Monday, December 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

It's About the Feeling of "Us"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Our Darkest Demons and the Better Angels of Our Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

About Wednesdays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 27, 2017

Check Your Background, Guns and Yoga

I'm sure you saw that the FBI ran more background gun checks on Black Friday than ever before. How many of those were assault weapons or just _weapons_ that have nothing to do shooting Bambi or turkeys or ducks or some other creature than humans? I grieve as much as I feel the fury, but I would not say more than ever. I would say that it is something I notice, something that I am forced to confront every time I read another story or face the _facts_. We can choose to bring the facts of our collective lives more fully into the conversation, or we can run inside and pretend it's all going to work out for the best.

I long ago understood that I can't spend a moment more looking for peace that is just another bypass, or attach myself to some soporific tripe about how I can go inside, how I need to meditate, how I can be light. If that's what you need to do, I only hope you come out too to read the article about gun sales on Black Friday. For my part, I am meditating with my fury and each day, with news like this, with more grief. I grieve for what could be, for a failing experiment in law and decency, because there are going to be no do overs, no taking back these weapons and what will surely follow. I am not numb to the next time they will be used to kill innocent people. I will not extricate myself from that grief or the fury I feel when the folly, the callow stupidity of it all is _right before our eyes._ We have different values, different opinions, and we are going to have to live with threats of violence that we cannot control and that will not subside.

I plan on feeling +every bit+ of what is human in me, and if that requires an alchemy to endure it, then that must be part of the plan too. For me that alchemy begins in world that still matters to me, in a political experiment that claims humanity and rights are possible. I want to learn every day about folding all of these feelings into a story that lets me live with _all_ of what I feel. Living with myself, that isn't _all_ the yoga I need. I need a yoga that lets me live in a world that confounds and defies credulity, that we cannot fathom but with which we must contend.

And I am not the least bit worried or afraid to feel _more_ of those feelings, especially the grief and anger. I prefer to be drenched in the acidic truth than tell myself that hope is somehow more true, superior, better. Yoga doesn't need to "heal" or make us feel "better." That's something it _can_ do but we forget what more it could do. It can remind us to _engage_ everything we experience, not to give up, and to try every single day to create a way to live with what life presents to us.

I am not particularly hopeful because the evidence tells me otherwise. But I turn to the auspicious, the power to think with feelings in radical affirmation. That affirmation can create the inner conversation that tells me that I _must_ address everything I feel, the _whole_ of it, no matter what comes next. What we become together will depend on how willing, how far we are willing to go to make the world less terrifying than it already is. Let's acknowledge the simple fact that it is _our neighbors_ who are armed, locked, and loaded, and how that makes us all complicit in the danger and fear, just like the villains want us to be. And yes, there are villains. Who do we want to be?

I am not resisting that fear, nor am I willing to deny the danger. I don't have a plan to stop the madness because in America I think it's plain that this train has left the station, and there is only going to be a way to live with this proliferation of the instruments of death. I commend the better angels of our nature, I believe we must believe in them because otherwise there is nothing left to love about this strange, terrifying world that is so full of beauty and wonder too. I take refuge in those who skipped the weekend's background check, folks who too know they must contend with the all of it, armed with open hearts and eyes wide open.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Crime, Punishment, and Choice: Franken, Moore, and the Jury

About Al Franken and the Rest
Opinion is Reasoned Argument, Judgment is Justice

A friend I admire asked me to weigh in on Al Franken, an issue I would prefer to avoid but won't. We live in troubled times because the more we _need_ certainty, the more that need will turn on us. The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is certainty. We need to know right from wrong but we also need to explain as clearly as we can how we have arrived at our judgments. And judge we will.

I'm not even sure that if Moore becomes the duly elected Senator from Alabama, _elected_ by _the people_ of Alabama, that the Senate has the right or the responsibility to expel him. Who decides moral fitness? How? The Senate or the electorate? Moore is a pedophile and serial abuser, and what if he is elected? Is Franken really in that same league? Are these moral equivalents?

First, I will let my partisanship show. We all have a bias. Al Franken has been a beacon of hope in a government that is driven by sycophants, traitors, and criminals--- and that is no excuse for his behavior. But not even his accuser is asking for his head or more from him. I think we’re headed into a place where very stupid antics, inappropriate behavior, and zero tolerance are all being equated. Of course, anyone who recalls SNL Franken remembers that it was not all funny, not by a long shot, and that he would do nearly anything for a joke. And that is a problem too, right?

So instead I ask myself this: does banishment fit the crime? That would be the question I would be assessing if I were judge and jury. So let's keep going.

I am compelled to look at "comparable" cases. It would be easier just to use the same standard for every case and call that "principle." That's a kind of justice I want nothing to do with, not in this case or any. Justice is always judgment and judgment is measured, not blind. So let's look at, say, the president, who not only confessed to sexual assault and was accused by dozens of women after he'd said as much but was elected after his constituents knew precisely that. We can question Trump's moral fitness--- who does not?--- but in comparison to Franken, would it seem fair to you to compare them? To me it would seem disproportionate. So what's fair?

Unfairness, as we learn from the strange story of the Sage Mandavya and a thousand others, is an unavoidable feature of an unfair world. So maybe Franken just gets the whole book, fair or not, thrown right at him. You are either pure or you are not. And that's a good idea? Are we required to destroy everyone who fails? Do we equate every case as the same? Does one size really fit all? Three strikes and you're out? Remember that one in California? You get life for stealing a candy bar because you did two other stupid things? I don't want to live in that world of "justice."

