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Thursday, April 09, 2020

Love Is

I watched the national nightly news just a bit ago, and there was a story that broke my heart. I want to say it was in North Carolina, but a guy lost his father to the coronavirus. And I noticed he said it a couple of times, "My dad was…" I don't want to beat up on the guy too bad, because he just lost his dad. Yet it's wrong to say, "was". I want to acknowledge the reality of our separations from loved ones in death, without conceding some sort of ultimate reality to death. We can have all the space and time we need to grieve that separation, but I do not talk about my loved ones in the past tense, unless I'm telling a story that happened in the past. My dad is Richard Kettinger; he is a fan of the Dodgers. He is a son, a brother, a father, an uncle, and whatever else. Love in every form--even if imperfect--makes everything present.

A friend asked me how I felt some time ago on the anniversary of the death of another friend. I felt like a crazy person, but I said without a hint of hesitation, "It still seems like she is here." I won't tell closer friends and family what to feel about that, or about their own grief, but I know what I know. In my experience, to grieve with hope is to grieve in the knowing reality of the eternal present. As a result, my grief changes, because it takes the form of, "I sure wish we could have a conversation about this or that, like we did before." I grieve the ease of conversation, the relative ease of getting together, and that is the pain we feel when they are gone, because we take each other for granted. We forget that we die; we forget that life in this present form is fragile and not guaranteed. That said, it is not the end. It never was, and it never will be.

I find it interesting that so many people in this world take the truths of the Christian religion to be so otherworldly and strange, as if only lunatics and dreamers could believe it. I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense, depending upon where you sit. Yet to believe what is revealed is not to wrap ourselves in comforting fictions; it is to say that redemption in Christ and the resurrection of the body are realities that change this reality. They don't occupy some quasi-real myth space in our heads, while the real stuff is the job, the car, the family, and empirical science.

Indeed, the faithful Christian is the boldest person you will know, because he or she metaphorically stands in the town square and says, "Everything you think you know is actually wrong." If someone says that we possess souls that never die, then the death of our bodies is the anomaly, the fault that makes no sense. It is the error in the system; it is the graffiti that mars the park bench.

You know, the reason why we have such a presumptuous cultural tendency to put everyone who dies in Heaven is that a human life is so unique and unrepeatable that we have an instinct that such beauty and glory should not be forgotten. And that's right. At least we picked up from Sunday school or some early lessons that Heaven is the place where nothing and no one that is good is forgotten. I'll leave you to wrestle with the reality of judgment, of punishment and hell, but at least we understand the good things, and why they are the way they are.

My friends, don't concede anything to death, as if death is normal, and a part of life. It isn't. Death attempts to deny life, to cancel it. If indeed we have an instinct that death is wrong, and somehow a disruption to the life we know, let's not try to truncate life to make death make sense. Instead, let's enlarge our lives, so that when death comes, we will know that we have begun to overcome it. We will still hurt, but we will hurt as those who are alive. This is what it means when the Scripture says, "God is the God of the living, not the dead."

Addendum To the Introduction (Deneen) (V)

I wanted to talk more about the fourth critical area where Deneen says liberalism has impacted the social fabric most negatively: science and technology. To raise a protest about any sort of technology in today's society in a certain sense proves Deneen's point about our universal adoption of what Pope Francis describes as the "technocratic paradigm". Our conveniences and their use Deneen says are actually determining the course of our lives, rather than we as individuals and groups using technology to further some specified goal. Living spaces and economic arrangements which are fitted to human scale often describe a philosophy known as "agrarianism". Deneen certainly offers the modern globalized society as an example of something in general that erodes human society, and its numerous small intimate human connections. He does approvingly mention Wendell Berry in this regard. He seems to argue that we cannot critically examine the use of a particular good, with the aim of determining its relation to the end, if we have decided that any and every new good or technology is in fact the end we should be pursuing. If we couple this with his definition of liberty functionally as the maximum personal license for every person, we can see why Deneen is so critical of this version of liberty, and even individual rights. As I said before, many of these small intimate connections give us obligations which are not chosen. Therefore, if it is true that liberalism aims to break the bonds of all involuntary relationships and obligations, then it is contrary to any sort of life at a human scale.

