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Jill Lepore wrote a powerful piece at The New Yorker showing how poorly the justices are using history.  As one of our best historians, she knows history. Her piece focuses on the gun case.  If you couple this piece with the Adam Serwer Atlantic article I posted the other day, you get a good sense of the most profound confusions of these rulings.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Rubin has been on a roll over at the NYTimes with what feels like 2 or 3 columns a day.  Her latest calls for a "pro-privacy movement" to fight against the Christian Nationalism of the court majority.


Deaths of Despair

Deaths of Despair and the Future of CapitalismDeaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Case & Deaton were alarmed by numbers related to the opioid epidemic and further researched showed a rise in white middle class mortality in the United States after a century of decline and with no corresponding rise in comparable nations. What to explain this?

They conclude a loss of a way-of-life that brought meaning and economic stability.

And for them the primary cause is neither globalization or inequality, though those are both part of the narrative, but the American health care system.

The book concludes with their ideas on what we need to do.

The analysis is interesting and persuasive. I scored the book lower because it's not really an enjoyable read. It also seemed longer than necessary.

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Apollo's Arrow

Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We LiveApollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In one volume Christakis helps to make sense of the year we have all just endured, approaching from many angles. Here is a review of the medical science and our quickly developing understanding of the virus. He also presents the history of the outbreak beginning last fall in Wuhan and spreading around the world. He sets this virus within the broader historical setting of other plagues and pandemics. He reviews the various kinds of public health measures, evaluating their use this year and their justifications. And he also discusses the wider social and moral impacts, how the virus has impacted mental health, economics, education, racial disparities, etc. He shows how plagues are accompanied by epidemics of grief, fear, and lies. He also shows how our species has evolved critical tools to respond to plagues and how we have marshalled these tools this year in ways that will bring the pandemic to an end. In the final chapter he discusses the difference between the medical and social ends of the pandemic.

I found this an important read for drawing together in one place so much of the disparate information and impacts of this pandemic.

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Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our OwnBegin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This books is two things at once and does it well, since the one thing is in service of the other. It is a presentation of the thought of James Baldwin in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin's earlier books are his most popular and often read. His later work after the assassinations, the rise of Black Power, and then the conservative backlash has been less examined and has generally been criticized from all sides. Glaude sets about to right these wrongs and demonstrates that Baldwins ideas are rich and fertile.

The second thing the book is is a commentary on our own times and what we need to do to begin again with a more just society. In this goal, the book is one of many books from the last few years attempting to do this work. Glaude achieves this goal through the first goal of the book. Baldwin's later ideas are fertile for helping us to understand America in 2020 and for guiding us in how to begin again.

A worthy read combining literary criticism, historical analysis, social critique, and insights on contemporary public policy.

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Intimations

IntimationsIntimations by Zadie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smith's sketches of life during the early weeks of the pandemic are more phenomenological than analytical. There are moments of brilliance. The essay on suffering is the best in the book. Other parts were less engaging. The final sentence is powerful (I won't copy it here). So a good record for the future to give some sense of how bewildering the moment was.

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The Dark Years?

The Dark Years?The Dark Years? by Jacob L Goodson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first met Jacob Goodson more than twenty years ago when he was a brand new freshman just starting his pursuit of philosophy. He was eager to learn everything. Now he's an established professor with a few published books.

In this volume Goodson discusses some predictions that the philosopher Richard Rorty made in the 1990's about America in the 21st century. Rorty predicted that from 2014-2045 America would through dark years--gun violence and racial unrest would proliferate, a populist strongman would be elected in 2016, we'd experience a Second Great Depression, etc. According to Rorty this resulted from the failures of the academy to address the concerns of the poor, generating resentment that led to the rise of populism.

Of course, as these predictions have come true, attention has returned to Rorty's thoughts. Goodson's book discusses how we should understand and evaluate Rorty's predictions.

The second aspect of Rorty's 21st century predictions is that we would come out of the dark years with a new and renewed politics based on love. Through the dark years Americans, through reading novels and scripture, would develop sympathy that generate shame about the inequities of our system resulting in social solidarity. More of Goodson's book focuses on these predictions, finally centering on what kind of hope we might have that this outcome will materialize.

