuit of the goodness it professes to claim as the deepest foundation of our character.  To be good we will have to create goodness by reaching further into the greater charter of our origins.  We’ve already said that all men are created equal.  Now we know something more.  We also know that in this moment of reckoning there is far more to greatness than assuming the good will somehow magically appear without all of us recognized, seen within that America.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Plagiarism, Nostalgia, the Ritual of Nomination, the Power of Myth: RNC 2016

Tuesday Morning, July 19th, 2016

With all of last night's horrifying Republican antics it easy to point to the rage and the singular contrast offered by Melania Trump who, despite having been party to fraud and plagiarism, struck the only contrary note of decency. We must be mindful not to shame her for an error that warrants very serious criticism since it cuts to the core of the issues of fraud and hypocrisy. But what truly troubles me is this larger issue: the utterly shameless, consistent identification of the President, Mrs. Clinton, and Democratic liberalism as conspiratorial participants in terrorism. WE are the enemy and Democratic policies are not the mere opposition, they aid and abet our avowed enemies. This is the story we must take seriously because it is more than what is just _said_, it's what is _felt_.

The President cares more for "illegals" than he does for Americans (Ernst), he and Secretary Clinton won't protect America because he is protecting others (Giuliani); they are covering up terrorism not merely to protect their power but because they too seek to protect terrorists. These ideas are not merely implied or suggested, they are made with every intention of being said in their own good faith, they _believe_ these claims: Democrats are traitors, terrorist collaborators, and willful participants in the destruction of the nation. (Last week Speaker Ryan said that Secretary Clinton _must_ be "disqualified" from seeing any confidential information. Really. He said that.) Just how do we counter those memes, endlessly repeated by the right wing entertainment industry and _not_ treated with seriousness by the media?

This is sad, appalling, perhaps even beyond the pale, but it is an everyday recursion; it is built-in to the current Republican identity. So what are they going to do after they suffer a crushing defeat in November? That too might be worth thinking about. How long before they claim President Clinton must be impeached? First, let's defeat them crushingly. All the way down the ballot. Marginalizing these views out of power must be our first action even as we denounce them.

Wednesday Morning, July 20th, 2016

"Nostalgia." I've been trying to find a word that captures something more than just the dyspeptic choler that has characterized two nights of the RNC. We know the party of Trump rejects globalism, trade deals, and every form of immigration reform much to the chagrin of the Ryan-Kasich establishment, and it would appear that their only common ground is the vilification of Secretary Clinton and averment that all things big-D Democrat amount to treason, perfidy, and failure. But is there anything else?

I'm accused ---fairly enough---of being an archivist (aka "hoarder") and given to dewy-eyed reminiscence. So I know a thing or two about lingering with the idylls of the past and the potential to drown in waters already under the bridge. (N.B., I could drown in nearly any waters.) I also think words can help too in understanding feelings.

We Americans give up too easily on words because we think doing is never thinking and nearly always less feeling. Too much Ayn Rand and John Wayne and not enough William James and Mark Twain, if you ask me. We need more words, not just more Twitter. And perhaps a deeper plunge into the ocean of meanings. I want so much not to dismiss this American anger but to understand it a bit better.

Could anything as obscure as an etymology possibly help with something this complex and combustible? Pedantry while America burns? But the etymology of "nostalgia" helps us fathom an important feature of this current Republican zeal for the incendiary. I've been reading the Odyssey for a class in the fall I'm teaching. That's helped too. "Nostos" has the sense of "returning home" and "algos" means "pain." In short, among other things, Republicans are homesick, homesick for a world that has passed them by, likely one that never existed like their current imaginings (a feature of the nostalgia illness). So we need to "Make America Great _Again_ " (b/c there's no italics on FB). Do note, only white men could think the American past was actually _better_. That explains much of the demographics. Trump has blamed immigrants for lost jobs, largely well-paying union jobs that Republican voters ironically have rejected by voting for union-busting. They do indeed "cling to religion and guns" because those things of the past were elemental to protecting one's home. And they are honestly sick with indignation, witnessing others advance when they can't go "home" again.