The reduction of contemporary sexual ethics to a minimum consent seems to prove Deneen's point that even membership in a family, or the right to form a new one, is purely a matter that is voluntary. Moreover, the reduction of sex to the end of pleasure seems to bolster the point as well. There is nothing so obvious an involuntary obligation as parenthood. In the most contemporaneous debate over sex, personal liberty has one out over the notion that sex has social obligations. That which is social is that which is common, and such was the basis for the state interest in personal sexual matters.

The uncritical adoption of all new science and technology as simply the inevitable price of freedom testifies to Deneen's contention that liberalism is something unnoticed, in the background, like water to a fish, as he says. The saw that the state cannot legislate morality is really the statement, "The state has no authority to remind people of their deeper social obligations, and to enforce them".

Humor: Some Thoughts

I'll probably over-analyze this, as is my way. I think humor is the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly contrary things, which forms an absurdity. Another aspect of humor is the intentional breaking of taboos, usually coupled with self-mockery or self-parody.

Many people are perplexed by various types of crude humor, but I have realized that it's only actually funny as a contrast, perhaps to the way we're expected to behave in most places of our lives. Even the tolerance for that kind of thing is a matter of taste.

If we're crude all the time, crude humor doesn't shock or surprise. I think the unexpected is a key ingredient of humor. I still haven't watched a whole lot of the TV show Seinfeld. I know, I need to do that. That comedy works, because we have expectations about how decent people are supposed to conduct themselves. None of the erstwhile protagonists are flagrantly evil, in any sort of historic sense. Still, they consistently miss opportunities to do the little thing, which tends to mark beloved people out from the rest of us. I suppose in that way, the show can make us laugh, while teaching us about the good life. I remember seeing the final episode, and thinking it was quite funny. Then I had a fearful, self-accusing thought: I hope my particular judgment is not like the trial of those characters. We can laugh at it, because it was funny and none of the characters is real. Still, I have never wanted to be the guy everyone thinks is just okay, at best.

I continue to think about the interesting relationship between laughter, and sorrow. It sure seems like some of the funniest people who have ever lived are those who suffered greatly. Perhaps that is the appeal of nihilism, because one accepts the absurd as the steady-state of the universe. At that moment, you have two choices: despair or laughter. I never put much value in this so-called, "cheerful nihilism" that's going around. The point of laughing at the absurd is that the absurd is not actually the steady-state of the universe. How are you supposed to be cheerful, if there's no plan, and no point to anything?

Religion offers many opportunities for well-placed humor, but not of the kind that outsiders tend to think. Mocking God is always a bad idea, and mocking those in spiritual authority--human though they are--might even be worse. What's the saying? Always punch up, not down. And in that case, punching horizontally ends up a waste. I think the big part of humor in a religious context is the juxtaposition of faith, and the experience of the testing of that faith, with the awareness of all that is less than ideal. Strangely enough, this may also be the juxtaposition that produces a saint.

Lord, I'm trying not to laugh now, so I don't end up on the wrong end of one of your woes. There is a lot of sadness, isn't there? I hope it pays off, in the end.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Why Liberalism Failed (Deneen) Introduction (IV)

Deneen says that the philosophy of liberalism was developed some 500 years ago, and implemented most notably in the United States in the last 250 years. The essential features of liberalism according to Deneen are the individual as a rights-bearer, capitalism is the means to acquire goods and markers of personal identity, and periodic democratic elections, which allegedly ratify the decisions of the set of rights-bearing individuals. Deneen is going to claim that the individual as the fundamental unit of society is a crucial departure from the classical understanding of people and their relations to one another, with their interlocking obligations, many chosen, but some not chosen. Indeed, the biggest promise of liberalism according to Deneen was to liberate individuals from these involuntary obligations, and any identities imposed externally from those obligations.

