Category Archives: America

What I Think Right Now

  1. Trump was allowed to fire Comey.
  2. Comey deserved to be fired.
  3. Trump has clearly obstructed justice, which are grounds for impeachment.
  4. But good luck getting Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to care.
  5. If President Hillary Clinton had done this Congress would have impeached her quicker than Trump can tweet something asinine, and deservedly so.

This all continues to be insane. It’s like being in a car with a drunk driver. I don’t care whose idea it was to let him drive; I don’t care about his protests that Relax I’m fine and You’ll thank me later for driving—I just want to get home safely, whatever it takes.

America in Five Cities

It dawned on me recently how the names and locations of the top 5 most populous cities in the United States tell the story of the nation:

New York, in the east, with the English name, representing the history of our relationship with England.

Los Angeles, in the west, with the Spanish name representing the history of our relationship with Mexico.

Chicago, in the north, from the Potawatomi for “wild garlic place”, representing the history of Native Americans.

Houston, in the south, named after Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, representing the history of the Wild West.

Philadelphia, in the east, Greek for “brotherly love”, representing the ancient origins within the founding of the nation.

This has a nice round feel to it. That is, until Phoenix comes for that fifth spot

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

Lucille Trump

The eerie similarities between Donald Trump and Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development have already been documented. One Lucille moment came to me recently, as I absorbed the latest whiny tweets and self-pitying/antagonistic statements from the purported president and his obedient surrogates, that I thought was clarifying:

“Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer.”

In the episode “My Mother, the Car” of season 1, a whole web of Lucille’s lies is slowly revealed, and she’s finally pinned by her frustrated children who are yet again having to deal with the collateral damage of their narcissist mother’s deceit and wanton self-aggrandizement. “I just want my children to love me,” she says, in a rare moment of vulnerability.

“Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer,” Michael replies. After a pause and a moment of clarity, Lucille admits: “I’ve been a horrible mother.” But the siblings, having previously  discussed how when she’d said that in the past they didn’t have the heart to confirm that realization, instead fall in for a group hug and validate Lucille, says in fact she’s been a great mother. And the old glint in her eye returns, the moment of clarity dissolving.

When I see Trump huffing about inauguration crowds and whining about protestors and complaining “the media” isn’t being very nice to him, I think of that quote: “Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer.”

So much of Trump’s wounds are self-inflicted due to his total lack of self-control and paper-thin skin. It’s why he lashes out at the faintest hint of someone not toeing his line, whether it’s Angela Merkel or John McCain. If he were able to let himself achieve a semblance of maturity, he’d be able to see why this is a bad thing.

“It’s not that Trump is wrong about how those people in society don’t respect him — he’s right about that,” writes conservative blogger Rod Dreher. “But it’s that he gives them so much power over him. And this is going to be his undoing. Character is destiny.”

(Which means we’re really screwed.)

It’s not that hard, man. If you stop lying (or repeating falsehoods or brazenly asserting things that are certifiably false or whatever you want to call it), the people who don’t like you might  slowly stop assuming you’re a liar. If you treat your opponents (and allies) with respect rather than tweet insults at them, perhaps they’ll be more inclined to see you as a decent person with differing views, rather than a greedy egomaniac who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

But once you’re surrounded by sycophants and a degraded political apparatus unequipped to offer even a modicum of restraint, that chance for a moment of clarity dissolves into nothing.

He is disordered, and disorder is what he is bringing. Not just to immigrants, but to all of us.

The President of My Twenties

Just after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, I wrote a reflection about George W. Bush’s place in my life as “the president of my youth.” I was a junior in college then, and had just voted for the first time. It was my first and only vote for Obama (I voted Libertarian in 2012), but the Obama presidency nevertheless will have spanned most of my twenties.

