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Friday, October 30, 2020

You Can't Make Everyone Happy, But I Indulge The Urge To Explain Myself Anyway

 You know, I've gotten a fair number of messages privately recently, and over recent months, to the effect that I have really stirred people up. Sometimes, I can tell people are angry, even if they don't say it. On the one hand, I've never been afraid to make people angry, even sometimes for not the best reasons. In our younger days, I'm sure we can all tell stories of spoiling for a fight, and not backing down, even if you should.

This is still me. I am the mass of contradictions who does this all the time, and yet has a powerful need to be liked and even loved. At my best, I am the guy who speaks the truth that everyone else can see, but is afraid to say. At worst, I'm something else. Fill in the blank yourself; I have spent too much time on self-hatred in general.

Let's talk about what this is really about: the election. I should have known back in 2013 or 2014 that my own comfort level with being a Republican was becoming unacceptably tenuous. I was still grievously unfair, and often more passionate than thoughtful, but I had begun to learn about the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. As a person who loved politics, I realized very quickly that how I had thought about politics up to that point needed to change. I could see a richness in the Church's own reflection that I did not find in my own engagement. I saw challenges to my own deeply held opinions--especially about capitalism and freedom--that I had no intention or willingness to abandon. Yet anyone who dares to learn at the feet of Jesus, and from holy mother Church, had better be prepared to abandon some things.

If you are expecting this post to turn into some standard progressive left-wing rant, you may be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, if you hadn't noticed, the Catholic Right is pretty sad. To be more precise, it's pretty selective about exactly what they will embrace from the Church's own teaching. If it doesn't apply to you, wonderful. But dollars to doughnuts, most people reading this are going to check off the boxes on sexual ethics, point out to themselves or others exactly how heinous the Democratic Party is on such issues, and frankly, pretend that that's all that matters. In fairness, they might even believe that the Church teaches us to worry primarily if not exclusively about life, sex, and family, and after that, to be done with it.

In a way, I don't blame people for doing this. Life has enough trouble of its own, without expending enormous amounts of energy pouring over reams and reams of documents, that scant few experts have even read. On the other hand, I can't be the only one who has seen the total capitulation of things like EWTN and the National Catholic Register, to a particular rightist interpretation--and an American one at that--of the social doctrine.

I've had unpleasant experiences with the other "side" of the package deal, but having been some form of American conservative at some point, those distortions were easier to recognize and reject. I left a forum involving the social teaching on one of the social networks, because everyone there it seemed was viciously partisan, and could not even imagine anything good coming from Nazareth, as it were, if that person were a Republican or something close.

I can recall going into the 2016 election season, and it was the first time that I did not even self-consciously gravitate toward the candidates who promised to be the most "conservative". My top three candidates were Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich. I think I had begun to know enough about a left-leaning critique of Republicanism to realize that even these three guys weren't going to fundamentally change anything for the better, but I flatly reasoned that these three guys would not antagonize their opponents enough to lose the election. They weren't radical enough in any sort of way to cause an irreparable harm to vulnerable people--or so I thought--so I could let my ardent social conservatism control my voting decision, without being terribly troubled in conscience about my part in it. I wasn't ready to lead any socialist revolutions--not that I ever would be--and I still firmly believe that the radically permissive abortion policies demanded of high-level Democrats are completely absurd, and philosophically and morally indefensible.

We all know what happened in the primary.

I refuse to concede even now that Donald Trump has somehow become more acceptable than he was in the early days of that primary, when I could even count his ardent stooge, Lindsey Graham, among my allies. I daresay that no criticism offered at that time of Donald Trump has proved false or even exaggerated. What has happened is that the lure of power convinced each one of them that they should fall in line. I witnessed even my friends--who I went to battle with in earlier parts of the primary process to stop Trump--convince themselves that the things they said before somehow didn't matter. Maybe a whole bunch of people truly believe that the Democrats are always worse. I don't know. What I do know is that if I say, "I will never support that person," I bloody well mean it. I said it, and I still mean it. Never means never.