The racist, nationalist, nativist, and sexist features of this nostalgia, this "homesickness" are issues of history too complex to consider: the _feeling_ is that you can't find your way home because that home is _gone_ or it's "sick." Some move on, that too is the American way, but the homesickness for that "shining castle on the hill" is no less real---and now more easily alchemized into projections of blame and imaginary responsibilities. One Republican speaker blamed Secretary Clinton _personally_ for the death of her son in Benghazi. Grief too means never being able to go home again without some real feeling of sickness, of incurable pain.

We are _all_ nostalgic because there is no going home without going on. It's part of life's mordant ironies that we can't go back no matter how much we look back. It is poignant, painful, often wistful. Our human task is not to allow it to become censorious, spiteful, or bitter. If we're to have something better, we have to move on ---like it or not. And we'll need more than "hopeful" as an antidote to "nostalgia", to our "homesickness." We'll need creativity and inclusion, we'll need to take the shadow of this "sickness" home to a place where it too can find room and inclusion in a more complex rendering of life and our choices.

Thursday Morning, July 21st, 2016
Opining The Morning After, Three of a Perfect Pair.

In certain Christian traditions the key to marriage is the third element, that the couple loves God and God consecrates the relationship. So God is the third piece of a perfect pair. (Apologies to the incomparable King Crimson for their instigation, I have it turned up to 11 right now--- but my point here will perhaps make my blasphemy worth the theft. It's only plagiarism when you don't acknowledge your sources.) To think of this in another way, there is always a space between what we expect and what appears, between what we hope for and how things turn out. That incongruity, that irresolvable anomaly invites our contemplation, at once providing an openness for meaning-making (what "really" happened?) and discomfort with the obvious dichotomy. We take the wine and we call it "blood": we somehow "know" better but that is the point, the one thing both is and is not what we _say_ it is. We make a deal, usually with ritual involved to enact the story and the story that helps us make more meaning. Now, enter Ted Cruz. Yup, I just said that. If you're still with me, hang on for a bit more.

The ritual was supposed to go a certain way, as smooth as a wedding planner’s plan. But Ted was destined to be Ted. Not since Ty Cobb has a player been so despised by his own team and relished being despised by everyone who doesn’t love him. Like Cobb, Cruz bats with his hands apart so while you know what he’s going to do, he does it just the way he wants to. For his part, Trump wins no matter what. If Cruz had followed the wedding planners from the NY delegation then he has capitulated, touched the Donald’s lotus feet, accepted all of the humiliations, insults, and drama just like Christie, Rubio, Ryan, and the rest of the sycophants. If Ted is Ted then Donald gets the disruption he so relishes when things are chaotic and incoherent (much like himself). Ted did not disappoint even as the TV anchors pondered the drama of “what will he say”, “will he or won’t he endorse,” blahblahblah. They got “good television,” which is to say a foregone conclusion with drama in every moment. Do remember: the boat sinks at the end of every single Titanic movie.

So the incongruity was planned, bound to happen, an easily predicted moment of well-known unknowing. Ted was going to have it his way because never has a more pathological hatred of authority taken the form of one so invested in authoritarian ideas and because Heidi. He was going to make sure that this night was about him, not Pence, not Donald, and, of course, not Hillary. Him. The perfect third here is what happens when two narcissists must have their way. Ted refuses the endorsement to set himself up for the “I told you so” crushing defeat of Trump in November and Donald gets the win, either way because, after all, chaos is the Iron Chef here, chaos reigns supreme, and Donald is chaos. What else can he be when there is no prospect for meaning?

Drumpf has sold chaos _as _ the state of America, the way of the world, the lives of his followers and their perception of, well, everything. Things are so bad, in fact, that as the Next Trump Kid told us, Dad had to run for President. The chaos of the world and those to blame for it cause the need for Dad. For his part Ted offered order, God’s order, the third piece of the perfect pair. Poor ol’Pence with that plait of grey slab that impresses all men of a certain age for its mere stalwart existence, he was the dupe in the show, the bride left at the altar of chaos. He was supposed to be the bride but Trump didn’t care to come to the wedding, sat out the speech, and appeared on stage to offer the “air kiss.” (I kid you not, watch the video if you missed this scene. Not since Hamlet…well, never mind.) Anything Pence said was pointless from the start. Ted made sure that he was the third of this perfect pair and Donald was going to be happy no matter what Ted said or did. All that matters is the chaos. Trump believes that America will buy him to bring a new order, one like you’ve never seen before, a great order, a beautiful beautiful new order where everything like walls and peace and prosperity will happen because he wills it so. Ted is selling old-fashioned church with him in the role of the Almighty. His father already thinks he’s the Second Coming.