There’s no proof of this, but I assumed throughout the long 2008 primary campaign that Obama would win. Even when he was down double-digits to Clinton, I got the sense he would pull it out. With John McCain yoked to George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were in the 20s by the end of his administration, I knew he’d have a better chance than Clinton, whose unfavorables would be a liability in the general. (Which was confirmed eight years later.)

The 2008 election was unforgettable: “I inhaled frequently”, Obama winning Iowa, his Philadelphia speech, the “Obama’s an Arab” McCain rally lady, all the SNL skits, the economy crashing, and then Obama finally winning it. I didn’t go down to Grant Park for the victory rally like a lot of my fellow students; I watched the returns in my residence hall lounge, and realized as soon as California and Oregon came in that he had won. And it wasn’t even close.

Also unforgettable was the state of the economy when Obama entered office. *insert “freefall into abyss” emoji\* It’s usually true that presidents get too much blame when the economy is doing badly and too much credit when it is doing well, but the record shows how different the economy looks now compared to how it did then. I’ll leave it to the hacks and wonks to decide how much credit and blame Bush and Obama deserve for the state of their economies, but I’ll take the 2016 numbers over the 2008-09 ones any day.

The rest of Obama’s public record is widely available, thanks to the boom of social media and the ‘Net over the last decade and a half. His presidency was covered more than any other, and his persona was everywhere. Every moment I remember of him can be recalled on YouTube in an instant, sick burns and gaffes and all.

Looking back, many of these moments were in the context of bad news. For every White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, there was an emotional statement after a gun massacre. For every car ride with Jerry Seinfeld, there was another emotional moment after a gun massacre. For every championship team welcome at the White House, there was another emotional statement after a gun massacre.

But I think the Obama I’ll remember is epitomized in this clip from a PBS town hall, answering a loaded question about gun control:

I imagine in his head he’s screaming “FOR THE MILLIONTH TIME I’M NOT TRYING TO TAKE YOUR GUNS”, but as usual, he takes a cerebral approach to a complicated issue, acknowledging the questioner’s concerns and offering a clear, thoughtful response. I happen to agree with him on this one, though that isn’t always the case. It’s his temperament and intellect that impress me. Ever aware of his position as the first black president—at once a role model and lightning rod—his self-discipline, calm demeanor, and introspective nature were noteworthy.

For some, his temperament was a liability: he was too cool, too wonky, too meek to be an effective president. But I’d venture it was a significant reason why “No Drama” Obama’s two terms were largely scandal-free compared to the Clinton, Bush, and (hooboy…) Trump White Houses. Certainly it got him into trouble at times, whether in his negotiations with Congress during the Obamacare fight or when navigating the imbroglios in the Middle East. But back in 2008, those qualities were immensely appealing compared to the impulsive Texan swagger of the Bush years that did so much damage at home and abroad. That contrast has once again become evident, given the borderline-unhinged personality of the incoming administration.

As with politics in general, it’ll be hard to fairly assess Obama’s administration for a while, until we can see from the bird’s-eye view how the ripples from his actions affected the water. In the meantime we are left to bob in the wake and decide whether we enjoyed the ride or just felt queasy. I could go down the line of consequential events that happened during his tenure and grade his performance, but I suspect every good thing would have its own but. He spearheaded the Affordable Care Act’s needed reform, but yike$. He drew down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but ISIS. He and Hillary took the high road against Trump in 2016, but lost.

So it goes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the place where Obama nevertheless has remained by all appearances a loving father and husband, an avid reader, and an admirable public servant. Here at the dusk of one administration and the dawn of another, that is what I’ve been grateful for, and hope against hope to see in the future.

Reader In Chief

As a reader, librarian, and citizen, I’m going to miss this “reader in chief,” as John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chronicle calls him:

As is amply manifest in his writing, Obama is someone who has done a lot of thinking about his place in the world, his upbringing, his uniquely American story. And, as president, he has proved himself to be just as reflective, viewing the world, as he says, in shades of gray, with nuance — qualities enhanced by a lifetime of reading.

