On President Obama’s State of the Union address

Candidate Obama is back. In his State of the Union address, he was more forceful, eloquent and shrewdly misdirecting than he has been since 2008.

In the history of the American political cycles, President/candidate Obama may have more successfully evaded accountability for a failed economy than any president in history. Perhaps we should finally acknowledge as a nation that a president cannot work magic on an economy. Perhaps we should finally grant to this president, for the first time in American history, a pass for an abysmal economy and kudos for good intentions. Perhaps we should, for the first time in American history, give a sitting president credit for the excuse that it would have been a lot worse.

I admire much of what the president said. I love his eloquence. I admire particularly the very shrewd focus on all that can be done. But I wonder where the leadership to do all of those things was when it mattered. President Obama had enormous political capital in his first two years and chose to squander it on health care reform, without even exercising genuine leadership in that raucous debate and deliberately capitulating to the congressional circus for all of the particulars of that misbegotten bill. All of these wonderful ideas to stimulate the economy, retrain America, get rid of bad teachers, help businesses upgrade their plants, stop illegal immigration (by means other than there being no jobs in America for illegal immigrants to cross the border for), get jobs for veterans — if he was serious about these ideas, he’d have proposed them in 2009. He didn’t. He pursued health care reform.

And health care reform has been a palpable drag on the economy. And so we have a president running on great ideas for America who didn’t actively pursue them when he could, and instead pursued, sort of, health care reform, to the detriment of the economy, with an abysmal economy, saying “vote for me” (and, by the way, conveniently never mentioning health care reform).

But lots of bold ideas. How many times did the president say in his SOTU address send me a bill and I will sign it? That is preposterous. His time to say that was two years ago if he was a leader. Saying it only now is cynical. He knows it won’t happen. And that’s why he’s proposing it now instead of two years ago when it might have been viable. That is a deeply cynical presidency trying to do something no incumbent has ever achieved before with such a bad economy: evade accountability for a terrible economy.

I don’t think Barack Obama is a bad president. Like every president, he has priorities. I question his priorities. But I credit some of them — like getting Osama bin Laden (truly, kudos Mr. President), like taking out much of the al Qaeda leadership, like realistically keeping open Guantanamo, like insisting that “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs” and he intends to keep it that way as long as he is president. In short, I like some of President Obama’s foreign policy because it is George W. Bush’s foreign policy against which he campaigned vociferously. I like that mature transformation of Barack Obama. I feel safer because President Obama is actually doing what President Bush did (notwithstanding the rhetoric of apology and capitulation that were words only and not deeds).

I just don’t like Barack Obama for what he was in 2008 geopolitically (and now chastened) or what he is in 2012 domestically. It’s still, for candidate Obama, about “fairshareism.” As if President Obama and members of Congress “paying their fair share” would put the slightest dent in the deficit. What a grandiose gesture — please tax me and members of Congress more! — and what a useless and transparently cynical sop that has nothing whatever to do with the deficit. Simply taxing rich people would do virtually nothing to reduce the deficit. Yet virtually no rich person in America would object to higher taxes if it were coupled with serious deficit reduction measures.

That’s a failure of presidential leadership.

And this is what candidate/President Obama poses for America: the rich aren’t paying their “fair share,” and that’s the conversation we need to have as a nation, and that’s his campaign mantra. Damn the rich, like me, he says coyly. That’s a serious shame because that squanders an opportunity to institute deep deficit reduction measures, coupled with sensible tax increases, and fiscal measures that promise financial health for America.

None of that matters if making rich people bad people makes for a good talking point. Like “the Buffett Rule.” Camera to Warren Buffett’s “secretary.” Can’t have Warren Buffet’s “secretary” paying more in taxes than Warren Buffett. First, she doesn’t. Not even close. Second, her income tax rate is higher than his capital gains tax rate (but not his income tax rate) because Congress treats capital gains and dividend income differently than income, and for a reason. Third, reasonable minds can differ on what the rate for income tax, capital gains tax, and dividends tax should be, but it is silly to compare the tax on Warren Buffett and Warren Buffett’s secretary. It’s comparing different taxes. But the president knew this.

This is a president digging out of a hole that may not matter. Watching Gingrich and Romney duke it out, this president may very well get a pass. He already knows he has a leg up because any challenge to him is wounded. Barack Obama is looking like the superior candidate. No Republican can challenge him, thanks to the circular firing squad. And there are so many reasons why challenging President Obama matters.

 

On Envy and American Culture

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the envious have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low.

We typically think of Lady Justice as blind so that that she can do justice without regard to who is before her. But perhaps she is blind so that there is no possibility of pleasure in what happens to a sinner. Her blessed blindness is not to achieve justice, but to prevent the ugliness of any pleasure at human torment, even to one deserving it.

But this is a form of envy for which a German word is necessary, Schadenfreude, and for which no precise English equivalent is available. It is one thing to hate the fortune of another — that is envy — and a step further to celebrate the misfortune of another — that is Schadenfreude.

The strength of a culture can be measured by its indulgence of envy and Schadenfreude. A predominance of the former is alarming. A predominance of the latter is corrosive and fatal.

“But it is Schadenfreude,” says Arthur Schopenhauer, “a mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others, which remains the worst trait in human nature. It is a feeling which is closely akin to cruelty, and differs from it, to say the truth, only as theory from practice.”

