Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
Category Archives: Culture
03/26/2016Posted by on
From last year, a favorite.
Holy Saturday is a pause. It is the narrator of a tragic tale silently waiting on stage refusing to leave. And the Christian watchers have already had the ending spoiled for them. At the Episcopalian service that I attended last night, the liturgical service ends in silence. We were to leave the sanctuary dark like a tomb, but stilled and at peace. The effect was diminished somewhat by parishioners chatting gaily upon entering the vestibule. It was the first time in a long time I felt I belonged, if only for now.
Allow me to recap the end of my conversion story. It has been a long time since I’ve been to church. I mean sure, there have been the stop-offs at an Easter Vigil here and there. (Say what you will about the Catholics, and I have, they know their ritual). And there are the funerals and the weddings…
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03/25/2016Posted by on
From two years ago.
The hero has been beaten, broken, and slain
the sun retreats in sorrow
the darkness will take us soon.
The joy of Christmas has turned to ash
the powers drown out the angel’s chorus
salvation has died on the cross and hope is next.
The storyteller has fallen silent
but he has not left.
patient, patient, patient.
Sunday is coming.
03/11/2016Posted by on
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a column out in the Week tracing Donald Trump’s evangelical support to two factors: Christian nationalism, and the prosperity gospel. As is often the case, I almost agree with Gobry about the prosperity gospel. Gobry:
In its most crude forms, the prosperity gospel says that God rewards financially those who pray. If you don’t have the car you want or the house you want, if you pray hard enough, God will give it to you.[F]orgetting […] that sometimes the righteous have to suffer […] and that a man’s worth is never, ever judged by his possessions.
The prosperity gospel is one of the most vibrant heresies in America today, […and…] one of America’s most powerful religious leaders is undoubtedly Joel Osteen, who is a prosperity preacher. It’s obvious why someone taken in by the prosperity gospel would see no glaring contradiction between Trump’s assertion that he’s a “very strong Christian” and his gaudy lifestyle and ostentatious wealth.
So far so plausible. Prosperity gospel breaks orthodox Christianity’s view of wealth and creates the idea that being a good Christian is positively correlated with wealth, Trump is wealthy, so prosperity gospel believers think he’s a good Christian, so prosperity gospel is at fault. But if you look at how prosperity gospel churches actually work, and how Trump supporters behave, it doesn’t quite match up with their optimism and their activism.
The prosperity gospel is a very optimistic approach to religious life. The kind of twisted optimism that casts cruelty as a shadow. As I’ve discussed before, the inevitable consequence of believing that if you just pray hard enough you’ll be wealthy and healthy is that if you are not wealthy and healthy, you believe that it is all your own fault. Trump supporters do not believe it is their fault. They are not optimistic and about their personal ability to do things, they believe they need some savior billionaire to wreck/beat all the other countries. Hell, there is a lot of evidence that they don’t even believe that. Instead, they believe that Trump can’t change things, but he can help them give a big middle finger to everyone who has looked down on them or otherwise messed with their lives. And their anger seems to come from the standard issue places: socioeconomic class resentments, personal prosperity, Jacksonian ideas of national dignity and so on. No reason to reach for some sort of psychological inversion of the self-blame the prosperity gospel engenders. Trump’s Evangelical followers aren’t going to this church enough to shape their thinking in this way. Hell, they’re just not going to church much at all. Which brings us to the activism gap.
Prosperity gospel churches trend heavily towards a highly active church life with big asks. Now, most other Christians sneer at this, because the theology of the prosperity gospel asks pretty much none of the hard things, like embracing your enemies, faith while in fear and trembling, and charitable conduct and thought. But prosperity gospel churches ask a lot in simpler ways: cold hard cash. Tithing, going to church activities, evangelizing for the church, buying the preacher’s latest book, buying a book from the church store for this month’s sermon, providing free labor for the church’s commercial bookstore – there are plenty of big asks, especially for the poor who don’t have much to give. Trump has done none of these. Except that one time he screwed up giving money during communion. He can’t even rely the subtle linguistic cues of someone culturally Christian to signal that he is “one of us” to the Evangelicals who support him. He is not one of them. So who are these supporters anyway?
Evangelical supporters of Trump may not actually be Evangelicals the way we tend to think of them. They’re probably more like Mr. Young from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet’s Good Omens:
He quite liked nuns. Not that he was a, you know, left‑footer or anything like that. No, when it came to avoiding going to church, the church he stolidly avoided going to was St. Cecil and All Angels, no nonsense C. of E., and he wouldn’t have dreamed of avoiding going to any other. All the others had the wrong smell‑floor polish for the Low, somewhat suspicious incense for the High. Deep in the leather armchair of his soul, Mr. Young knew that God got embarrassed at that sort of thing.