It’s been really nice having a president who not only knows who Marilynne Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, but can have intelligent, in-depth conversations with her and him. (It’s also really nice to have a new Librarian of Congress now, rather than next year or beyond. Don’t want to think about who PEOTUS would have nominated.)

And what of Obama’s successor? McMurtie:

Despite all the books that bear his name, the next president, in fact, seems to care very little about books. He tweets obsessively, at all hours, about the most trivial matters, yet he claims he doesn’t have the time to read.

“I’m always busy doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post in July. “Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”

When asked by Megyn Kelly of Fox News to name the last book he read, he answered, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters. I don’t have the time.”

God help us all.

Gentleman Boss

“His political experience had been restricted almost exclusively to one state, and his knowledge of national and international affairs was limited to what any reasonably curious New Yorker might cull from local newspapers.”

“His nomination had been entirely unexpected, and was commonly interpreted as a device for placating the most opprobrious forces within the GOP.”

“His presidency was almost unanimously dreaded. There were those, however, who contended that he would change dramatically once he found himself in the White House.”

“It is out of this mess of filth that he will go to the Presidential chair.”

“It was a common saying of that time among those who knew him best, ‘Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.'”

Oh, you thought I might be referring to our incoming forty-fifth president? Good guess. But these quotes were instead written about Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first president and the subject of the latest presidential biography I decided to tackle: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves.

Why Arthur? I remember reading in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which is about the assassination of James Garfield, about how as Garfield’s vice president and successor, Arthur was considered a corrupt spoilsman, a GOP hack subject to the whims of nefarious party strongmen. He’d never held public office before being named vice president as a consolation prize for his wing of the Republican Party. He was New York’s quartermaster general during the Civil War but otherwise hadn’t served in the military. His sudden ascension to the presidency was greeted with a mix of dread and low expectations, and yet when he became president he managed to surprise everyone with his dedication to reform and respectability.

800px-20_Chester_Arthur_3x4.jpgHope, then, is why Arthur and why now. After the 2016 election I wanted to learn more about the man whose presidency made a good many people scoff and wring their hands in despair, yet who proved them wrong by being better than he had been—or at least clearing the low bar that was set for him.

The comparison only goes so far. Arthur practiced law, was involved in GOP politics politics for years, and proved a capable and well-regarded quartermaster during the war. He wasn’t the moral vacuum his 2016 successor is, though he also didn’t leave much time for family and was an unabashed beneficiary of the privileges his positions afforded. If anything the current president-elect compares just as much to Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, who fathered an illegitimate child, had hired a convict as a “substitute” in the Civil War, and was “supposed to have enjoyed hanging two criminals” while serving as sheriff in Buffalo.

(Hints of Obama surfaced too: Arthur was accused by rivals of being foreign-born, first in Ireland, then later in Canada, and thus ineligible for the presidency. He also had to retake the oath of office after having first done it with a New York state judge at 2 a.m. the morning after Garfield died.)

More an exhaustive overview of Gilded Age politics than an Arthur biography, the book often felt like Reeves was more interested in tariff debates and who got appointed to which middling position than in talking about Arthur, who admittedly isn’t the most rousing historical subject. It felt a lot longer than it was, though it did drop some interesting Arthur Nuggets™ like:

  • He was one of a few first-generation presidents: Jackson, Buchanan, and Obama’s fathers and Jefferson, Wilson, and Hoover’s mothers were foreign-born
  • He spoke at the capstone ceremony of the finally completed Washington Monument in December 1884, which had been under construction since 1848
  • His younger sister Mary served as First Lady because his wife had died before he entered office

As Reeves writes, the presidency during the Gilded Age did not have the power it now has. Congress controlled the political movement of the day; the president was a vetoer and just kept the federal machine running by filling positions with supporters and other eager office-seekers. There also weren’t the cascading foreign crises we’re used to presidents having to manage today. “From Appomattox to the sinking of the Maine,” Reeves writes, “the nation was preoccupied with its own internal developments.” Moreover, Arthur didn’t really want the job. He was forced into it and surprised everyone with how he handled it.