When certain European intellectuals expressed perverse pleasure at the toppling of the towers on 9-11, that was Schadenfreude in its quintessentially corrupt European and disgusting form. Its finest spokesman was French philosopher Jean Beaudrillard:

That we dreamed of this event, that everyone without exception dreamed of it, because no one can fail to dream of the destruction of a power exercising such a hegemony – that is unacceptable for the Western moral conscience. And yet it is a fact, which can be measured by the pathetic violence of all the discourses that try to cover it up. In the end, they did it, but we wanted it.

Envy, says Kant, is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own. In the Russian version of the game, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, “Ask the Audience” was deleted as a life-line because Russian audiences deliberately gave the wrong answer. They didn’t want to help the player. That is deep cultural cynicism.

I tee this up to insist that the character of a person matters and the character of a culture matters, to insist further that making excuses for the bad character of persons and cultures invites decline, and finally to ask where are we as a nation. Envy in American culture has historically been an isolated vice. Our narrative has tended more toward the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, the steadfast belief in opportunity, the admiration — rather than envy — of success.

If there is anything to the notion of American exceptionalism, it is rooted in three qualities: (1) a steadfast belief in our culture of freedom, opportunity and hard work; (2) a sincere desire for everyone’s liberty and success — from the Germans and Japanese after World War II to the Iraqis and Afghanis in 2012, with a host of American helping projects in between; and (3) the belief that extraordinary power, contrary to centuries of terrible lessons about power, can in fact be exercised sacrificially and fairly and without demand for real estate, on behalf of global stability. No other country in human history has ever combined these qualities.

Key to our American self-understanding — to whatever it may be that makes us exceptional — is rejection of envy and its corrosive power. Envy is always a net negative. Nothing good comes from it and it shrivels the soul of the envier. It makes him permanently less than he could be because he is fixated on the fortune of another, convinced it is ill-gotten, and no longer productive himself, except as a victim, because his guiding mantra is now the “unfairness” of it all. And the moment a man, or a culture, shifts primarily to a victim narrative, the cynical rot of decline sets in.

We’re confronted now with competing narratives in America. The 1% narrative seems clever — all that solidarity — but it is predicated on envy and demonization of the rich, and demand for free stuff (like forgiveness of student loans) — and why?

Is class warfare good for America? Do we solve anything — seriously anything – by encouraging the middle and lower classes to envy and despise the rich? Is Warren Buffet evil? Is Bill Gates evil?

To be sure, we’ve been fascinated and repulsed by the super-rich. They can be ostentatious and stupid — typically because they’re folks just like you and me who got suddenly rich and behaved hideously. And just as typically, they squandered their wealth and toppled to something like you and me. Life chastens most people. By the time they have a little bit of wisdom, they’ve been whacked.

Except for the super-rich, who do some of the finest things that human beings are capable of doing on this planet. If I had to gauge the good that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have done with their billions, I’d say the 1% fare very favorably as good human beings compared to the 99%.

We should be on our knees thanking that 1%. They’re, on average, better than us.

To whatever extent we wish to be focused on the rich, we’re indulging envy and missing the larger point. There isn’t anything the rich could do to save our economy. Screaming about the rich paying their fair share = envy. It’s not a solution. It’s a political talking point. The rich could fork over all of their fortune and put only a tiny dent in our massive deficit.

Stop the envy. Give no quarter to Schadenfreude. Our nation powers forward on the strength of people believing in themselves, never as victims, always resolved to succeed, and admiring success. Make it a little less, make it about blaming, and we are a culture in decline.

 

On Voter ID laws in a “post-racial” America

Voter ID laws are controversial — bizarrely — so controversial in fact that our first post-racial presidency (as promised and aborted) steps in yet again to attack a state on ridiculous racial grounds. South Carolina enacted a voter ID law, and the Department of Justice invalidated it because the Attorney General claimed — against the facts and several Democrats — it would discriminate against minorities.

What is a voter ID law? It says when you show up to vote, you have to produce some identification that shows you are who you say you are so that you’re actually eligible to vote. Like they do in Canada. As opposed to showing up to vote and pretending you’re eligible when you’re not. Much like you produce an ID to get on a airplane, or you produce an ID when you’re driving and the police pull you over, or you produce an ID when you want to cash a check, or you produce an ID when you apply for a Social Security card, or you produce an ID when you use a credit card and there’s a question about whether you’re the actual owner of the credit card (to prevent credit card fraud).

This should be obvious. This should be a basic requirement around which everyone rallies because it contributes to the integrity of elections. And the integrity of elections matters enormously because democracy is fragile and turns precisely on the integrity of elections. We respect democracy only because we elect the people for whom we actually vote. We respect democracy only because we have good reason to believe that eligible voters choose our elected representatives.

South Carolina passed a voter ID law that requires a voter to present a South Carolina driver’s license or other photo ID — a passport, military ID, or a voter registration card with a photo issued by South Carolina election officials (issued for free). Even if a voter shows up at a polling place without an acceptable ID, he can still vote a provisional ballot that will be counted if he brings an ID to election officials before the results are certified. If a voter has a religious objection or a “reasonable impediment” that prevents him from getting a free photo ID, then the voter can simply fill out an affidavit in which he outlines his objection or impediment and swears that he is who he says he is. His provisional ballot will then be automatically counted unless local election officials have evidence that “the affidavit is false.”

