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 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.

 

“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?

On Religion and Politics, Unbelievably…

Here’s an announcement: politicians aren’t actually religious. They pretend to be because they must. And in some cases, they parrot religiosity quite well. But they don’t do that thing that religious people daily and sincerely do and they don’t believe in a personal God. At best, they’re Deists, like Thomas Jefferson, and therefore talk God-talk well enough.

Accept this. And then move on to the truly critical political proposition that religious orientation is not an issue in the 2012 election. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is as irrelevant as Barack Obama’s suspect Muslim faith. Yes, one is manifest and the other is earnest gossip — but they share a profoundly un-American obsession with the religious orientation of public servants.

Over two hundred years ago, the Founding Fathers quashed discussion of religious orientation as legitimate dialogue in political contests. And they did so wisely and resolutely. In the same clause where they required fealty to the Constitution, they declared any religious test off-limits. The juxtaposition of these two isn’t coincidental.

Article VI, Clause 3, United States Constitution:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

In sum, affirmation of the Constitution is an absolute — and by the way, do this, and then your religious orientation is irrelevant. The United States Constitution is large enough to embrace all religions — but trumps all of them as to loyalty. Affirming it subordinates any religious idiosyncrasies for purposes of public office.

That such a profoundly wise mediation of religion and politics could have been accomplished in the 18th century is another testament to the grandeur of the United States Constitution. From two hundred years ago, we hear this, and we best accede: shut up about Mormonism and Islam.

This discussion is necessary, of course, because, Southern Baptist Pastor Jeffress, supporter of Rick Perry, absurdly declared the Mormon faith a non-Christian “cult.” And progressive blogger Jeffrey Goldberg predicts a leftist gush of anti-Mormonism:

If Romney wins the nomination, we will see a rush of anti-Mormon propaganda — generated by secular liberals, not evangelicals. Anti-Romney leftists, the sort of people who would be loath to utter an unfavorable word about Islamic doctrine, will expend a great deal of energy and money bringing to light the most peculiar aspects of Mormon theology and practice, in an effort to convince evangelicals that the man leading the Republican Party is a harebrained heathen.

Yes, sadly, that’s politics. And our obligation, notwithstanding, is to stay sober. We best honor the Constitution by shutting down even the first hints of religious bigotry in this election.

And Pastor Jeffress is an embarrassment to religion and politics.

Stonehenge Step Aside (plus God)

11,600 years ago — 7,000 years before Stonehenge — humans built an elaborate temple. They had no writing. They had no metal. They had no pottery. They didn’t even have wheels to aid construction. But they had some kind of yearning.

The site is Gobekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey.

The temple is impossible. The humans foraging for food at the time had no way to undertake such a construction, or to haul the massive stones from a distance, or even to stay in one place long enough to think about constructing a temple.

But there it is. Our origins are a massive multiplying mystery.

Let’s think about God and His chronology.

11,600 years ago, human hunter-gatherers on the border of the Ice Age build a temple, having (to our knowledge) never built anything more complicated than a hut. This is a sacred outreach, a spectacular superfluity in the teeth of challenging Neolithic survival. Nothing seems necessary about the temple, in the way that huts and game and berries are necessary. But such an undertaking could not have happened unless its builders viewed it as necessary — indeed, more urgent than huts and game and berries.

Yet God waited until over 7,000 years after this human monumental yearning for the divine to get in touch with Abraham, and the authors of the Hindu Vedas, then another 1,400 years to inspire Gautama the Buddha, and then another 600 years to send His son into human history to die for our sins, and another 600 years thereafter to speak with Mohamed. Why?

Why not establish the definitive relationship of God and humanity at the earliest point of humanoid yearning for the divine? Why not get it settled? What was God thinking?

Why would God be coy? Perhaps God desired true presence with human beings only when they could truly register it, only when it was possible to spread the Word by other than word-of-mouth. Perhaps God was dealing with other matters for a few millennia.

I must confess to a bias here. The asserted omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience of God makes God unreal to me. An all-powerful, everywhere, all-knowing God generates mind-boggling contradictions. I like a smaller God. A God with a personality — which is impossible if God is all-everything. The ultimate turbo-God looks so much like a necessary heuristic, a concept that had to be invented to reinforce monotheism, but which strips God of any meaningfulness. God is everything? Okay. Not helpful.

If God, possibly, is not literally everything (and therefore potentially meaningful), then a God-space becomes much more attractive. Interestingly, every major religion treats God, in its narrative passages, as a personality. The Jewish scriptures show God changing His mind, getting emotional, engaging in negotiations with good people, and evolving in His sensibility. Christianity and Islam built upon this narrative, but became much more rigorously monotheistic and absolutist — while, oddly, embracing the original Jewish narrative — and in the case of Christianity, ironically, developing a polytheistic heuristic with the doctrine of the Trinity.

The reach of the human imagination is awe-inspiring, and never more so than when it seeks the divine. Our religious architecture — our urgent thinking and feeling about God and everything we conceive in that urgency — is, to borrow Keats, a thing of beauty, a joy forever, and always the best of the human impulse to stand modest before what we cannot understand.

I love the humans that built the Gobekli Tepe temple. I love their sacrifice and their devotion. They were modest and lifted up their hands to God, somehow, and said please save us. And the rest is history.

9-11, Reconstruction and American Resolve

When America is attacked, it has responded most forcefully. No mastermind assailants have lived into old age. No belligerent regimes have survived. No aggressive groups have failed to suffer the crippling blows of a determined nation.

We honor the dead, the injured, and the families of these on this sacred day.

What have we learned? That depends upon our appreciation of history.

