Monday, July 20, 2015

Trump and the Crazies

Here is a question to ponder seriously:

When poll numbers become available that reflect reactions to Donald Trump's comments about John McCain over the weekend, what will it mean if Trump is relatively undamaged and remains the frontrunner?

It's not a ridiculous question.

In a crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls, Trump leads the pack today with a measly 17%.  This big field lets that happen.

Republican strategist and longtime-ugliness enabler Frank Luntz, who interviewed Trump at the Ames event Saturday, told CBS this morning that Trump appeals to a "segment of American society," he "says what a lot of people are thinking."

One of those things Luntz said is true.  The other is not.  Both are important.

Trump does appeal to a segment of American society, but that's not "a lot of people."  Not even close.  Trump appeals to about 17% of the Republican primary electorate.  Going by 2012 numbers. Donald Trump appeals to approximately 3,400,000 registered voters.

If we go out to the level of the whole electorate and, again, go by 2012 numbers, Donald Trump appeals to a whopping 2.7%  of American voters.  Wow.

But none of that matters, especially at this early point.

The question is not whether Donald Trump is a fringe candidate.  He is a fringe candidate, by the numbers.  And, by the numbers, so are the rest of the Republican candidates.  There isn't a non-fringe candidate in the Republican field today.

The more important question is how much damage that "segment of American society" do?  How ugly will a committed fringe permit Donald Trump to make this campaign cycle?

And, the answer is that, if they stick together, they can do a lot of damage.

They probably will stick together, too.  It's not difficult to imagine that Trump appeals mostly to the committed crazies who fall for all the birther nonsense and death panel scare tactics, people who believe that most Mexican immigrants are "rapists."  This is the worst, ugliest, most un-American segment of the American electorate.  This is the place where we find Sheriff Joe Arpaio and  Rep. Louie Gohmert.  This is the place where we once found Sen. Joe McCarthy, Gov. George Wallace, and Richard Milhous Nixon.

This is the most virulent strain of vileness in American politics, and it has a long history.  It is stubbornly difficult to exterminate, and it has had a terrifically successful run during the presidency of Barack Obama.

There is not much reason to think that the crazies will back down now that their standard-bearer has doubled-down.  They're feeling powerful.

No doubt about it, this is terrible for the Republican Party.  But the Republicans will not nominate Donald Trump.  Even if Trump wins every caucus and primary (he will not win every caucus and primary), no Republican convention would nominate him.

Trump will have to step aside at some point.  And, at that point, he almost certainly will launch his independent bid for the presidency, taking the 3,400,000 crazies with him.

That probably won't be good news for the Republicans, either.

But it might be healthy for American politics, finally, to isolate this cancerous growth.  All the better to starve it off.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Id's No Problem for the Democrats

Donald Trump is a problem for the GOP.

Phil Gingrey, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock were a problem for the GOP.

Sarah Palin was a problem for the GOP.

Does anybody ever wonder why Democrats don't have these problems?

Let's be absolutely clear.  The Democrats have plenty of problems.  But they don't have this problem.  It's worth spending some time asking why.

Donald Trump's invocation of the Great Silent Majority this weekend was interesting.  Those of us who remember a little political history know that Richard Nixon summoned the "great silent majority" in a 1969 speech about ending the war in Vietnam.  He wanted their support for a foreign policy objective.  Nixon had nothing close to illegal immigration or 'taking our country back' in his mind during that speech.

But students of political history also know that the Great Silent Majority speech has come to mean something else.  The Nixon Campaign and the Nixon White House invented and perfected the art of dog-whistle politics, finding ways to say things to voters that cannot be said out loud.  The Nixon people figured out that messages can be sent in code, and the voters Nixon wanted to reach would understand what he meant.  Nixon's successful 1968 Southern Strategy depended on finding words and phrases that would convey the essential meaning of racist ideas without actually saying anything that would obviously offend anyone.

The Great Silent Majority, then, as the dog whistle announces it, are the blue collar middle-class that makes up the backbone of the American way of life.  Largely, they are white, Christian, and live in the predominantly Red States.  Republicans won in 1968 and since by figuring out how to say what they want to hear.

Because those tactics were successful, they developed and they bloomed.  The Republican strategist, Lee Atwater, described those tactics and their evolution in an interview you can listen to here:

Something interesting about Atwater's admissions is how even limited government and low taxes become dog whistles.

