Monday, January 20, 2020

I Have To Pay Myself $50 Because I Erred

. . . .in an unuttered prediction about the South Dakota Legislature and Drag Queen Story Hour.

During the spring and summer of 2019, conservative intellectuals engaged in an internecine conflict because they disagreed about how to best conduct the next phase of the Great American Culture War. One could tell they were intellectuals because they used terms such as "appeasement" and did not accuse each other of being "cuckservatives."

On the one side, conservatives steeped in the traditional liberal order believe that the power of the state should not be leveraged in matters of morality. Others, led by Sohrab Ahmari, assert,

"Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. " 
Government, Ahmari asserts, can be a tool to "enforce our order and and our orthodoxy." The catalyst for Ahmari's desire for government intervention was a Drag Queen Story Hour held at a public library. (This Wall Street Journal article describes one such story hour and, miraculously, doesn't seem to be hidden behind a paywall.)

When I read Ahmari's screed or manifesto or disjointed musings, I said to myself, "Self, I bet you $50 that the at least one South Dakota legislator will file a bill banning Drag Queen Story Hour or sponsor a resolution condemning Drag Queen Story Hour on the first day of the session."

This morning, I skimmed the list of bill titles. I saw nothing related to drag queens or story hours. I did see two bills about libraries, but the text did not ban story hours, drag queen or otherwise.

I don't know how Speaker Haugaard or Representative Deutsch missed this opportunity to prove their cultural warrior bona fides, but I went to my wallet, my change jar, the cup holders in my car, and my couch cushions and found $7.89. I still owe myself more than $40. 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The MAGA Church Ad: A Minor Musing

It's Sunday morning, so let's mix politics and religion.

During the 2016 campaign, some American Christians voted for Donald Trump because they believed him to be a King Cyrus figure. In the Bible, Cyrus is the Persian king who ended the Babylonian captivity. These same people likely saw Hillary Clinton as a Jezebel analogue. At the time, I saw Trump to be closer to Rehoboam, the king of Israel whose actions literally divided the kingdom. Trump's actions as president have intensified my belief.

Recently, the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans, has released a campaign video entitled "The MAGA Church." The video begins with the scriptural reminder to beware wolves in sheep's clothing and closes with the tagline "If this is the best American Christians can do? Then God help us all." The ad juxtaposes statements by prosperity gospel preachers and sons of famous preachers with some of Trump's more hubristic  or outlandish comments. It is a powerful well-done ad that will matter not a whit.

First, the ad demonstrates Trump's hypocrisy. Trump's religious base has made peace with that hypocrisy and now sees it as a mark of faith. They did not need Jim Bakker to tell them that supporting Trump was a sign that one is saved. They already believed it. (The ad has a clip of Bakker's utterance, so I am not going to provide a link.)

Second, the ad shows many of the prosperity preachers laying hands on Trump in the Oval Office. Those unfamiliar with charismatic, Pentecostal, or full gospel churches will find the act peculiar at best. Members of those churches who are full-throated Trumpists will take pride in being a "peculiar people." More importantly, they will see the ad as evidence that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.

In short, the ad will merely reinforce existing beliefs. Those who believe Trump is a B.S. artist conning the faithful will have a lot of evidence in one place. On the other hand, the ad will likely deepen Trumpists' belief that American Christians are a persecuted minority and that Trump is indeed a modern day Cyrus sent by God to protect them from worse persecution.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A Minor Musing On Populism, Work, And The Common Person

I keep trying to understand the right wing populist bent, and I end up failing. (To be clear, I don't understand left wing populism either.)

As I understand it, populism in its current iteration is based on an idea that wealthy, well-educated elites who have held the levers of power for the past few decades have failed. It is, therefore, incumbent on the populace to remove elites from power and replace them with leaders who will do the will of the common folk.

That sentiment brought Donald Trump to the White House and Kristi Noem to South Dakota's Governor's Mansion. The fact that common folk support either politician is one of the the universe's ultimate ironies.

This Dakota Free Press post about South Dakota's Week of Work reminded me of an exchange I had with PNR when he blogging in South Dakota. He replied to one of my comments on his blog (which has sadly been taken down) with phrasing something like "there's a way to ensure that there's dignity in work without feeding people to maw of capitalism."  The post points out, Noem, a woman who seems to be becoming a darling of many Trumpists, will have students "engage with employers" but not with workers. They will be told how they can work for South Dakota or some corporation and become a means to a another's end. There will be little talk of workers' dignity or the dignity of work. In short, they may well be urged to hurl themselves into the capitalist maw whether the action is in their best interest or not.