Gaiman and the late Pratchett were writing Mr. Young in an English context, but change the set dressing a little, and you get that everywhere religion has just enough hold on a people to give them a tribal affiliation but not enough to give them religiosity. They probably know a lot of churchgoers, they’re related with churchgoers, probably even married to churchgoers. But you don’t need to believe Christian ideas to identify as Christian on a poll. You don’t need to believe to get upset about people saying “Happy Holidays” or telling you to stop saying “God bless you”. You don’t even have to disdain the outsiders doing it, you just have to perceive their disdain for you. That’s tidy, isn’t it?
But, but, but, what if there are, actual religious evangelical Christians in the Trump coalition and it can’t be explained away by personal idiosyncrasies? Well, certainly it’s going to be a further step in the Faustian bargain with secular power Christians have made since suborning Constantine into the flock. Christianity is deeply suspicious of secular power, but if a Christian takes the idea we live in a fallen world seriously grasping at power is inevitable. But why Trump and why were they doing it while other candidates still seemed viable? And this is where we get into a twisted up understanding of evil. Which is to say, too many people think that evil works better than good.
Way back when America was grappling with whether or not to torture – sorry “use enhanced interrogation techniques on” – captured suspected terrorists in order to get information. And according to the Republican Presidential candidates, we should relitigate that debate. So here it is: torture is not a superior, always works like for Jack Bauer on TV, method of interrogation. Torture doesn’t give you information. Torture gives you compliance, a compliance that is agnostic to truthfulness. We know this because of the several thousand year known history of regimes torturing people into confessing crimes they didn’t commit. So, while we can construct scenarios where torture is both effective and forgivable, they are not the general case. The general case is torturing someone until they break. And yet there are clearly people who think it is universally effective, purely because the bad guys do it and we won’t (anymore). But sometimes evil is evil agnostic of its effectiveness. And sometimes evil is evil because it is so ineffective.
Trump is more than America’s pro-even-worse-torture candidate. He’s America’s pro-evil candidate. He’s selling the idea that he’s evil, he’ll be evil for America, and that will make America win again. And even before we embrace evil because it is effective, we have to remember that evil is not effective. Trump represents a number of challenges, and one of them is religious. A number of Evangelicals have failed that test, God help them. And more are to come unless we can convince them otherwise.
01/15/2016Posted by on
Something finally clicked for me just now about why the typical small-c conservative Christian responses to gay, lesbian and transgender people and issues has bothered me more and more over the years. It’s this awful tendency Christians have had to answer pain with doctrine.
Let me be specific. Jana Riess is a progressively inclined Mormon convert with a great heart for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered. She also loves her church. So the recent business about how the children of those who are same-sex married was obviously painful, especially when a high ranking member seemed to suggest it was a revelation from God, no dissent proper.
I sit here heartbroken that the Church is not only standing by this regrettable policy but enshrining homophobia as God’s will.
It seems that now, by holding these views I am not just objecting to a here-today-gone-tomorrow policy in the handbook. I’m actively resisting the will of the Lord as revealed through his holy prophets.
Elder Nelson closed with dire warnings about people like me. “The somber reality is that there are ‘servants of Satan’ embedded throughout society,” the Salt Lake Tribune quotes him as saying. “So be very careful about whose counsel you follow.”
As I’ve said elsewhere, this is heartbreaking to see. Loyal dissent is doubly painful because not only do you strain relationships with those who you agree, you don’t get any new friends, as they look down on you for maintaining your ties to disreputable people. Keep that in mind when reading one of the first comments:
Yes. In fact, some of us have viewed your writings that way for some time now. But please, continue to kick against the pricks and advocate that this policy is not inspired and that the 15 apostles who prayed about it must have been wrong and you are right. I see no problem there.
It’s the emoji that really seals the deal. I don’t care how right you think you are and how wrong you think Jana Riess is to stand against the leaders of your church, this is an inhuman way of responding to someone in pain. So is this:
Jana wrote: “I don’t believe God is behind this policy.”
Then are you not ethically bound to refrain from sustaining the church leaders?
Jana wrote: “By rejecting this policy, are active LDS church members like me, people who hold a calling and a temple recommend …..”
To be “worthy” of a temple recommend one must sustain the LDS Church leaders. And to “sustain” them one must uphold their “revelations.”
Since the Church is adamant that their anti-Gay policies are revelation, isn’t it an obvious conclusion that any temple recommend-holding member (who honestly answers the recommend questions) agrees with the Church’s policies regarding Gays?
At what point do you say, “Enough,” Jana, and separate yourself from this organization?
