Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
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08/04/2017Posted by on
I have of late found myself in the uncomfortable position of being really upset with writers I otherwise admire and respect. In part this is because the writers I go out of my way to read are smart people who think differently than I do. And I, like all people who put pen to paper, am a relentless egotist who finds disagreement to be a personal insult. Pascal Emmanuel Gobry is one such writer and he recently went off on a tirade about the left’s position on racism. A tirade I found insulting and completely off base. But Gobry also had this had this observation:
The more I think on it, the more he is talking about something very real and very dangerous. It does certainly feel like everything has gotten worse, tenser, and more extreme. But something doesn’t quite sit right about his model of what’s happening. For Gobry to be correct, political partisans would have to believe in more and more extreme positions that are even more diametrically opposed to each other. But I don’t think that’s what is happening at all. Rather, it is our image of each other is becoming more radicalized. Let me demonstrate with the incident on hand.
Gobry was ranting in response to this exchange:
Gobry, it seems, saw this exchange and interpreted as if Beauchamp had thrown the entire idea of nationhood, inheritance, borders and anything short of a single global borderless state as inherently racist. I, on the other hand, saw a reasonable and/or historically obvious case that US immigration restriction has historically been racist and the claim of any non-Native American American to have claim to the soil by blood to be laughable.
How did we see the same thing so differently, assuming for the moment we are both reasonable men? Well sticking just to the US context, Gobry and I are members of different tribes, meaning different friends and affiliations. So I am naturally inclined to interpret, edit really, the exchange to be more reasonable and he more inclined to see the worst. In fact, our interpretations are also likely to feed off of each other, since nothing causes an idea to take hold and spread quite as fast as anger. This process is well explained by CGP Grey in this wonderful video which you should watch right now if you hadn’t already.
The relevant gist is that ideas about the opposing tribe that make you angry are the most likely to take hold and spread among people you respect and like, and they can trigger mirroring rage inducing idea about your tribe in the opposing tribe. Everyone got that? Good. This is what Gobry said that I found offensive enough to go on a long rant about the historical racism of US immigration policy:
What’s funny about this tweet enraging me so is that I don’t self-identify as a progressive. And yet I was enraged and stopped giving Gobry the benefit of the doubt, despite our multi-year history of fruitful dialogue over Twitter. I use this experience as an example, not a proof. But I think all of us can sense a building tension between tribes.
Let me propose that what is going on is not that we are radicalizing each other, but we are radicalizing our images of each other. This does not cause more radical policy on our end, but it does cause more radical behavior in the form of less benefit of the doubt and more insults to the opposing faction. Because why would you bother being reasonable with a radical? Then again, straw-men and stereotypes about opposing factions has always been with us.
One factor is that social media has not only made it easier to connect with your tribe, but made it way more likely to actually encounter the ridiculous straw-men you paint the other faction to be. Or at least people who are so caught up ressentiment they act like it. The other obvious factor is the election and Presidency of Donald Trump. I mean, the man is nothing if not a walking conflictionator. He constantly produces a miasma of stress, rendering social trust by his actions. And, there is the crushing onslaught of news as Trump flails about and journalists dig in. We’re all on edge, scrambling to and fro for the security of priors and fellow tribes(wo)men.
So now what?
First off, don’t hate read. Second, recognize the problem is you, not social media or your smart phone. This is a very human thing we are doing, an old human thing in new mediums. And finally, embrace charitable construction and questions. Don’t argue with the dumb version of what someone said, but the smart, reasonable version of what someone said. Cut away the snark, find out what it is someone really meant and act reasonably, and more often than not, you’ll find something worth engaging with. And if you don’t, fall back on not hate reading in the future.
 I am mostly joking. Mostly.
 In the history of US immigration policy we have excluded races by name in legislation as well as have had the category, taken from the legislative text, of free whites of good character. The case that the history of US immigration policy is steeped in racism is a slam dunk.
 Tribe! I meant tribe. Or did I?
