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Eluding Responsibility

I was drawn to some of philosopher Mary Midgley's comments on how we neglect our responsibilities in her book Wickedness.

The general recipe for inexcusable acts is neither madness nor a bizarre morality, but a steady refusal to attend both to the consequences of one's actions and to the principles involved.

And this

It seems clear that a great many of the worst acts actually done in the world are committed in the same sort of way in which the battlefields of the First World War were produced--by people who have simply failed to criticize the paths of action lying immediately before them.  Exploiters and oppressors, war-makers, executioners and destroyers of forests do not usually wear distinctive black hats, nor horns and hooves.  The positive motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfillment and professional conscientiousness.  The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these--in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it.  That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance.

Reading that chapter of the book left me musing on Trump as an example of what she was writing about.  Then that was clearer in a later chapter on "Selves and Shadows."

Influential psychopaths and related types, in fact, get their power not from originality, but from a perception of just what unacknowledged motives lie waiting to be exploited, and just what aspects of the world currently provide a suitable patch of darkness on to which they can be projected.

And this

To gain great political power, you must either be a genuinely creative genius, able to communicate new ideas very widely, or you must manage to give a great multitude permission for things which it already wants, but for which nobody else is currently prepared to give that permission.

 


Muhammed Iqbal Day

Today, November 9, is Iqbal Day in Pakistan.  On a Facebook philosophy group I encountered this post about Iqbal and his philosophy, which delighted and interested me.

A few choice excerpts:

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) would be the first to remind us that in the 21st century we have a very high calling: to exercise our inescapable freedom, in constructive ways, for the well-being of all, in a spirit of world loyalty.  By freedom Iqbal means decision-making: choosing among diverse possibilities in the immediacy of the moment, in the context of the wider web of life.  As creatures among creatures on a small but beautiful planet, decision-making is part of our very essence. From the day we are born, we carry within our bodies potentials for empathy and hatred, creativity and blind reproduction, cooperation and cruelty, respect and callousness, good and evil. We feel these potentials within our very being as promptings and urges, as affective lures. But it is we ourselves, not the urges, who actualize the urges – some of them so destructive and others so life-enhancing. Indeed, we actualize these potentials, again and again, individually and collectively.  

For Iqbal, the future does not come to us already settled, as a pre-existing order. We help create the future, moment by moment, by the decisions we make within our own context. Sometimes we make terrible decisions at great cost to others, ourselves, and the earth. And sometimes we make wonderful decisions, adding a beauty that did not exist beforehand. We can be agents of terror or wonder. Either way we are free.  Our noble calling is, for Iqbal, not simply to be free. It is to create futures that are good for people, other creatures, and the earth: to become, as the Qur’an puts it, vicegerents on a small but beautiful planet. This is what it means to be a human being and to be a Muslim. It is to accept and live from the calling to add goodness and beauty to the world.  

***

so must we, in the name of an all-embracing principle of creational dignity persuade our fellows to transcend narrow and parochial interests in the quest for spiritual democracies in which people live with care and respect for each other and other creatures. 

I think our most important current project at Americans is restoring community by building relationships through institutions of civic engagement.  So, for example, this week I attended a meeting of mostly LGBTQ people getting an update on an assessment of the needs of our local LGBTQ community that we might better targeting our funding.  Later I attended a meeting organized by mostly moderate clergy, new to activism and advocacy, looking to unite Christian clergy in response to racial and religious hostility.  I also taught, in our local Catholic university, about how we respond to a world of uncertainty--through fear or with a sense of adventure.  And I attended a variety of events related to my service on the Salvation Army Advisory Board, where a number of the folk, including the Salvationists, are significantly more conservative than I am.  But I'm enjoying my time on that board.  Reading this blog post about Iqbal helped me more fully understand the fun I had this week.


The Paradox of Public Service

I believe Judge Kavanaugh faces a paradox.  

If he is the noble and upstanding person that he and his supporters claim him to be, then even if innocent, he would withdraw because public service means at times making a sacrifice for the good of the Republic.  The people deserve to have trust and confidence in those who serve upon the highest court.  The nation needs people who unite us across our divisions.  

At minimum he should demand a thorough investigation and a slowing down of the process for this to occur.

Because these have not been his reactions, I am left to conclude that he puts his personal ambition ahead of the good of the Republic.  Therefore I find it difficult to believe he is the noble and and upstanding person he and his supporters claim.  He loses credibility.

There once was a time when such republican virtues as self-sacrifice instead of personal ambition were common among those who served our public.  


McCain

McCainFuneral

I first remember being aware of John McCain when I was impressed by his speech to the 1988 GOP convention.  He was the first politician I ever gave money to, during the 2000 primaries.  Over the years he was as likely to frustrate and anger me as he was to do something I admired.  His speech on torture I play in my ethics classes when we discuss respect for human dignity after reading Immanuel Kant.

This weekend generated some very good articles about him and his funeral (and Aretha's too).

This article at the Guardian was quite good in discussing the complexity of his legacy.  I felt it was in bad taste for it to be published before the funeral--they should have waited till this week.  But the article is, nonetheless, good and accurate, I believe.