I don’t care how wrong you think Jana Riess is to stand by her church, this is an inhuman way to respond to someone in pain.
Yes, yes. Blog comments are the worst. I can attest to that being a frequent maker and reader of blog comments. But it also happens in other ways. Like a two thirds majority of Anglican churches rebuking the Episcopal church [see update below] over their acceptance of non celibate gays and same sex marriages. Like those same two thirds taking the time to reiterate what we all know to be their position:
“The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the statement also notes. “The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”
Like those same two thirds rebuking the Episcopal Church and making sure to point out how hurt they were that the Episcopal church went and did nice things for gays when we don’t wanna. Wasn’t that mean of them?
I suppose I should add that I’m actually sympathetic to the conservatives and their position on marriage. I burn a lot of time, credibility and friendships defending both the people I know and love who are conservative on marriage doctrine and total strangers who hold the same. I concede they have an excellent case, and I think they might be right as a doctrinal matter. But, but, but, everything seems wrong. Dreadfully wrong. Witnessing a frustrated parent scream at their child in public wrong.
Witnessing has a special place in Christianity. It’s used as a synonym for proselytize, but it really means so much more. Christians believe they are witness to the gospel – the good news about sin and salvation, carrying on the message from Jesus’s apostles all the way to the present. Christian witness is the obligation to speak the truth of such weight matters, as if in court under subpoena. Now that we know, we must speak. And since communication is service, we should speak well. As you well know reader, we don’t.
Witnessing is more than just spitting out your beliefs and calling it testimony. It’s answering the question you’re asked when you’re asked. Witnessing is still communication, and that means witnessing is about listening.
So when gays and lesbians and the transgendered or anyone else comes and says that they are in pain, that is not the time to spit doctrine at them. When gays and lesbians and the transgendered have suffered at the hands of Christian authorities and mobs, specifically because the mob wanted to pick on a sexual minority, that is not the time to point out that Christ said “go and sin no more”. It’s inhuman. Especially since we’re the ones who are causing the pain! If Christians had treated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people decently, even within the confines of doctrine, since day one, we wouldn’t be having this fight! You think the urge to be marriage is new? Or do you think it has to do with people who have just had it with being abused and suffering and now need governmental protection?
There’s no justification answer pain with doctrine, because the proper answer to pain is about the person in pain, and your answering with doctrine is about you. It’s making sure that everyone knows about your righteousness, your fidelity, your insistence and purity, and your affirmation of doctrine. No one cares about your need to say you disagree. Witnessing is not about you! It’s the good news about Christ, who so loved this world he died. It’s about serving Christ in the poor, the naked, the suffering. It’s about serving people, not changing them.
So don’t answer pain with doctrine. Just don’t. You can be right on your own time. Or when they ask. But not before. That’s real witness.
Update: The body at issue does not have the authority to suspend but can still cause trouble. I relied on news sources that did not have a good understanding of the intricities and I should have known better. I regret the error.
12/25/2015Posted by on
Thanks to a combination of Facebook algorithms, I went micro-viral with a post concerning one of the most annoying features of American political life: a holiday display. The details of the post and the dispute are unimportant generally, and were quite unimportant to internet strangers who showed up to have a fight about, I dunno, Christianity is stupid: Yes/No. If you’ve been on the Internet for a while and have ever witnessed an argument about religion, you can imagine something like this will come up:
Religion is, has been, and always will be a farce for weak-minded people who constantly search for blame and forgiveness. By absolving yourself of responsibility for your actions and your life, you deceive yourself, your children, and those around you. Grow up and learn to think on your own. – An internet stranger, name withheld
There is a lot to be said about this diatribe, (Spufford said most it already in Unapologetic) but I want to pick on one theme in particular:
Religion is […] for weak-minded people[.] Grow up and learn to think on your own.
What the hell is wrong with being weak-minded? What’s wrong with being not-grown-up? What’s wrong with not being able to think on your own? It’s really easy for those of us blessed with the right genetic, socioeconomic status and educators to congratulate ourselves on our strong wills and advanced thought, but it isn’t just prideful, it’s snobbishness. It isn’t about freeing the masses from religion, it’s about declaring yourself better than those fools over there.