But Ted did tell us the truth, maybe even The Truth: vote your conscience. It took Secretary Clinton’s campaign about five minutes to tweet that line. Expect to hear it again and again. If you find that incongruous, if you are conflicted over the choice because you find Secretary Clinton just not progressive (substitute whatever your gripe is here) enough, remember that incongruity is the ritual space, the heart of mythology. The world isn’t the way you wish it were; it’s the way it is. How you decide what to do about that, as discomforting as it may be, reminds you that principle and pragmatism never actually resolve, that the third piece is you.

Friday Morning, July 22nd
Here is the last of four ruminations about the last four days, the debacle, spectacle, very real world event of the RNC. I'll put them all in one place today, but here's the last. I'm nominating myth as a feature of understanding that needs some richer understanding.

Read on, as always, at your peril with the real risk of boredom.

In contemporary English we’ve taken to using the word “myth” pejoratively. “That’s a myth” means not only “that’s false” but “that needs to be debunked.” There’s likely no meaning-project we can undertake that is going to change our now common usage and history will be of little help. There’s no going back to somehow find meaning, we can only interpret and create more meanings.

My favorite myth-in-the-pejorative-sense during these past few days is “the Party of Lincoln,” used by Republicans to suggest their origins in virtue and continued efforts to foster inclusion and opportunity and by every one else to ask, “What just happened?” For the Rs-in-Cleveland “the Party of Lincoln” is no pejorative-myth and it is more than merely historical. It is a reminder that contains a salvific hope for our current Zeitgeist; and it is now understood to refer now to the one person who can “fix” our troubled world. He, Trump, The One declared himself precisely that last night ---“I am your voice.” “I am the only one who can fix this.” Much to the deep consternation of the rest of us for whom this reality is no longer ironic or comic, much less mythic, it is a situation filled with all too familiar comparisons to real despotism. The republic itself seems in jeopardy and that’s when we, the alarmed, are trying to avoid sounding alarmist. Of course, the R’s-of-Cleveland feel the same way but different ---something we’d say in my native New Jersey, same-but-different, which would be sorta’ funny if it all weren’t so real. We are a house divided against itself, as Mr. Lincoln once put it. The realities of myth seem all too apparent. So how do we come together?

I’ve spent my professional life explaining how myth doesn’t need to mean fictive, false, dissimulating, or deceptive. In truth, myth is a way to break into the world when facts cannot penetrate, when the story we need to take us further and deeper requires more prism than mirror. We lie to tell truths but we need to know we are lying so we can become more than one character, so we can do the serious work of play inside the myth. To become everything in a myth is more than to become every character, it is to look more deeply at one’s self, to become a pivot, a point of reference through which to imagine others and gain a richer sense of personal identity.

There’s no avoiding our shadows or darkness: the more brightly we burn to see, the more shadow we will certainly cast. There is no light without the heat, not in real or mythic worlds. This truism is enough to remind us too that myth is not merely child’s play but rather the sort of play that delves deeply into all the places we have been, as children and as adults. Myth often tells us who we wish we were and who we hope we are not, or at least who we mean not to become. It is the serious game of heroes and villains because it involves an unusual twist: we can no more become wholly heroic than we evade some fragment of our own villainy. Myth threatens to make us whole because every whole is surely more than a sum of parts and yet is only its parts. Irony and some remnant of paradox must too come with the story, every single time.

So there is a natural disparity, an unavoidable asymmetry between who we wish we were and who we want to be. Myths have a special role in helping us with that very human experience.

We’ve been treated now to months of the man who “tells it like it is,” who won’t be cowed by “political correctness,” and who “says what people are really thinking.” All of this embodied in a persona that fits nearly perfectly the pejorative meaning of myth: a person whose words and actions are in perpetual conflict with the facts, is often incoherent, and almost entirely driven by some post-factual, imaginary claim that has no bearing on the evidence of a waking world. Trump is not so much given to contradiction as he is to a kind of bifurcation of personality that undermines any chance of reclaiming the power of myth. There is too much and too little understanding that the story being told is anything other than an immediate appearance without context or complexity. His most saleable item is now. Context, history, or fact is irrelevant; what is important is the sale. What Trump feels (“knows” would require something more) is that Barnum’s adage undersells the fool who needs to believe the myth merely to survive.

