Thursday, May 30, 2019

Why Mueller Failed

Robert Mueller's friends and colleagues have too much respect for him as a person to say much of anything negative about his manner or his findings. I too do not doubt for a moment his integrity. I think he thinks he did the right thing and that he doesn't need to explain himself further.

I think he failed. And since I have no skin in this game, no knowledge of Mueller personally or professionally, I have no reason not to speak my mind.  His pundit lawyer friends on TV can't say what I say because while they think they are being "objective" (lawyers always do) they are in fact  defending Mr. Mueller their friend.  Mueller failed.  At least so far.  I see nothing ahead that would re-set the margins.

First, he failed to act as a special "prosecutor" because he delivers no verdict. Wasn't that his job? I actually agree with Barr on this. Barr said he didn't do this job. Correct. He should have told us whether there was a case for indictment. So he evaded on the basis of some untested rule. But let's grant him this because, you know, rules that only lawyers can rationalize.

This makes him not chief prosecutor but chief investigator for Congress. Fair enough. He says he did all he needed to do and doesn't want to talk about it and that the work speaks for itself. Wrong on at least two counts. First, there are hundreds of good questions (shall I start?) that he does not answer but likely knows the answers. Second, no document speaks for itself. He would fail my entry level class if he insisted as much. So what is his role? Maybe chief educator. How did he do in that? He fails again.

And then, what really galls me. I work in a profession largely devoted to talking only to itself in complex sentences, arcane arguments, and other modes of indecipherable bullshit. Academics are like lawyers, only as we know lawyers are worse: worse because they never have to communicate to anyone but each other. (Academics have to speak occasionally to lay people, like undergraduates---most really hate doing this, n.b.) So what does Mueller do? He speaks in double negatives, legal syntax, and does pretty much the only thing he apparently knows how to do---talk like a lawyer. To Americans. To a country that doesn't read, can't read, much less understand lawyer speak. He utterly failed as a communicator, as an educator, and as anyone but a lawyer speaking to other lawyers in Congress. Congress, for its part, can't figure out that it needs to do the right thing because, in the end, its about power and who gets to use. So there is a lack of principle on the part of Congress and a lack of understanding about what real America can understand from Mueller.

Start here and forgive the pedantry, I come by it professionally.

The percentage of Americans capable of understanding Mueller-speak is commensurate with your own demographic. Plain translation, it takes listening and some marginal critical ability to understand Mueller. How many Americans can do that? Come to my college classroom, I'll show you how few. And they are in college and some of them learn how to think.  But Americans?

So it is your duty as a public person to speak to the American denominator and that is Fox News Low, it is about as hard to understand as Lester Holt.  It's what people who make TV News know.  Speak slowly, assume nothing, use simple words.  Mueller just failed.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Why Politics is Always Religion

An article in the Washington Post is chocked full of data points about why Americans won't elect a professed atheist. The author argues we need one and that may or may not be true. He understands that won't happen but not for the core reasons. I think the author needs a further distinction to help us understand how deeply this religion business cuts. We are religious beings before we are political ones, religion being the superseding category. That too needs a bit of explanation. (Here's the link to the original bit:

That important difference we need to make is between a "professed" atheist and a passive one. You can _almost_ get away with being a passive atheist by playing dodge ball and keeping your mouth shut. Get into why you aren't a believer and your chances of being elected become zero. Get into why religious _belief_ is a positive detriment to 21st century adulthood and you get even less popular, even with your friends.

Bernie is a good example of the passive atheist. He adds the further distinction of not identifying particularly as culturally Jewish. Now add his socialist views and he's about as close to a godless communist as any has ever been with that many votes. But he knows how to skirt the issue because he knows we are a religious nation. Check out his quotation about how he has religious and spiritual feelings. He can't deny and no one actually ever wins at dodge ball, you're just the last person in the circle. So why is this the case?

Part of the evangelical right's disdain for Europe's democratic socialism is that these countries are largely post-Christian, humanist in orientation towards people, and indifferent to their dogma and moral evaluations. When you can be "good" without being a dogma believer you've _almost_ also escaped the last bit of coercion---the last is tribe loyalty. To deny your religion can be to reject your tribal identity; this is what we mean when we say people are "culturally X", say Jewish or Catholic or something that makes you put up a Christmas tree.

Dogma, morality, tribe are the three elements of a socialized religious identity. Notice how Republicans seek out the simplest, straightest line between the individual and the group. This is because they insist that renegade individuals or "outsiders" have no rights, no claims on the real estate. You're in or you're out. Sharing a religion is an important feature of that need but not the only one. How the individual features in this collective identity devolves usually to moral or personal regard. You think so-and-so is a "good person" because you know that person and this solves the story in most ways but not politically.

The irony in this is that the 1st Amendment freedom makes further interest in someone's religion something we don't know _how_ to talk about, it is relegated to the private. But once you are a political person, you _stand for_ the flag, for country, for _us_ and that means you have to conform. Cross even a little out of the Protestant Christian lanes and there is a lot of 'splaining to do.

The article's essential thesis is that atheism is the theists are the problem and I could not agree more. But he fails to understand more deeply I think why people don't like professed atheists. He seems to think that it hinges on our suspicions of moral inadequacy, i.e., professed atheists are immoral and then resorts to the usual disproofs. This is, of course, a false equivalency because it's a black swan problem: all you need is one deeply professed atheist who is moral and the argument fails. Meh. This is not the problem. The author has missed the real point.

Religion is inextricably woven into identity: social, cultural, and personal. All of those matters have their own histories. No matter how you privatize religious identities like Americans do in the 1st Amendment or how claim they are preempted by some claim (often religious) of our shared humanity, when someone _actively_ dissociates from religion, they are creating an antagonism against _you_ even as they formulate a new tribe, in this case the atheists.

Humans are Us-beings and no matter how we try to be _human_ beings, our Us means there is a Them. When there is a case being actively made that you and your version of Us is somehow gravely mistaken, wrong-headed, superstitious, silly, imperialist, in some way less than correct, valid, or socially legitimate there is a natural comeuppance, we take umbrage. We don't like being told that something we use somehow to formulate our identity is at best a tribal need and at worst fatuous nonsense.

In short, we _always_ take religion personally. We can't help it. And when people are affronted they feel attacked, dismissed, trivialized. It's not a moral problem as such, it's a matter of getting into the fiber of being and that _feels_ like a moral provocation. The professing atheist is making claims about our fragile and precarious hold on meaning, which we become desperate and angry about because we don't like to be told how touchy, insecure, and contingent those feelings and ideas are.

Enter modernity: we are daily undermined by diverse views, new facts, and global dangers. We may need an atheist to deal with those facts because Team Magical Friend always makes matters worse. But that will have to be a passive atheist, one who makes us _feel_ like our personal identities are being unthreatened, especially by the facts.