I’m pleased to say I’m with the fools. I’m with the losers, the malcontents, the ugly, the weird, the fuck-ups, the crazy, the classless, the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the fearful lost sheep. And hey, maybe you can be good without God, thanks to your superior intellect and, I dunno, whatever. But I’m fine sticking by the rest who haven’t managed it. If you’re really and truly fine, Christian religion isn’t about you, and you can go on your merry way, because we’re talking about a God-made-flesh so he could help people in need. That’s what Christmas is, in a nutshell. God from God, born to an unwed pregnant woman (probably slut-shamed all the way to Bethlehem) in a dingy manger to be sacrificed by a broken people under the rule of the mightiest empire the world had ever known, all to help broken people. And we talk about him doing that a lot so we can ourselves be helped, and then help others. And that, my friends, is way more important than sustaining any illusion of “thinking on my own” via conforming to this particular atheist exhortation. Christmas is for weak-minded losers. It’s the whole point. And if that isn’t you and people you love, well, there’s probably no God, and enjoy your life. But for the rest of us, well, I think I’ve got some good news. We’re covered. It gets better. Come inside, and let’s eat.
11/26/2015Posted by on
Our country is engaged in two of her three sacred Thanksgiving traditions: gorging ourselves during a big family meal and ironically displaying unjustified fear of migrants as we remember the first harvest of early European migrants. About this time last year President Obama made a big speech announcing a now-stalled reform of our immigration system and people lost their damn minds about the rule of law and them coming to take our jobs. Two weeks ago, European-born Islamists made a series of terrorist attacks that Daesh has claimed responsibility for. In response, 29 Republican governors and 1 Democratic governor, starting with my own state’s Governor Synder, announced their intent block Federal government attempts to settle Syrian refugees because a terrorist will sneak in or something through the 2 year process. You know, the victims fleeing the war wrecked misery caused in large part by Daesh. This is a profound moral failing. A moral failing deeply institutionalized into our law and culture. And it persists because there is a political benefit to stoking the predictable knee jerk fear of outsiders.
Our immigration system is badly flawed; not just in a technocratic sense, but as the result of malicious policy choices. It caters to racists, nativists, and cowards. It does so by throttling immigration by country of origin, “securing the border” and expelling “subversives. It doesn’t make you a racist, nativist, or coward if you support that system, but it does mean that if you support that system you end up helping racists, nativists and cowards. As an inevitable consequence we have massive permanent underclass of illegal immigrants.
Let me now state that I am the child of two immigrant parents. My wife’s parents were refugees who were in danger because of a failed American war. I’m not coming from a place of objectivity and I won’t pretend otherwise. So what follows (and preceded) is certainly editorialized, but it Is also as precise and accurate as I can manage. For convenience, I will also be referring to refugees, long term nonimmigrant visitors, and immigrants all as “immigrants” despite the legal and sociological differences between the groups. If they’re coming here for a better life than where they were, they’re immigrants enough for our discussion.
My parents and my wife’s parents were able to enter the United States legally through the front door, but they had very little to do with it. My parents are Chinese by way of Taiwan and the Philippines they had good grades and worked hard and applied to college, sure, but they were also politically approved by the Americans, because we liked Taiwan and the Philippines and we didn’t care much for Communist China. My wife’s family fought (via a CIA operation) on the American side of the Vietnam War in exchange for a land of their own when the Americans kicked the commies out of ‘Nam. It didn’t work out so great when America pulled out in defeat. It still took dedicated lobbying and the sponsorship of Christian missionaries to get America’s direct allies over, never mind their families. American politics had a whole lot more to do with our families making it over here than our families did, despite all of the things they did to earn the right to come over. The front door is illusory, crushed by the tight fist of nativist politics. Immigrants manage to slip in through the cracks by luck and pluck. And that’s all that’s left for them now, despite modern America being built on a massive spike in immigration.
The old system lasted between 1921 and 1965, starting with the appropriately named Immigration Act of 1921. The system worked like this: to preserve the American character of our society and secure our border from “homosexuals”, “idiots”, “feeble-minded persons”, “criminals”, “epileptics”, “insane persons”, alcoholics, “professional beggars”, all persons “mentally or physically defective”, polygamists, and anarchists, no more than 3% of the immigrant population could come from any single country of origin, which biased immigration significantly towards West and Northern Europe. This formula was revised in 1924 to lower the rate to 2% and to eliminate citizenship by naturalization from certain places of origin. This had the not at all coincidental effect of keeping out the following Un-American troublemakers:
- East Asians
- South East Asians
- Southern Europeans
- Eastern Europeans
Latin America got an unlimited pass because they provided cheap farm labor.
Under the 1924 Act, Asian immigrants were specially barred by classifying them as non-white. This referenced the Naturalization act of 1790, which restricted naturalization to so called free whites of good character. That specific part of the 1924 Act was called Asian Exclusion Act. That passed less than a hundred years ago.
In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act finally abolished the racial restrictions of the 1790 Act, but kept the racial/ethnic preferences designed into the national origin caps while ratcheting up the paranoid barriers against suspected “subversives” with the wrong politics. Harry Truman vetoed the act over the political tests and quotas citing many “examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.”