John Kasich stayed in too long, and he had the same voter profile as Marco Rubio. Had the governor dropped out three weeks before he did, I still believe Marco had a shot. Whether he deserved that shot is another matter, but there is no doubt in my mind that Marco would have also trounced Hillary Clinton in the general election, without the baggage that Trump brings, the lot of which most of his voters can barely acknowledge. He is not simply mean; he is obviously unfit to be the President of the United States. I'm an unemployed, overeducated 40-year-old cripple, with absolutely no experience running anything, and I can tell you easily with no boasting that I would be a better president than the one we have. If I tell you that I believe that, and that I'm angry that that is true--and undeniably so--how can anyone possibly be surprised, when I say that I will oppose that man with everything that I am? Frankly, don't you dare act like I'm the abnormal one, when most of us realize that everything I just said is true.

I don't like it when progressives overuse the term, "gaslighting". I don't believe that a terribly great number of men are pathological narcissists, or any such thing. I am however a person who remains angry that my own righteous indignation about scores of inappropriate and flagrantly offensive things, has been ignored for political expediency. If anyone says, "that is beyond the pale, and it should never be done, and never be said by the American president," a great number of people just assume that you have watched too much of a "liberal media" source, or that someone else has done your thinking for you. If someone does that to me too many times, I get angry, and I stay that way.

I don't have enough time in my life to go through every mainstream media source, and find all the distortions and biases that may be present. If you tell me that they are flagrantly biased, sloppy, or partisan, I'll probably believe you. But I also know--I think--that if the mainstream media doesn't report something at all, I don't need to know about it. I do not believe that there are secret caches of hidden truth in the minds of millions of non-professionals, such that the "real story" is hidden, waiting to be uncovered by the wise one, with "secret knowledge". It's a shame that so many churchgoers are so obviously Gnostic, and they don't notice. I've been a conservative most of my adult life; what now gets derisively called, "the mainstream media" used to be an agreed-upon neutral ground, for the awareness and discussion of facts in common. There have always been partisan newspapers and tabloids, and as technology advanced, we received those sources in all the new forms. Yet I would like to believe that most people wanted to bring their perspective into some neutral ground of the public space. Our free press were the people whose attention and power of amplification were necessary. Sadly, we have lost our powers of discernment. Because a so-called gatekeeper may have done badly on one occasion--or perhaps many--we have convinced ourselves that we need no gatekeepers at all. We have convinced ourselves that a distinction between an expert and a non-expert does not exist. In many cases, passion is only outmatched by ignorance.

Most distressing to me personally has been the recognition that to be committed to my ideology as I had understood it would have given me nothing more than a list of things I saw fit to ignore, or to deflect away. At least in economic terms, I had not given any sort of non-capitalist viewpoint a fair airing, either as an articulated moral stance, or in its practical applications. In point of fact, my moral reasoning was terrible. Functionally, I had decided that anyone who didn't understand that an unborn child was a person had nothing to say to me that I could learn from. I believed that all such people were so wicked that they were unable to say anything true about anything at all. I know that I probably sound familiar to somebody who might be reading this. Rather than deny it, you should probably think about how crazy that viewpoint actually is.

One of the things that helped me realize how crazy this viewpoint is, was reading about long dead Democratic officeholders, like Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, and George McGovern of South Dakota. I am a lover of truth, and a lover of people. When I see truth, when I see moral clarity, I have to appreciate it. I have to say that there is something godlike in such a person. A gift of wisdom that by the misfortune of unlucky chance--if there were such a thing--we would miss, but for the fact that they gave it to us.

The things that keep us from having a healthy politics are numerous, and they are too big to be solved by one person, one election, or even a series of them. But I refuse to believe that the only proper response to what we see is cynicism. I believe that people of moral clarity--and not just passion--can rise up and say, "this is what we want, and this is who we are, and we can do better." I still admire so many people who probably aren't going to show up at the next Republican convention. And to summarize, I can't simply run over them, or dismiss them, in a rush to embrace whatever someone's idea of "real Americans" and their ethics would be.