Others too might enter our judgment of Franken, not just Moore, Weinstein, or Trump, all of whom I would regard as serial monsters. And then there is the Catholic Church, which continues to claim authority over moral affairs. So perhaps lesser comparable offenders ---the sort that make confession and contrition---might be treated differently? There's a difference between being truly criminal and offensively stupid. What I resist is seeing everything the same. That reduces everything to the letter of a law that no one can meet. In the fascist state laws are written such that everyone is always in violation, this means the state can destroy you whenever it wants. Do we reduce our social mores to the same kinds of permanent culpability? Both the left and the right have been guilty of that. I hope we are not.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Alabama's "Christian" Cultural War and the Sexual Predator Roy Moore

Roy Moore's behavior today is an extension of the culture wars. His behavior then was yet another example of sanctioned cultural and religious behavior that invited his abuses.

How much have things changed in terms of cultural _values_ in rural Alabama since the '60s, particularly among undereducated Evangelical Christians? No matter how much has changed in _fact_, identity is not constructed merely of facts; it is constructed of feelings, ideas, traditions, and beliefs. Belief writes over fact as a simple matter of confirmation bias that is not only personal but also cultural.

There is such a thing too as cultural confirmation bias, which means that when a group or tribe feels threatened, confronted, challenged, they will as a group act much the way they do as individuals similarly faced with belief versus evidence. They will double down every time their beliefs are disproved or their culture is "threatened."  What white Evangelical Alabamans have seen is their dominance and way of life overwritten by values, ideas, and facts that threaten their choices--- nearly all such criticism being from "outside." Do not underestimate the role of insularity and familiarity to justify any belief or action and never, ever underestimate the disdain, fear, and obloquy that must be attached to others from the outside.

So it's the '60s/'70s (does it even really matter that it's not today?), and very, very few young women go to college. Likely far fewer than today. (Alas some change, some marginal improvement?) Education is closely connected to culture, religion, and change, and now think about Christian bible culture in the American South. Recently, Alabama's percentage of college graduates relative to the population is lower than California's but ten times fewer in numbers. Very few are exposed to much of anything but the local culture, church, family, and, in truth, there are few opportunities to learn the skills of critical thinking that would cause one to question or change. It is a world of belief and custom that views everything that is not itself as "others" who _must not_ be trusted or believed. This is at the heart of how cultural confirmation bias functions. (A few numbers: in 2010 in Alabama, 31.5% graduated college, some 189,000; Califorma the percentage was 37.6% with 1.993 million graduates, and now think of relative populations. Put more glibly, Alabama is no Massacheusetts, Senator.)

This is "Christian bible" culture: when girls "leave" the sanctity and safety of their parents home--- they are still "at home" during college, if they are permitted to go--- it is to marry and to marry as "virgins."

---Okay, just stay with me here...because _culture_ is not merely what people actually do, it is as much or more the _normative_, the _ought_ that defines values ---facts are not beliefs or values, which reign supreme.--- 

Girls are encouraged to abide by these traditional roles. Men are supposed to establish themselves as providers---this makes them older by definition--- and marry so that their wives will be stay-at-home moms.

Of course, more women in the workplace, more social liberality in every realm, continued economic failure and hardship brought about by the very culture that insists on these changeless roles and now add the function of these coercions and compulsions coupled to religion and its insidious cultural authority. Moore is the sort of predator that is likely not the least bit unusual.  This is because his predation is, at least in part, sanctioned by the culture itself.

One can imagine it common that older men go "courting" younger women and that might not seem all that unseemly---especially if that man has power, position, and respect in the community, he would receive all sorts of license. The rank abuse that is likely pervasive cannot be underestimated. Sexism and patriarchy's power is a cultural fact that is being defended here by Moore's supporters, not questioned. WE might say, how can the parent of a teenager think about allowing a thirty-something man date his daughter, and the answer _culturally_ is not necessarily the same in Alabama as it is where you live. And again, remind yourself of this: how much about Evangelical _belief_ or values have really changed even as culture, politics, and economics change?

They have refused change as far as possible, that being the very definition of their conservatism. They mean _not_ to change and to assert their prerogatives _over_ any culture _but their own_. This is a crucial point: they are aggrieved, fearful, and angry about how their culture is viewed by others. Now just how innocent, unknowing, and captive are young women with few choices and an upbringing based on obedience, deference to religion, and patriarchy? We can think of them as backward and deeply oppressed, lacking in virtually every skill required for a modern world, but that is part of their resentment too.

This is an historical and cultural situation that both conceals and encourages abuse, and what "the Judge," then "Roy Moore, D.A." did was stake his claims from within this form of Southern "Christian" culture. The whole Moore act is about that portrayal and the outsiders here are to blame. It's pretty gross, but it's easy to understand why criticism of him is taken to be criticism of the whole lot of them, especially his Evangelical supporters ---which is the majority culture of white Alabama.

Moore's supporters, who I would claim are still by far the majority of white Evangelicals (and that the vast majority of voters), take these accusations made on him as an affront to their culture, their religion, and themselves. They aren't going to flee him because some liberal Yankees find their behaviors reprehensible. They aren't going to give in one bit, no matter their doubts because cultural confirmation bias will invite them to double down. We can only watch, aghast that such toxic ignorance runs peoples' lives, just as they would expect us to feel about their cause.