In a remarkable show of bipartisan can-do, the 82nd Congress, led by two Democrats, overrode Truman’s veto. Senator McCarran, one of the co-sponsors left us this gem of wisdom:
I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. […] However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.
As a result our system went from explicit racism in preferring whites of “good character” to a slightly more-subtle xenophobia expressed by hand-wringing about all those who refuse to adapt to the American way of life.
In 1965, the national origin quota system was finally replaced with the precursor to our modern preference based system. The new system discarded national preferences in favor of selecting highly skilled migrants and those with family already present. Except it applied the national origin quota system to our visas, which is the first step in coming over as a tourist, worker, or immigrant. There was a hard cap for 170,000 per year created for those originating in the Eastern Hemisphere. There was a hard cap of 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere, with unlimited access for a few favored nations. With some adjustments, we are still using this system today. The bill’s sponsors promised that very little would change as far as the demographic mix of the United States. They were wrong.
The 1965 act heralded a massive rush of immigration to the United States. It created the America we are living in now. My mother was one of the lucky 170,000 year to be allowed a student visa so she could attend school here, work hard, raise a family, and create jobs. My father was allowed to come here and work as a doctor, running the lab and helping surgeons hunt and destroy cancer.
Opponents of immigration defend their position as taking care of the people who are here already as their primary obligation. Well, it turns out immigrants lower prices, create jobs, and help keep you alive. My parents are just one example of many at the highly skilled end. The deliberately cultivated importation of farm laborers from Latin America is another. Our immigration system doesn’t protect the people already here. It hurts them. It tries to deport them. It is in a real sense, the most unsuccessful wasteful and racially discriminatory affirmative action program yet conceived, rewarding legacy European immigrants and punishing poor Latinos who have the hustle necessary to work hard in the illegal immigrant underclass.
Even when the fear of nebulous and omnipresent undesirables, subversives, and now terrorists isn’t hopelessly tainted by politics and racism, it turns out throttling immigration and securing the border doesn’t help much anyway. If you shut out refugees, they come through as skilled workers. You shut out skilled workers, they pose as family members. You ban all new people from coming in, they sneak in. You button up the border, and they laugh and have someone on the inside kill you anyway. You have lost much and gained nothing but fear. Daesh is a malicious idea, not a diffuse people group. That idea can spread over the internet with deadly consequence without the bother of sending over a bomber across the border. We’ve created a cruel, complex, and punitive system and have gotten nothing of worth out of it.
Don’t believe me? Look up the details yourself. Try to follow the immigration process from start to finish and see if you can even comprehend it. Try to comprehend the difference between immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. Try to imagine marrying the person you met in college, and then being interrogated by overworked case officers under inhuman directives about whether your marriage is genuine. Imagine that marriage breaking up under economic strain and infidelity later and you being held up as an example of someone who married as fraud. and then have the failure of that marriage be used as proof of your fraud. Try to imagine coming over to visit family, only to find out you’ve broken the law when you stayed an extra day to help out with the new baby. Try to imagine laboring in America and trying to apply for legal presence, only to find out you have to find the money to fly back to your country of origin and apply there – a home you may never want to see again. And why? Because rules are rules my dear. It says so right on the notice the immigration officials – the ones who are supposed to deport you – send to your apartment.
Yeah, immigration enforcement is a bizarre bit of kabuki. I mean, so often they know where you are. And if you don’t show up to your deportation hearing it’s not like they’re going to send the border patrol after you. They’re busy. Unless you’re a violent offender, anyway. Oh, the consequences are pretty bad for your long term plans so it’s better to show up, but we care a whole lot less than we say we do. Then again, maybe you should be in the country. Maybe you’re not an illegal at all, but an undocumented refugee. So you show up at your immigration hearing, and in your accented English you try to explain to the immigration judge your situation. But the judge is a lawyer and has a legal checklist to follow and there is another government lawyer in the room talking to him. Her job is to make the case against you. If you’re lucky, a non-profit activist or lawyer noticed you on your way in. If not, you’re on your own. You don’t know how to make your case and you go to back to the hell you nearly bankrupted your family to escape from. Your children will never see you again.
Let me make this clear. In our immigration courts, where the consequences for failing to attend are not prioritized, there is a government lawyer whose job it is to try to kick out people who may be bona fide refugees and send them back to hell.
Right now Syria is hell, and Americans have no small part in it becoming that way. We have a bunch of Governors trying to block Federal policy because they’re concerned about the potential of someone sneaking in through a two-year process. It’s not just that it’s worth the risk. It’s that the risk reduction in eliminating or strengthening the system is so negligible as to be nonexistent. But it’s good politics. You get to sound tough. It’s easy to sound tough when all you’re hurting are voiceless and voteless immigrants.