 Whoops. Did it again. Funny that.
 Except you should hate read me. I am sustained by your hatred. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred.
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.
06/17/2014Posted by on
Last week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry went a little crazy after a bunch of well educated professional political reporters flipped out over the creepiness of David Brat’s use of the phrase “monopoly on the use of force” in reference to government. For those of you who were not paying attention during any of your studies that involve the modern state:
the concept of the state having “a monopoly on the [legitimate] use of force” is a quotation from the highly reputed and important German sociologist Max Weber, and is a concept that is absolutely basic to our modern understanding of the State. Anyone who has taken polisci 101 or sociology 101 or political philosophy 101 or history of ideas 101 ought to have encountered the phrase. It is about as offensive as saying that donuts have holes.
What followed was a fine rant from Gobry about not only how American schools have obviously failed to teach our students the basics, but we’ve failed to do the basics for all of the wrong reasons:
Nobody stops to ask what education is for, because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.
Gobry followed up today by prescribing a course of small group tutoring sessions, as many deep full book dives into Great Books as possible, and no exams. I’m not sure if he’s offering this as a marginal improvement in the pedagogy of the humanities, or a model for the remaking of all secondary schooling across multiple subjects as “liberal arts education” can mean either of those things in context. Maybe it doesn’t matter, since everything is tied together, and I don’t just mean the zero-sum game of pie division when it comes to education budgets and instructional time. Let me introduce two interlocking concepts to explain the why and the how of education: self-efficacy and cultural literacy. Read more of this post
03/07/2014Posted by on
Leah Libresco and Pascal Emmaneul Gobry have been wrestling with exactly how awesome marriage is.
The orthodox Christian view of indissoluble marriage in many ways can seem “exalted” in comparison to secular society. And secular society certainly makes lots of noises about valorizing marriage. Thus, “You agree marriage is awesome, we agree marriage is awesome. Ain’t marriage awesome???”
But the problem is that this is an inversion of the Biblical theology of marriage. […] If marriage is a vale of milk and honey, then when the milk and honey runs out, the marriage loses its reason for being. If marriage is a vale of milk and honey, then not offering it to everyone is tantamount to sadism. Marriage is [really] a Cross. Marriage is a vocation to creation in total self-giving. To say that marriage is a Cross is to say that it is part of God’s design and that many graces flow from it and even that it is joyous. But it is also to say that it sucks sometimes and that it demands a total gift of self. If we see vocation as a call to creative self-giving, we see that marriage and celibacy are two sides of the same coin.
Treating marriage as a relationship set apart prevents us from easily translating the same lessons we learn in love of friend or family into the partnership we’ve learned to treat as sui generis.  It would be bizarre to say, “I’m not ready for friendship — I’m not prepared to make that kind of commitment to someone” but it seems perfectly natural to prorogue marriage[. W]e still view marriage as self-gift, but that we expect the self that we give to be well-polished and complete[.] We don’t see a way that any gift worthy of the name could also be a constraint or a burden.
These are all excellent points, though they both neglected some vital context. Marriage really is harder these days, in some ways good (domestic violence is a no-no) and in other ways bad (you must be perfect partners in every sphere of your life). Simultaneous with ever-increasing standards of what a “good” marriage should be, the traditional support structures within the churches, communities, and social networks of married couples have weakened terribly.
Gobry clarified in the comments section:
And to the point about support networks–absolutely, and this is critical. To say that our cultural “script” about marriage is flawed is not to say that there aren’t understandable reasons for that and that we can’t sympathize with those who are victims of it. Our society makes it a lot harder to sustain marriages–and the Church has a role to play in that, Laws are one thing, but it’s also incumbent upon the Church to sustain and create the cultural institutions that make a healthy marriage culture possible.
I’ve been thinking about this response, and I think that while it is obviously correct it is also a terribly incomplete solution. But for getting involved with my wife, who is also my fiancée,1 I would never have noticed how badly incomplete that solution is. More, infra