The women in this story are victims we must deeply respect for the true courage it has taken to speak. How they will live the rest of their lives in these communities will require even more courage. But the culture that condones and encourages this confirmation bias syndrome is nearly as old as America itself. Expect Moore not to quit, even if Trump equivocates over his fitness for office.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Partisans in Name and Form

We're 10% Rational, the Rest is
Names, Forms, and Ideas

We'd like to think that we arrive at our political convictions, which include ideas about social justice, economics, liberty, and self-determination by having given different viewpoints their due. I'm not discounting that notion entirely: that we humans sometimes try to be rational persons. I suffer from this as a projection, both on myself and, more erroneously, on others.

I was professionally inculcated, not just trained to be rational. I believe in reason, at least partly because I believe that unless we Americans understand what it means to be "dedicated to a proposition," we stand no chance. Such a proposition may be also impossible and contradictory, fraught with historical fiction and failure, but shouldn't stop us. We all aspire to impossible things, and that's not always a bad thing. Still, I always less regard the 90% of human identity that comes with how we feel about ourselves and each other, and how this drives us to identify with names, groups, tribe. We are principally _partisans_ to the names we prefer, the ones we think are "us" or will keep us with our group. Ideology, conviction, and belief are a distant second to this partisanship.

The power of names and ideas needs a closer look. Are people really "Republican" because they favor tax cuts for the rich, the dismantling of the current healthcare for all program, or "the wall"? Are they "conservative" because they are, or for other reasons? Are "Democrats" really believers in social justice or women's rights? Are they more "liberal" because they harbor different ideas and values? Are their beliefs driving them? Certainly some portion of the issue is wholly present. But what's in a name?

The information age, the power of media is driven by names. We are "yogis," "football fans," "humanists." But methinks we count too much reason and _idea_ in the mix as we go forward identifying with _our_ name. We choose the ones that appear to represent ourselves with respect to _our_ people. Being "Republican" doesn't need an issue, it needs to be the name we think we "like" (think: FB). We are referencing an idea of identity, "a group defined by measures of class, region, religion, race or even just partisanship itself." This creates complexity because we may not actually identity _as_ LGBTQ when we identify _with_. We _feel_ with such persons as our persons. Now we may have indeed _very good reasons_ for finding our "name group" but the name drops we choose make us comfortable, they make us say inside, "I think I'm with them."

Trump has no moral core, no political principles or ideology. His hollowness is filled with nothing but immediate, self-adulation, rage, and unreflective needs that must be fulfilled. But his appeal to some 39% or so seems unmovable and, more importantly, "Republicans" offer upwards of 79% support in most polls. We need not dispute the numbers, they aren't the point. So why? It can't be the ideas, they aren't there. Is it the ideas that are there? Ryanism? Judge Moore? No, it's about the names and words and only last about the issues that make an "us." Trump uses "them" in ways that reinforce that process of choosing one's name. Put an "R" after a candidate it might not matter at all what she or he thinks, says, or does. It's an inoculation, not an idea. It's a way of saying that name is me because I am with my people, not those people.

Democrats have a much harder time creating "Democrat" as an identity word--- or even showing up to vote "for the Democrat". This is because Dems are a far more diverse collection of measures: we cross class, race, region, religion, and lifestyle in ways that Republicans are whiter, more religious _in name_ and _group action_, and less willing to use names that too far from their immediate experiences. But as superficial as it may seem, it's often in the words, in the names, in the identity that comes from saying "I'm 41% of Italian ancestry" even if you learned that from rational evidence of a DNA test.

Names are mythological, not rational. They point to destinations that are associative and interpretive. But like most myths that are meaningful, people don't interpret them as such, they follow them. I mean, they identify with the story as meaningful and the characters as themselves, well, the ones they like. Political identity in America is no less a mythical identity, driven as it is by measures of association with words and symbols (think: flag, kneeling, etc), that tell you "these are my peeps, the peeps I sign on with..."

When we gather soon for Thanksgiving, we may be sitting with family who are ours by some measures but not others ---you are blood, but not politically friendly. What you'll experience is a dissonance not only of ideas and of values but of naming. "My brother the Republican." Yeah, that hurts because there's more in a name than just ideas or beliefs, there's the need to have one. That draws us together or leverages us apart. It's hard to have a middle ground that that isn't just confused, and lordyknows, we don't love complexity either. What's in a name is us, and it's a lot less rational than it is a measure of feeling.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Moral Certainty and the Challenges of Compromise

General Kelly's Moral Turpitude, Trump's Empty Center, and Our Response to Moral Certainty
There is such a thing as irreconcilable differences. There are values that demand taking a stand. We must concede honest differences about values, how we choose to live, and what we can expect of others. What we must do to _live together_ is more complex than what we believe individually; we may face conflicts that challenge us to define our core.

The core problem is not moral compromise but rather moral certainty. General Kelly fails to see the difference. Trump has no moral core, which make his certainties as dangerous as his turpitude and volatility.

We should not be surprised by either kind of retreat into the redoubt of certainty; uncertainty is a feature of vulnerability, which is rarely understood to be an asset when the failing center devolves into competing narratives of truth. When facts no longer matter, the standards of argument wither. We must not allow _that_ to happen. This is another reason why Mueller is so very important. The only thing between ourselves and the abyss of falsity is our timorous human reason. But it is on that bare wooden plank we must stand to find truth's value.

