Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for the ‘Philosophy & Spirituality’ Category


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Let’s begin with an incident that, although it has had saturation coverage, has not been treated properly. On her TBS show on 30 May, Samanta Bee made this statement directed publicly at Ivanka Trump:

Do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless c—!

The next day, Bee issued this apology on Twitter:

I would like to sincerely apologize to Ivanka Trump and to my viewers for using an expletive on my show to describe her last night. It was inappropriate and inexcusable. I crossed a line, and I deeply regret it.

Let’s accept Bee’s apology literally. Her use of the c-word has been flogged to death in the past four days. Everything that can be said about it has been said about it.

I want to discuss her use of feckless, for which she has not apologized, and for which I do not expect any apology to be forthcoming. According to The Free Dictionary, feckless is defined as:

  1. Careless and irresponsible;
  2. Feeble or ineffective.

In order to accept Bee’s application of feckless to Ivanka, we have to accept that Bee’s position on the immigration practices of the Trump Administration are unquestionably morally correct. At least, that her position is  Then, either Ivanka would be careless and irresponsible in not advocating morality within the administration, or ineffective in the way she was going about advocating morality.

On CNN yesterday, Michael Smerconish interviewed comedian Spike Feresten (who wrote the 1995 “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld). Feresten’s remarks illustrate the thinking from whence this attitude originates:

There’s this popular misnomer that comes from the right, that these are liberal writing rooms, and there not.

The writing rooms that I’ve been in, the Letterman writing room, “Saturday Night Live,” my own show, what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right. When I’m sitting down and going hey let’s tow the whole – tell the water, tell the line for the left today.

We look at news and we’re social judges. And this is a right or wrong issue that she’s commenting on and I don’t think we should be caught on the word she used because I think we’re all fine with it. We’re all OK; our ears aren’t bleeding.

We should be caught up with what she was talking about. What she was trying to point out with her humor. And that is this horrible Administration policy, where children and parents are being separated.


I believe that what Feresten meant to say is, “When I’m not sitting down and going hey let’s tow the whole – tell the water, tell the line for the left today.” I will proceed on that basis, and accept the responsibility if I am wrong.

What I most want to call attention to is the part where he said, “what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right.” If one really believes this, then one has to claim that those who support the Trump Administration policy accept that what they are doing is morally wrong and are going to do it anyway.

I find this to be a monumentally arrogant position to take. He delegitimizes those who disagree with him. He maintains that it is a question of morality, not subject to politics. We objectively know what is right and wrong. He and Samantha Bee are right, and those who disagree with him are wrong.

It is easy to see how the faultfinding man of words, by persistent ridicule and denunciation, shakes prevailing beliefs and loyalties, and familiarizes the masses with the idea of change. What is not so obvious is the process by which the discrediting of existing beliefs and institutions makes possible the rise of a new fanatical faith. For it is a remarkable fact that the militant man of words who “sounds the established order to its source to mark its want of authority and justice” often prepares the ground not for a society of freethinking individuals but for a corporate society that cherishes utmost unity and blind faith.
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951), p. 139.

Hoffer’s landmark study is backed by the experiences of mass movements starting in the Roman empire, moving through the French Revolution with its successive levels of terror and culminating in most violent century since the Dark Ages, in which over 100 million people were put to premature and gruesome death by their own governments. To be cavalier about the consequences of having such moral arrogance and playing an established role in paving the way for it in this country is careless and irresponsible. Bee and Feresten are, in a word, feckless.

There, I said it. And, unlike Bee, I have taken the effort to support my use of the term.

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.
— Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (1807-1874)

More immediately, how do you think Trump got his following? He’s primal and instinctive, but he’s no philosopher-king. There are a large number of people in this country who have their own ideas of right and wrong, and they materially differ from the ideas that Bee and Feresten have of right and wrong. It would be a good thing if everyone could get in a room, debate the relative merits and figure out how we are going to move forward as a nation. But that is not what is happening.

What is happening is that people like Bee and Feresten, who have access to channels of communication, use that to promote their point of view, wrapping themselves in the mantle of righteousness (“what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right”). As I have documented earlier, people who have a differing concept of right and wrong are fed up with being shouted down and labeled, and plumped for the first person who would stand up and push back, however badly.

Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who put Macomb County, MI on the political map, went back in 2017 to try to understand what had happened. It takes effort just to peel away the demand characteristics and get a real conversation going.

To learn from these Macomb voters, they had to be able to speak freely. They feel they are under attack – from younger generations in their own families but also in their communities. Some have been ostracized by close family members criticizing them for their vote, others confess they have been “called racist, a xenophobe, homophobe, whatever phobe they could come up with.” One woman’s son was bullied after his 1st grade class held a mock election: “my son hears us and he says, ‘I’m going to vote for Trump,’ and two of the kids in his class started yelling. Like, ‘You’re going to vote Trump? Are you crazy?’ And just started yelling at him.” This is personal.
— Stanley Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz, Macomb County in the Age of Trump

This is the real double standard in American public life. The general tone is that anyone who does not follow the orthodox Progressive line is fair game to be insulted, labeled and denied a hearing.

