Monday, July 31, 2017

Burlingame on Lincoln: Who are We Really Dealing With?

Have any of you slogged through the monumental biography of Lincoln by Michael Burlingame? I'm twice through now though I confess that you could only love this kind of forensic historical detail if you love something as tedious, fatiguingly insular, and bromidic as, say, Indo-European linguistics or Indian philosophy. There's a lot to learn but one interesting take-away appears as Lincoln turns the corner on the ineradicable moral depravity that forms the foundation of white American life. It's not just southerners who are irremediable racists, it's everyone but the tiny minority of "radicals," the true Abolishionists. There is little doubt that Lincoln's heart is with the Abolishionists but what makes him so interesting is that he _knows_ who he is really dealing with. He is dealing with an America that is ethically incorrigible.

With Grant leading the way, Lincoln knows the Union will win the war and for all of his own doubts about the usurpation of power by the executive (he too wonders if the EP was actually legal as do the majority of Unionist lawyers), he insists on having elections and acting quickly to restore government in the south. He realizes, with a kind of deep inner sadness, how there is nothing he can do to change hearts and minds. How to unite the country that still harbors every gripe and asserts every claim it had before secession and the massacres that followed? The vast majority of candidates for office in the south once the war is over he knows will be no less racist, vehemently opposed to emancipation (with or without the 13th Amendment), and no less driven by the ethos of Confederate culture. So the Union wins the war but life goes on. Who governs the south but southerners? The vast majority of Unionists did not fight for abolishment of slavery. Then?

Lincoln doesn't live long enough to see that his greatest singular achievement was indeed the 13th Amendment because without that slavery would have likely been reinstituted or never actually abolished except by the States. Of course, Lincoln's notions of reconstruction fail entirely and the outcome 152 years later is that the modern Republican Party is the New Confederacy. That Confederacy isn't just in the south. It stretches across rural white America and into its suburbs.  Everyday I see pick up trucks out here in western New York with Confederate flags driving past cemeteries of Union dead. Lincoln was a moderate, a pragmatist because he knew who he was _really_ dealing with.  He wanted to do the best he could with who he was dealing with.  Was he morally compromised because he was less principled than the true "radical" Abolishonists?  Or was he dealing with a moral problem he knew he could not solve.  He really knew who he was dealign with and what was possible.  Do we?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

"Trump-Drshti" aka Trumpvision, A Spiritual Exercise in How to Think like Trump and Republican Poltroons

Why, why would I do this? I hear you all the way from wherever you are. And I am very likely very far away from your there, deep as I am in the depths of the Trump Ocean. Only somewhere in Arkansas or Oklahoma is there a Congressional district as regressive and abaft the beam of sanity as New York's 27th. So when you cry out, weep, and bleed like Rudra, I'm yer safe harbour. (Please enjoy the Commonwealth spelling for that extra soothing effect.)

Now, the desire for some prosaic didacticism. (I never fail to provide.  And this is a kind of a Sanskrit joke too, think YS 1.2; Mimamsa Sutra 1.1, Vedanta Sutra 1.1, more references on request yo).

Drishti is the Sanskrit word for "vision" or "sight," made most famous by an impenetrably difficult but curious text of one not very influential writer named Somananda. Here our 9th century author who lived in a world that he didn't know was round means to teach us not merely "to see" the Lord Shiva but to see _as_ the Lord Shiva sees. That's some heady stuff or just more of the same theological rigamarole that preoccupied Back Then worlds, but honestly don't worry much about it. I'm not discouraging your historical curiosities, I mean to relocate them in something a bit more trenchant. I am commending the edifying and rather emotionally disturbing notion of trying to see things _as_ another person sees them. Try this at home before you inflict it on anyone else.

So, just for a moment: Trumpvision. (I know, I know, you'd rather try to learn 9th century Sanskrit. Let's save that for the Assisted Living portion of our time together somewhere in the not distant future.) Until we see things through _his_ lens you'll be confused by your own sanity. It is, as we know, impossible to imagine what he thinks because it's not thinking, it's a kind of speech pattern that Chomsky and Pinker write and provides fodder for SNL. And then how, you say, could one stoop so low? Stoop, I say. Stoop lower. Keep going. Not yet. What's worth hating is worth understanding. Plus, it's easy, people do it everyday. And you can do it too! As Seen on TV.

My promise to you is that you might retain your own present (tenuous but let's say tenable) right-mindedness. Sure, we're all feeling a little delicate these days. We all want to use #resist and feel like that creates a Durkheim-esque "collective effervescence" (say this like it's French) and so draw us into something Powerful (capital letters help too). Imagine. But try not to worry if you can't. Surely don't bother trying to empathize, 'cause not even Somananda is foolish enough to make that kind of argument about your prospects for getting into someone else's head. This exercise requires only 4th grade logic and a certain emotional detachment from that voice inside that says, "oh no, it just can't be, it can't be...just no."