In other words, the South Carolina law makes it as easy as possible to vote — whether or not you have a valid ID — but simply tries to ensure a threshold requirement that you are who you say you are. To which the Department of Justice objects. Using Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice squashed the South Carolina law as “discriminatory,” even though the Department of Justice approved a virtually identical Georgia law in 2005, and the Supreme Court approved a virtually identical Indiana law in 2008.

Why? In Austin, Texas, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Are we willing to allow this era – our era – to be remembered as the age when our nation’s proud tradition of expanding the franchise ended?” Then the NAACP’s Ben Jealous made it plain: “You saw it after the Civil War. You see it now after the election of the first black president.” The race card, the very cynical very-not-post-racial race card. And the race card in contempt of the facts.

Voter ID laws do not suppress minority turnout — quite the opposite. University of Missouri professor Jeffrey Milyo discovered that after voter ID, turnout increased in Democrat-majority districts. University of Delaware professor Jason Mycoff found that voter ID did not decrease turnout.

Rhode Island enacted a voter ID law, which is to say, Democrats did it. Rhode Island Democratic Representative Jon Brien said, “those who are opposed to voter ID never let the facts get in the way of a really good emotional argument.”

African-American Democrat Artur Davis in Alabama apologized for opposing voter ID laws: by claiming that voter fraud wasn’t an issue, and that anti-fraud laws were racist, “I took the path of least resistance on this subject for an African American politician.” And then he said:

Voting the names of the dead, and the nonexistent, and the too-mentally-impaired to function, cancels out the votes of citizens who are exercising their rights — that’s suppression by any light. If you doubt it exists, I don’t; I’ve heard the peddlers of these ballots brag about it, I’ve been asked to provide the funds for it, and I am confident it has changed at least a few close local election results.

We should be beyond this. We should be beyond this as a polity even without Barack Obama and Eric Holder’s Justice Department, who promised a post-racial America and who could have delivered that promise but failed miserably and cynically.

Voter ID laws make simple sense. Opposition favors election fraud and race-baiting. And that is our post-racial presidency.

Dallas Cowboys 14, New York Giants 31

I don’t remember Eddie LeBaron, the Cowboys’ starting quarterback for whom Don Meredith was a backup. By the time I was able to form lasting memories, Don Meredith was quarterback. I’ve been a Cowboys fan since then.

Back up. I’ve never known much about sports. I peaked in 6th grade. The glorious touch, flag, and sandlot tackle football I knew as a late-blooming, short, skinny elementary school lad morphed into pads and helmets and tedious practice and bizarrely big guys in 7th grade. I chose the number 00 and figured I’d do it barefooted. I played four or five minutes as middle linebacker and my chosen number was prophetic (but always put me at the top of the roster). The game no longer made any sense to me. I sailed through the rest of my life, to this moment, pursuing matters other than sports (but always loving the Dallas Cowboys).

This background is important so that you understand why I say I don’t understand the fuss. My beloved Cowboys entered an appearance at the Meadowlands Sunday night, and they played exactly as I would have played.

First, let’s be clear, not everybody was happy when the league changed from 14 games to 16 games. I understand why the Cowboys would nurse this grievance. It’s cold in December. This whole playing-football thing, outside, in the cold, it’s not everybody’s thing.

Second, it would help if the season didn’t come down to the final game – and the stakes were whether we had to play more football in the cold, or not. What kind of incentive is that?

Third, and I truly do understand this, hurling a large determined man to the ground is overrated. There should be politer ways of signaling displeasure with forward progress.

Fourth, I get the Cowboys’ petulant preference for penalties. Who knows all this stuff? Better to play authentically and lose a turnover than play slavishly by the confounding rules.

Fifth, concerning turnovers, they’re really fundamentally unfair game-changers and shouldn’t be pursued lightly. And if there is an opportunity to toss a frikkin’ recovered fumble back to Eli Manning, who was smoking a cigarette in the backfield at the time, by all means…

Sixth, I personally live to see Tony Romo running for his life. I consider this the apex of the sport. I don’t believe the league adequately rewards this athletic part of the sport.

Seventh, look, it’s hard to get excited about playing the Atlanta Falcons next week. (Boring!) Especially if you don’t have to.

Eighth, 8-8… Call me a symmetry-freak. I just like it. You win some you lose some, carefully calibrating as you go. That’s a neat and tidy season.

Congratulations, I suppose, to all the disproportionately winning teams in the play-offs. Personally, I think you could do with a little Dallas Cowboys Zen, but I know lots of teams and fans are still stuck in the whole playing football well into deep winter thing.

 

On Gingrich’s judicial power play

Mr. Gingrich thinks well of himself – by itself, a prerequisite for the presidency. Part of the American vetting process we call caucuses, primaries and campaigns is about inquiring just how well one thinks of oneself, and just how one thinks well of oneself.

Mr. Gingrich gives us a glimpse into both by his assault on activist judges. He has ramped up the rhetoric – far beyond its traditional mooring in the importance of presidential elections, because presidents populate the judiciary. That subtle interplay between the branches – a perfect instance of what we traditionally celebrate as “checks and balances” – doesn’t satisfy Mr. Gingrich.

