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What's going on with the Right?

An excellent, and I think helpful, column in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf on what's going on with the Right.  Even deeper than the racism currently being exhibited is a psychological temperament that seeks order and fears difference and change.  He criticizes the Left for how they respond to the Right and provides insights on the best way to build coalitions to advance the nation.

Robinson on Puritanism & Liberalism

Speaking of Liberalism, a fine essay by Marilynne Robinson defending the liberal history of Puritanism, along the way pointing out the illiberalism of the Lockian tradition.  

In a fun aside, she mentions that interpretation of Walt Whitman should begin with an understanding of Puritan theology.

The closing paragraph is fine; here are the final two:

Our heavily redacted history has meant the loss of many options. The idea of a good community, one whose members are happy in the fact of a general well-being, is not native to us, natural to us, possible for us—or so we are to believe. It is too far left. It is downright socialist. Hugh Peter [a Puritan divine] speaks in terms of practical enhancements, crowned roads to help prevent flooding, for example. He proposes that all advocates and attorneys should be paid by the public, that no one should be above the law. He proposes that artists and craftsmen of modest income should not be taxed. There is nothing sectarian in his list of reforms, assuming that most of us would be pleased to have improved infrastructure, equal justice before the law, a creative environment that acknowledges the social value of art.

We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared and mutual happiness? Those who control the word “American” control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy.


Brooks on the current kerfluffle and Liberalism

In a smart column that one wishes was a longer essay, David Brooks writes about the current debate in the Democratic party and how this is a debate over the future of liberalism.  An excerpt:

Liberalism loves sympathy, suspects rage and detests cruelty. Politics is inevitably a dialogue between partial truths. Compromise is a virtue, not a sign of cowardice. Moreover, means determine ends. If you win power through rhetorical violence, and by hating those who disagree, your regime will be angry and destructive. Liberalism arose out of the fact that political revolutions, while exciting at the outset, usually end up in brutality, dictatorship and blood. Working within the system is best.

River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  

The Investigation

The other day the World-Herald had three good pieces of commentary on the Mueller investigation and the fallout.

There was a piece by Marc Thiessen called "The Trump-Russia Collusion Hall of Shame."   It quite rightly (though with charged language) asked about all those politicians and former intelligence officials who promised us that there was evidence of collusion that was yet to be made public.

Another piece was by Mona Charen, a conservative who has not yet jumped on the Trump bandwagon.  Her column was entitled "Mueller did the Right Thing." Her criticisms were leveled against the President and his cohort for their attacks on the investigation all along and how they ended up being wrong.  Her conclusion, "Honorable people did the right thing. Politics did not taint a criminal investigation. But that reality is buried under an avalanche of bad faith."

The final piece wasn't a national columnist but a local piece by former Senator Bob Kerrey in which he asked "How did Department of Justice get the Trump-Russia investigation so wrong?" It was interesting and refreshing to read a Democratic leader so critical.  He wants a non-partisan commission to investigate this whole sordid episode, "Our democracy will survive the hostility of Vladimir Putin. What it may not survive is distrust of our system of justice. At the moment that distrust is deep and wide. We need a nonpartisan national commission to tell us what has just happened and to advise us on what we need to do to keep it from happening again."

Brilliant interview with Arundhati Roy

The Boston Review has published a brilliant interview with author Arundhati Roy discussing her books, her politics, and the state of the world.  I encourage you to read it.  An excerpt:

While it is easy to take lofty moral positions, in truth, there is nothing simple about this problem. Because it is not a problem. It is a symptom of a great churning and a deep malaise. The assertion of ethnicity, race, caste, nationalism, sub-nationalism, patriarchy, and all kinds of identity, by exploiters as well as the exploited, has a lot—but of course not everything—to do with laying collective claim to resources (water, land, jobs, money) that are fast disappearing. There is nothing new here, except the scale at which its happening, the formations that keep changing, and the widening gap between what is said and what is meant. Few countries in the world stand to lose more from this way of thinking than India—a nation of minorities. The fires, once they start, could burn for a thousand years. If we go down this warren and choose to stay there, if we allow our imaginations to be trapped within this matrix, and come to believe there is no other way of seeing things, if we lose sight of the sky and the bigger picture, then we are bound to find ourselves in conflicts that spiral and spread and multiply and could very easily turn apocalyptic.

President Bush


More than one congregant has asked me this week about President Bush, "Didn't you say once that he was your favorite President?"

Yes, I did.  And he is.  My favorite from my lifetime.  I deeply respected and admired him and this week have mourned his passing.  When on Saturday morning my husband informed me of the death, I began to weep and our preschool-aged son consoled me "That's sad."  Over the last few days I've shared stories with our son about George Herbert Walker Bush.

I grew up in a small town in northeastern Oklahoma where most local races were settled in the Democratic primary.  My family were New Deal Democrats like most of the people around us.  The only Republicans we knew were liberal Episcopalians.  

I had always had a fascination with politics.  Mom tells the story of my backing Jimmy Carter in the 1976 race as a toddler--I think it was because he was a peanut farmer and I loved peanut butter.  But it was finally as the 1988 primaries loomed that I became focused on presidential politics.  I followed that race very closely, at the beginning liking such candidates as Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Jack Kemp, and Al Gore.  