If Samantha Bee wants to use her show, which is a comedy show about politics, to advocate political positions on public policy, she gets to do that. People who don’t like it can change the channel. But it is a mistake to think that, because those who disagree with her do not get to voice their contrary opinions, that they buy into her version of right and wrong or will allow themselves to be dictated to any more than Bee and those who share her moral norms will tolerate being told where to get off.

People who are good with words like to think that, because they can show greater verbal facility than those who disagree with them, they have all the cards. They think that, because they argue more stridently, more cleverly and more loudly, that they have won the argument. They have not, and 2016 was a proof statement of this. Just because people stop arguing with you to your face, doesn’t mean you have won them over.

It is the height of presumption for Bee to determine the proper order of Ivanka Trump’s priorities for her. It would be entirely warranted for Ivanka to reply: Who died and left you Pope?

If you follow these trends to their logical conclusion, you get two groups of Americans who have utter contempt for each other as moral agents, believe that reasoning is a waste of time and effort and demand resolution now, in the form of total surrender by the other group (“You lost, live with it”). If you’re wondering why people are making YouTube videos forecasting a future civil war, this is why.




Written by srojak

June 3, 2018 at 12:01 pm

Play the Ball, Not the Man

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Roseanne Barr issued a Twitter comment this morning directed at former Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett which was crass and outright abusive. She tried to back out of it as a misguided attempt to be funny, but those of us who have grown up know that defense doesn’t work. As a consequence, ABC cancelled her show. But that ain’t all.

Roseanne had something of value to say about how we in this country were not hearing each other, before she abruptly decided to become part of the problem and say things no one needs to hear. Now, everyone who doesn’t want to hear the points she was trying to make can dismiss them by calling her ignorant, racist, or whatever other label is handy.

Roseanne Barr has always been one of us, but with a whole lot more access. She’s got a lot of baggage, but so do many of us. Her whole premise for the Roseanne revival was that this was the voice of Americans who weren’t being heard. Now, the people she wanted to raise that voice to can say, “No, you are not being heard, and with good reason.”

In the past week, Chelsea Clinton said that President Trump was acting “to degrade what it means to be an American.” No, he doesn’t. We have had unfortunate and regrettable people in the office of President before, who did not represent what we are about. James Buchanan, Warren Harding and Barack Obama spring immediately to mind. But they do not define us. We, the People, define us.

What Roseanne did degrades what it means to be an American more than anything Donald Trump has done, because Roseanne is closer to We the People than is Donald Trump. In her apology, Roseanne said, “I am truly sorry for having made a bad joke about her politics and her looks.” There is no call to attack Valerie Jarrett for her looks, and I saw nothing from Roseanne about Jarrett’s politics. I saw an uncalled-for ad hominem attack on Jarrett relating to her race and her faith.

We the People have to stop this. We have to be able to discuss politics with those with whom we disagree. I have written previously about the need to settle political differences. How do we settle our political differences with words if we can’t even have a conversation that does not degenerate into name-calling and outright abuse? How do we have consent of the governed if the governed can’t even talk to one another?

This is why what Roseanne wrote is so important and so destructive. You want to call out Valerie Jarrett for what she believes, what she advocates and what she’s done? That is all fair game. Her gender, faith, ancestry and ethnicity are not.

Written by srojak

May 29, 2018 at 4:06 pm

Taking Religion Seriously

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As part of a series of videos from The Atlantic titled “Unpresidented”, Emma Green, who is a staff writer, presents “Why Don’t Democrats Take Religion Seriously.” She analyzes the support given to Donald Trump by Christian voters and recounts the statistics showing the increasing number of Democrats who self-describe as not religious.

Green uses a video clip where Charlie Cook said, in a 2016 interview, that “The Democratic Party has become a secular party.” She illustrates her argument with the famous incident from 2008 where Barack Obama put his foot in it, saying “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them … as a way to explain their frustrations.”

This would work better if Democrat attitudes toward religion were a simple marketing decision, where they could just stop alienating traditionally religious voters. In fact, the issue is more complicated than that.

The people who are in control of the Democratic Party agenda self-identify as Progressives, and I am going to identify them as such. As we shall see, across all the changes from the Progressive Era through the New Deal to the social justice initiatives of today, there is a fundamental thread that connects them.

Green touched on the difference between Progressives and all Democrats when she cited the statistic that about a third of the Democratic grass-roots opposes abortion, but very few of the national leadership does. The national leadership is Progressive, but not all of the Democratic voters are.

Green also identifies Rev. William Barber II as an inheritor of a Christian spiritual tradition that traces back through Martin Luther King (and, indeed, abolitionists such as Garrison and Phillips), advocating a political viewpoint that is informed by Christian teaching and tradition. However, she notes that he is outside the Democratic Party elite.

For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious.
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951).