If populism as a movement or a philosophy is to make any sense at all, it needs to be predicated in the belief that individuals ought to be viewed as ends unto themselves not means to governmental, corporate, or social elites' ends.  However, we're approaching the third anniversary of Trumpism as a governing philosophy and those three years have been nothing if not Orwellian, not in the 1984 sense but in The Animal Farm sense. Orwell's fable concludes, "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Just as Orwell's men and pigs became indistinguishable, the policies of the elites that populists believe failed them and Trump are nearly identical. Damon Linker, writing for The Week, makes the case:
. . . . On policy substance there has been a single actual change: the GOP is now far more nativist on immigration than it was from 1980 to 2008. Other than that, the only significant shift has been at the level of style. Trump is a lying, trash-talking BS artist who treats trolling as his preferred form of presidential address. A day during which he manages to "trigger the libs" is a good day for the Trump White House (and the days when he doesn't are exceedingly rare). That is the only meaningful respect in which Trump is a populist: He talks down to and encourages the meanest sensibilities of Republican voters rather than seeking to elevate them and the rest of the country with exalted rhetoric. 
That's it. In every other respect, the Trump administration might as well be the third term of George W. Bush.
Linker may be underselling the effect of nativism and "encourag[ing] the meanest sensibilities" of voters.  Both likely make it easier to view others as means to an end rather than an end unto themselves and, therefore, deepen the irony that populists support those who have little regard for the people who elected them and may well make the lives of common folk worse.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Justifying Political Pessimism

On my previous post, Donald commented that my predictions were "depressing." I prefer realistic, but I can see how one can conclude my "the glass is half empty, cracked, and leaking" worldview is a bit depressing.

I offer the following two bits of support that I'm being realistic. First, the gap between the parties is wide and growing wider.
Stolen from "What Happened to America's Political Center of Gravity?"
New York Times, June 26, 2019
In a sane political universe, I would be close to the center or probably a step to the political right. In the world viewed by most Republicans I am far to the left. (South Dakota Republicans likely view me as someone to the left of Karl Marx.) In the world Democrats see, I'm too far to the right to be considered a reliable voter.

Second, an angry moral certitude dominates the current political zeitgeist, The following Tom Nichols tweet sums it up pretty well.
Nichols, in fewer than 280 characters,  illustrates how the political focus has moved from asking how can one work to ensure liberty for all to asking how can one stop others from exercising freedom in ways that one dislikes.

Both the chart and Nichols's tweet illustrate another problem: our current political vocabulary is inadequate to the task.

The chart shows that words like centrist have no real meaning. If one is in the center of American politics, one is farther to the right than many voters in the rest of the world and farther than Republicans were in the Reagan era.

When Nichols uses the term "conservative," he is referring to Trumpists who are not conservatives; they are populists far removed from the tradition of Hayek or Buckley. Populists in the Trumpian tradition are much more driven by the emotion of the moment than any conservative principle.

A widening gap, hubristic moral certitude, and a political vocabulary that is woefully inadequate for the current situation does not lead me to think optimistically.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2020 Predictions

I am happy 2019 is over, but I doubt 2020 will be a better year politically. Many, if not all of these, are pretty safe predictions. (I will try to avoid all 20/20 vision or 20/20 hindsight puns.)

1. The Noem administration and the Republican legislature will place a priority on social issues and work diligently to avoid finding ways to fund roads, bridges, nursing homes, or schools.

2. Noem will continue to resist industrial hemp. The legislature will not override her veto of any industrial hemp legislation that they pass.

3. The legislature will discover a mythical liberal enclave in South Dakota that has allegedly limited the rights of a Trumpist. They will pass another Republican version of rights for me but not for thee to prevent said imaginary violation from occurring again.

4. Mike Rounds and Dusty Johnson will both be re-elected. Their eventual Democratic opponents will each get less than 25% of the vote.