He wishes to make a case for the other two branches aggressively taking back power from the judiciary. He makes this case radically, as befits the bigness of his ideas. Presidents (and presumably governors) are not necessarily bound by Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution, entire courts (such as the Ninth Circuit) should be abolished, and individual judges should be held accountable for opinions that a president or a congressional committee consider unconstitutional, and subpoenaed, if necessary, to explain their decisions.

I disagree strongly with Mr. Gingrich’s splash-play on judges – but I hasten to add, his ideas are not “crazy.” The Supreme Court’s final authority on constitutional interpretation was an unsettled and controversial question before 1803, when Chief Justice John Marshall handed down the landmark Marbury v. Madison decision. And the controversy continued simmering thereafter (emphasis on “simmering,” as we conducted judicial and political business as if the issue were finally settled).

Mr. Gingrich is correct that Congress has the technical power to abolish and add lower courts, and even to haul judges before Congress. But not all technical powers are wisely exercised, a point that should resonate with conservatives.

Curiously, Mr. Gingrich’s remedy for a “constitutional crisis” (and for the record, we are not in the midst of a “constitutional crisis,” at least not if that phrase has any of the gravity that the Constitution itself has) is to radically politicize the Constitution. If you believe we’re in the midst of a constitutional crisis now, buckle your seatbelts. Strip the Supreme Court of supremacy in constitutional interpretation (a notion, ironically, with considerable liberal support), abolish the Ninth Circuit, and subpoena judges to explain their decisions to Congress – and we’ll be awash in weekly constitutional crises.

Mr. Gingrich might have sounded sensible had he urged a more serious constitutional conversation. For example, he could have called for serious congressional inquiries into constitutional doctrines applied by the courts. He could have promoted hearings by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees featuring panels of legal experts that educated Congress and the public on the origins, justifications and consequences of various holdings. That would be a public service, and smack less of branch bullying.

But of course, Mr. Gingrich believes he is seizing upon a hot-button issue, and doing so in a radical way that could galvanize conservative support for him as the only muscular conservative in the race for the Republican nomination.

As Mr. Gingrich has very little money and very little organization, compared to Mr. Romney, he rather desperately needs a surrogate for what organization and money get a candidate: credibility and momentum. Attacking activist judges plays well with the base, but is insufficiently attention-getting by itself. So Mr. Gingrich couples it with a grand re-shuffling of the constitutional balance of powers, as befits the bigness (and the bluster) of his ideas.

It’s a long shot, but it’s Mr. Gingrich’s Hail Mary – much as John McCain, with his similarly challenged campaign, threw the Sarah Palin Hail Mary – not with conviction that he was choosing carefully, but precisely with the knowledge that choosing carefully doomed him, and that only an apparently reckless long-shot, which might, just might, open into some kind of excitement and momentum, was his only hope.

The difference is that John McCain stared at the juggernaut of history bearing down upon him, and threw a Hail Mary, while Newt Gingrich imagines himself the juggernaut of history poised to sweep civilization, and throws a Hail Mary hoping how well he thinks of himself will be contagious.

 

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

I will miss Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps no other name on a link so speedily bid me click, giddy with the anticipation of an idiosyncratic and literate delight – no matter what subject might be his current fancy. While Hitchens lived, I was very pleased not to be Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Mother Theresa, or God.

In each of these cases, and so many more, he practiced rhetorical shock and awe – and he achieved devastation (with the exception, of course, of his one nemesis who did not, in his view, actually exist, and about whom, therefore, he borrowed entirely from other people’s biographies, and with whom, I would love to believe, he is currently arguing). In all of this polemical writing, Hitchens drew stark lines – rationally-grounded moral lines, and the verve, the chutzpah, and the integrity with which he did so was a profound 21st century repudiation of relativism and universal tolerance. He had no time for these.

Perhaps it appears on odd attraction – what with my frequent exhortations to civility and courtesy in political discourse. Hitchens could be uncivil, which makes me chuckle as I write it. Indeed, many of today’s left and right self-appointed pit bulls look like vaguely rabid poodles next to a fully-engaged Hitchens.

But that’s because so very few of these poodles have anywhere near the erudition, precision with language, and finally, ideological autonomy as Hitchens did. All of the guidelines I have suggested regarding civility still apply, unless you are Christopher Hitchens or a tiny handful of others who wield words with his grace. Perhaps the civility rules now apply more than ever because we must carefully re-learn the art of fiery polemics without the inspiration of its best practitioner.

I suppose many of the people targeted in Hitchens’ debates and polemical writings felt “bullied,” and we crave the secular certainty that “bullying” is bad. And of course it is, except when it’s really good. As when the bullies get bullied. Or the pretentious get popped. Or the powerful – whether despots or successful peddlers of very bad ideas – get surgically whacked. Which isn’t really bullying at all. Hitchens hated unchecked and brutal concentrations of power – but he also choked on the failure of power to do good, and scoffed at the craven sentimentality that saw no possibility of good in power. That is one reason this British-born brilliance loved America.

I never met Christopher Hitchens, never heard him speak, and never was in the same room with him. I simply became a voracious consumer of anything he wrote. The many tributes from the many who knew him count for so much more – but I have this personal gratitude to Christopher Hitchens, the public intellectual.