Whether or not they acknowledge it as such, Progressives already have a religion. They do not worship a supernatural deity. They do not endorse a book claiming to contain revealed truth about that deity. They do not believe that someone can miraculously change water into wine. But these are incidental features; the essential ingredient is faith, and Progressives have that in abundance.

By definition, faith is not open to persuasion. It cannot be proven false. If a believer can be talked out of her faith, it can’t have been very deeply rooted to begin with.

We can compare Christianity and Progressivism, thinking theologically about both of them:

Christianity Progressivism
Focus of faith and worship God The People
Creation Is good
Humanity is given dominion as stewards of creation.
Is good
Humanity is nothing special
Sin I put my will before the will of God I put my will before the General Will, the Public Interest
Judgement You get your reward in Heaven We must make matters right here and now
Redemption Acceptance of Jesus as savior Acceptance of the General Will
Is intrusive? No, you have free will Yes, the power of the state must be used to coerce right behavior from the unbelievers
Grace An unmerited gift of God Earned by right thinking
As a believer, you cannot deserve Grace The results of your efforts
Human nature Conflicted: good and evil contend within and for the soul of every person All good; evil is external to the person
“Love and do as you will”
Cardinal virtues Temperance
Social Justice
Sacraments Baptism
Holy Eucharist
(Roman Catholics have five others)
Community service
Prophets from before the common era Moses
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Auguste Comte
Karl Marx
Bearers of wisdom in the common era Paul, born Saul of Tarsus
John Chrysostom
Augustine of Hippo
Theodor W. Adorno
John Rawls
Michel Foucault
Salvation is Individual Collective
Eschatology Jesus shall return to judge the living and the dead; his kingdom shall have no end Social progress shall reveal the truth, allowing us to transcend politics; history will end

A sacrament is defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Christians obtain sacraments by ritual actions. Progressives obtain sacraments by ritual promotion of beliefs.

Progressives do not believe that five thousand persons can be fed from five loaves and two fishes, but Christians do not believe that the entire world can be fed without honest effort by all persons.

Even though many Progressives have turned their backs on technological progress or economic progress, their faith in social progress is central. They believe that history will prove them out, justifying their beliefs and repudiating those of the people who disagree with them. They like to say that those who disagree with them are “on the wrong side of history.” For this reason, I find they are properly identified as Progressives.

A faith in The People also requires a priestly class to interpret the inexpressible will of The People. Just walking up to actual people and asking them what they want appears to be both unreliable and unsatisfactory. One needs special abilities to discern between the public interest and one’s own special interest, much the same way that not everyone can discern between the Will of God and their own wills.

There are, to be sure, persons who are both Christian and Progressive. They are serving two masters; if they think otherwise, they have another think coming. The People are also a jealous god, demanding that the faithful have no gods outranking The People. The two beliefs of human nature and the two concepts of spiritual authority are wholly incompatible.

In the late 1800s there was the Social Gospel movement. Leaders of this movement called for social redemption of the entire community, giving this priority over redemption of individual believers. As John Taylor summarized it, “The Social Gospel adherents considered it to be their mission to fulfill, in this life, the New Testament’s call to bring about the perfect Kingdom of God.” One Social Gospel leader, Charles Sheldon, introduced the question, “What would Jesus do?”

The problem for the Social Gospelers was that, if the goal is to achieve social salvation on earth, God is at a disadvantage compared to the State. As noted above, God is not intrusive; the State has the means to be very intrusive, marshaling its police power to coerce desired behaviors. Thus, for those whose goal was to be the reform of society along these moral lines, the State was a much surer bet than God. Instead of sitting around praying for change, you can seize power and make people obey. In this way, the Social Gospel served as a gateway ideology, leading many persons to a point where they would switch their faith to The People and the power that sits at the right hand of The People, the State. This is entirely consistent with Comte’s three-stage theory of societal development, and John Dewey is a notable example of a person who followed this path.

The so-called mainline Protestant churches tried to square the circle, to endorse Progressive agenda items while remaining Christian. These churches include the Episcopalians, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) — distinct from the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church — and the United Church of Christ. As Lyman Stone wrote for, they “focus more political efforts toward Christian social relief rather than Christian moral teachings.” And they are losing membership, while eyeing with envy the full parking lot at the evangelical church down the road.

So, while Green calls upon Progressives to make peace with those faithful to traditional, deity-centered religions, they really have no room to do so. Progressives have a religion to which they are strongly committed. I argue that Progressives do have moral beliefs, just that those do not sit well alongside Christian moral beliefs. It is unfair to accuse Progressives of not having moral beliefs; they think their beliefs are fully moral. Their ideas of what people deserve, whom ought to be helped in society and on what terms are rooted in their faith. Their beliefs about justice, equity and a good life are informed by their faith every bit as much as the parallel beliefs of Christians and Jews are informed by theirs.

The culture wars are over; they lost, we won. … For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)
— Mark Tushnet, “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Liberal Constitutionalism“. Balkinization, 6 May 2016.

(To be fair to Tushnet, he did recognize at the end of his essay, “Of course all bets are off if Donald Trump becomes President.”)