Immigrants work for you and I and the tomorrow of our children. Immigrant soldiers bleed on our battlefields, immigrant laborers sweat in our farms and immigrant children dream the American dream when so many Americans are too cowardly to hope for a better tomorrow. Did your forefathers live and die to give you a better life in this country or do you think they lived and died so you can give other people a worse one? What kind of thankfulness is it to count your blessings to be American and free while shutting out new Americans?
05/02/2015Posted by on
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a powerful and much criticized piece criticizing calls for non-violence in the wake of the Baltimore unrest. Once again, NPR has done some stellar reporting. Robert Siegal pushed back hard, as he should have, but he also gave Coates plenty of room to explain his thinking. It’s a good interview, go listen to it.
What struck me the most was Coates invocation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rejection of the Vietnam War late into his life. If you’re going to advocate non-violence, Coates seems to be saying, then you can’t be OK with state violence. Not just abusive cops, but the violent decisions made in law to incarcerate black men.
Look, Coates almost certainly knows what King had to say better than I am. And I’m probably suspiciously similar to the white moderate King lamented. But I think Coates seems to have forgotten something important. King wasn’t just about non-violence. He was talking about non-violent resistance as a form of civil disobedience. The “civil” in civil disobedience is not about polite protest. Civil disobedience is noisy, disruptive and unsettling. But it also (if only implicitly) concedes the necessity and validity of civil order, of law and government.
From Martin Luther King Junior’s famed Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
King was comparing segregationist laws to an external standard of right and wrong, specifically that of God, but what’s important is that he is attacking a law or several laws, not the concept of law itself. The thing is, you can’t talk about earthly law without talking about violence, because all law comes from the power of violence.
If you sue someone (let’s presume they deserved it) under a right given to you by law you are using violence. How you ask? Well the court isn’t giving you money when you win, it gives you a judgement instead and the other guy is supposed to pay up. But if the other guy doesn’t? You go to a sheriff who seizes property from the other guy. Like their house or something. And if the guy doesn’t want to give it up? The sheriff takes it anyway. And if the guy resists, he gets thrown in jail. If the other guy resists violently, he gets shot.
“He gets shot” is the final step in every legal right you have against the world. The court dictates what is yours through law, which also dictates that the state may use violence to enforce that right, and none may use violence against the state’s agents to resist. The state not only is violent, it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. If that legitimacy is lost, the state has failed.
This isn’t some outlandish theory by the way, its the modern definition of the state originally proffered by Max Weber, who among other things, is one of the three founders of sociology. Inexplicably, otherwise well educated young ideologues are unfamiliar with this concept. It’s certainly an idea that King would have tussled with in his time (influenced as he was by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Christian Realist) and in some ways, Coates as well.
There are many problems with expecting people trained in crime-fighting to be social workers. In the black community, there is a problem of legitimacy. In his 1953 book The Quest For Community, conservative Robert Nisbet distinguishes between “power” and “authority.” Authority, claims Nisbet, is a matter of relationships, allegiances, and association and is “based ultimately upon the consent of those under it.” Power, on the other hand, is “external” and “based upon force.” Power exists where allegiances have decayed or never existed at all. “Power arises,” writes Nesbit, “only when authority breaks down.”
African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity
No one can usefully deny Coates’s observation that police legitimacy has eroded or never existed within many, if not most black communities, but this notion that legitimacy is impossible is not merely depressing. It means that the eventual end to create a society that can treat African Americans justly is to eliminate “this country”. And Coates forgets or ignores that authority is the authority to use force, and in the use of force, one can create legitimacy. You shoot someone that’s a genuine and imminent threat to your neighbors and you will gain legitimacy as an authority.
But perhaps more to the point, I don’t think most black Americans actually agree with Coates that the state is illegitimate. Whatever their frustrations, it seems like most black folks don’t want the state destroyed or gone, they want it to work. I know of no other way to explain the veritable relief that seems to reverberate, live, on television, when it’s announced that the Federal government is intervening, a civil rights lawsuit is coming, a better cop has arrived.
We can’t and we don’t treat violence by cops and violence against cops the same, whatever the intelligentsia manage to slap together in an angry Sunday column or whatever a punk white kid slaps together on a sign denouncing “AmeriKKKa”. If they are morally equivalent, if cops just happen to be an incumbent gang of thugs with badges, then why bother being angry? No, the offense is that we sense that the cops have betrayed our trust, and threatened the legitimacy of the state’s hold on violence, on which our lives are all ordered. I mean, if you’re reading this, you have the internet and thereby a stake in functioning states. And we have a stake in America, not in AmeriKKKa. The rage is in people failing so badly to meet the standards of America. The rage is the satire of Jon Stewart, the comic who loves what America ought to be, and is at its core that he tore it to shreds four nights a week.