To sustain integrity and viability in the pursuit of truth we must concede moral righteous to the processes of evidence and the tests of true character. If we fail to inhabit the seam between evidence and reason, fail to put civility and judgment between compromise and certainty then darkness can only become darker and light becomes falsity, dogma, intransigence.

Fight for facts and side with the powers of reason, the alternative is nothing but assertion and authority, our collective failure. We are better than such failure, and we must stand with those committed to the differences that allow diversity in a world that can withstand the graver dangers of mortal certainty over compromise.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Party of Lincoln is Now the Party of Trump

The Party of Lincoln is Officially the Party of Trump
An Essay in Idealism

For all of his many serious faults and deep complexities, Abraham Lincoln meant to change America, not merely restore the Union. Before 1859 America created self-evident truths that were neither self-evident nor true unless you were white, male, and landed. The facts of American life were grim but for the few because even if one were born white and free, chances are it was also poor and always near-desperation. The struggles of survival have never been far from the surfaces of even those pursuing hard work and betterment ---provided of course they are part of the structures of privilege that hold for them those possibilities. If you were (or rather, are) born outside of the confines of privilege your chances have always been matrices fewer. Before 1859 our original sin--- the America built on slavery and exploitation--- was the most self-evident of truths.

Lincoln's views of slavery are too complex and even shameful but he eventually came to an arc of understanding those original American propositions from a renewed sense of their value. He made two points I think make Gettysburg his best and final principled stand.

First, that we are a nation that is conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition. Idealist, yes, and so far yet unrealized but Lincoln explicitly changes the terms of our conception. We must not and cannot be a nation based on the privilege of one race, one language, any religion or ethnicity or gender, or any culture but that which is conceived and dedicated to the proposition. He is implying, without much doubt, that the diversity of Americans must be affirmed in order to permit this renewed dedication, that we are Americans because we are ALL in liberty and dedicated to a proposition.

Second, "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced." Lincoln looks to the present, to the future, to the living to realize the American claim. I think that _dedication_ would have and indeed must include a reckoning with our original sins and failures, a turn toward the American shadow, not only towards its light. But it is light that Lincoln sees ahead ---and it is shadow we have continued to deny and incorporate into our better angels. The Republican Party was supposed to be that reclamation of ideals and a dedication to those propositions. Like all of the politics of America after Lincoln, it has failed. But now, now the Republican Party is turning itself back, back to 1859.

Before Lincoln the ideals of America were nothing but lies used for privilege and power. Lincoln meant to renew, dedicate, and change that political and social reality into something _American_. Trump means to tell white, especially male America that _it_ is the _real_ America, the true Americans. Not brown people, not immigrants ---and who among us is not? White culture must admit others _only on its terms_ as subordinate and secondary. Trumpism is the New Republican Party, the one that rededicates to the lies of America of 1859.

Ironically, if one looks at the electoral maps before 2016, Trump's Republican Party was in fact the America of 1859. If one looks at Trump's electoral map what we see is the New Republican Party, the one that stretches deeply into the Union States, especially those with rural and suburban white populations. Trump's New Republican Party is the Old South and white culture-supremacist America ---not all of which will admit to the bigotry that is required. Rather, Trump's New Republicanism is culturally white, and that is the key to his success. We are in a culture war and, for the foreseeable future, Trump's white nationalism is winning. What it is certainly doing is redefining the Republican Party. Lincoln is gone. Trump is in.

Built on nostalgia, forgetfulness, denial of the shadow of America's tragic past, rooted in old time religion and a real rejection of modernity, its life-blood is resentment, anger, and, above all, fear. This New Republican Party will purge Mitch McConnell and the "establishment" not because these men are less willing to serve the rich and exploit the poor but because the test of Americanism must be loyalty to the leader of the 1859 forms of white cultural domination.

Welcome to Trump's America. They will rule until the majority of America decides to vote and figures out how to change the hearts and minds of the Former Party of Lincoln. America has not forgotten the Party of Lincoln, it has never become it. And Trumpism has now made that perfectly clear. What more we can become will depend upon our dedication and if we believe in the propositions that were supposed to guide us.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Just Another Day in October in the Age of Trump

October 23rd, 2017
This morning's sutras:
General Kelly changed job descriptions this past week: from adult day-care shift supervisor to enabler. We become the company we keep.
Courage is not virtue. Courage is the requisite to be virtuous.

October 24th 2017
Rubber Meet Road
Reaganism and the New Republican Party
"Establishment" Republican means Reaganism but the New Republican Party, the hostile take over by Aggrieved Nativists led by Trump, is well underway. So what's really the difference when it comes to policy? Does it matter?

IF Republicans--- Establishment and Nativists alike---can get it together to pass their enormous tax cut for the wealthy and corporations they will have indeed embraced an important feature of Reaganism. In truth, one of its most destructive and harmful features. Trump will sign it. Dupes everywhere will applaud and win nothing. A society entirely ruled by the interests of the 1% will need only scream Benghazi in some or another form and laugh all the way to the bank.

We will have to wait for another Democratic presidency and Congress to fix the ensuing catastrophe ---only to be thwarted by the next Republicans who will again balloon the debt for sake of the rich and force Democrats to raise taxes athinggain. It's dèjá vu all over again, as the great Yogi once put it. Do note that Reaganism also embraced the worst depredations of the environment, attacked education, sought to undermine Social Security and every bit of the social safety net, rejected civil rights and women's rights, and set the stage for _everything_ that is Trumpist racist nativism. So why now the enmity between Trump and the "Establishment"?