9-11 was a defining moment, a paradigm shift for Hitchens, as for me. Something clicked about the call to arms, the urgency of challenging a poisonous and murderous narrative, the obligation of the West, and particularly America with its wherewithal, to take the battle that had been horrifically exploded on our soil to its origins in theretofore much-too-comfortable violent despotism in the larger Middle East.

I supported the Afghanistan war and the more difficult (politically) Iraq war from the beginning, and Christopher Hitchens made a vastly better case for both, especially the Iraq war, than the Bush administration ever managed. If you wish a spoken taste for his eloquence on the subject, see here his debate with George Galloway in 2005.

I would deeply wish to examine and celebrate every moment of his eloquence, but my point is a narrower one. Hitchens tackled a public-relations nightmare that exceeded the talents of the Bush administration, and he did so with a passion and precision befitting the stakes. I’d have supported the Iraq war without Hitchens, but I am eternally grateful that he lent his enormity to the justice of deposing the butcher of Baghdad.

Christopher Hitchens used words artfully and drew lines brilliantly and always conveyed the importance of both. I will miss every column he might have written because I will lose a personal pleasure, and I will miss the tremendous public service of an honest master of words and lines.

What Is Tim Tebow Asking of God?

So much is interesting about Tim Tebow, or more precisely, what he exposes about our wildly conflicted culture.

For those who do not follow professional football, and do not manage to stumble into it via culture wars, I’m talking about the young Denver Broncos quarterback who prays on his knee before every game, and wears his Christianity on his sleeve.

Now there’s an image that sets fire to secular comfort. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “prayer is not supposed to be a public event, designed to display your holiness in front of the maximum number of people.” And Sullivan, to his maximum credit, followed up by posting several defenders of Mr. Tebow.

Tim Tebow, apart from being a now-winning quarterback with many now-quieter converts (irony note), is an evangelical Christian. That is, he ardently wants souls saved for Jesus. That’s his schtick. In the 2009 BCS Championship Game, he wore John 3:16 on his eye paint, and 92 million people searched “John 3:16″ on Google during or shortly after the game. The NFL doesn’t allow eye paint.

Before he became a winning quarterback (and still, in some quarters), the ugliness directed at his public prayer was astounding. You’d have thought the man flashed his penis. And this is truly a marvel.

Public displays of one’s religion, orientation and sensibility are common. Muslims are defended for engaging in their requisite prayer in public, gays are defended for being themselves in public, and Occupy Wall Street has been a massive, and massively defended, public display of in-your-face politics.

So what if Tim Tebow kneels to pray? Why the hate? Is it just that easy to hate Christians — while we defend pretty much everything else people wish to express in public? At this bizarre juncture in human history, with routine public splattering of social networking strangeness, is it really fair to criticize Tim Tebow? I’ve seen Christians and Atheists do vastly more disturbing things on Facebook.

And what is it, after all, that Tim is saying to God? Too many people imagine he’s seeking to put God on his side in a football game. I don’t think so. I think he’s saying, thank you God for this blessing and this opportunity, thank you for being you and being with me, whatever happens.

I don’t share Tim’s faith. But I respect his sincerity, his humility, and not least, his goodness. The man contributed his signing bonus to his charity, works with the W15S Foundation for children with life-threatening diseases, partners with Cure International to build a hospital in the Philippines, and works with “Drive for Education” to give back in the Denver community.

It’s easy these days to get worked up about people who make a lot of money. I’d like a lot of them to be more like Tim Tebow. And I’ve got no problem with the fact that he prays in public.

“No, not that movement,” he wrote cleverly.

What a remarkable gem from the New York Times Sunday Book Review — in this case reviewing two books about the Ku Klux Klan:

Imagine a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.

No, not that movement. The one from the 1920s, with the sheets and the flaming crosses and the ludicrous name meant to evoke a heroic past. The Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, they called it. And for a few years it burned across the nation, a fearsome thing to behold.

No, not that movement“? To what, exactly, is the good liberal professor Boyle referring with his overwrought, massively condescending and faux-cryptic allusion?

My best guess is the Know-Nothings, started in 1854 in reaction to the hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to America. They were nearly all poor, Catholic, uneducated, hungry (they were escaping a horrible famine in Ireland) and spoke with a barely intelligible brogue. It was America’s first experience with mass immigration — and America’s almost exclusively Protestant stock, at the time, wasn’t pleased. Riots, burnings and lootings erupted across the Northeast and Midwest. Opponents of immigration formed the Know-Nothing Party, which swept the Massachusetts elections and polled well across the north. Their platform promised strict limitations on immigration from Catholic countries and the teaching of Protestantism in public schools.

The Civil War was a bit of a burp in the northern hate, what with the hordes of immigrants pressed into war service immediately after their arrival at Ellis Island. The Know-Nothing Party (so called because they began as a secret society and were instructed to say, “I know nothing” when asked about their secret meetings) dwindled, immigration from other Catholic countries surged, and “nativism” settled into local disputes.

While I believe I’ve teased out Professor Boyle’s clever allusion, I’m a bit troubled by this fact. Most Americans know nothing about the Know-Nothings. You have to be a pretty geeky student of history to pick up on the Know-Nothings with nothing but “No, not that movement” as a hint.