The normative pull Tushnet cites is the moral basis of his beliefs, founded in his faith and those who believe along with him. The only element of hubris in his argument is his assertion that the issues are already settled (and his history would have you believe we adopted the Morgenthau Plan). I sincerely doubt he would say that he is having a hard time talking about morality. He has a simple moral message: We’re right; they’re wrong. Come to think of it, James Carville wrote a book with that title in 1996.

The foundation in faith is what makes the issue really matter. My disagreement with Green’s analysis is not an idle point of theory — and give her proper credit: her essay is a great starting point. We need to understand the religious nature and righteous characteristics of Progressive faith in order to really understand how much trouble we as a society are in.

I do not want to reduce this discussion to the idea that, If Progressives would just shape up and get with our faith, we wouldn’t have all these problems. That has already been said; meanwhile Progressives are saying similar things about others, including me. There is no room to persuade people. How does one be heard if one says, I know your faith calls you to do A, B and C, but you really need to compromise on B and C to get A? No group of faithful believers has ever been receptive to this kind of message. If you truly believed, would you want to back down and settle for half a loaf because someone is arguing with you? Militant faith demands that you go out and get it all, or die in the attempt. Anything less is moral degeneracy and faithlessness. There are souls out there depending on you.

Sir, let me tell you that which is true, if you do not break them, they will break you; yea, and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your head and shoulders; and frustrate and make void all that work that with so many years’ industry, toil, and pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most contemptiblest generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth, to be broken and routed by such a despicable contemptible generation of men as they are; and therefore, sir, I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.
— Oliver Cromwell

This is how you get a holy war, like those that consumed Europe after the Reformation. When Mary I had Protestants burned or John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned, they thought they were following the only moral course of action. The various dissenters were putting their wills before the will of God. They would lead everyone astray if they were allowed to do so. Such behavior cannot stand, especially if we are ever going to get to Jerusalem. You are necessitated to break them.

What we have here is a holy war in the making. At this time, we cannot say how hard is the road ahead. We sense that it will be hard going indeed, and we sensibly fear it. But we cannot turn from it. It is a road we must travel to get to our destination.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.
— Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address”, 1860

Michael Hayden’s Complaint

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On Sunday, Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the NSA, was on Face the Nation to discuss his new book, The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies. His quotes are taken from this transcript.

Hayden claims that we have entered what he calls a “post-truth world.” What does he mean by that? He identifies three contributory causes:

And, frankly, the first problem is us. It’s the broader society. It’s our social discourse or lack of social discourse. We’re making decisions based not on facts and data but on emotion, preference, grievance, loyalty, tribalism. We have a president who recognized that as a candidate, exploited it as a candidate and, frankly, I think, worsens it as a president by some of the things he says and does. And then, finally, we’ve got a foreign power coming in recognizing and exploiting both one and two above. And it’s all based on our moving away from basing our lives, our decisions, our dialogue on a view of objective reality rather than preference.

For this discussion, I want to stop at point one. It is valid, but it is not a new development. Almost one hundred years ago, Irving Babbitt was telling us that we were going to come to grief if we continued to move in the direction of placing emotion, preference and grievance above facts and data.

The Eighteenth Amendment is striking proof of our loss of grasp, not only on the principles that underlie our own Constitution, but that must underlie any constitution, as such, in opposition to mere legislative enactment.
Democracy and Leadership (1924), p. 250.

Babbitt was a proponent of what he called the New Humanism, which he sharply distinguished from what he identified as humanitarianism. As Babbitt saw, humanitarianism gave free play to expansive sentimentality, and no self-restraint was possible under such an ethos. He saw the religion of The People and the worship of progress for its own sake as opposite sides of the same coin.

The humanist exercises the will to refrain, but the end that he has in view is not the renunciation of the expansive desires but the subduing of them to the law of measure. The humanistic virtues-moderation, common sense, and common decency-though much more accessible than those of the saint, still go against the grain of the natural man — terribly against the grain, one is forced to conclude from a cool survey of the facts of history. Such, indeed, is the difficulty of getting men to practice even humanistic control that one is led, not necessarily to revive the dogma of original sin, but to suspect that the humanitarians, both Baconian and Rousseauistic, are hopelessly superficial in their treatment of the problem of evil. The social dualism they have set up tends in its ultimate development to substitute the class war for what Diderot termed in his denunciation of the older dualism the “civil war in the cave.”
— “What I Believe” (1930)

Babbitt found that right living requires both the intellect to know what to do and the will to do it. It is the will, more than the intellect, that falters.

In any case the assertion that one attains to more abundant life (in the religious sense) by getting rid of the don’ts sums up clearly, even though in an extreme form, the side of the modern movement with which I am taking issue. This book in particular is devoted to the most unpopular of all tasks — a defence of the veto power.
Democracy and Leadership, p. 5.

Babbitt called for more self-reform and less social reform at a time when the current was running very much the other way. Thus, few listened to him. At this time, we would do well to go back and understand what he had to say.