He goes on to argue that in four areas, liberalism faces a crisis of its own self-contradiction. Politics and government, economics, education, and science and technology. One crucial factor for evaluating Deneen's central thesis is whether the heart of liberalism must be the maximization of personal autonomy. Many interlocutors of Deneen are people who would argue that a Christian or other traditional worldview does not preclude the political philosophy of liberalism, because there is no need to assume that license--the total lack of external constraint on one's desires--is the central core of liberalism. The many Catholic luminaries of the American project of fusionism--the marriage of convenience between libertarians, national security conservatives, and religious conservatives--stand as a sort of counterpoint, at least potentially, to the idea that liberalism as a political philosophy is incompatible with Catholicism, or a similarly traditional religious meta-philosophy. On the other hand, Deneen stands in a long line of Christian critics of capitalism (and the other elements of the liberal project) who argue that the essence of liberalism properly understood destroys the soil so to speak, in which the values and traditions common to Christianity (or other traditional religions) take root and grow.

I can at least agree at this moment that the political soup in which we find ourselves is conducive to a radical individualism of the sort which Deneen decries. He goes to great length, both in articulating his claims, and in examples purporting to prove those claims, to highlight the present dissatisfaction with the political system, and the citizens' general pessimism regarding the future of the country, and the sort of lives that their descendents will be able to live. In economics, the principal driver of the problem as Deneen sees it is the radical disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor. He goes on to say that only the wealthy are able to secure the political rights which are supposed to be the hallmark of the free individual in a liberal society. On a personal editorial note, I will be curious to see if Deneen can reconcile his antipathy for the wealth gap with his apparent antipathy for what he describes as "statism." I might make a start in defining that term in Deneen's mental toolbox as the ever-encroaching liberal state into every area of human endeavor. As harmful as that surely is--especially in the abstract, and at a particular extreme--it is unclear who or what will redress the problem of wealth inequality if it is not the government, or to put it in the terms of the Catholic social doctrine, the "political authority". Deneen may well be at his best in arguing that a radically individualist philosophy is incompatible with the Catholic worldview, but it is difficult to imagine a political philosophy or its apparatus practically speaking, which does not in some sense resemble some features of liberalism. Deneen concedes that some form of democracy, individual rights, and bodily autonomy should and could coexist with a better political philosophy, so he is not arguing against those concepts themselves. Yet a reader could be forgiven for having a difficult time defining what liberalism is, or imagining a better alternative, if we mutually agree that a collectivist tyranny is not desirable.

One point of criticism: it is natural for commentators to mark the collapse of the Soviet Union as the death of communism as a competing ideology for classical liberalism. However, communism still exists in this hemisphere, in name and in fact, as well as being obviously represented in China, and North Korea. The West so-called may have been persuaded of the folly of communism, or even other forms of state directed socialism, but it is far from dead. We should not mistake the unrivaled power of the United States as proof that liberalism stands alone as an ideology in the world. Deneen also names Fascism as a competing ideology which failed, but since authoritarian tendencies never fully go away, it seems presumptuous to say that Fascism is no longer a threat to some notion of freedom.

I want to highlight and mention Deneen's claims about liberalism's deleterious effect on education, and specifically, the liberal arts. In the past, in the West, it was understood that money making was secondary to learning and proclaiming the features of a good life. In summary and substance, the liberal arts represent the pursuit of virtue for its own sake, and for the sake of man's highest end, which is union with God. Deneen says in effect that a utilitarian reductionism has taken place, and that lesser goods which were self-consciously inferior to the pursuit of the liberal arts have now supplanted the liberal arts, reducing them to their value in economic terms, and thus leaving them seemingly without a reason to exist. Many outmoded expressions and examples of paternalism--especially on university campuses--represented the widespread belief in the primacy of the liberal arts. Deneen joins many fundamentally conservative people in lamenting the loss of a moral consensus which constituted the earlier basis for responsible citizenship. The seemingly irreconcilable conflict present in our political system, and in systems around the world, is due to a lack in moral consensus concerning the purpose of life. If it could be shown that the individualism represented by Anthony Kennedy's famous statement concerning the right of self-definition is synonymous with liberalism, then it is a straight line from the political philosophy to the frustration and open conflict which characterize the political system. That case remains to be proven. I will only say for now that Deneen's central contention in this chapter--that liberalism has not failed, but succeeded--is not only intriguing, but worthy of consideration. I have more thoughts, and at a length that is too much for this one post, so I'll call the next post an addendum to the introduction.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Election Update And Campaign Messaging