True, the good professor is writing for the New York Times, which fairly presumes ideologically selective omniscience of its readers, but the style-book would have then dictated this cleverness: “No, not that movement, you know-nothing, I mean the Ku Klux Klan.” That is, the less (excruciatingly) obvious choice. Yeah, no, it’s not adding up.

There is another possibility. Less plausible — but at least a bit later in time, and therefore not requiring readers to pick up on a fairly obscure mid-19th century allusion with no clues. Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 — a mind-boggling bigoted enactment intended not only to block Chinese immigration, but to prevent existing Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.

Chinese immigrants built the first transcontinental railroad (and about 1,000 died in avalanches and accidents). America responded with hatred of the “yellow peril.” San Francisco created segregated schools for Asian children and western states enacted laws making it illegal for Asian immigrants to own property or open businesses.

The Immigration Act of 1924 made clear that the exclusion of 1882 applied to all Asians (and incidentally limited immigration from southern and eastern Europe, i.e., Italian and Polish Catholics and Jews).

And again, a big war was a bit of a burp in the Northern hate. China was our ally in World War II, and so Congress eased the exclusion nastiness — and simply set the quota for Chinese immigrants way low. (Japanese-Americans were huddled into internment camps around this time.)

Now that’s got the makings of “nationalism and nativism” — but I’m not sure I see any “movement” here — much less “a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety.” While helpfully later in time, I just don’t see the good Professor Boyle’s allusion pointing fruitfully to the horrible racism against Asians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So whatever could he mean by “No, not that movement?

“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

That’s the Washington Post headline of an interesting and somewhat disturbing Thanksgiving Day piece by Lisa Miller. The column follows with pronouncements from African-American theologians and academicians who focus on “justice,” and Jesus as a class warrior, and this provocative gem from Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary: political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

Miller first cites James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, who authored Black Theology and Black Power (1969) with inspiration from Malcolm X, and who in turn inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright — conspicuously without supplying anything Cone said or thought (so let me): “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p.143.]

Now there’s a plan, and certainly an answer to (someone’s) prayer: marry the left to ninja super-liberal class-warfare Jesus, hint at civil war, and for good measure, call some conservative Christians not really Christians at all. That should trigger a gush of electoral success.

This shallow pastiche of Black Liberation Theology, coupled with the suggestion that it offers political guidance to the 21st century left, misunderstands religion and politics at many levels.

First, the sweeping use of “black church” should give pause — as though “black church” means something ideologically uniform (or uniform in any other way for that matter), as opposed to churches attended predominantly by African-Americans. This is precisely the religious and political stereotype of African-Americans to which so many African-Americans and others deeply objected when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was portrayed as typical of the “black church.”

There is a political contingent on the right and a political contingent on the left who want very much, for separate reasons, to pigeon-hole the “black church” as angry black-Jesus-warriors against “oppression” and “rich people.” And that’s simply not the reality of the range of black churches in America.

The right contingent and the left contingent are equally vapid, using African-Americans as a uniform political symbol — at a moment in history when African-Americans are emerging in mainstream American perception as diverse in the same ways as Americans are diverse (thanks in no small measure to the emergence of credible black conservatives who successfully weather the storm of opprobrium from disgusted liberals and their own communities).

Second, the facile equation of historical African-American oppression with the modern grievances of the left should give pause. The horrible history of slavery, racism, lynching, ghettoism and oppression in America confers upon African-Americans a unique narrative. Similarly, the Holocaust — the genocidal slaughter, ghettoism, and oppression of mid-20th-century Europe and elsewhere — confers upon Jews a unique narrative. African-Americans and Jews are understandably resistant to lots of piggy-backing on these narratives — particularly when the piggy-backing comes from loud political groups that suffered nothing even remotely approaching slavery or genocide.

Even the African-Americans and Jews who are themselves part of loud political groups advocating for some modern notion of “justice,” I would surmise, privately wince at specious conscriptions of their narratives. Thus, for example, have many African-Americans (and others) chafed at the blithe comparison of the modern gay rights movement to the 1960s civil rights movement. Gays “may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C. area.

And there’s no better example than the deep blue state of Maryland, controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, and poised in early 2011 to become the sixth state to sanction gay marriage. The measure passed the Maryland Senate 25 to 21, and moved on to the House of Delegates, traditionally even more liberal on social policy. And there it floundered. A significant factor was the vocal opposition of African-American pastors — that “black church” that Lisa Miller sees as a wellspring of solace, validation and justice narration for the modern left.

My point is not to plunge into the complicated and on-going politics of gay marriage in Maryland (Maryland will likely approve gay marriage, and with support from some African-American pastors, and my support as well) — but more narrowly to highlight the error of marrying “the black church” to any current liberal “justice” agenda.

Third, any marriage of religious doctrine, left or right, to current political disputes should give pause. It is perfectly appropriate for people of faith — or even cynical admirers of the political possibilities of faith — to ask, “what would Jesus do?” in the grip of a personal moral choice. It is not appropriate to ask “how would Jesus vote?” on the stimulus package, bank bail-outs, auto industry bailouts and labor union windfalls, deficit reduction measures, and tax policy.