Our aggrieved American hearts, so troubled by the complexities of a reality that will not be “fixed” by any one or any time soon, perhaps not actually “fixed” at all, wants the sell. The myth of “Great Again” is now the noise at the end of the world (thanks for that one, Sting), the anger and the projection that consoles and then conceals the fantasies that would demand more from life than fear and resentment.

For those of us appalled by Trump there is a kind of incredulity towards those enthralled. Is it principally a projection of hatred for the other who has taken their stuff, their lives and jobs? Is it all summed up in “the Clintons,” those conniving purveyors of the liberal mythology? What exactly will allow us to understand what the Republican Party just did in nominating this person? We are all called to self-reflection as much as we are to further comprehension of a life we are not living and wish not to live.

We are going to have to find more of ourselves if there is any hope of finding out more about our fellow Americans buying the Trump oil. What is nectar to them is noxious poison to us.

I think there’s no way around that conflict of interests; we have radically different assessments of Trump and his proposals, such as they are. So what can we do when conflict is not only unavoidable, when it is a reality rooted in two different mythologies? For the anti-Trump the R-myth is rooted in their rejection that myth must be both untrue and useful and so requires more nuance, more complexity, and more interpretation. The Rs here want it simpler than that: myths are false and our man tells The Truth Unadulterated. So how do we penetrate that kind of “tell it like it is”?

We all know myths work ---nearly everyone loves stories, people go to the movies, play Pokéman, spend hours in their own fantasies quite aware these are all fictions. (Well, maybe not the Pokéman players.) What we will require, I think, is a commitment to stay in the story, to keep telling the stories that will cause people to think, to contemplate, and to learn more about themselves. We need more myths, not fewer but we need ways to keep people listening so that they might see more. We need to hold their attentions by more than just fear or anger. We may need those too because they too are part of the story. But we will surely need a richer commitment to telling our stories in ways that reach into hearts and change minds.

Perhaps most of all, we must invite ourselves to renew the power of myth that points out all the more the difference between what is and what we wish for. “Telling it like it is” we know requires more than the facts but without the facts is soon reduced, diminished to delusion. What we need are ways to tell truths that can only appear when both facts and myths come together in that strange alchemy that creates deeper understanding. We will defeat Trumpism, I am confident of that, but what lies ahead is the far more difficult task of understanding each other.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Revolution Televised

On this day, the last important day of primaries in this important election year, a brief rumination. Skip if you dislike the prosaic, pedantic, annoying parts that are required.

Last night's preemptive announcement that Secretary Clinton will be the Democrat's nominee was less conspiracy or collective endorsement meant to forestall or depress turnout than it was yet another example of the media's desire to control the news cycle to their own ends (i.e., profit). Instead of allowing the process to play itself out, the Fourth Estate succumbs again to its own self-infatuations and answers to its profit motives before country. In this age of profits before people and property before labor (nothing new), controlling information is the path to profit and the most important form of property. Whether or not these announcements are accurate or were only for self-serving purposes (undoubtedly, methinks), and result in suppressing the vote, I think the larger issues about democratic participation are at stake.

Surely not voting is too a form of protest. The problem is, it is the least effective form of protest because it not only abdicates power, it confers power to those who would use your protest to their own advantage. You sit out and others get to decide for you. You don't get your way and out of "principled conviction" dissociate from the process, however rigged, corrupt, and manipulated it may be, and you are left with nothing more than being the victim of a system that controls you further because you quit. Quitters are giving away their power to those who will gladly take it.

Today the math will settle the matter of the nomination in the Democratic Party and one hopes that candidates can translate the arithmetic into decency and neither gloat nor disparage those who did not prevail. It's a fine line between celebrating a hard won, historic victory and fomenting a resentment among those who must agree to a measure of failure. No one likes to lose, that's always true. But democracy isn't about winning only. It's about accommodating those you defeat by majority, protecting their rights and integrity, and understanding that you too will lose, come another day. Americans hate failure, maybe more than most, but to be built upon true diversity is to adapt, acclimatize, accept, and include failure as part of nearly every collective decision.