Already by Babbitt’s time, we had sufficient history to provide examples for those having eyes to see. Babbitt looked critically at the French Revolution:

In theory, Robespierre is, like Rousseau, rigidly equalitarian. He is not a real leader at all — only the people’s “hired man.” But at critical moments, in the name of an ideal general will, of which he professes to be only the organ, he is ready to impose tyrannically his will on the actual people. The net result of the Rousseauistic movement is thus not to get rid of leadership, but to produce an inferior and even insane type of leadership, and in any case leadership of a highly imperialistic type. This triumph of force can be shown to be the total outcome of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the Rousseauistic sense. Rousseau himself, as we have seen, would force people to be free. The attempt to combine freedom with equality led, and, according to Lord Acton, always will lead, to terrorism. As for Jacobinical fraternity, it has been summed up in the phrase; “Be my brother or I’ll kill you.”
— Democracy and Leadership, p. 127.

For Babbitt, there was plenty enough to learn, not only from how the Revolution progressed to how it ended, with Napoleon. Babbitt cited Burke’s predictions from as far back as 1790 that a military adventurer would ultimately sweep in and pick up all the marbles. Napoleon did not get much pushback from the acolytes of The People; most of them fell over one another to welcome and praise him.

After an experience of the theory that has already extended over several generations, the world would seem at times to have become a vast seething mass of hatred and suspicion. What Carlyle wrote of the Revolution has not ceased to be applicable: “Beneath this rose-colored veil of universal benevolence is a dark, contentious, hell-on-earth.”
Democracy and Leadership, p. 131.

As it turned out, this was not only true of the French Revolution, but of the Soviets and the volksgemeinschaft of the Nazis.

For Babbitt, Rousseau was the leading figure, though by no means the final word, in the development of expansive sentimentality as the preferred standard of judgment. Rousseau moved the locus of the struggle for good and evil outside of the individual. Rousseau wrote, “man is naturally good and it is by our institutions alone that men become wicked.” This grants the Rousseauvian the license to give way to his expansive desires, since they are perceived to be naturally good.

Since Babbitt wrote, we have seen the full development of emotivism, the idea that ethical claims are based on emotional attitudes. Emotivism is sometimes known as the hurrah/boo theory, because it recognizes no higher standard than what a person feels about an ethical idea. It is the total realization of decisions based on emotion, preference and grievance. It is the extreme end of the scale in this regard. A person might have a sense that this is not the way to make decisions, but could she articulate her basis for knowing that this is wrong? How would she explain why emotivism goes too far?

Meanwhile, a man in the position of Hayden is left way out on a limb. He wants to base his life and his decisions on objective reality, but in the service of people who want to base their lives and decisions on emotion and preference. He wants to uphold institutions, in the service of people whose philosophy tells them that their institutions are the source of corruption. As this plays out over time, he finds himself being ground between rollers moving ever closer together, leaving no escape. He wants to be providing means based on objective reality to people who choose their ends based on sentiment, but this is a source of increasing frustration to his public because the means do not reach the ends. He perceives, correctly, that the people blame him and those like him for not being able to magically produce the ends they desire.

What’s it like, trying to lead an organization whose function depends on recognition of objective reality, answering to people who don’t care about objective reality? Solzhenitsyn provided a compact summary:

And there were some bright engineers who pointed out a fourth reason as well: that, so they claimed, the necessity of setting up a perimeter fence at every step, of strengthening the convoy, of allotting a supplementary convoy, interfered with their, the engineers’, technical maneuverability, as, for example, during the disembarkation on the River Taz; and because of this, so they claimed, everything was done late and cost more. But this was already an objective reason, this was a pretext! Summon them to the Party bureau, give them a good scolding, and the cause will disappear. Let them break their heads; they’ll find a solution.
The Gulag Archipelago, vol. II, pp. 584-585.

We don’t have to care about your facts and data, Michael! Data is all in your head. Our feelings outrank your excuses. We can want whatever we want, and either you and your people break your heads to provide it or we’ll find someone else who will.

From this point of view, Donald Trump has produced two effects. First, he has raised the intensity of the game to the next level. More important than this, however, is the fact that he has shown the door can swing both ways. Many of the people who advocated sentimentality and good intentions assumed that people in power would always share their sentiments (Yes, we can!), and that those with whom they disagree are on “the wrong side of history.” Now, it seems history has turned a corner, heading in an unsatisfying direction. Thus we observe a sudden awakening of interest in facts and evidentiary data.

… the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.
— Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), p. 147.

The Weimar Republic didn’t end well; it voted itself out of existence and tossed the keys to the Napoleon wannabee of the era. I am not going to compare Trump to Hitler; I don’t find such comparisons warranted. The comparison Bloom made, of our contemporary society to Weimar, is much more apposite. Most of Part II of the book is his argument in support of this claim. Bloom also called our approach, “nihilism with a happy ending.” It will turn out that there are no happy endings for nihilists. The evidence for this is accumulating monthly.

If I can have my truth and you can have your truth, why can’t Donald Trump have his truth? Yes, it’s a little more scary, since he is in a position to do more with his truth, like sic the IRS on you or start a war. But either any of us get to have our own individual truth, or none of us do.