The über-wealthy who own the Republican Party need the _emotional fuel_ of Reaganism because Reagan/Conservative policies are in fact quite unpopular. As much as rich Republicans hate taxes, rural whites like their Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and don't just want to be left alone with their guns and religion when they need other peoples' money just to survive. What is at stake then are their votes. To win them, Trump knows he has to protect their religious bigotries from liberal secularism, appeal to their every fear of others, especially minorities and immigrants, stoke their resentment of economic stagnation by blaming it on "elites," and make sure there is a scapegoat liberal to blame for everything else. What's different about Trumpism is that resentment, aggrievement, fear, and bigotry are all Reaganism has left that is _actually popular_ among the rural white base. What we will get as the new Republican Party Post-Flake-McCain-Corker is the same disaster of Reaganomics coupled with the christian white nativism that wears its grievance on its sleeve in the form of flag, theocracy, and authoritarian law and order.

October 24th 2017
If Flake and Corker believe Trump unfit for office will they call for the application of the 25th Amendment from fellow Republicans?
Integrity is a contest of virtue that tests our ability to place truth above self-interest.

October 24th 2017
The "Morally Treasonous"
aka "Your Neighbors"

Flake has a 93% lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union and a 96% lifetime score with the Club for Growth. Corker's is above 80% with both the ACU and Club for Growth. These Republican Senators are not sane, decent, principled politicians. They are the tools of the extreme Right. So why is it that both would be losers in their Party's primary? Their warnings about Trumpism have been met with silence by their Republican colleagues who dare not speak up. Bannon talks about taking their scalp but where do they differ in votes and policy?

Trump has no policy, instead Trump is a "movement" that requires the sycophantic loyalty that Flake described today as "morally treasonable." Do we need to describe the essentials of that movement or can we accept that it means "supporting Trump"? The politics of resentment? Let's go with the "supporting Trump" because then we don't have to describe these people morally bankrupt bigots. But it is precisely this morally treasonable behavior that explains why Flake and Corker cannot win their safe Republican seats. This behavior is not merely Trump's behavior ---and this is the crucial fact. Such "moral treason" belongs to the 80% of Republicans who strongly support Trump according to the new Gallup Poll.

62 million voted for Trump. 80% of those voters are 49.6 million Americans participating in Trump's moral treason.

These are, without a doubt, the majority of voters in both Arizona and Tennessee. The new Republican Senators come 2019 will offer loyalty to Trump. Think of it this way: there are about 323 million Americans, and Trump's voters are 99% white. There are about 196.3 million white Americans-- not voters, Americans--- and as we noted nearly every single Republican voter is white. Let's leave aside how many of the 196.3 million white Americans are not Republicans or voters. 49.6 million of 196.3 million is about one out of every four white Americans. Let that sink in a little: one out of every four white Americans support Flake's description of "moral treason."

October 25th 2017
The Fever and the Disease

Flake said, "“I think that this fever will break. I don't know that it'll break by next year.” No, it will not. Trump is not a singularity, he is not an anomaly or merely the cause of the white entitlement grievance that is now the New Republican Party. Trump is _result_ of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Bush because each of them wooed and accommodated, adapted and included the worst of America into their Party.

When their own propaganda machines appeared in Rush and Fox,, they used these tools to cosset the anger, fear, and resentment that defines the ethos of the base. Trump may be an aberrant for his absence of conscience, shameless narcissism, but he is neither inconsistent nor a breach from the past. He is the consequence, the result, the consummation.

America's fever has multiple causes but all of them can be traced to two _kinds_ of facts---change and stagnation. The changes that President Obama represented were made out to be the embodiment of evil that whites could recognize as a threat to their narrow visions of life and privilege. The stagnation that Republican policies in particular have wrought ---endless war of choice, economic immobility, wealth inequality, science rejection---provide the the complement.

Flake was right yesterday when he said he had no chance to win in AZ. I cannot say this enough: Flake's diagnosis of character and immorality may have made him quit but it was his enabling, participation, and continuing ideology that made his political bed.

"Conservatism" in America is a disease wrought of fear, anger, entitlement, privilege, and _history_. The fever is just now raging but the disease is America's long failure to address its causes: bigotry, racism, sexism, economic inequality, privilege, and primal fear, all coddled and nurtured by conservatives.

Democrats have clearly played their part, especially when it comes to the needs of corporations and empire sustainability. We are in a permanent state of war around the world and no one, much less Democrats, will really talk about why. We are living at the whims of big money, corporate usury, Wall Street's dictates ---and no one has the power to stop them. No, not even Bernie, or especially not Bernie. It's capitalism's consequences mingled with the consequences of change and stagnation, fear and need, the lack of any better system familiar to our history.

Conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes is finally, _finally_ catching on. Look at his interview with Jonathan Chait in NY Magazine for the clarity of his own failure and his enabling recognized. He calls it a "relief" to be out of the conservative bubble because, well, it's a fever that is merely a symptom of the disease. What they fear will change leaves them stagnant; what makes them stagnant is the change they refuse to embrace. It's primal, it's real, and it's not a fever that will break anytime soon. Trump is ascendent, not over. Hang in there, grab an aspirin, don't give up.  The disease may be  here to stay but we must break the fever.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Grammar of Fitness A Boring Lesson To Explain Our American Failure

Though it has been said from the outset and can't be said too often, Trump is unfit for the office.  Alabama Republicans just nominated for the Senate a malignant ingrate and religious extremist, but even worse, someone who possesses a fundamental disrespect for the rule of law.  This willful ignorance and rejection of the tasks of government comes from the people who elect them.  It is the people who are demanding that our leaders need not  respect nor understand the grammar of democracy.  Americans are refusing to meet the basic requirements of citizenship.  Let's call that requirement the grammar of civics.  Have I bored you yet?  Wanna read more?