What makes a conservative a conservative?  That's a very interesting question.  But political ideas always have agreed about a few essentials--the importance of history and tradition, the preservation of social and individual rights against the state, and, more recently, a strong identification with the laissez-faire spirit of capitalism.

Small government and low taxes were comfortable ideas for conservatives before 1968.  Since 1968, they have this new meaning attached to them--even though they are "totally economic things" now they have the additional "byproduct" that "blacks get hurt worse than whites."

This is as good an illustration as can be found of how Nixon's Southern Strategy and the dog whistle have contaminated the Republican Party, perhaps, beyond cure.

In Freudian terms, the Id refers to the impulsive part of our personality, a needy and irrational unconscious that responds only to instincts.  The Id is the inner selfish monster that is contained in our personalities by what we learn from our parents and from others about how we need to control ourselves to live among other people.

For nearly fifty years, the Republicans have been blowing a dog whistle, speaking in coded languages that reach the unconscious minds of their voters with reassuring messages about a great, silent United States that still can be reclaimed from hippie protesters, or from civil rights activists, or from peace activists, or from socialists, or from President Obama, or from undocumented immigrants.

They have been cultivating a political Id, a needy and irrational political consciousness that rejects the realities of the world around it because those realities don't conform to the Id's demands.  The consequences are beginning to come into focus.

The Democrats don't have this problem, don't have to deal with these wacky people with dangerous ideas because those people aren't drawn to the Democrats.  The dog whistle pulls them in the other direction.

The Republican problem can be described many ways.  They have a candidate problem.  They have a demographic problem.  They have a brand problem.  But fixing any of those things won't be enough until the GOP faces the reality.

The Republicans have a personality disorder.

This can't go on forever.  "Where Id was, there Ego shall be."  But, until then, these are dark days for the Republicans and the Republic.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Missing the Target in Columbia

                South Carolinians, fire your assault rifles in celebration! The flag is down!!

                The South Carolina State Legislature, that august body which only a month ago failed to find money to repair the state’s lunar road surfaces and cut funding for mental health care, has succeeded to lower the flag of a hostile government.  They did this under the "brave" leadership of Gov. Nikki Haley, who with less-than-equal bravery not quite two years ago held fast that the flag posed no problem because no CEO ever had complained to her about it.

                The bar for profiles in courage isn't where it used to be.

                But that low bar for courage brought solutions at least at a superficial level.  South Carolina has managed to strike the most ugly and visible expression of an idea that motivated Dylann Roof.  Eliminating the idea, itself, will be more difficult.

                Maybe that's why it seems so strange that the discussion about eliminating the tools that made Roof's rampage possible has fallen into bleak and cowardly silence.

                The weeks leading up to the Confederate flag's removal have given us something useful.  We have seen the full catalog of justifications for the flag.  You know the chorus: It's heritage, not hate.  

                This fantastic person has distilled the defense of the flag to its essentials--the KKK and other racists are misusing the Confederate flag.  Don't think of the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate just because a bunch of racists do!  Really, it means something else!

                The flag's defenders have become skilled at the art of evasion and deception.  They've had to.  As the late-Republican strategist Lee Atwater put it when he described appealing to white, Southern voters--
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
                In the twenty-first century, no one could keep the Confederate flag flying by talking about slavery and race.  They had to change the conversation, talk about "heritage," make the KKK's devotion to the flag seem like an inexplicable coincidence.  That's a hell of a lot more abstract than slavery.

                The same sort of thing is true in our national conversation about guns.  Why shouldn't it be?  Oftentimes, the same people who are defending the flag are gun enthusiasts.

                The United States experiences abhorrent levels of urban gun crime.  We, practically alone in the developed world, see routine gun-related massacres on our home soil.  The United States is home to less than 5% of the world population, but owns one-third of the world's guns.  Guns in the home are much more likely to be used for suicide and domestic violence, or to cause an accidental death, than to protect a homeowner.

                Those are facts.  To avoid those facts requires something much more abstract.

                So, gun enthusiasts promote the fantastic lie that a gun is necessary for self defense even though an American is about 200 times more likely to be killed by a gun than they are to be killed by an intruder in their home.

                But the intruder-in-the-home scenario is a scary and completely abstract idea.  That makes it powerful.  Couple it with the myth of the American frontiersman, conquering nature with his rifle in his hand, and you have the perfect cocktail to thwart any rational policymaking about guns.

                Like all lies eventually do, the lies about the Confederate flag have collapsed.