Someone who understood this at the time was Julia Sand, a young disabled woman from New Jersey who began writing to Arthur after Garfield was shot to encourage him and offer unsolicited political counsel. She knew Arthur’s reputation, but eloquently implored him to overcome it:

Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest aims. It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but persevere. In time—when you have given reason for it—the country will love & trust you. … It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold.

Let’s hope this history repeats itself.

Who I’m With

Just over a year ago, I was lying on a hotel bed in Peoria, Illinois, after a day of attending sessions at a library conference, and planned to finish off my evening reading. But instead I turned on the TV (always a big mistake) and was immediately thrust into the Select Committee on Benghazi’s marathon grilling of Hillary Clinton. Watching the final two hours of this grotesque circus, I realized then that I was seeing the future.

Clinton, congenitally unable to be honest yet enduring the pressure with aplomb, battling a Republican Congress, congenitally unable to be sane. I knew then that the “Learn Nothing, Do Nothing” Republicans would hound her, right or (mostly) wrong, to infinity and beyond. I also knew then that Clinton would be our next president.

Back in March I was fairly determined not to vote for either Clinton or Trump and laid out my reasons why. I stand by them now, but wished circumstances had remained the same. In the seven months since I wrote that, the primaries concluded, leaving us with the most unqualified presidential candidate the republic has yet seen. One who, since the general election began, has proven that point over and over and over again.

So I voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m not happy about it, but I’m also OK with voting for the first female president and one who is at least attached to reality. It’s cold comfort for what will be in store these next four years, which won’t be pretty, but will be a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

UPDATE: Welp, guess not.

Hugging, No Learning

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in 2011 at the ceremony for the new CBA.

I remember back during the 2011 NFL lockout, the Packers website columnist kept writing to the fans not to get invested in the heated rhetoric between the players and owners, because once an agreement was reached—and it would be reached—the representatives of the players and the owners would be hugging on stage, all would be well again, and the fans who’d so adamantly taken sides would be wondering why they invested so much energy and partisan passion into a public relations battle. And sure enough, a new CBA was reached, football started on time, and all those months of tit-for-tat suddenly seemed far less serious than diehard fans would have believed.

I was reminded of that time and feeling while listening to David Axelrod’s conversation with Karl Rove on Axelrod’s podcast. As the two chief political operatives for the campaigns of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, they are each other’s political opposite and rival, representing the ideologies of the two primary political parties in the United States. And here they are, chatting about life and politics like old college chums. If you didn’t know which party they worked for you might not even know they were opponents.

So when the fire-breathers on either side of the aisle get fired up on cable news or talk radio, excoriating the Other Guys for the sin of not agreeing with them or even viewing them as downright evil, I get to wondering if they’re just being played for suckers.

If Karl Rove and David Axelrod—the guys whose job it is to convince voters in strong terms that the other guy is absolutely wrong and must be stopped—if they can sit and have a laugh together, why can’t the people whose votes they seek?

If Trump toady Sean Hannity can hang out at a baseball game with Keith Olbermann, his arch media rival for a time, or harass Megyn Kelly—also a Fox News commentator—on Twitter and then literally hug it out, why don’t Hannity’s wound-up followers see through the pablum he’s peddling for views?

Sports and politics are similar in that they involve intense gamesmanship, strategy, and a struggle of power and will and performance in a high-pressure environment. Obama even compared politics to football in a chat with Jerry Seinfeld. So why is it NFL players can play the game intensely, trying desperately to defeat their opponent, but still converge on the field after the game for hugs and handshakes and prayer circles? And why can’t voters?