“We are approaching,” Rousseau declared, “the era of crises, and the age of revolutions.” He not only made the prophecy but did more than any other one man to insure its fulfillment.
— “What I Believe”

If each of us can have our own truth, then there is no possibility of settling our differences with words. If they are to be settled at all, that only leaves bullets as a means of settling them. Do not construe that I am endorsing violence. I would much rather be able to work out political disputes with words. But without a common truth on which to base an argument, any attempt to try to persuade another person with words is a fool’s errand. Rational citizens are scared of the eventuality of violent resolution, and rightly so, which is why so many critical issues go unresolved. The unresolved issues are piling up, weighing on us, demanding resolution.

Perhaps Trump can convince people that being out of power can even happen to nice people like you, and when it happens to you, process suddenly becomes important. Possibly, through his negative example, he can illustrate the consequences of cutting loose from facts and data when they are not emotionally satisfying, making these consequences come to life in a way no book can. If he is able to accomplish this, before we are reduced to violence, he will have done a great service to the country.

The belief that sentimentality and good intentions can provide an effective guide to morality is playing out before your eyes. Persons such as Hayden provide valuable testimony of the consequences of these ideas.

The day of reckoning is coming. Hayden provides one more item of evidence that it must come. When it comes, Irving Babbitt is still waiting to show us the way forward.

Written by srojak

May 8, 2018 at 11:13 pm

No King in Israel

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In the current month of The Atlantic, Michael Gerson has written about the conflicted relationship between many evangelical Christians and President Donald Trump. Gerson has included a partial history of the political challenges evangelicals have faced in America over the past 150 years. He’s an evangelical himself, and I do not dispute his direct experience. I like context, and appreciate the history. But it is incomplete in several respects, and I am taking up the task of filling it out.

The Book of Judges has many instances of Israel being led by people whom most people would not have chosen. Ehud was a murderer. Deborah was a woman living at a time and place where women were not considered worthy wielders of power. Gideon was the runt of the family. Jephthah was the son of a prostitute, exiled from his father’s house. The people always visualize their leader as a great king, who will drive their enemies before them, but God has other ideas. The ultimate example is Jesus himself, who, instead of leading the people to victory over and freedom from the occupying Romans, died on the cross.

The Third Great Awakening

Tom Wolfe wrote that the 1970s were seeing the Third Great Awakening, but he was off by one. The actual Third Great Awakening started shortly after the Civil War. It had mostly sputtered out by 1900.

In many respects, the period was full of solutions looking for problems. The Civil War had brought about the bloody end of legalized slavery. What great achievement would be left to the successor generation? For some, the call was to convert the rest of the world to the person’s accepted form of Christianity. There was a great burst of missionary activity, both within the US and around the world. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which ended the Second Opium War, opened China to missionaries. After the Civil War, American missionaries joined their British brethren in China. Henry W. Luce was an important American missionary in China; he was the father of the Henry Luce who started Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated magazines.

Another important movement was the Social Gospel movement, which Gerson also mentions. The Social Gospel declared that the focus of salvation must be at the community level, rather than the individual level. I have previously addressed the problems of the Social Gospel in a previous essay.


The third important outgrowth of the time was Prohibition. Although it was not achieved until 1919 when the 18th Amendment was ratified, Prohibition was an important goal that was taken up by many of the faithful. Prohibition would become their greatest short-term success and hang a millstone around their necks for decades.

Evangelicals went all-in on Prohibition. As late as 1933, C. Oscar Johnson, president of the Northern Baptist Convention, told FDR:

Baptists are back of you 96.8 percent. We cannot go the other 3.2 percent.

The 3.2 percent was an allusion to 3.2% beer that was already available in many states.

Evangelicals thus made themselves outcast for a generation, gaining a reputation as national prigs, indifferent to the failure of a well-intentioned national crusade that had only served to benefit violent crime syndicates. David Frum would later write:

For all that, a Christian who in 1955 applied an “In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Unoccupied” bumper sticker to his car would attract puzzled looks from his neighbors.
How We Got Here, p. 156.

The majority of the GI generation was cold toward evangelicals, who were politically marginalized in America in the 1950s.


Gerson also mentions fundamentalism. This arose from a series of challenges posed by modern society to orthodox belief, including evolution and biblical scholarship.

The immediate source of fundamentalist doctrine was a series of documents published between 1910 and 1915, titled The Fundamentals. The core beliefs that fundamentalists identified to distinguish themselves were:

  1. The inerrancy of the Bible;
  2. The literal truth of the biblical accounts;
  3. The virgin birth of Christ;
  4. The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ;
  5. The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.

The publication of The Fundamentals started the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in American Protestantism. In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick launched a counterattack with his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?“.