The historical Jesus didn’t take a single “political” position (in the sense we are discussing) except arguably the brilliant and much-debated answer to Pharisees seeking to trap him on tax obligations: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And they were amazed and went away (Matthew 22:22).

To be sure, Jesus was a radical Jew — but his radicalism was religious and personal, not political or statist. Indeed, the notion that Jesus was some sort of justice warrior on behalf of the poor and downtrodden — and that government welfare programs are therefore “what Jesus would want” — precisely misunderstands the difference between the religious and the political, and between the personal and the public/governmental. Jesus felt enormous compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and acted personally on that compassion — as, it is fair to say, he would urge all of us to do. But he never advocated a power-structure program or any governmental redistribution initiative — not because he opposed or supported such statist programs, but because they were utterly irrelevant to his religious and personal message.

Do politics to your heart’s content, he might have said, but first do right in your personal life. Jesus had nothing to say about our politics — and much to say about how we treat other actual human beings in our life and whether we thereby honor God.

And thus we come full circle to Black Liberation Theology — its deep resonance in the 1960s and its inaptness as an “answer” for liberals in the 2010s.

When Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat solely because she was black, that was an immediate and deeply personal offense, a direct and shameful disrespect. African-Americans and their allies very naturally put Jesus on their side against such steady personal mistreatment. Using power arbitrarily to humiliate a human being would send Jesus into orbit — and law and politics conspired at the time to institutionalize precisely that repetitious personal humiliation.

Black Liberation Theology was one (among several) responses to that repetitious personal humiliation — and black theologian Cone’s threat of a “protracted civil war” — in the context I have now described — against that repetitious humiliation was a fair and angry response to human beings horribly misbehaving — directly and personally — toward other human beings. Indeed, Black Liberation Theology at the time was an honest conditional, a noble plea to white America to do the right thing — with “right” cast in sincerely Christian terms — or else. And “or else” simply meant the last resort of a people directly oppressed and personally humiliated several times a day.

The mistake, the disconnect between 1960s Black Liberation Theology and Lisa Miller’s wistful and overreaching resurrection of Black Liberation Theology fifty years later, is precisely captured in Obery Hendricks’ insistence that political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

That insistence isn’t tethered to any defensible solidarity with Jesus. Jesus did not make, and would not have made, any pronouncements about “government programs” — much less the religious credentials of those who debate the merits of “government programs.” Government programs have nothing whatever to do with the personal righteousness with which Jesus passionately concerned himself.

“Government programs” operate in the political realm, and their merits are fairly debated in political terms — chief among such terms being the extent and duration of public assistance, whether the assistance includes a work incentive (or disincentive), and whether the assistance encourages the superfluity of fathers and the disintegration of families. Take whichever position you wish, but do not invoke Jesus — from the left or the right.

Our politics are pointed and sullied enough without misappropriating the Gospels and excommunicating Christians of different political orientations.

 

On Occupyosity and Making Real versus Illusory Differences

I got sucked into Occupyosity by a Facebook friend’s posting of a particularly obnoxious article entitled, “What Exactly Is It that Occupy Critics Don’t Get About Civil Disobedience?” To read the article is to reminisce fondly about those days when we were 14 and 15 and 20 and absolutely certain, so abundantly clear in our early mushy work-in-progress brains, that we grasped the core truth, and that our doddering misdirected contemptibly careful and uncommitted elders didn’t even have rudimentary sense, much less our vision!

Mmmm, yes. It was a feeling so fine I would wish it for everyone, momentarily. “Getting it.” That’s the fascinating power trope of youth speaking to entrenchment — all manner of entrenchment, politicians pursuing naked self-interest, parents stuck in their eye-rolling, pathology-perpetuating ways, bosses being intractably stupid — oppressors all! And the poor Masses, swooning to the insidious fiddles of nefarious Power Elites — oh my the pitiable Masses, those dim-witted enablers of oppression who let this vast stupidity avalanche over their own interests, well, they’re almost as bad as the oppressors. They almost forgivably just don’t get it. Like we do. Mmmm, yes…

Back when I Got It, I was liberal, supremely confident, and certain my Dark Foes lacked the basic synapse that connected thinking and Compassion. And by Compassion, I meant, you know, Caring Deeply about a set of politically significant Abstractions. And by thinking, I meant that thing I did in abundance that set me apart from the dunderheads who couldn’t see the abject stupidity of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. I was teaching in Kenya during Reagan’s reelection campaign, and swaggeringly bet my possessions with a transient American tourist that America would never reelect that buffoon.

Which is to say, I was a wincingly ridiculous liberal — and I know that none of my liberal readers here is that kind of liberal (except for the three in my sidebar survey who say they are so extremely liberal they almost come full circle to fascist, unless they were kidding). Do not feel obliged to defend yourselves. But I do see a bit of my old self in Occupyosity. But just a bit, as I will explain.

First I hasten to add, I see intermittently much to admire in Occupyosity. I see individuals dedicated to mediating conflict. I see individuals articulately decrying their comrades’ anti-Semitic outbursts and other hate rants. I see surges of sincerity, genuine appeals to economic fairness and focus on jobs. I see capable fundraisers (a war chest of several hundred thousand dollars). I see individuals focused on cleanliness and spontaneous sanitation departments. I see individuals focused on feeding — their own and the surrounding homeless. I see individuals dedicated to literacy, and even a “people’s library.”