Professor Krugman makes the case in some detail this morning for the evidence of unfitness for governance, as if we needed more.  But let us be just as candid about what it takes to be a republic, to elect our leaders.  It requires a populace that is also fit, one that is responsible enough, informed enough, and committed enough to respect the underlying structures and institutional formations.  The idiotic "drain the swamp" meme is another excuse to reject the tasks of fitness.  And that, my fellow Americans, is not only America, and it's not just the Trump voters, it's the issue too among non-voters and non-participants.  We have no commitment to the requirements of fluency in the language of democracy.

That our President is a narcissist incapable of any response but to his own autocratic impulses tells us how ill-equipped America is right now for this century ---or any.  We have reduced "civics" to a dirty word or, more likely, an incomprehensible word.  I would venture to say that most Americans could not define it.  So understanding civics becomes much like studying grammar: a subject nearly all of us hate, refuse to do, but need far more than we believe.  We need not all become grammarians but we all need some.  Just enough to diagram the sentences that create fluency.  Usually we get fluency without any work because grammar is too natural and implicit.

In a natural language like English, we all use a grammar no matter what dialect we speak.  There is no "standard" English but that of the group in power demanding we conform.  We manage some kind of understanding because in a natural fluency we recognize the meanings within structures that demand only the minimum effort.  In every ordinary encounter we listen to understand the sounds, the syntax, the organization of the words ---and that means that we apply grammar reaching into the rules even when we are not aware we are doing it.  This is because we don't need to be _too_ aware, we can just do it.  We already know what to do because we do it adequately and we do it instinctively.  Of course, the more we think about this, the more we grasp that understanding another is going to require a lot more than understanding the words that are spoken.   So even when the underlying grammar is implicitly coherent to us, we are going to have to work for meaning.

But being a citizen is not like speaking a natural language.  We are treating democratic citizenship as if it were just something we know how to do.  But the evidence is in.  We are failing.  John Stuart Mill wrote about this and he was right: there are requirements of the populace if the democracy is to survive and flourish.  So why do we need to know the grammar of democracy if we are instinctively capable as we are when we are fluent in our mother tongue?  We need a different kind of language to make the point.

Sanskrit has the same requirement that comes with living in a democracy: it demands the study of its deeper structures, it requires attention to grammar in ways that other spoken languages do not.  When we speak fluently our mother tongue it is not because we have learned its grammar from any formal study.  Rather it is that we have reached into an instinct that is human and developed an innate ability (see Steven Pinker on this).  But no one has spoken Sanskrit as a first language since around the time of the historical Buddha ---and don't believe any political propaganda that makes this claim.  You cannot learn Sanskrit without  a requisite study of the rules of its grammar.  Yeah, yeah, and it's hard.

Similarly, it's not natural or instinctual to be fluent in democratic citizenship.  We are not naturally given to working within contrived structures of representative leadership, we are not instinctually charged to be responsible to the history of institutional forms, or demanding of our leaders that they be.  It's going to require some tedious, unwanted, and serious effort to be up to the tasks of democracy.

Democratic citizenship's grammatical requirements are hardly Sanskrit but they are real enough: left to our own devices, complacencies, indifference, and lack of awareness the results will be the election of Trump or Moore.  We have elected people unfit for the tasks of rule of law, disrespectful of institutions and structures, and willfully ignorant of all of the other basics of civic grammar. We Americans don't want to do the work.  Who does?  It's grammar!  It may not be fun to pay attention to grammar when you think you are fluent in the language of democracy.  But this is no natural language.  It is an invention as magnificently artificial, contrived, and unconventional as, say, Sanskrit.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Lying Strategy or the Merits of a Good Idea, Because Winning Isn't Cynical, It's Necessary.

In this age of short attention spans, virtual facts, and lowered denominators, let me ask: when is it important to exaggerate, lie, and cynically promise the moon when you know that leveling with people is a loser?  Do good ideas need to be lied about or surrounded with misleading, unfinished, and incomplete truths just to get an airing?  Do we have to promise the moon just to deliver a pizza?  How do exaggeration and untenable promises play a role in creating the necessary memes?  Does all that just set you up for failure, berated eventually as a sell out when you can't make it happen?

The right wing in America has a _machine_ set up to allow their lies to go unchecked and repeated.  It's called Fox, Breitbart, Rush, Hannity, etc.  The left has no such mechanism and then goes on mainstream media shows only to be legitimately interrogated, forced to take the facts seriously, and get creamed because, well, when THEY lie, they get busted.  The right's false equivalences go largely untouched or the right dismisses the MSM and honest journalism is deemed fake.  It's lose lose here.  But we persist with the same necessary question: do we lie to _get the right idea on track_ OR do we level with people?

Religion, I will also remind you, has a long, storied history of promising everything and delivering little.  And these religions have a way of WINNING, if by that we mean, they are still around spewing their nonsense.  It's not about leveling with people, it's about selling them something they _want_, and if that involves nonsense, so be it!  Jesus is coming.  Said the 1st century evangelist.  Okay.  Continue to LOOK BUSY.  I  assure you.  He's still coming. Umm, sooner or later.  Right.  You get the point here.