And that’s why I’m pushing back on Coates, and I think why Robert Siegal pushed back. I don’t know Coates, person from a hole in the ground, but I love Coates, writer and social critic. And I love this country. I think Coates does too. And disobedience in pursuit of justice is an action of love.
04/29/2015Posted by on
Steven Inskeep did a radical act of reporting for NPR’s Morning Edition – he talked to people on the ground. Inskeep went to Baltimore and instead of fitting the situation into the narrative about black victims of white police power he asked the locals what they thought. The locals (or at least these locals) are not impressed with the rioters-cum-protesters and similarly unconvinced it’s about race. With a police force that is about 50% black, they finger something else: class. But the disagreement isn’t just about a root cause analysis, but about struggle for ownership of black identity and “the community”.
When we use “culture” or worse “the community” to signify a coherent group, we’re doing an act of violence, a bit of construction, a smoothing over of disagreements. Anyone part of a church knows there are disagreements. Or an industry group. Or a neighborhood. Or a potlock group. These groupings can have real power when people signify them as , say, the Christians and “Christian beliefs”, the industry, and “industry standards”, or the neighborhood and the “character of the neighborhood”. That smoothing over, the act of category construction is inevitable, necessary, and dangerous.
Factions are inevitable and healthy and ignored by outsiders to their peril. On some level, this is understandable because it is complicated. On the other, it is infuriating, because it is complicated and important. Within the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, you see that factional struggle in how black folks talk about it. Are they riots, or is it an uprising? Do they side with the mother berating her child for participating, or advocate for more violence in protection of the community? The struggle in and among and between blacks can be seen and felt in the newspaper columns and the Facebook timelines. And everyone else is going to end up picking the winner.
Something that every racial minority knows implicitly is that factional struggles within our race are won by convincing whites and our victories are enforced by co-opting whites. When whites talk about Asian values of hard work and discipline, they sided with my parents over the 5th generation Chinese in California. When whites wring their hands about cultural appropriation of minority cultures, they side with the isolationists within those minority cultures over the assimilationists and boundary pushers. When whites make yoga a fashion statement and daily exercise, they side with the physical focused Hindu traditions over the spiritually focused Hindu traditions. When whites complain about Christian bigotry, they empower traditionalists over liberal Christians. When whites call ISIS the Islamic State, they side with the violent extremists against the Muslims who curse and mock Daesh. These choices are almost never made to make one faction the victor. In fact, these choices are most often made ignorant of that dynamic. But you cannot help but choose. The moment you, as a culturally powerful outsider, essentialize another culture, you finger one faction as the true, authentic representative of that culture.
I am not black. I do not have a personal stake in the outcome of the factional struggles within black communities, social circles, and media outlets. But I am affected by the struggle, because the fight isn’t quarantined to black folk. We are all in this society together. However much we segregate ourselves and each other, whether maliciously or emergently, by class, or race, or any other marker, we cannot change the fact that our destinies are bound together.
For many things I (we) can and must remain neutral on. But often we have choice thrust upon us, factional allegiance hides itself inside image memes, complaints about media narratives and inspirational quotes. So when I must choose, I do not on harming my political rivals or supporting my ideology, or for or against the Powers. I choose instead based on who I want as part of my community, my neighborhood, and my potluck group at my dinner table. I choose the people I want in my schools, and the people who I want to have children so that my children can be friends with them. To choose another way would be to concede to the factions that favor undifferentiated rage and destruction. To condemn the city’s protesters as thugs is to empower those who would have black folk be nothing but a predatory animals. To excuse the violence as justified rage is to empower those who would have black folk be nothing but an abused animal.
You cannot but choose a side. Choose wisely.
04/07/2015Posted by on
A week and change ago I wrote about Oisin Tymon and our tendency to devalue victims, especially male ones in favor of their high-profile abusers. And really, I’ll bet a bunch of you don’t remember who Oisin Tymon is. And that’s because we’ve disposed of him, a low status male, in favor of Jeremy Clarkson, a high status male even though Clarkson is clearly in the wrong.
One of the core insights of feminism is that we are all part of a mostly invisible destructive system of incentives and assumptions that support incumbent interests by awarding status.1 That is to say, feminism is saying that we’re all part of a destructive culture.