President Obama hoped for this kind of accommodation and compromise and was met with nothing but intransigent and unrepentant obstruction. HIs opponents crafted a message to proclaim him the problem, unwilling in his imperial Presidency to create compromise. Orwell never had a better example for doublespeak and misrepresentation, but there is nothing new here. "Principle" can be just another word for wanting only your way or preventing another from having her or his choices at any cost. The line between narcissism and nihilism gets narrower in every instance of uncompromised conviction. Religion doesn't necessarily teach such incontrovertibility but its surely one place in which political intolerance meets its worthy ally in the fight against inclusion and diversity. Fuel politics with religious or religious-like conviction and the blend is nearly always toxic. To be diverse we actually have to agree to live in disagreements and _somehow_ make room, still more room for everyone. Just when differences become intolerable should be made more exception than rule and we need to take more seriously when a difference makes a difference. Tolerance isn't about liking or approving, it's about what we can forebear, endure, and include despite our differences.

Today I hope too that the younger generation sees more politics as part of their civic purpose. Senator Sanders has certainly brought more young people out than any other candidate, and much to his credit. But we can ask these same young people: what is your alternative? Allowing others to determine important choices that effect us all? Young people are demographically among the least reliable voters and while clear conviction and enthusiasm for a candidate is virtue, they are also more inclined not to vote when democracy means losing too, compromise, and making do with the people you have, including your adversaries. Democracy involves being resilient, durable, and continuing to be interested when things are also boring, frustrating, tedious, and may require suffering defeat. Living with what you don't want or endorse is being diverse. So for all of the discussion of diversity that the young particularly assume to be a positive good, learning about living with failures that do not meet your ideals and convictions is the far more important task. Come meet my neighbors, most of whom are people with whom I have almost nothing in common, with whom I share few political opinions, and could not possibly agree about values, positions, attitudes, or behaviors. But nonetheless we must learn to live together, succeed when we can, compromise because we must, and fail because sometimes we lose (and badly).

So will Senator Sanders lead a movement after the math is over tonight or will he stand on some principled conviction notion that political arson is the price for victory? Worse still, indifference or disdain? If you don't like the process join to change it. Change is incremental because the people not like you are nearly as many as those just like you. If you don't know any of those other folks, it's not important that you meet them as much as it is that you acknowledge their role too in this diverse nation. You don't have to embrace your opponents but you do have to find a way to live with them. Dislike their views? Then vote to marginalize their power over you. The opposition in this election demands a response. Just how anyone can tolerate the racist, misogynist tripe that spews from Trump, that other "principled" Republicans will tolerate to suit their own self-interests is not beyond credulity. Such views are not unbelievable. Believe them. And if that is not reason enough to vote for a candidate, then think just as hard about what must not be allowed to prevail. There is every indication that Trump's Republicans want nothing to do with tolerating you. Sitting out is cowardice ---yes, it is---because the heroic heart requires us to accept defeat and still work to defeat what is positively wrong. Vote your conscience, but think twice about indulging narrow principles infused with zealotry. Work for good bit by bit because, truth to tell, revolutions have little value for the most vulnerable.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Evil In the Absence of Conversation

Not a day passes without each of us confronting the problem of evil.  We witness human beings in the name of their particular brand of religion commit atrocities and then acts of nearly incomprehensible altruism.  Both sorts of behavior are routinely attributed to religious motivations, ideas, and doctrines.  To say that those acts for worse are not truly religious or true to religion is but another religious claim that religion is only about being good.  Write over the human shadow whenever you can and religion will suffice to explain that evil is deviance and goodness our true project.  How’s that working out?

That people portray themselves as religious and as acting for religious reasons is enough evidence that we should take their version of religion seriously.  I am not unsympathetic to President Obama’s defensive admonitions that ISIL and other Islamic terrorists do not represent “true” Islam, especially in light of the demagogues of the Right who would use religion and their religion as a justification for their own barbaric claims and punitive “remedies.”  The President is incorrect about his parameters of “true” and “false” religion but let us not give any more succor to the incendiary forces than is necessary.  Senator Cruz last night advocated “patrolling” Muslim neighborhoods.  Mr. Trump concurred 100%.   (You can’t make this up so there is no particular reason to pause here to cite their specifics.)

If you are not appalled, I think you’ll find in your religion a reason to agree with them.  You wouldn't need to be religious to be appalled.  But surely religion provides every reason we need for nearly anything we want.  We’re still left struggling to explain the facts of evil and by that we mean the contumacious intention to inflict suffering on others.   When religion is posited as the remedy rather than the cause of such infliction we’re just as liable to dismal results as we are to saintly responses.  We needn’t be religious to enact either but religion more often than not comes into play.