I guess I'm turning over the tables, so to speak, in saying that too many people have embraced the mediocre at best, and called it great. They have embraced the past that never was, to bring into the present things that should have stayed in the past. That is not to say that my morality is whatever the Zeitgeist is in these days. I hope you've been paying attention. It is to say that a straight line from what I know to be true, and believe to be prudent, to a better life for everyone, does not flow through electing "the right people". Heaven's sake, rather than re-examine their assumptions about economics, my Rightist fellow-travelers in faith say, "Of course those godless baby-murderers would say that, and try to make it about something else". It's an exaggeration, but barely. And if we could let the Cold War die, we'd be the better for it. You will not be draped in a hammer and sickle flag, and forced to sing Stalinist drinking songs, if someone wins an argument about a larger public investment in, well, anything. I feel this most acutely, when I hear my "friend", Bernie Sanders. I'm the first to acknowledge that he may be the absolute king of false dichotomies. But hear him tell you about the destitute on our streets, the insufficient wages, the shoddy or non-existent health insurance. BEFORE we tell him that this or that idea won't work, or has really bad consequences, or whatever, let's acknowledge the moral claim he is making upon us, and affirm it as good. We never get there, because most of the time, we use some assessment of another's shoddy ethics to deny the existence of a moral claim. We shift the conversation to another topic where our interlocutor is weak, or perceived to be so. "Whataboutism" is the colloquial name for it. Even worse, when we aren't doing that, many people give ready agreement to the moral principle--extreme poverty is wrong, unacceptable, etc. for example--and change nothing. It is apparently enough to say something is bad, and to think well of ourselves. How dare anyone suggest that leaving everything as it is now could be a blameworthy decision!

If politics is supposed to be the art of figuring out how to solve problems as a political community, then anything premised in a denial of the existence of that community is not political, as such. It's an anti-politics, properly speaking. To be brief, this is going to be a problem for classical liberalism in the American tradition. Maybe we have a uniquely bad manifestation of a kakistocracy; it's possible. Or our leaders reflect what we want politics to be concerned with: ourselves, and only ourselves.

Confirmation Farce, In Polarized Times

 I was wrong about Amy Coney Barrett; she is sitting on the Court, and the Republicans did go through with it. I think it was a terrible idea, for the sake of social peace, and cooperation between our elected representatives. Yet that judgment is probably weighted by the fact that I don't put much stock in the effort to put anti-Roe justices on the Supreme Court. I did not vote with the purpose to do that, so I must not have much faith in its success. Even if I thought it would be successful, I may not have supported the president, anyway.

It is silly that the Democrats want to ask people about their faith, and act incredulous, when they find someone who actually believes what their church teaches, especially in regard to sex. As we all know, Pleasure is the one and only sacrament in the Church of Self, and it has more members right now than anything else does. The Democrats don't even bother trying to hide it: they love religious belief, as long as it serves them, and doesn't get in the way of what they want to do.

Of course, the Republicans and their loyal followers do the exact same thing. Their rite in the Church of Self is the same, it just has some variations, involving wealth, "freedom" and whatever else.

Anyway, I probably was a bit too hasty, when I said that I would vote to confirm Judge Barrett, because every time we have one of these confirmation battles, I find myself unable to just shake off the pointed questions about the influence of corporations, and how these potential justices always seem to find for the corporations, and never seem to find the judicial authority to do otherwise. I can appreciate a certain desire of judges, in wanting to defer to the people's representatives, and to their legislative prerogatives. Yet it is rather convenient, when the judges' claims of tied hands just happens to coincide with a result which they would want to reach anyway.

Moreover, I have yet to see articulated anything approaching so-called "originalism" that has been applied in a principled manner, or taking into account the legitimate changes in our Constitution itself. It seems--and the membership in so-called "conservative" legal fraternities appears to confirm--that the American people are witness to a judicial branch which is just as ideological and partisan as any of us, and their alleged fealty to principle is nothing more than an opposition to what they oppose. In other words, I don't think anyone really knows what they mean by originalism, but I know what its advocates don't want, and don't like.