Start here, it only takes two moves, you can do this:
(1) Consider the worst, dumbest thing that Trump could do. Then, don't merely assume he might do this, understand that this is what he will do. Don't have another thought, just add this one:
(2) Think about Republicans as the craven, cynical poltroons you know them to be. This is the rule of Republicans are Poltroons. Remember this. Now add some Game of Thrones. Go to your worst personal nightmares (it is Shark Week after all, and you watched that Michael Phelps vs Shark race and know others that did too. Don't hate yourself for this, project that onto others who deserve it.) Next, think also of the most pestiferous, pernicious, and calamitous possibility and make _that_ your penultimate objective. (Think of more words that you like beginning with the letter "p." ) Now leave room for something even worse because this is, like I said, only the penultimate.

N.B., whenever you think there is a shard or bare remnant of decency in, say, a Republican Senator like Graham or McCain, remember that both voted innumerable times to repeal the ACA without the slightest compunction. All they needed was to feel the trolls who love their hatred for Obama and this is reason enough ---and if that doesn't work then just add one more word: "Palin." Both voted for her to be a heartbeat from the Presidency. Is your judgment sufficiently mitigated by that reality yet?

So this is the next batshit crazy thing that will happen sooner than later. But don't fret, in Trumpland we call this "Tuesday" or "just another great day making America great again."

*Sessions is fired or "resigns," because he finally gets the message. J. Beauregard will never be known as the brightest bulb in the room but even he can understand those good words, the best words, the really great ones that his boss loves so much.
*This leaves it is up to Rothstein to fire Mueller. Rothstein you are thinking has a smidgen, a splinter, a scintilla of integrity and personal probity left in him. Now apply the Republicans are Poltroons rule cited above. Rothstein demurs momentarily, because you want to believe in something better. But he wants his job so badly that it really doesn't matter what he does.
*Congress goes on vacation. (This is almost always a good thing no matter what and our Bright Spot, in case you were looking for one before Rachel tonight.) Trump makes an AG recess appointment, which means that he does not need Senate confirmation. Got Dictator yet?
*His new AG can fire Mueller. But who would take the job? Exercise the Republicans are Poltroons rule ONCE MORE.
*Every last breathing Democrat and nearly everyone not living solely on Republican Kool-Aid (apologies to Kool-Aid, of course) is outraged past any previous boundary. Yawn. Watch a rerun of 'Murder, She Wrote," and have some lime Jello(tm) with CoolWhip(tm). Feel better yet?
*McConnell and Ryan do...umm, nothing. The Trump's base _cheers_ and all the Rs need their votes, care only about donor money, and believe they will win the next election (without much trouble). Any questions about this part?
*Now go take a selfie of lunch, your last yoga pose, or of you and your dog. Play with your yo-yo in the unseasonably cool July rain, like we are doing here.  Wait till tomorrow. This was only the penultimate.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Relationship between Trumpism and the Faithful: The Need to Believe is the Need to Belong

We'd have to poke into conversations and polls to make the point of today's sermon stick. But the issue I raise here might be more than correlation--- it might be causality. That is IF you are inclined to a faith-based worldview--- especially one that adds in race and nationalism--- THEN you are more likely to stay your course voting Republican, no matter what Trump says or what legislation they pass. Nothing about the facts matters as much as faith.

My claim is that the more inclined you are to include God in your belief system about evolution, the more inclined you are to support Republican/Trump views no matter the facts. If Pew were to track this relationship between religious belief and Republicans there would be a way to support my thesis, which is simple enough. Trumpism flourishes because, among other things, it operates on the same basis as any faith cult, say, any form of orthodox Christianity (but it matters not which religion).

Fealty with such worldivews requires the _tendency_ to believe without recourse to the processes of learning that require contrariety. That is, faith requires the ability to withstand argument or evidence to the contrary in order to (1) retain fealty with the tribe and (2) direct an agenda that follows from the faith claim. You're in or you're out and because you _believe_ this or that ---and particularly God is somehow involved--- you can advocate some or another agenda (oppose abortion, same sex partnership, etc.) Trump's faithful don't care if he holds these particular God-views. They care that he identifies with them as a white tribalist and that his epistemology ---his theory of knowledge--- is _faith-based rather than fact-based_. Why?
Why choose faith over fact as a way of thinking and living your life? First, because you don't know any better. The lessons of science are not only complex and hard to learn, the _implications_ of these facts are _not taught_, even in advanced science classes. What is true about our mortal and moral lives because of what natural selection, cognitive science, and all the rest have taught us is largely unexplored intellectual territory in college classes. Most Trump voters are not college graduates and the base has no more than high school where almost nothing about these subjects are taught _even factually_. So as a culture there is no access to fact-based claims that would be rejected if taught because they are contrary to established faith-based claims.