I admire each of the foregoing individuals, and would have much to learn from them in riveting individual conversation. I just wonder why they’re not simply doing what they do so well — why these talented individuals aren’t very busy raising money, cleansing and ordering, feeding, and teaching in their own communities — and making a measurable difference they cannot possibly make as simpleton trespassers? Why are they finally doing what they do well in consort with a rag-tag aggregation of petty (and occasionally felonious) criminality and political vapidness?

Bias and serious personal deficit alert: I don’t do groups. I love professional football but will never, ever, actually go to a stadium and endure my species behaving that way. I like it slickly mediated on television, thank you — and even then, the crowd noise vexes me. I believe, with faux-mathematical precision, that people gathered in numbers greater than seven behave exponentially more mindlessly and recklessly with each additional person. I believe, with faux-sociological precision that groups, over individuals, are inclined in predictable relation to their numbers to the greatest atrocities — including the atrocity of embracing massive injustice, which they would never do as individuals — for the sake of silly solidarity with their makeshift identity-pumping group.

“Mob,” the very word, makes me shiver. From the Latin mobile vulgus, meaning vulgar hand-held devices and the spectacularly brazen rudeness committed millions of times a day by owners of these diabolical grace-suckers… oh wait, another subject, I digress. Mobile vulgus, the “gathered transient commoners,” the “mob,” as our language, with its gift for Anglo-Saxon grunts, shortened the Latin phrase. Which makes me scurry to Edmund Burke for solace, for a measure of relief against the Jacobin fury and orgy of self-righteous slaughter. Mindless anger and literal carnage acquire lethal force in numbers. Genocide — the ultimate human horror — germinates and cannot gather force without mobile vulgus.

Human beings are wonderful, ever less so in the aggregate.

Now you know my visceral suspicion of Occupiosity. As it was my visceral suspicion of the Tea Party. Collections, both, of interesting people, squandering their charm in service to their comforting mobs. But then I saw very little of the contempt for common manners in Tea Party gatherings. Quite the contrary. More like PTA gatherings writ large. A very few bad actors to be sure, but by and large well-mannered people, roughly organizing around a coherent grievance about our over-reaching government, who never broke a single ordinance. And then I saw the fury and orgy of leftist contempt for them, the vicious bile and ridicule heaped upon them, and I actually felt sympathy for a group I didn’t particularly like.

I still don’t like the Tea Party and I don’t like Occupiosity, such is my abiding distaste for determined gatherings of too like-minded people. But I am struck by the astounding hypocrisy of people who celebrate Occupiosity while slamming the Tea Party — these twin burps of challenging times. Like, to come full circle, the Seattle-based lad who authored “What Exactly Is It that Occupy Critics Don’t Get About Civil Disobedience?” The Tea Party — or “teabaggers,” as he offensively prefers, waved “their trademark poorly-spelled signs,” and got more media attention than his favored labor-union-driven rally about health care. And then Occupiosity got just as much media attention, simply because the Occupiers committed “civil disobedience” (that is, they “shut down a goddam bridge”), and he’s pissed, whereupon he defends, in Saul Alinsky style, the attention-getting prowess of “shutting down a goddam bridge,” and bludgeons the people who might wish the Occupiers would simply behave a little better.

What exactly is it the lad doesn’t get about “civil disobedience,” as that hallowed term is now commonly understood in our political parlance? Gandhi and Martin Luther King promoted deliberate, non-violent disobedience and violation of manifestly unjust laws, and did so with stupendous honor and self-sacrifice. I am a conservative today with enormous respect for some of the liberals of yesteryear, what they did and how they did it, and how much we owe our modern civil polity to their steadfast courage against entrenched injustice.

But I have little patience for people piggy-backing willy-nilly on that legacy who fundamentally misunderstand it. Occupiosity isn’t protesting any particular unjust law the way Rosa Parks so courageously did. I’ve yet to hear about any specific law the Occupiers are challenging. They’re just protesting “economic injustice,” or “corporate greed,” or “capitalism.” And in the service of that vastly vague objection, some of their numbers are breaking the law — even with substantial latitude to do their thing.

To be sure, police have run the gamut from responding well to badly. Let it be a given that when you “occupy” places that aren’t yours, when you “shut down a goddam bridge,” you tend to invite a bit of push-back, even conflict. When you disrupt neighborhoods, the neighbors can get testy. So instead of critical inquiry into what the Occupiers want, we get a media frenzy of dramatic sub-plots involving rapes, murders, and pepper spray. None of this gets us beyond the level of shallow spectacle. None of this gets us beyond a juvenile celebration of “idealism” and its discontents (or, for the older wistful spectators of the spectacle, a Big Chill-like nostalgia — and by the way, my pseudo-sociological conclusion regarding groups larger than seven comes, entirely arbitrarily, from the seven old friends in The Big Chill).

And I keep coming back to those conversations in my head with the Occupiers, the conversations that remain imagined because of my admittedly idiosyncratic distaste for large gatherings. Okay, if you’re not sure what you specifically want, how about doing what you do so well in your own community? How about making a small but real and meaningful difference instead of wasting your time and abundant community resources thinking you’re making some media-lusty and empty “big” difference by simply Occupying?

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