At the same time, there was the controversy over evolution, which Gerson discusses. Secular, sophisticated America considers the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial to have been the decisive milestone that, once and for all, made the opponents of evolution look ridiculous. But this is also a tenet of faith; evangelicals do not share it. Writing in 1963, Richard Hofstadter reported with some degree of evident mortification:

A few years ago, when the Scopes trial was dramatized in Inherit the Wind, the play seemed on Broadway more like a quaint period piece than a stirring call for freedom of thought. But when the road company took the play to a small town in Montana, a member of the audience rose and shouted “Amen!” at one of the speeches of the character representing Bryan.
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, p. 129.

By 1940, the Protestant churches we generally identify as “mainline” went modernist, and the evangelicals predominantly took up fundamentalism. The Baptists actually cease to be considered “mainline” to the extent they support fundamentalism.

The Remnant

There is a constant tension in Christianity between beliefs that assert salvation is open to all and those that maintain only a remnant of the people can be saved. After World War II, evangelicals took the remnant position and retreated into their own communities, where they could be true to their faith as they understood it.

However, the forces of secular modernism followed them. Let the evangelicals speak for themselves on this:

The 1960s ushered in another set of rapid cultural and political changes. Local controversies over textbooks and sex education in public schools, the tax-exempt status of religious schools, and gay rights raised concerns. Activists motivated by their religious beliefs began grassroots efforts to promote their causes locally, and their efforts eventually captured national attention.
— Amy Black, “Evangelicals and Politics: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Headed” []

Challenged by the twin attack vectors of public policy and television, it was becoming harder for evangelicals to maintain their own values in their own communities. By 1980, many evangelicals felt like they were colonists in their own nation, dictated to by faraway people who do not share their values and seek to impose their own norms upon the evangelicals. If only out of self-defense, evangelicals had to mobilize politically.

The Abusive Boyfriend

So evangelicals get involved in politics. As I outlined in this article, they found themselves in the Republican party, in coalition with libertarians, right-corporatists and Republican “wets” who want everyone to get along. What generally happens is that the donors get the policies they want and the rest of us get a lot of sunshine blown at us.

Consider the issue of gay marriage. Evangelicals detest it, because they believe it to be contrary to scripture. Libertarians think it’s a great idea, and why don’t we legalize polygamy while we’re at it? Corporate types need this as an issue like they need holes in their heads; gay people have money to spend that is just as green as anyone else’s, and the corporate people are not anxious to alienate that market. So what happens is that elected officials generally make inconsequential noises to keep the various coalition members interested, making sure that nothing meaningful ever really happens.

I quoted Amy Sullivan in the referenced essay, but her observations are worth repeating:

Like an abusive boyfriend, Republicans keep moderate evangelicals in the coalition by alternating between painting their options as bleak and wooing them with sweet talk. You can’t leave me-where are you going to go? To them? They think you’re stupid, they hate religion. Besides, you know I love you-I’m a compassionate conservative. The tactic works as long as evangelicals don’t call the GOP’s bluff and as long as Democrats are viewed as hostile to religion.
“Why Evangelicals Are Bolting the GOP”  []

Republicans were correct in their belief that most of the evangelicals were not going to go over to the Democrats, but they never dreamed that a Democrat would come over to them.

Enter the Serpent

Donald Trump promised to be like no other politician, and he has definitely delivered on that. Be careful what you ask for — you just might get it.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, evangelical leaders were rather clear on their criteria. They were looking for a President, not a youth pastor. They wanted someone who would get in the political arena and fight for what they wanted.

Trump has been very busy appointing federal judges. Given the scope judges currently have to take an activist role in laying down black-letter law, there is a lot for evangelicals to like.

Also consider how willing Trump is to take the political initiative. Look at his State of the Union speech. No other Republican since Reagan has been willing to take the fight to the opposition like that.

I can understand why evangelicals might look at Trump as their last, best hope. They certainly would not be alone in that regard. There is no Republican on the horizon who has demonstrated any readiness to seize the favorable terrain on messaging.

Note that I did not say, “take the high ground,” because where Trump is involved, that would be laughable. That is the problem facing all Trump supporters, particularly those who want an intact reputation after the Trump era ends.

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.
— Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation”

Gerson documents how the evangelicals are doing it again. Just like with Prohibition, they are going all-in for Trump. It is not enough for them to like what Trump is doing for them; they feel this need to like him. They have to like, or at least excuse, everything he does. By doing so, they are prostituting themselves.

Solzhenitsyn wrote about the message Soviet culture was constantly drumming into their heads: “The result is what counts.” But he saw through it:

But that is a lie! Here we have been breaking our backs for years at All-Union hard labor. Here in slow annual spirals we have been climbing up to an understanding of life—and from this height it can all be seen so clearly: It is not the result that counts! It is not the result — but the spirit! Not what — but how. Not what has been attained — but at what price.
The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. II, p. 609.

Spiritual leaders are supposed to know this. They will pay a high price for ignoring this truth.

Written by srojak

March 12, 2018 at 5:58 pm

What Took Him So Long

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Gary Cohn announced his intention to resign as the Director of the National Economic Council yesterday. His announcement is being generally attributed to his opposition to Trump’s plans to impose tarriffs on steel and aluminum imports.