This CNN article discussed both major funerals--Aretha's and McCain's--and what meaning we could take from them.  The references to Pericles at the beginning remind you of the importance that a public funeral can play for a society. Excerpts:

While McCain's funeral recalled Eurocentric classical traditions (Athenian democracy, after all, did not extend to women and slaves), Franklin's evoked the scores of civil rights funerals at which she had sung, or at which her father had preached. 

***

There was one further question hanging in the air this weekend. Where do we go from here? Could we ever see Obama, Dyson and Williams organizing in the same civil rights movement? A rallying cry for voter registration is at least a start. At McCain's commemoration, former Presidents from the GOP and the Democratic Party were able to give speeches touching on the same virtues of civility and political self-sacrifice.
 
But on the frontlines of this November's election battles, the tone is still set by Donald Trump and his Twitter feed. To many American voters, the very bipartisanship of Saturday's gathering at the National Cathedral will testify to the herd mentality of a Washington elite.
 
Pericles had an advantage. If we believe his biographer, the historian Thucydides, his listeners shared his definition of his nation's values. They just needed an eloquent reminder. The broken body of Emmett Till exposed an evil so explicit that its presence in America could no longer be denied. But it is not clear that the vast TV audiences for Aretha Franklin's homegoing are all on the same page about racial justice. Nor that the millions who watched John McCain's funeral share his vision for America. Meanwhile, to many voters elsewhere in America, unity looks like weakness.

And the New Yorker reflected on the civil religion aspect of McCain's funeral, as it considered him "Americanism's High Priest."

Sublime happiness and metaphysical enlargement, achieved through the transcendence of self, are promises usually reserved for divine, not patriotic, worship, and McCain’s invocation of liberty, justice, and respect reads like the Jeffersonian shadow of St. Paul’s list of virtues: faith, hope, and love. He was an understated Protestant, not given to much mention of the Biblical God, but, when we understand Americanism as a church, we can see the true McCain, as religious a figure as has lately crossed the national stage.

This, I think, is the key to interpreting McCain’s funeral.

But this the article's dark conclusion:

But for all of the scorn heaped on Trump—whose name was never mentioned outright—there were questions left unanswered at the service. First: Is it really possible for a person to rise to power in a country with which he has absolutely nothing in common? Isn’t it more likely that Trump, whose most fervent devotees are white evangelicals and proponents of the fraudulent prosperity gospel, is just as archetypically American as McCain, embodying an alternative set of equally real national principles: anxious acquisitiveness, a distaste for deep thought, endless aggrandizement?

Then, too: Even if the American religion is good, and inclusive of certain eternal truths, if it can be thrown so quickly into crisis, turned so violently on itself, how sturdy was it, really?

My favourite parts of the funeral were actually when the words of the Episcopal ceremony were read about him, the same words read about every departing Christian.  This was a reminder that these same words are said about both the simple and the great, a truly Christian message.  So, I was most annoyed when the online footage from NBC I watched on Monday (on Saturday, the day after my step-father's death, I had not been in the mood to watch the funeral) ended with annoying historians and political commentators talking over the clergy's close of the service.  How incredibly disrespectful, as the service was not over, yet they seemed to think the religious words unimportant, a clear sign of the degradation of the nation and their fundamental misunderstanding that this was a worship service, not merely an act of civil religion.


Renounce, Resist, Rejoice

"The church is an Easter community created out of the crucified and risen body of Jesus, enveloped by empires, but not overwhelmed. The church is a graced gathering that has been transformed by the good news of God's life-giving reign. The church is the assembly in which the holy and mysterious presence of Christ Jesus is welcomed. The church on Easter Sunday . . . is called to trust in this good news so deeply that it renounces all that opposes it, resists all that seeks to upend it, and rejoices in God's gracious resurrection power that changes everything, even this current age. Preach to the church, preacher. Preach Easter in the age of Trump. All are awaiting resurrection while we endure this tomb."--Michael Coffey in his essay "Renounce, Resist, Rejoice: Easter Preaching in the Age of Trump" in the Easter 2018 issue of Journal for Preachers.


Trump & Evangelicals

Many authors have analyzed the puzzling alliance of Evangelicals with Donald Trump, who is antithetical to traditional Evangelical views.  Writing The Atlantic, Michael Gerson, himself an Evangelical and conservative Republican, gives one of the most insightful and perceptive contributions yet to this growing body of literature, including a good history of American Evangelicalism. He concludes, "It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment. "

I appreciated his discussion of the social justice actions of Evangelicals in the 19th century and then how American Protestantism split into Liberal and Fundamentalist factions in the 20th century.

Here are some of the best excerpts:

The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.

While detailing Evangelical history, he points out that long ago the Fundamentalists changed in ways that have led to Trump:

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

In the late 20th century some Evangelicals (think Billy Graham) engaged successfully with the American mainstream culture, only for Evangelicals to then feel the culture slipping away after the changes of the 1960's and 70's.  He writes:

 As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.

He identified a lack of intellectual engagement as the deepest flaw of contemporary Evangelicalism:

For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).

In practice, this acts as an “if, then” requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.