                The only question left to ask is how many more people have to die needlessly before we begin to see through the lies we are told about guns.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Pope Francis, Brother Gun and Sister Charleston

As one who has lived in South Carolina since 2003, the events of the last few days have filled me with an embarrassing ambivalence.

I don't mean to say I am ambivalent to the loss of life. I am emphatically not.

Rather, my most honest reaction is to shrug my shoulders at The Palmetto State, and ask: Well, what did you expect?  The way that you're living has consequences.

The civic ecology of the American South is layered and festooned with the signs and symbols of an ugly past.  We can tell ourselves that devotion to that past really is about states' rights, or a constitutional ideal, or the genteel manners of an agrarian society.  But that is--at its very best--a half truth.  The full truth must be closer to the most powerful expression of those symbols and that past.  A picture will tell the whole tale.

The man in that white hood did not choose the flag he is holding randomly.  It has a powerful meaning for him, and for those whom he would try to intimidate with it.  To pretend otherwise is to indulge delusion, a purposeful evasion of facts.

The purposeful evasion of facts, indeed, is our most urgent topic here today.  There are other facts to consider, and we should not overlook them.

Yesterday, President Obama offered his fourteenth statement on a mass shooting in the United States.  He has been president since 2009.  Another study finds that the U.S. has experienced a mass shooting at the pace of about one-per-month since 2009. Quibble with the details, but however you want to measure it, the fact is that, "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency."

This also can be traced to ecology.  The United States of America simply is awash in guns.  Their numbers are staggering.

Pew finds that there are between 270-310 million guns in the United States.  So we can deal with it reasonably, let's just call it about 290 million.

One survey finds that a total of 875 million guns exist in the world.

Put those numbers together this way: the United States of America is home to roughly 5% of the world population, and one-third of the world's guns.

The predictable reply will be that guns can't be so dangerous, or else there would be millions of mass shootings in the United States. 

But that is a strawman argument.  We have a lot more guns than anybody else, and we have a lot more mass shootings than anybody else.  Those are facts, and to pretend they are totally unrelated also is a delusion, a purposeful evasion of facts.  Guns are in our ecology, and what is in the environment gets used.

Put those evasions of reality on race and guns together, understand how we have ignored our environment and the costs of ignoring it, and where we find ourselves after Charleston is totally unsurprising.  All that shocks me is that people are shocked.

It was tempting to feel a twinge of regret that the release of Pope Francis's encyclical letter, Laudato Si', was lost in all of this.  Not to say that the coverage given to Charleston was wrong, but rather I regret the loss of bandwidth for such a positive message.

Then again, I have come to think that the release of Laudato Si' on the day of the Charleston shootings is a piece of serendipity that tells us something.  Here is Pope Francis:
Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.  Here I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share. Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded. I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.
Our environmental degradation is not only something we find in the physical world.  Our civic and cultural environment has been degraded, too.

Many do work "tirelessly" to protect our common culture and our shared social space.

The "excluded" do 'suffer' most from the ecology we have cultivated.

Most of all, "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all."

The world is filled with those who deny and delude themselves out of recognizing the plain facts that Pope Francis teaches us about in Laudato Si', just as many deny the plain truths of the different ecology that spawned the Charleston shootings.

But denying the facts won't change them.  And just as this blog project is built on seeing a continuity among the life issues, from abortion to war to economic justice, there is a common thread that runs through Pope Francis's teaching on the physical environment and his teaching about our social environment.  Indeed he points right at the linkage, writing about how in some places
“ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.
We know what he means.  We know who he means.  We live in this environment, and we cannot help knowing.

As Pope Francis reminds us, whether we mean the physical environment or the social environment, only we can make the choices to change it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On the Dignity of Women

Our children attend the local Catholic school.  Perhaps that is not surprising.

The school sponsors a Vocations Club to stir and explore interest in religious or priestly life.  Perhaps that also is not surprising.

But, in fact, there are two clubs: 'Father Kolbe' for boys, named for St. Maximillian Kolbe, and 'St. Cecilia,' for girls.

Our son belongs to Father Kolbe--in a ten-year-old's way, he likes to get out of class and enjoy the snacks.  (No number of snacks or amount of time out of class has aroused our daughter's interest in St. Cecilia.)

An interesting thing happened yesterday when I asked our son about his Father Kolbe meeting.  He said that a new girl in his class had tried to attend.  Being new, she didn't understand that there were two vocations clubs--one for boys, and one for girls.  Playfully, I asked my son whether his new classmate had managed to force her way into the Father Kolbe meeting.

He gave a satisfied, "Nope!"