Fewer people are asking me, the University Religion Professor, how millions of Americans take the likes of Donald Trump or Senator Cruz to be persons with the seriousness, judgment, and temperament to be President of the United States.  We all seem to know that people can be that angry, embittered, and willing to act punitively and violently against our fellow humans.  Last night hundreds of thousands voted again for Mr. Trump and for Senator “Patrol the Neighborhoods” Cruz for the leader of the “free” world.  Putatively sober politicians, like Jeb Bush, have now endorsed Cruz in an effort to stop Trump.  It’s hard to reason but not difficult to believe.  Belief is nearly always an impediment to better thinking.

I’ve written before about this and defer to the many fine pieces of political punditry addressing historical circumstances and our political failures.  But few have waded into our religious ineptitude as contributing to the failure to explain our selves.  In America we can simply be religious, our failures to explain sensibly can be devoutly riveted to theological stupefactions protected by 1st Amendment speech.

We are free to be as invincibly injudicious about religion as we choose to be within the confines of secular law.  And too often rabid sanctimony decides that particular religious postulates can preclude and preempt secular law, the kind where we the people are supposed to agree to govern ourselves.  Calls to round up the usual suspects provide news ratings that the 4th Estate seems unwilling to denounce and makes for “good politics” among the rabble.  What is left to offend any shard of remaining decency in an age where freedom means freed from and free to say anything?  We wouldn’t need religion to create any self-restraint either but does anyone think religion is not as much a part of the problem as it would be any remedy?

Religion providing the reasons people act not merely believe is not only real, it is often dangerous, and almost always difficult to discuss in America.  Without a serious conversation we humans are left merely to feel.  And that, as I will propose later, is no small part of the problem.  We’re not very good about taking about peoples’ religions or their religious motivations without falling into the usual impotencies of our unshared discourse.  A brilliant colleague of mine once jested that we need a Dr. Ruth Show for religion because the rest is pornography: people just doing it bereft of more serious reflections of value or worth.

I might further suggest that religious explanations have similarly failed us, not only because we Americans have such a desultory attention span for the subject of religion or because it is sequestered under the privacies insured by the 1st Amendment.  (Are they really?)  It is also the hollowness of our favored historical religions’ discourse that provides such inadequate explanation.

Let me be plain about what I just said in case I failed the usual tests of philosophers and theologians to be transparent.  But first: a thought-twister.  Never has so much been written about so little that is so important and has still failed us.  The ‘much written’ is theology, the ‘so little’ that is ‘so important’ is evil in the name of religion, and that theology has failed us is simple enough: its explanations for evil are not only anachronistic but further crippling our ability to think about the problem.  Western religion particularly is approaching insolvency in lieu of more modern abundant, can we say, honest understandings of our human origins and what lies within our nature.  And this is not for the lack of exuberant, copious rhetoric.  I am professionally aware of how many books are in theological libraries and how poorly the theologians serve us.  An ever-so brief review here.

Explanations of good versus evil are imprints of Western religious and cultural history modeled on fundamental claims about human nature: we are disobedient of God’s law, we have “fallen” from original grace and now miss our mark, the more literal sense of “sin.”  Once we were good and now, not so much.  We have only ourselves to blame (this is the good news) but the remedy is the source of goodness itself: God has provided. There is an intrinsic goodness (even if it’s not us) but first we require redemption (Christians) or better yet, surrender (Islam), well, if we could only just follow the rules (Judaism).   My point is that there is no lack of reasons “explaining” why good people do bad things or why bad things happen to good people.  There are whole professions devoted to the subject, and with them their own traditions and institutions.  We are loathe to decry religions’ inadequacies because we might offend adherents or sound presumptuous because religions have been so durable.  The religious seem to have survived enough of themselves to perpetuate their explanations.  God help us.