The editorial board of The New York Times, predictably, found little to lament about his departure other than the fact that he was the devil they knew. You can read it here if you want to; I found their editorial generated more heat than light.

Writing in The Week, Scott Lemieux asked what took Cohn so long to quit:

Cohn was well aware of Trump’s penchant for economic nationalism, so it’s a little odd that this, of all things, was what pushed him to his breaking point. Personally, I would be more offended by, say, Trump firing the FBI director to obstruct the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian interference into the 2016 election, or his travel ban plainly targeted at Muslims, or his assertion that some of the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville were “very fine people.”

This is worth exploring, even if it requires speculation.

Lemieux continued:

Of course, I never would have joined the administration of an unprecedentedly corrupt and dishonest president who began his ascension within the Republican Party by popularizing the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Africa, and started his nomination campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” It’s always been clear that nobody who goes to work for Trump is going to come out looking better.

OK, so we have established that Lemieux is going to have limited insight into the viewpoint of someone who would join the administration. I have been on the inside of some unwell organizations, and seen how people react under stress. So I am going to put the value positing on hiatus and try to examine this from Cohn’s perspective.

There is a school of thought that says that when the President calls you to serve, you go. For people holding this belief, working in the White House is more than an opportunistic run on a career ladder. This, I believe, is why Mitt Romney allowed himself to be jerked around when Trump dangled the job of Secretary of State in front of him (wait, the Russians quashed this?).

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt decomposes human activity into labor, work and action. Action is the creation of change in human affairs. People who want to engage in action want to have influence. Public service attracts many of them. Most of them are thick-skinned; they had better be.

Gary Cohn had a net worth of at least $250 million when he accepted his White House role, according to this article in Fortune. If he had wanted to make more money, there were other places for him to go. It is reasonable to believe that he preferred to go where he could, ideally, influence economic policy at the national level.

So he gets there; what does he find? He finds he has a boss who does not intend to be influenced when he gets an idea in his head. Now what?

We will probably never know the truth about when Cohn began to sour on his job. He may not even know. I have worked with people who were sold a bill of goods when they were hired. Then they find, once they are in the door, that they don’t have the influence they were led to believe they would have. It’s a difficult adjustment. There is a grief cycle one has to go through.

Do not discount the importance of cognitive dissonance. You took the job to have influence. You were promised influence. Yet, the behavioral facts indicate that you have no influence. You’re a pilot strapped to a guided missile. This is a bitter pill. It is hard to admit to yourself that you have been had. Know any project managers? How are they dealing with this?

So, maybe at the time of the Charlottesville clash, Cohn was still in the bargaining phase of his grief cycle (or possibly the denial phase, but let’s be charitable). Possibly, as Lemieux wrote, Cohn prioritized influencing economic policy over protesting the racist pronouncements of his boss.

You can argue with his prioritization, but sneering at it is not called for. People in positions of responsibility pick their battles. People who don’t pick their battles never make it to positions of responsibility and influence. Anybody can sit in the bushes and throw rocks at the person who is making himself visible by taking action. Arendt mentioned that, too.

There are a lot of miserable people in the White House these days. Sarah Huckabee Sanders looks like an abused puppy. Jeff Sessions appears to be hanging on out of spite; some kind of perverse endurance rally. And whatever happened to Kellyanne Conway?

I have worked with people who have been kicked around for much less of a job than a White House position. They tell themselves they can take it, they are not going to give in and quit. They start developing Stockholm syndrome, making excuses for the people being abusive to them. At one company, we used to debate whether it was really any better anywhere else. I am coming round to believe that, if you have to ask the question, the answer is yes.

Not everyone who leaves the White House wants to write a tell-all book describing how the management sucked. It is possible that Cohn was eyeing the exit for some time, and this issue gave him the pretext he needed to have “peace with honor.” He might prefer a narrative where he left over a visible policy difference to one where he left because working there was beyond unpleasant. Some people really don’t reveal everything — hard to believe these days, but there it is.

With the information available to us at this time, it looks like Gary Cohn has called in well. Boss, I’m too well to come to work and be made miserable. It’s been a slice.

How many of the people criticizing him are jealous?

Written by srojak

March 7, 2018 at 6:27 pm

Unalienable Rights

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Spare some critical thought for this famous passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In order for them to be unalienable rights, they have to be endowed by God. They can’t come from human society, or else human society would have the power to revoke them. Without endowment from God, they would only be privileges that the state allowed for its own purposes and could claw back any time it was expedient.

This is what President Eisenhower was talking about when he said:

Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.

Here is the full quote, from a 1952 speech:

And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator.’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.

He wasn’t being superficial about faith, and he wasn’t advocating being spiritual but not religious. He was encompassing all persons of faith in a Deity of revealed truth, but offering wide latitude to the varieties of belief in that Deity.

The twentieth century has exposed the fact that there is nothing self-evident about these truths. Some of us believe them; others don’t. They are fundamental and derived from faith, but hardly self-evident.

Written by srojak

December 17, 2017 at 9:27 pm