I have been thinking a lot about his reply.  He is ten years old.  It is appropriate to his age for him to want to keep girls out of his treehouse.  His "Nope!" comes as no surprise in that light.  He will grow out of that attitude about girls.  Or, at least, he should grow out of it.  But I find myself wondering whether the way the Church talks about and enforces gender differences will help him do it.  I find myself worrying, might his Catholic education become an obstacle to growing out of it?

In fact--Why must there be separate vocations clubs for boys and girls?

It's not the first time I've found myself asking questions like these.

Consider these comments made earlier this year by Raymond Cardinal Burke about how letting girls be altar servers has 'feminized' the Church at the expense of priestly vocations:
“Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away [from priestly vocations] over time.”
At the time, I found Cardinal Burke's observations merely amusing.  Note how the fact that girls are "very good at altar service" is completely irrelevant to him.  Notice also that Cardinal Burke argues from nature.

Nature, of course, has its goodness.  Nature is created, and shares in the goodness of the Creator.  Yet nature does not have sufficient goodness, says St. Thomas Aquinas.  Since humanity first was separated by sin from its Creator, "human nature is left to itself, and deprived of original justice", and so we speak of a "defect in human nature."  Nature is perfected by the grace which we receive as a free gift from God.  What is "natural" never is enough from a theological perspective on sin.

As I say, initially I took Cardinal Burke's contradictions only to be amusing.  But now, in light of yesterday, I find myself thinking more seriously about this.

In 1988, Pope St. John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, in which he explained the proscription of the ordination of women:
Since Christ, in instituting the Eucharist, linked it in such an explicit way to the priestly service of the Apostles, it is legitimate to conclude that he thereby wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is "feminine" and what is "masculine." It is a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and in the mystery of Redemption. It is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church the Bride (§26).
In 1994, with his much shorter apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,  he more simply and pointedly concluded any debate:
I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful (§4).
But in the light of Cardinal Burke's comments and my son's reaction to his classmate, I wonder whether this should be the last word.  I wonder whether there is not such a potent contradiction here that we must expose it and discuss it.

With Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul affirmed unambiguously that, "both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image."  Further, Pope John Paul argued forcefully against historical circumstances in which
the male "dominated," without having proper regard for woman and for her dignity, which the "ethos" of creation made the basis of the mutual relationships of two people united in marriage....In all of Jesus' teaching, as well as in his behavior, one can find nothing which reflects the discrimination against women prevalent in his day. On the contrary, his words and works always express the respect and honor due to women. The woman with a stoop is called a "daughter of Abraham" (Lk 13:16), while in the whole Bible the title "son of Abraham" is used only of men. Walking the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha, Jesus will say to the women: "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me" (Lk 23:28). This way of speaking to and about women, as well as his manner of treating them, clearly constitutes an "innovation" with respect to the prevailing custom at that time (§§12, 13).
As we have noted here, it is only natural that a ten-year-old boy should not regard girls as equals.  There is nothing surprising about his delight that his classmate was thwarted.

But the more important question is: Should not his experience of the Church and Catholic schooling create an opportunity for the grace that would perfect his nature?

Put more plainly, we should wonder how many young boys have had their natural disdain for young girls ratified by separate clubs for vocations.  Or, by a power structure in the Church that excludes women from positions of genuine authority because they cannot be priests.  How many grown Catholic men carry gender bias because it was reinforced, at least in part, by their youthful contact with the Church?

To tie the bow over the knot--How many of the men who hold power in the Church, and who perpetuate its power structure, are molded not by grace but by the nature so uncritically accepted by Cardinal Burke?

I do not argue here for the ordination of women.  That is a separate question.  In this light, we could have an interesting discussion about it.

But there are other ways of being a decisionmaker in the Church, and they do not necessarily demand ordination.  I'm asking here, in these days while Pope Francis is opening membership in the curial Councils, Congregations, Tribunals, and Secretariats to women at an unprecedented pace, whether we only have barely begun to perceive the depth to which affirming gender difference has accommodated gender bias in the Church. .::UPDATE (5/15/15)--see also, "Most US dioceses have women in key posts, but some have none"::.

Until very recent times, the Church's reflexive reply to that question has been something like my son's "Nope!"  Look to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis which, for all the good things Pope John Paul wrote about the equality of women, does not consider the possibility of structural bias built on an unchallenged, "natural" perception of inequality, which his own writings suggest would be a sin.