Judge Barrett would face no questions from me about the Catholic Church, or her membership in any such ancillary organizations as she deems appropriate. Yet I can tell you that the Republican attempt to give their nominees a verbal hug, especially after an intense round of questioning from the Democrats, is sickening. I don't want or need a discussion of some justice's pet cat, or how proud they were of having graduated from the extremely intimidating University law school which they no doubt attended. Beyond the opening statement, I don't need anyone to try to convince me that this is a normal human being, who is liked and loved by someone somewhere. And it is not that I would be intentionally unkind, or unwilling to exchange pleasantries on any level. It's just that, I would be the people's representative; they deserve to know important things about why this person would judge cases the way they would. They could probably use at least a cursory discussion of the terms and words involved in judicial ideologies, and in the normal decision-making process of any judge, regardless of ideology. These people are smart; if I ask one of these people--who have usually taught law students and the like--about real ideas in the legal profession, they should be able to give me that information. Personal questions especially about conduct are fair game, but only to the extent that the answer or non-answer may reflect on the temperament or the character of the individual. We play this game now, where none of the nominees actually answers anything--and I didn't even watch it--and one side pretends that the other side is vicious and horrible, and how can they besmirch such a noble and honorable judge, while they themselves get the nominee some warm milk, and some cookies, and asks if they enjoyed their last vacation.

Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island tends to ask questions of nominees appointed by Republicans that I actually want answers to. He and I don't agree on the morality or necessity of "reproductive choice," but beyond that, if he's mad, I can at least understand where it comes from.

I saw Senator Russ Feingold ask a question and make a statement that I appreciated once. I don't even remember who the judge was, but Feingold wanted to know if this particular person had re-examined his position on the death penalty in light of numerous degradations, and even court rulings intended to address those. Of course, this appointee had not, and made the allegedly appropriate noises about not bringing their moral judgments into the cases. First of all, there is nothing neutral about pretending to be philosophically and morally neutral. If the legal establishment is a bureaucratic edifice created for its own preservation, I can see why this myth would take hold. But no sane person comes to any situation where they conceivably could avoid making philosophical and ethical judgments. We already know this, when we're pretty sure we knew how Ruth Bader Ginsburg would rule on any abortion case. I don't want to torpedo any notion of impartiality altogether, but come on. The very notion that a judge would, or could, rule something expressly contrary to what they think best, is absurd.

Many people love to glorify judicial restraint, but it doesn't exist. The only thing I see judges restraining are the rulings made by the opposite judges. And if we are completely honest, I never saw any judge score any points with anyone for their limited rulings, as a matter of principle. I bought an entire book of Scalia dissents. I didn't buy the book for some deep intellectual exploration of judicial philosophy; I bought the book because we all know that Scalia's frustration with other justices is pretty entertaining.

If we know that we are participating in a farce, why does it make us so angry? We act like every battle will be the triumph of the Republic, or the end of it, but I haven't learned anything useful from one in a while.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Feedback Loop

 There comes a point in every Christian's life--and it circles around sometimes--when s/he becomes revolting to himself. This of course presents an opportunity, because we might not understand the depths of God's love for us in the moments of our failure, but we have a chance to recollect, and begin again.

Unfortunately, there is also an opportunity for someone to say, "Look at this, and look at me! I might never have believed in the first place!" This is of course foolish, but we do it all the time. Many of the people who go on and on about how horrible they are are actually proud of themselves; that is to say, too proud to turn around.

But grace is grace. We didn't earn it on the first day, and we can't earn it today, and we won't earn it on our last day. We never have actually deserved anything of ourselves. As a professional screw-up, I can offer first-hand testimony about this.

I guess I'm going to have to keep saying it, first of all to myself. There is no Good News, if it just means we put a pretty shine on things, and pretend that we would never do all sorts of things. When we examine our conscience, assuming that it is still sharp, whatever comes out is reality about us in the moment. It is not the final word on who we are, and more precisely, who we are meant to be.