But the issue isn't only religious fantasies.  There's something far more practical I have in mind.  I'm asking about how to reach into people's hearts and minds and PLANT A GOOD IDEA that otherwise will just wilt or fail.  I'm asking with seriousness if it is actually necessary to go through this process of dissimulation FOR GOOD REASONS, that is, to get something eventually that is more honest.  Let's be plain: without the bullshit, no one pays attention and no one buys the story they _want to hear_.  Turn it around: too much honesty, same problem only worse.

Now, one could argue precisely the opposite: that a good idea needs no exaggeration or false sell because, well, it stands on its own, it's a _good idea_.  (If this were true Rajanaka wouldn't be, you know, just us...)  So this strikes me as patently false, at least for the majority and not-us.  We live in a country where people regularly and routinely ignore their interests, vote against them, and fail to take seriously almost everything that is important because they would rather watch reality TV and believe it.  There are people who think Obama was born in Kenya and lefties who think Bernie's healthcare plan could pass a Congress.

So the good idea I currently have in mind is universal healthcare and some sort of single-payer system, which is currently being sold as "Medicare for all."  Here's why I think it's a good idea being lied about: math and fear.  The math problem isn't that it can't be solved.  There is no reason why the richest country in the world can't afford healthcare for all: we know the oligarchs and their politicals will oppose it and work tirelessly to convince the low information American.  Since most Americans get their healthcare from employers, which doesn't mean they get good care, they will be reluctant to change when they find out that premiums, deductibles, and other costs are now called "taxes."  The word "taxes" will be enough to scare them to no.

What's left then is _how_ to get to healthcare for all and some or another single payer?  Do we go with the Bernie talk, which has zero chance of winning unless there is a complete Democratic take over of every branch of government including 60 votes in the Senate?  OR do we tell the truth about that?  I'm not kidding.  We NEED to get people onto OUR meme, which is healthcare for all MUST happen.  So do we knowingly tell them exaggerated bullshit, the way Republicans do _all the time_ (e.g., repeal and replace with NO REAL PLAN)?  Or tell people the truth about incremental change and real costs, you know, LEVEL with people?

This week, among the 17 Senators siding with Bernie's Medicare for All, are serious Democratic Presidential candidates.  The question is this: are they honest AND should they be?  Not so much.  So I'm thinking that Harris, Booker,, are taking a play from the Republicans: promise the moon and work the facts _later_.  Why not tell the truth?  Because it's too hard for Americans to accept what's real and, more importantly, they _need_ a hype to hear _anything_, they need a team, a cause, something BIG to root for.

So we're left with two strategies: lie big to try to make the meme take hold or use acidic candor to try to deal with practical facts.  The latter tactic ---cool honesty--- has not served us any better than lying big.  And it has the added disadvantage of believing that people, our fellow citizens, the American people are adults and will act accordingly.  I seriously doubt that is possible given both attention spans and the hard to swallow facts.  Should we lie big to get the point across or keep to the hard facts?  I wonder.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Studying Religion and Acting Politically: How We Decide to be Human

Studying Religion and Acting Politically:
How We Decide to be Human

In the study of religion we consider how people's beliefs, values, and actions inform our human responses to nature, culture, and individual conscience. As professionals we must consider our subject the way a myrmcologist takes up ants, that is, we study our subject first in an effort to suspend our moral bias and emotional judgments to understand what it is we think is true. There is nothing ---not one thing--- that is unusual about our academic task because we _study_ our subject the way we mean to study _any_ subject. Religion is our subject. This warrants a bit more explanation.

Our resources come from any number of methodologies, because religion is a _subject_ and NOT a method. (Modern political science often describes itself the other way around, fyi.) So, first we pause, consider to take seriously what people say about themselves and what they do, and we do this to place the argument _in front_ of our judgments. This means we pursue clarity and decipherability regarding the evidence ahead of our preferences, as far as possible. This process is not guileless or wholly objective (because there is always a subject) but it intends to be honest, aiming with acidic but not corrosive transparency towards an assessment of the facts. What makes studying religion strange is that we must distinguish ourselves from those advancing or advocating a particular religion, even if we share similar objectives such as a transparent assessment of facts. We might call the study of religion a secular religion insofar as it is based on such an essential claim deemed uncompromisable. However, our facts are vulnerable in ways that most religions reject, they can be revised in the fact of evidence, our findings may be refuted by further study, and, most importantly, there are methods of disproof that separate our pursuit from religious dogma. We ask how we could be mistaken rather than merely attempt to prove our correctness.

But just as fire ants can pose a clear danger to human life, and so require us to act in ways to address their behaviors, so too the _consequences_ of religion demand a similar evaluation, both moral and practical. First understand what people are saying, ferret out their complex historical features, their use of language, attempt to discern the underlying motivations and meanings with as much honest claim to truth as is possible before drawing conclusions. (Certain religious traditions may pursue truth with just as much emotional composure and intellectual clarity and so share in the spirit of secular inquiry.)

In the so-called Nashville Statement (warm apologies to Nashville and to those rejecting this identity) from The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood we need to understand that both the methods of our secular study and the outcomes are determined to be a threat to their version of Christianity. When someone claims to be a "true Christian" (or "true Anything") remind yourself that such persons _believe_ this and that _each_ claim is "true" insofar as that is their belief. ALL such claims are valid inasmuch as the claim itself is _believed_ and to acknowledge that fact is called the "principle of charity" in the study of religion ---we are charitable to admit that people's claims must be taken seriously. This process is not to be confused with endorsement or the principles of soundness in argument. (Arguments can be valid but not sound because a valid argument merely requires the conclusions to follow from the assumptions; a valid argument does not require the assumptions to withstand scrutiny nor does it require the evidence to withstand critical examination.)