The “problem of evil” (the fancy term is “theodicy”) is everybody’s problem while we professionals charged to propose the better reasoning have particularly failed.  The problem isn’t merely a lack of clear thinking, rather it’s working with models that assert claims about humanity rather than derive them from the evidence.  Lemme make this clear too by way of contrast.  Evolution is a true theory not because it begins with an assertion about nature but because the evidence leads us to the model of explanation, a theory that derives from the evidence.  Arguments “from design” are the other way around: first there is the assertion that there is a Designer (aka God) and things proceed from there.  This kind of “theorizing” can be similarly criticized even in historians of religions like the great Mircea Eliade who told us first there is this reality called The Sacred.  From that claim there is somehow shared empirical (repeated, verifiable, subject to revision in further assessment) evidence of The Sacred we can discover as the true source of all religions.  Why consider an alternative explanation when all you need is faith in The Sacred.  (I am not making up the Capital Letter Thing either.  Professor Eliade’s editors seemed to let it pass as less than a capital offense.)

Just how we study evidence makes all the difference.  Eliade, like his Protestant doppleganger Rudolf Otto before him, create religious models insofar as the assertion, the premise is taken to be a self-evident truth (there is, you see, This Sacred Thing), which the evidence must then invariably go on to verify.  Are we encouraged, nay, required first to doubt that premise?  And what are we to do with the evidence that does not fit the model other than secure some further reason to verify the model?  Could there be a more plausible alternative explanation posited?  One that might better explain the evidence?  Right.  I didn’t think so either.  Religions don’t take kindly to explanations that don’t accede to their assertions, their beliefs first.  Faith follows because reasoned contrariety is only admitted if you concede to faith as a category of knowing.  Really?  In the 21st century faith can be knowing?  None of this is news.  Much less good news.

For the sake of full disclosure and with a keen sense of my own self-validating participation in the long and storied failure of such theological enterprise to explain reality adequately, allow me another moment of glib overgeneralization about the history of religions and human nature. 

In some examples of south Asian religions ---and I am happy to overstate the case just for the sake of a few pages of thinking aloud--- the basic assumptions about human nature are derived from shared empiricism about nature itself.  The process of arriving at the shared assumption (what is called siddha in the argument) is no small matter but rather must be first stated.  (Sanskrit student wonks should look, for example, at the opening sentence of Shankara’s Brahmasutrabhasya.)   We have to have a common human experience rather than accede to a claim.  Crucial distinction.  We have to agree that all humans cannot refute the basic assumption.  Next, we are not asked what makes humans different from other sentient beings but rather what all sentient beings must share in common.  There will be plenty of time spent looking for the distinctive-feature of human-being-ness but we can forego that quixoticy for the moment because such claims are typically unhelpful.  However, there is something here that can, I think, actually help us with our need to explain ourselves, especially because we feel and believe and then behave very, very badly.

The common assumption that directs our explanation is simple enough: sentient life desires and all information about being human flows from that fact.  Should we begin here in desire rather than in goodness, sin, law, or God’s plan, we begin to create an alternative explanation for our least edifying selves.

Desire is no mere slippery slope.  Rather it defines our embodied sentience as a persistent state of crisis.  Catastrophe is but a few sleepless nights or missed meals away.  On the heels of the ever-impending crisis of desire is fear and with that the precipitous devolution into anger, hatred, greed, delusion, and the rest.  We get what we want and it’s not enough, or we don’t get what we want and that’s too much bear.  But either way, as the Buddhas, Siddhas, et. al., have reminded us, desire is not a strange feature of sentient nature that causes us to fail or succeed, it is our very nature.  We live as imminent, even menacing, expressions of the crisis of desire.  Of course, the religious will then offer up some or another form of Ultimate remedy and solution.  (NB in the form of gratuitous advice: it is best to run away as fast as possible from any such capital-letter charlatans and their dozy elixirs.)  But notwithstanding how the chimerical and romantic impulse interjects itself into the messy business of “solving” the human condition to offer Ultimate solutions (liberation, nirvana, etc.), I would suggest that these traditions ---in stark contrast to the mainstream Western religions--- have indeed nailed the diagnosis. 

We want just like all living things want.  And that slope is not so much slippery as it is steep and then steeper until the crisis of our desire becomes a willingness to act in ways that satisfy those desires.  The other emotions and experiences follow from that first feeling: towards or away, attracted or averred, we want something.  Can we solve the crisis of desire?  Only at the cost of being human, of being alive.  Can human beings desire to inflict pain on others?  Do we really need a justification of evil to explain that?  What we need is to recognize (again) that our wants write over our needs as a matter of fact.  Religion, like politics, is more often the triumph of ideology over reality for the worse and occasionally too for better.