I found this comment insightful: "The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. "

One theological point Gerson importantly makes is how 19th century Evangelicals were mostly premillennialist who believed that the kingdom of God would arrive through human progress.  Evangelicals only became postmillennialist after the Civil War.  Postmillennialism believes in an apocalyptic end to human history when God will intervene with judgement.  He faults this apocalypticism for Evangelicals current political problems.

The difficulty with this approach to public life—other than its insanely pessimistic depiction of our flawed but wonderful country—is that it trivializes and undercuts the entire political enterprise. Politics in a democracy is essentially anti-apocalyptic, premised on the idea that an active citizenry is capable of improving the nation. But if we’re already mere minutes from the midnight hour, then what is the point? The normal avenues of political reform are useless. No amount of negotiation or compromise is going to matter much compared with the Second Coming.

He also points out historical mistakes that conservative Evangelicals made, such as opposing evolution, which has resulted in placing "an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity."

Gerson believes that Trump stumbled upon a message that resonated with Evangelicals and their apocalyptic worldview.  And that the essence of his message was "Protecting Christianity, Trump essentially argues, is a job for a bully."

Near the end, Gerson passes harsh judgement upon Evangelical leaders:

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise. Falwell, Graham, and others are providing religious cover for moral squalor—winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints. Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites. And this, even by purely political standards, undermines the causes they embrace. Turning a blind eye to the exploitation of women certainly doesn’t help in making pro-life arguments. It materially undermines the movement, which must ultimately change not only the composition of the courts but the views of the public. Having given politics pride of place, these evangelical leaders have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.

He goes even farther in rebuking them for supporting Trump's racism. 

Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country. Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most-basic requirements of their faith.

Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.

And

For a package of political benefits, these evangelical leaders have associated the Christian faith with racism and nativism. They have associated the Christian faith with misogyny and the mocking of the disabled. They have associated the Christian faith with lawlessness, corruption, and routine deception. They have associated the Christian faith with moral confusion about the surpassing evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism.

I appreciated his characterization of democracy:

Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. It has a moral structure. The values we celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence the character of our people and polity. Democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders. But there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity, and self-restraint. And the legitimation of cruelty, prejudice, falsehood, and corruption is the kind of thing, one would think, that religious people were born to oppose, not bless.

And his definition of faith: "At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death."

 


How Democracies Die

How Democracies DieHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the authors on NPR and reading an op-ed, I ordered the book and read it in about half a day.

The opening chapters are revealing, as they use their historical expertise on how democracies failed in Europe in the 1930's and Latin America in the 1960's and 70's to detail how elected officials subvert the system. They also discuss the nations where such attempts were thwarted and how.

They discuss America's history with demagogues and how the system has always been able to check them in the past. They identify the strengths of our system as not the written rules but the values of mutual toleration and forbearance.

Next they relate how since the 1970's these unwritten norms have been assaulted and weakened. Fault is spread around, but they rightly identify the Republican Party as having committed the most egregious attacks upon our democratic norms. In these chapters they illustrate how Donald Trump's election is a symptom and not the cause of our current crisis.

The chapters on how Trump's election and first year parallel the playbook of other authoritarian leaders may be necessary for the historical record, but this reader already grasped all of that before reaching those chapters.

What I looked forward to and found lacking was the ending. As they had given thorough historical analysis of how democracies die, I wanted a similar thorough analysis of how other nations had thwarted the attacks of demagogues or recovered from them. In other words, I was hoping analysis would lead to good, practical advice.

There is some of that, but not in the depth I had been hoping for. And they, unnecessarily, spend time on what policies they think the Democrats need to pursue--their "new" agenda sounding to me a lot like the policies of Hillary Clinton.

One takeaway is that playing hardball will only exacerbate the crisis, as will left-leaning ideological purity. Now is the time for moderation, compromise, and institution-building.

View all my reviews

Francis on Fake News & the Truth

Good remarks and a fine prayer yesterday from Pope Francis on "fake news" and our pursuit of truth.  An excerpt:

Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another. Nor can we ever stop seeking the truth, because falsehood can always creep in, even when we state things that are true. An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.


"Evangelical" Hypocrisy

Much ink has been spilled about "Evangelical" hypocrisy when it comes to Trump.  Of course these are not real Evangelicals but a version of Fundamentalism--I digress.  Here's a column from Michael Gerson contrasting Billy Graham's reaction to Nixon's scandals with Graham's son's open embrace of Trump.

But the best explanation I have yet read is this one which identifies the roots of this form of American religion in the slave-holding South and a break-away from actual Evangelicalism which was abolitionist.  Excerpt:

patriarchal amoralism, not the Bible, not Christian teachings,  is the foundation of this Evangelical sect.  After slavery, it justified the lynching of blacks, segregation, and the vile hatred that we see being fanned today in such churches.  Being patriarchal and authoritarian, it has never in America’s history supported nor nurtured the values of democracy.  Thus  Its “religious” leaders convey the theological values needed to prepare its communities for fascist rule.  This thread has always existed within American society.  It is not new. It is not superficial. It will not disappear. America made a moral compromise at the beginning of its existence. Every century or so, the reality of it gets thrown like acid into our faces.