5. Democrats will lose 2 seats in the state legislature.

6. There will eventually be an impeachment trial in the Senate, and Trump will remain in office.

7. Democrats will not nominate Bernie Sanders. Their national convention will be marred by protests.

8. Trump will lose the popular vote but win a second term.

9. In December, Republicans will rediscover the deficit after four years of profligate spending and begin to work diligently to dismantle the social safety net programs that remain.

10. The results of the 2020 census will be challenged in court in at least 5 states.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

On Trumpists And Zeal: A Minor Musing

Last summer events conspired to cause me to realize that I needed to settle myself down a bit, so I began reading entries from A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals every morning and entries from A Year with G. K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wisdom, Wit, and Wonder every evening. 

I picked the Chesterton book because I like Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries and the title seemed timely. If the Trump era has revealed anything about America, it's illustrated that Americans as a whole exhibit a profound lack of both wisdom and wit. That lack likely exists because of a collective inability to experience or express wonder in either its common or spiritual definition.

I'm not but sure why I picked the Merton book, but I have found many of the entries beneficial. It is the December 22 entry of the Merton devotional, however, that expresses the root of the problem and the error of believers who have sold their political soul to Trumpism:
Yesterday, day of recollection, realized again above all my need for profound and total humility--especially in any work I may do for peace. Humility is more important than zeal. Descent into nothingness and dependence on God. Otherwise I am just fighting the world with its own weapons and there the world is unbeatable. Indeed it does not even have to fight back, for I will exhaust myself and that will be the end of my stupid efforts. [Emphasis mine]
I am more than willing to accept that many of the country's current problems began because wealthy, well-educated elites developed a sense of hubris that rivals that of every tragic hero in literature. Answering that hubris with the populist zeal that Trump fans possess will correct none of those errors. It will, as Merton correctly observes, burn itself out and accomplish nothing permanent.

I suspect that the populists who use Christianity to further their efforts to avenge perceived slights from those they view as out-of-touch elites will not take advice from a Trappist monk or a British Catholic, so they will continue to privilege zeal over humility and the exhaust themselves and the rest of us in the process.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Year In Review: Adolescent Literature 226 Edition

On January 1, 2019, I resolved to start a commonplace book wherein I would write quotations from my reading. These quotations must meet the simple criterion of striking my fancy at the moment I am reading them. They need not be inspirational, profound, or examples of great writing.

Shortly, thereafter people who should know better asked me to teach an adolescent literature course. Were I a person who followed through on my resolutions, I would have filled two or three notebooks with quotations from the books I used in class or the supplemental materials I read to prepare to teach, but I frequently fail at following through on my New Year's resolutions.

Looking through the quotations I copied in the commonplace book, three stick out as valuable reminders for the last days of 2019.

First, Wendell Berry's essay "In Defense of Literacy" contains a line that needs no context or explanation. Berry reminds readers, "Short-term practicality is long-term idiocy." This fact is ignored constantly, most dangerously by our political and corporate leaders.

The other two quotations require a bit of context. The first comes from Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in his Chaos Walking trilogy. A central conceit of the series is that men and animals project their thoughts audibly for all to hear; women do not. The book was first published in 2008, so Ness must be given credit for presciently creating an extended metaphor to illustrate the effects of 24/7 news cycles and social media. The fact that he calls phenomenon "Noise" throughout the series earns him extra prescience points.

Early in The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd Hewitt, the novel's protagonist and narrator, says, "Noise ain't truth. Noise is what men want to be true, and there's a difference 'twixt those two things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if don't watch out." Listening to and reading about the impeachment debate makes it clear that "Noise ain't truth" and individual Americans are hearing what they want to be true based on the "Noise" that reaches them but there's a wide, dangerous divide between what people want to be true and the truth.

Finally, news that a United States government website listed the fictional nation of Wakanda as a free- trade partner brings to mind a statement made by Changamire, who in the first four issues of the "A Nation Under Our Feet" arc is a scholar guilty of little more than a few radical ideas about the proper role of government. When he speaks to Wakanda's Queen Mother, Changamire says, "Wakanda is science and wonder, all of it achieved by ensuring your subjects do not ask too many questions. Wakanda has all the intelligence any advanced society would want and none of the wisdom any free society needs."

In 2019, political leaders in South Dakota and the nation as a whole doubled down on their emphasis on short-term practicality, amplified their idiocy through the Noise of social media echo chambers, worked diligently to prevent citizens from asking hard questions, and, thereby, ensured that country will continue to lack wisdom free societies need.