Those with faith-based claims are also _far more_ likely to support views that are (1) contrary to self-interests and (2) withstand little critical scrutiny (e.g., evolution vs. creationism or support for Trumpcare). The reasons for this are complex but the foundation is clear enough: to reject the faith-claim is to risk being outside the tribe and the faith-claim itself overrides any other fact-based argument. Your alternative facts are nothing less than your faith.

Further, in a faith-based world you don't learn by asking how could you know if you are wrong. You can ask the Pope anything ---'cause, you know, he's a nice guy and all--- but the idea that Jesus might not be the only begotten son of God come to save you, that is _not_ up for a change of mind. And all fact-based learning must be willing not only to change minds but to reverse conclusions. When we find out what's true, we can be turned completely around until the next time. But that's the name of the honest knowledge game: conclusions change on the basis of fact-based learning. Instead it's just as plausible to cling to (guns and) religion--- your belief, your faith no matter the facts---- because that is part of your cultural and personal identity formulations. You don't just want to believe, the costs of non-belief are socially and personally dire.

We don't have to go all the way to the existential fear of death, the pursuit of meaning in daily moral tragedies, or realities of human venality to witness the _need_ to believe. When the world offers no actual consolations, when we realize that morality is only up to us, or that people will do the next unthinkable thing, we _want_ to believe that there is a higher power that will make this all somehow better. Perhaps even more important is that there ain't no one who wants to _feel_ the aloneness of a shared mortal existence. The need to belong is the need to believe.

Now for a few more (pesky) facts. According to Pew, "belief in creationism is 21% among those with postgraduate education versus 48% of those with no more than a high school diploma. Agreement with evolution without God's involvement is 31% among postgrads versus 12% among Americans with a high school education or less. However, even among adults with a college degree or postgraduate education, more believe God had a role in evolution than say evolution occurred without God." Add up these numbers and you will find a correlation between Trump voters and supporters of the Senate wealthcare bill and the role of God in creation.

[Could one believe in a God(s) that had nothing to do with creation? This is entirely different theological rant. But the point is that nothing we have learned from Darwinism, physics, and other fields of modern science proves "God's involvement" and everything we know thus far (all knowledge is provisional is another thing the faithful really can't like...) demonstrates the contrary.]

There is also a strong correlation between race and education with creationism and God-participating evolution among Trump voters. So faith in God is faith is _us_. This is the important take-away that further explains the Republican Faithful's willingness to stick with their President even if he shoots someone on 5th Avenue. He was right: their need to believe is not only real, he understood that they have an even greater need to belong _and_ have learned _no other way of thinking or living_. Faith is their emotional bond to one another, to Trump as the totem of their tribe, and believing in things that have no basis in fact is _normal_ and _expected_. Nothing changes minds when hearts have already decided what is true.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Studying Religion and Our Perfect Storm

I study religion for two reasons. First, the history of culture ---art, music, mythology, poetry, ritual--- is told largely through religion. If you want those wonderful things, you need to retrieve them from the clutches of religion. Second, I study religion because I am fascinated by our human willingness to submit to nonsense ---to fend off the fear of death and the realities of suffering, to claim some sort of superhuman possibility like "enlightenment," to belong to a group, stay in the tribe, to be part of a story, to get through the truths of life that remind you that life is short, often as cruel as it is beautiful, and that it ends.

When religion meets politics, it's the perfect storm. The power of supernatural authority is invited to control everyday life and push autonomy, critical thinking, and the genuine achievements of human effort to the margins. Add hypocrisy, grifting, and moral vacuity and you have Trump, Robertson, Fox News, and American Evangelical Christianity. 
Evangelicals can't manage a world without absolutes and the daddy-authority that keeps their fantasies intact. It should never fail to astound how people so willingly give up their freedom to belong to a group that tells them who they are and what they must do. Trump, much like their invisible magical friend, provides all the solace they need to be led like sheep. Now these sheep have their true shepherd: how much further into subservience and sycophancy will they fall on their way to heaven? Wait, the Senate healthcare bill will surely get them to their heavenly reward sooner than later. Is it too cruel for me to say sooner the better?
Read Egan today in the Times. He won't go as far as I have here because he's afraid of offending people who think _their_ version of this religion isn't this.  I have no such trepidation.