Is there structural bias in the Church?  A ten-year-old boy seems to know the answer.  So, I fear, does his sister.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

We Can't Be Silent--We Should Mind What We Say

I've said before that I've met Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M.Cap.  I have felt his kindness, seen his generosity, and admired his deep faith.

I said all that when I disagreed with him here about his 2008 book, Render Unto Caesar.  There, I said that the Archbishop's argument was terribly misguided, even if it proceeded from good motivations.  Not much has changed in seven years.

Earlier today, Archbishop Chaput published an essay on the First Things webpage titled, "We Can't Be Silent," and I can sum up the whole problem by quoting a couple of lines from the Archbishop's essay:
As a nation, the United States is built on a religious anthropology. It presumes a moral architecture shaped deeply by biblical thought and belief.
As a matter of history, this is unambiguously and positively correct. In the past, especially at the time of our constitutional founding, Americans identified themselves in much greater numbers and far more devotedly with a range of mostly Protestant Christianities.

As a matter of public policy in 2015, this is dangerous stuff.

The Archbishop begins his essay with a long paean to Benjamin Franklin:
In 1787, at the age of eighty-one, Benjamin Franklin addressed the Constitutional Convention: “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests, our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and byword down to future ages.”
The Archbishop admits that, "Yes, Franklin was a Deist, and he’s better known for his romantic escapades than for his religious piety." But Archbishop Chaput adds that such claims about the importance of religion "were obvious to the founders, many of whom were Christian, and all of whom understood and respected the role of religious faith in sustaining a healthy republic."

But of course that was obvious to the men who wrote the Constitution.  In large number they were, as Archbishop Chaput observes, Christian.  More than that, they were men of the eighteenth century.  While the Enlightenment that secularized continental Europe already was underway while the Constitution was being ratified, Americans were insulated from its effects both by being an ocean away from the Continent and by their attachment to the much more moderate English political tradition.  All to say, from where they were in history it should shock no one that those eighteenth century Americans "respected the role of religious faith" and were comfortable with religious expressions in politics.

But that was 1787.  And it is a dangerous thing to fix a moment of history in amber, trying to keep it preserved forever.

In 2015, our moment of history, the fact is that the so-called "Nones" are nearing one-fifth of the American population.  Further, the United States today has far more religious and cultural diversity than it did in 1787.  In fact, forget about cultural and religious diversity just for a minute.  Look only at the Catholic Church.  The Archbishop, himself, acknowledges the existence of a "right wing of the church," which presumes at least a "left wing" and who knows how many other fragmentations of the Roman Catholic Church that "divide what shouldn't be divided."

Whether the Catholic Church should be divided or not, it is divided.  (And, not for the first time.)  Fragmentation is a fact of life, even more so in our globalized and pluralized time.  If that is true of the Church, "A milk-white hind immortal and unchanged," then American society hardly can be immune.  We cannot wish it away.  It is a fact of our fallen nature, a nature no more or less sinful in 2015 than it was in 1787 or during the construction of the Tower at Babel all those centuries ago.

Archbishop Chaput's consistent mistake is to think that observing these facts amounts to telling Catholics to be silent in political debates.  That is not so.  Acknowledging diversity does not silence Catholics at all.  Merely, it reminds Catholics to be so tactful as to remember other people see the world differently, and that the political conversation belongs to them as much as it belongs to Catholics.  

We Catholics should not be silent at all!  However, if we want anybody to listen to us, we would do well to mind what we say a little better.  

We might, just as one example, stop presuming to tell our fellow Americans that they misunderstand America and we believers understand it better.

The tragedy here is that Archbishop Chaput keeps committing his keen mind and deep faith to the wrong argument.  Archbishop Chaput wants to comment on politics, tell us about American political history, but he would do better thinking about about culture.  

Politics and culture are not unrelated, of course.  Culture begets politics.  And, history begets culture.  None of us can do anything to change history.  But there are other forces that shape culture, and Archbishop Chaput is a leader of a cultural force that, historically, has been very powerful.  

Do Catholics want the "good leaders," "good laws," and a "just society" that promotes the "common good" as Archbishop Chaput reminds us that our Christian witness demands we should?  Of course we do.  There are better ways to bring them about.

Rather than expending so much energy on Fortnights for Freedom or electioneering against presidential candidates, Archbishop Chaput would be a far more potent force in American social life if he would focus his attention on spreading the Gospel to win American women and men to the Catholic faith.

And, he doesn't need me to tell him how to do it.  He needs only to recall the words attributed to his Capuchin founder:
Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words!