Was the Afghanistan war an appropriate response to the terrorist horror in New York City and Washington D.C. a decade ago? The Iraq war? Two very different questions, but both with instructive antecedents in American history.

After the bloodiest conflict in American history, the Civil War, a dozen-year program called “Reconstruction” happened in the battered South.  “Battered” because General Sherman, in his infamous march, did what was necessary to devastate the enemy. The Confederacy had no hope of living on, and that, much like the insistence on unconditional surrender from imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II, was a critical war goal.

Reconstruction was regime change — indeed, the most radical regime change ever undertaken by America. Federal troops occupied the South. President Andrew Johnson considered Reconstruction a modest, short-term project, but Republicans in Congress had a much more aggressive agenda. With passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, which granted citizenship and voting rights to former slaves, and aggressive expansion of the Freedman’s Bureau, which established schools and hospitals and registered former slaves to vote, a sea change occurred in the South. Indeed, many African-Americans were elected to the House and Senate.

Not surprisingly, there was a backlash from the battered South — a resurgency, you could call it. The Ku Klux Klan, founded by ex-Confederate soldiers opposed to Reconstruction, was one result. But federal troops checked the power of the backlash.

And then politics. Compromise. The contested 1876 election (Rutherford B. Hayes vs. Samuel Jay Tilden), with wild controversy over the winner of the electoral and popular vote. As part of the compromise, Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction.

When federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877 — when the mission of Reconstruction was abandoned — an era of Jim Crow laws and barriers to African-American civil rights surged.

The mission of Reconstruction — whether or not it was well-conceived at the outset — died horribly in 1877 for lack of political will. And the worst followed.

When America mushes on a mission, very bad things happen.

The projection of American power is a signature event. We do it, generally, because we are committed. And by committed, we mean some hard work over the long haul. Or at least, that is the paradigm since the surge in Iraq.

Before the surge in Iraq, we suffered a Vietnam paradigm — exemplified by Harry Reid’s declaration on the eve of the surge that “this war is lost.”

Reasonable minds can differ as to whether we should have gotten into Afghanistan or Iraq or Vietnam  in the first place — but once there, we have a moral obligation not to let leisurely American poll-driven impatience dictate complete withdrawal if withdrawal means — as it did in Vietnam and would have in Iraq —  surrender to murderous enemies.

History instructs commitment. The worst thing America can do is charge in and then change its mind.

President Bush confronted what appeared to be a losing proposition in Iraq. A bloodbath was imminent. And virtually everyone said “get out.” We could have skipped out and let whatever happened happen. But Bush redoubled. He said we’re in it to win. And the evil that would have prevailed was defeated.

The worst we can do is mush. The worst we can do is pull out, as we did with Reconstruction. Ten years after 9-11, America’s saving grace is commitment, and steadfast belief in a better world.

On Whittaker Chambers and Right and Wrong

Fifty years ago last month, Whittaker Chambers died. Last month I turned 52 and finally finished his remarkable book, Witness. Whittaker Chambers was a Communist, and then a Soviet spy, when it mattered rather enormously. Appalled by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and profoundly by Stalin’s purges, Chambers finally broke with Communism and became an informant.

More to the point, Chambers found God, and identified the amoral atheism of Soviet Communism as a grievous threat to democracy — indeed, in his view, a peril likely to prevail because the Communists were more determined. No moral code, except steadfast adherence to the party line, constrained the Communists. If the party line dictated that you salute Nazi Germany and Trotsky one day, and then condemn Nazi Germany and Trotsky the next, you did both with resolution and nary a hint of cognitive dissonance. It mattered only that the party cause, and the ultimate dialectical resolution, be advanced.

Chambers believed Communists would prevail. Yet he fought their spy ring by testifying against them. He identified several individuals in American government who were Communist spies, including, most famously, Alger Hiss — the State Department functionary who had been at Yalta. And there begins a fascinating chapter of America’s culture wars. Harvard-educated Alger Hiss versus working-class farmer Whittaker Chambers. Chambers testified by himself. Hiss defended himself with a battery of the best lawyers in the nation.

Deny, always deny, as Chambers described the Communist imperative, because lying for the cause was a secular virtue. And Hiss predictably denied that he was a Communist until he died, in his 90s. But he was convicted for perjury, and indeed he was a Communist, and a Soviet spy. His defenders were legion. Two Supreme Court justices testified as character witnesses on his behalf. The New Deal elite overwhelmingly favored Hiss. And they were wrong.

An “expert” avoids all the small errors and sweeps on to the grand fallacy. American distrust of intellectuals — that impulse that Europeans deride as benighted — usefully checks the ideological condescension and statist urgencies of America’s intellectuals. On the American class structure in the 1930s, Chambers quotes a European at a dinner party: “In the United States, the working class are Democrats. The middle class are Republicans. The upper class are Communists.”

In the Chambers camp were the common men and women, whom God, as Lincoln said, must have dearly loved because he made so many of them. Most of us are common men and women. We have no ancestry or coat of arms except as kitsch. We sport no ostentatious Yale chair in our office and rarely correct another’s grammar. We think we know the difference between right and wrong and sweetly urge the former.

Just to have a clear sense of right and wrong matters. What made the Communists in Chambers’ day so formidable — what convinced him they would win — was their subordination of right and wrong to the party line. That basic impulse — understanding right and wrong, at times decency and indecency — mattered nothing to the Communists. Anything goes, so long as it advances the prosperity of the party.

As it happens, Chambers was mistaken. Communism did not prevail. Americans, common men and women, understood the peril of the Communist ideology and fought it. As an instance in understanding the difference between right and wrong, there is no greater world historical example.

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