They’re not wrong. Not about that anyway. There is a problem though. That destructive system of status isn’t just destructive. Not every turn of vocabulary is the result of a conspiracy to harm women. Some, maybe most of the real problems they finger are emergent instead of curated. Maybe talking about male privilege at the same time men were kicked out of the economy in a culture that makes self worth exactly equal to employment is tone deaf to the point of offensiveness.2 And maybe calling the subtle systems of a mostly free and positive culture the Patriarchy at the same time very unsubtle patriarchal systems are subjugating, mutilating and murdering women is unacceptable hyperbole. I mention this mostly to point out my disagreements with feminism are occasional3 but not just with the “extremist” sorts.
This is also a good time to lay bare (another) one of my own biases. Well, more than a bias, a value. In Leah Libresco’s terms, one of the kittens I am trying to protect. I try to speak for those forgotten in debates. That is, the unintended casualties, the unexpected beneficiaries and the inconvenient victims that get in the way of the narrative. Sometimes it is the the low status victims. Sometimes it is organizations like the Straight Spouse Network.
The Straight Spouse Network is for the forgotten half of triumphant coming out stories, of men and women finally getting to marry those they really, fully love with all of their being. It’s for the man or woman who married a homosexual woman or man, unknowingly, unwittingly, and unsympathetically. And then was divorced, and left behind. Here is a 2014 article about them. There are some more articles about that organization, or just straight spouse stories in general, but nothing compared to the avalanche of sympathetic coming out stories. No media friendly campaign about it getting better. Here again, disposability rears it’s ugly head. Male straight spouses especially are failures in the traditional status markers of society. They’re the punchline to the whole of a Friends character. Here again, my complaint is not that we’re treating the plight of LGBT persons too seriously, my complaint is that we’re not treating the plight of the straight spouses seriously enough.
I don’t think it’s just about status either. It’s about narratives. Straight spouses don’t fit. They get in the way of the story where we get to choose to be on the side defending the bedrock of society from radicals or a powerless minority from reactionary prejudice. Nothing to encourage pride about. Because “both sides”4 don’t want these people to exist in the future so maybe it’s just easier if we pretend they don’t exist now.
I’m going to be doing my level best to grapple with some very difficult and divisive subjects, especially in the next few posts. I will end up with some frequency on the wrong side of an issue – defending people I ultimately disagree with. In doing so, I hope to do well by an honorable tradition and that you’ll stick with me to the end. This blog isn’t about changing people’s minds, but it is about opening them.
Wish me luck.
04/05/2015Posted by on
Easter is about hope. Easter is hope. It is the tomorrow that promises many other tomorrows. But it is also a day like any other. Many people will die today. Many people will suffer. Many people will give up hope forever and let the darkness swallow them into death and into evil. That is because Easter is not the end of the story. Easter is not a magical panacea. Easter is hope.
Christianity – at least the sort I am part of – is a story that leads to a relationship. A relationship with God, with Christ, with Love itself. These, for the Christian, are the same thing. (Also different things, our relationship status on Facebook is “it’s complicated”). That story cannot end in death on Saturday and still have the same meaning. Perhaps any meaning, because without a better tomorrow, all we have are the Powers. Christianity is actually pretty fatalistic about the world, because we realize that humans will never, ever be perfect on their own. We will continue to break things because we are broken. Without the Powers, without religion, without tribe, without politics, without the interference of malign forces, we would still be warring, and fighting, and breaking, breaking, breaking things and each other. Easter, the Resurrection, the point where Jesus of Nazareth, preacher becomes Christ, Son of God resurrected hope that the broken things will be made whole and that we will be made whole so we can stop breaking things. But the world is still broken this Easter and the world is still broken after every Easter and I am still broken after every Easter.
Christianity isn’t magic. The Creed isn’t a spell that you can mouth to bend physics to your will. Baptism may break the chains of your imprisonment but it won’t remove your scars, destroy the nightmares or give you your lost time back. Easter is a celebration because of and in spite of all of the brokenness. Easter is understanding that we ought not act like the older brother when the prodigal returns (though we do) and that we are have been and will be the ashamed and shameful younger brother. At Easter we give thanks for the intervention we have received instead of lamenting the intervention we have not. We, on Easter, are Lazarus instead of all of the other people that died that day.
Evil continues on unbothered by Easter, the Powers still rule and we are still broken. But Easter is hope. Easter is the punctuation mark at the end of the last sentence of the second act. Turn the page! God pleads in whispers. Turn the page! God shouts in demand. Turn the page! God urges us lovingly. Be not afraid, for God is with you. And with fear and trembling for what will befall all those we love we must. Only fools dare turn the page, believe in the foreshadowing written before them. Only fools believe that love can defeat death. But it will. It has. It is doing it right now.
Easter is hope because Easter is not the end.