The easy answer is that sports don’t matter, ultimately. They matter to the players, whose livelihoods are affected by their performance. But when a fan turns off the TV after a game, his life is the exact same as it was when the game began. Conversely, politics do matter. People’s lives are affected by legislation and the action or inaction of leaders.

But I don’t think it has to be that simple.

If voters and pundits actually cared about winning—i.e. getting legislature through Congress or changing their opponents’ minds—they wouldn’t demonize the people whose votes will be needed in order to achieve that desired victory.

If voters and pundits actually cared about winning, they should read and view things outside of their ideological media echo chamber to better understand why some people have different opinions.

But it seems like people just want to act angry. Settle scores. Humiliate whoever their Other is. And all the while the TV networks, talk radio, the NFL, or whoever has something to gain from outrage, rakes in enough revenue through clicks, ads, and eyeballs to self-justify, rinse, and repeat.

I’m not doubting the sincerity of those with strongly held beliefs, or those who go public with them. In a democracy, that should be encouraged. I only wish to avoid the scorched earth that comes of it, because I, speaking for those of us who aren’t holding the flamethrowers, am not interested in getting burned by someone who doesn’t know how the game is played.

The Man In The High Castle

Not long after we subscribed to Amazon Prime did I check out the pilot of The Man in the High Castle. I’d heard some good regard for the show, but didn’t think to seek it out until it was suddenly available to me. Boy am I glad I did.

Set in 1962, the show exists in a world where fifteen years previous the Allies lost World War II, the U.S. was atom-bombed, occupied, and divided between Germany and Japan into the Greater German Reich (east of the Rockies) and Japanese Pacific States (west of the Rockies). Times Square is blanketed with swastikas (but no ads), Judaism has been outlawed, and with Hitler close to death the Japanese and German empires are bracing for war. Amidst the political and societal intrigue, the stories of the characters we follow orbit around the pursuit of mysterious film newsreels that show alternate histories of the war and its aftermath. The source of the reels, the unseen Man in the High Castle, seems to be head of a guerrilla resistance force trying to undermine the authoritarian states — for all we know.

In addition to having one of the more haunting title sequences I’ve ever seen (above), the show blends three of my interests—historical counterfactuals, dystopia, and World War II—seamlessly into the background of a narrative arc that lets us see the inner workings of a tenuous alliance between the two Axis powers. The show is ingenious at working in small world-building details, either through dialogue or in the background—like when a Nazi police officer mentions offhand how the elderly are regularly euthanized and exterminated so as not to be a “burden on the State.”

To me, the most interesting character of season one—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is the Nazi. Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high-ranking SS officer charged with tracking down the remaining film reels and quelling the Resistance. Sewell’s icy, devilish demeanor, mixed with his character’s white-picket-fence, all-American (or rather all-German) lifestyle, provides ample ground for a fascinating character study. Frank (Rupert Evans) is another intriguing character: a downtrodden laborer concealing his Jewish identity who gets tangled up with the newsreels and has to make some brutal decisions after being imprisoned by the Japanese military police.

What I love about counterfactuals is pondering the questions they conjure. Is there anything better about this show’s reality than ours? What does ours share in common with it, and how it is vastly different? It also made me better sympathize with societies that have been occupied, subjugated, and made to accept a new culture. Americans have never experienced that; in fact, throughout history we’ve always been the occupiers and the subjugators, imposing our values and military might in other lands under the banner of liberty. Optimists will say our actions were justified for the sake of spreading democracy, but realists know otherwise. Of course, I’m not equating U.S. foreign policy to the Nazi and Japanese empires in The Man in the High Castle. But I am inspired to decide how and why America is different.

It’s a dark show, no doubt about it. But after some key points in the first few episodes, the gears propel toward a climax and the next season’s continuation that I’m really looking forward to.

(Also, I had no idea how much of the show was CGI-generated, which this video illustrates; I really couldn’t tell while watching it, and even wondered how they got away with displaying so much Nazi paraphernalia.)