That was a great race to follow, especially as I was just beginning to form my political opinions.  There were 6 major candidates on both sides, and particularly in the GOP they each represented a wing of the party.  Bush, of course, emerged as the nominee.  I watched almost gavel-to-gavel coverage of both conventions that summer and weighed considerations between Governor Dukakis and Vice President Bush before deciding to support Bush.  

This was almost anathema to my Democrat family.  My Mom told me I couldn't be a Republican because we weren't rich.  

That autumn in our speech class Mrs. Webster assigned as a project that we create a scrapbook to follow the election.  I poured myself into that project and produced a final result that shocked Mrs. Webster in its detail and thoroughness, far exceeding the scope of the assignment.  Every day I poured through multiple papers and grabbed the major weekly magazines all to clip for the scrapbook which kept growing in size.

Also that autumn our speech class put on a mock presidential debate for a junior high assembly followed by a mock election among the students.  I was chosen to represent Vice President Bush, Ronnie Maple was Governor Dukakis, and Lance Reece was the moderator.  I remember that my main point was that Bush was the most qualified person to ever run for the office.  Bush won our mock election.

And, so, at 14, I became a Republican.  But a Bush Republican.  A moderate, New England, liberal Episcopalian sort of Republican.  And just at a point when the culture was shifting and that sort of Republican was about to decline and the place I had grown up would, in short order, become a bastion of Right Wing, Christian fundamentalist politics.  I assume most of the liberal Episcopalians in Miami, Oklahoma these days are not Republicans.  And I left the party in 2004 for its repeated hypocrisies.  

Bush's served as President during my high school years.  And I watched in admiration as all the accomplishments were achieved, particularly in foreign policy.  Many of my friends were still old school Democrats while others were these new Evangelical Republicans, so I found myself often defending Bush from attacks from the right and the left.  I loathed Newt Gingrich and the despicable ways he attacked Bush.

But I also noticed the weaknesses and failures, and have appreciated this week reading those criticisms as well as the honors.

In 1992 I could finally vote, and I voted for George H. W. Bush, despite the fact that many friends my age were supporting Bill Clinton.  Clinton repulsed me.  My roommate Matt Cox and I hung our American flag upside down as a sign of the nation in distress when the networks called the election for Clinton.  A few days later the university president sent the president of the College Republicans to ask us to turn it back rightside up.

I simply couldn't believe that a President who had accomplished what Bush had done and once enjoyed a 91% approval rating was losing to this inexperienced person of bad character, even if the economy was in a mild recession.  But I had also watched Bush squirm through the debates, clearly a figure from a different era, as politics and the media were changing (not for the better, of course).

My admiration has continued.  I read Bush and Scowcroft's book on the history of the administration, and Jon Meacham's good biography.  

Bush ran one of the most ethical administrations, firing people at even the hint of scandal.  He hired experts who were themselves admirable people, highly skilled.  My respect for folks like Scowcroft and Baker is as high as that for Bush.

But he was also highly ambitious and that led to a vicious 1988 campaign.  I didn't fully grasp how nasty it was at the time, but did upon later reflection.  He could at times be cynical and self-interested.  He and the members of the old elite he surrounded himself with were tone-deaf to many things, most notoriously racial issues, HIV/AIDS, and the LGBT community.  

Yet he also oversaw the largest expansion of civil rights in our history with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  He acted to eliminate acid rain, our greatest environmental achievement (remember he ran in 88 as "the Environmental President").  His budget compromise laid the groundwork for the economic successes of the 1990's.  Sadly his very good education bill languished in Congress.  And these are just among his domestic accomplishments.

But what matters most is that he was a person of character.  His character was rich and complex, including significant flaws and weaknesses, but also great strengths.  So watching yesterday's funeral, I thought of Hannah Arendt, who reveals that goodness has depth and dimension.  Evil is shallow and little.  

What we saw yesterday was a celebration of character, with depth and complexity.  George Herbert Walker Bush was a good man.

Eluding Responsibility

I was drawn to some of philosopher Mary Midgley's comments on how we neglect our responsibilities in her book Wickedness.

The general recipe for inexcusable acts is neither madness nor a bizarre morality, but a steady refusal to attend both to the consequences of one's actions and to the principles involved.

And this

It seems clear that a great many of the worst acts actually done in the world are committed in the same sort of way in which the battlefields of the First World War were produced--by people who have simply failed to criticize the paths of action lying immediately before them.  Exploiters and oppressors, war-makers, executioners and destroyers of forests do not usually wear distinctive black hats, nor horns and hooves.  The positive motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfillment and professional conscientiousness.  The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these--in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it.  That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance.

Reading that chapter of the book left me musing on Trump as an example of what she was writing about.  Then that was clearer in a later chapter on "Selves and Shadows."

Influential psychopaths and related types, in fact, get their power not from originality, but from a perception of just what unacknowledged motives lie waiting to be exploited, and just what aspects of the world currently provide a suitable patch of darkness on to which they can be projected.

And this

To gain great political power, you must either be a genuinely creative genius, able to communicate new ideas very widely, or you must manage to give a great multitude permission for things which it already wants, but for which nobody else is currently prepared to give that permission.