I basically agree with this analysis. Granted, in some sense, it accords with what I want. On the other hand, it does pretty well explain the data we are seeing now. One interesting measure of the mood before any election is the generic Congressional ballot. You should know that it almost always favors Democrats, if only slightly. It is also the case that a small lead for the Democrats (inside three points, for example) sometimes indicates a Republican victory brewing. Right now, the average of the Congressional ballot--which generally indicates voter mood--at Real Clear Politics shows a Democratic advantage of over eight points. That indicates a wave election, and we just had a wave election. The Republicans don't have House seats to lose. How bad could this get for the GOP? Let's be conservative, and say the Democrats flip 15 seats. That would give the Democrats 262 seats, to the Republican number of 166. Right at this moment, there are also six vacancies in the House. Let's say the parties split those. Then the majority would be 265-169, with one independent. That's an electoral disaster any way you slice it.

The generic Congressional ballot could always improve for the Republicans for the rest of the spring, through the summer, and into the fall. If it does, though, it will have to improve a lot.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Biden leads most polls in every swing state. And while a general election matchup poll doesn't tell you how the electoral college will go, swing state polls will. Could they change? Sure they could. However, the fact that the former vice president is polling so well indicates that casual observers have a positive opinion of him. This means that the president and his team will have to work extremely hard to damage Biden's image with the voters in a short amount of time. This would be easier for them to do if the American people generally liked President Trump. They do not. What I see is an electorate looking for a reason to abandon the incumbent.

One reason Republican voters and Trump supporters will be tempted to dismiss this analysis is because Hillary also lead in the polls. However, Hillary is a woman. She is the first woman who had a legitimate shot to win the presidency. She was the first female nominee by either major party. That's a prime situation for widespread lying to pollsters about whom one intends to support. Joe Biden is not a woman. No one has anything to gain by saying that they intend to vote for Joe Biden. I would tend to think that his polling numbers are accurate, unless the pollsters undercount his voters. I have also never seen Biden do dramatically worse than his polling numbers in a big election. Trump must dramatically improve, or he is toast. He may be toast anyway.

My official prediction for the electoral college is 340-198 for Biden.

I think the general messages of each campaign will be as follows. Trump will attempt to paint Biden as a radical socialist, beholden to the radicals in the Congress. We will hear Nancy Pelosi's name a lot. There will be a fair amount of ageism against Biden by the president. However, the reason this won't work is because Trump has shown signs of his own cognitive decline. If it comes down to two old guys who can't really hack it yelling at each other, the voters will choose the one they like better. It's a bit like Ali-Frazier III: it probably shouldn't have happened, but The Greatest still had the faster hands. The analogy will break down here, because Biden is Ali in this analogy.

Biden's messaging carries the most risk, because he has a left flank that despises Trump for his mere existence. Not every left-wing criticism of Trump will resonate even with the disgusted suburban women who will decide the election. The former vice president needs messaging along two tracks: one track for the base of his party, and the other track for those who would be ordinarily disinclined to vote for him, but who despise Trump. For these voters in the latter category, Biden needs to say, "I know you don't agree with me, but you'll get competence and stability." Biden can do a lot of this very subtly, by talking about his friend John McCain, and working profitably with the George W. Bush administration. In order to shore up his base, he should use Obama's name in connection with every single policy proposal he has, until the election is over. This will also inspire the Trump voters against him, but his base is bigger, and this is a base election.