There is nothing particularly new about the "Nashville Statement" insofar as many of the same voices have advanced this kind of "evangelical Christianity" for decades. What makes this kind of statement more interesting than its predictable content is its timing, its context, and the way these same people are now emboldened by their political allies. It is a certainly a political evaluation to conclude that these views are homophobic, deeply prejudicial against LGBTQ persons, and mean to establish as dogma opinions that others, including other Christians, would reject.

It is also seems to me an indisputable _fact_ that these views are morally repugnant to a society based on inclusion, no matter how they are derived or asserted on the basis of religious belief. If we assert the right of freedom of religion and these are expressed as religious views then their explicit rejection of same sex marriage and other human rights should lead us to conclude that our only recourse _is political_. To deny human rights on the basis of religion is a political choice, not only an ethical decision founded on some or another belief system. However we might protect their rights to express and to harbor such beliefs, religion grants no immunity to their moral depravity. Such a judgment of moral turpitude is not religiously grounded, it is secularly determined by claims to legal rights. Our fundamental recourse for those of us who are appalled by such beliefs is to deny these people legal power to determine the course of society ---to keep them out of power legally. Religion is always political, this too is a fact of history.

For the record, below is a link an article about the Nashville Statement with an internal link to the document.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

When Intolerance is Your Only Moral Choice

The Accusation of "Intolerance"
A Few Words for Your Cultured Despisers

How "tolerant" are we called to be in debate and conversation with those who would side with moral turpitude and relativism? I think we who resist Trump will be accused of such "intolerance" as we contend with the casuistry and deception that fuels their "both sides do it," "many sides, many sides" sophistry. Concede nothing to such specious nonsense. This is not a debate nor will we admit any honest controversy.

"Intolerance" is neither criminal nor culpable when the ethical issue at hand presents no contestable ambiguity. This is the crucial distinction we all need to make. However we insist that love will triumph over hate, it is surely less than loving not to detest and reject what is truly and wholly indefensible. To make such a claim of moral certitude is not to endorse infallibility nor does it suggest that ideas are beyond debate and serious conversation. Rather it is to assert that there are human values that cannot be compromised without conceding our very humanity itself.

Our current situation in America, and particularly with this wretched excuse for President, demands moral clarity because there is no ambivalence or equivocation to be contested. We are not obliged to give any benefit of the doubt when there is no doubt. This a simple test of basic decency. We must not yield to any of their deflections or evasions. I am wholly intolerant of racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and gender inequality and suggest that to refuse their legitimacy in civil discourse is to stand for our very best sense of shared humanity.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Bothersome Assignment of Being American, A School Teacher's Lesson Plan

The Bothersome Assignment of Being American
A School Teacher's Lesson Plan

It's nearly the school year and I'm a school teacher. This role confers a few prerogatives, like restating the obvious, discomforting certainties, and demanding a certain respect for the shared enterprise. It's always hard not to be pedantic because America, for all of its storied history of quality higher education, is a country of doers, not thinkers. We are famous for hating the very education that is demanded of us to be Americans.

To learn a given subject is not to be educated. We are tasked to study closely, think critically, and formulate arguments, no matter the topic. But most of all we come to question who we are. In an American University it is imperative, no matter what the subject, to fathom what it means to be living in America and to be human on this fair planet in our 21st century. 

There are four commitments to our shared American heritage and values.

First, to be an American is to be, as Lincoln put it, "dedicated to a proposition" that all persons are equal and entitled to human rights. Dare we call this the noblest of human ideals? We are not a race, an ethnicity, a language, or any one culture but instead attempting something that challenges any of those norms to establish a new circumstance for life, liberty, and happiness. We are human beings, we have rights, and we mean to dedicate ourselves to their meaning and to one another.

Second, the Founders and the nation failed from the very outset to commit to their stated aspirations and values. Instead they built a nation on slavery, oppression, sexism, and discrimination. The incongruity between our ideals and our outcomes is not mere hypocrisy, it is essential to understanding the tasks of being American. What we say and what we aspire to be we have not yet been. What we have been admits to a struggle that we will not surmount or solve. To be an American is to remain in the perpetual contest between our shadow and the shining city on the hill we long to build.

Third, Americans must take up the civic and moral responsibility of our history and apply ourselves to both our aspirations and our failures. We turn to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others to teach us, to heal us, to invite us to the better angels of our nature. To be American demands more than enjoying the fruits of one's labor and the freedom to pursue dreams. It means participating in the social and political processes that will empower us to our stated aspirational identity and to make amends for our shameful past.

Fourth, Americans must make the moral commitment to a shared human aspiration. This is not religious, though it may appear in the values of your religion. This is not partisan, though you may enjoy the privileges of partisan opinions. This is not a call to unity or to agreed policies, but instead to values that we must embody in law and execute with the ethical determination to meet our collective responsibilities. We owe something to more than ourselves as individuals or our immediate families. We owe to history a stark and clear affirmation of our greatness _and_ our original sins. We owe to one another the dignity and decency that commits to peaceful change and offers the American hope to all who share aspirations for freedom, life, and prosperity.