A worthy contribution to public philosophy and our attempt to better understand the moment we are living through.

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Pandemic Philosophy

Cross posted from my church column.

Back in March the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben criticized the approach to the virus then taking hold.  He wrote,

The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.

His was one of the first philosophical writings on the pandemic, but since then philosophers have been very busy commenting on the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical implications of this crisis.  Some have also been involved practically—for example a group of philosophical ethicists in Sweden helped to devise that nation’s triage criteria for ventilators. 

Let me draw attention to three of the ethical writings I’ve found provocative and worthy of consideration as we all do our best to think well and wisely during this crisis.

First is an article from May by Dalia Nassar, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sydney, that developed Agamben’s ideas and responded to some of his many critics.  Nassar points out that

the COVID-19 shutdown infringes on every aspect of our selves: not only our biological lives, but also our psychological or emotional lives, our social and political lives, our intellectual lives, and so on. That the shutdown affects every aspect of our lives should mean that every aspect of our lives should be taken into consideration when decisions about restrictions or easing restrictions are being made. It means, in other words, that ethicists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, philosophers and theologians should be part of the decision-making process concerning the right response to the crisis.

I agree with Nassar that trying to reduce the human person to biological health is wrong and that the full richness of the human person and human life must be weighed when we are making individual and communal decisions during this crisis.  She goes on to encourage democratic processes of decision-making:

The ideal response to a crisis must be capacious, context sensitive and democratic. It must take account of the complexity and many-sidedness of life and of the concrete lives of all living beings. It must consider differences across regions and cultures. Only in this way can we develop an adequate response to the . . . crisis: one that aims not to neglect, leave out, or put in harm’s way any of the beings that share this planet.

In June I read “Surging Solidarity: Reorienting Ethics for Pandemics” by Jordan Pascoe & Mitch Stripling, in which they argued that our ethical frameworks must be revised in response to the pandemic.  They offered their alternative:

We develop a pandemic ethics framework rooted in uBuntu and care ethics that makes visible the underlying multidimensional structural inequities of the pandemic, attending to the problems of resource scarcity and inequities in mortality while insisting on a response that surges existing and emergent forms of solidarity.

I thought their paper provided the most robust, interesting ethical analysis I’ve read.  They emphasized relational approaches rooted in the South African concept of Ubuntu and feminist care ethics.  I liked this claim, “Our framework understands disasters as producing networks of interlinked people who need care and are giving it; the ethics we propose will help to surge and sustain that entire network, not force us to break it apart and choose between the pieces.” 

They too were advocating a more holistic approach to the human person, not settling for reductionist accounts.  And by doing so were able to explain in one theory the importance of public health measures while also criticizing how they violate core aspects of our humanity:

The tragedy of our dangerously overwhelmed health care system is not only that there are not enough ventilators to go around. It is also that people must suffer alone, must die alone, must give birth alone; it is that our system is so broken that even a basic right to human company must be surrendered (Goldstein and Weiser 2020). Many of us fear not just getting sick, not just dying, but dying alone. Many who are grieving are grieving because they could not be present for a person essential to them, for birth or for death or for suffering. We are grieving not just the inevitable moral failures that will come from lack of resources, but from the lack of humanness, of being human with and through one another. These, too, are moral failures.

Yes.  That people were not able to be with their sick and dying loved ones was one of the most cruel and inhumane aspects of this year.  Which should compel us to imagine and develop different approaches in the future so that such inhumane burdens can be prevented.

A final essay from July with the very academic title “Virus interruptus: An Arendtian exploration of political world‐building in pandemic times” by Rita A. Gardner and Katy Fulfer develops from the philosophy of the ever-more-essential Hannah Arendt.  In their abstract they describe their project:

We explore the ways in which we can engage in political world‐building during pandemic times through the work of Hannah Arendt. Following Arendt’s notion of the world as the space for human togetherness, we ask: how can we respond to COVID‐19’s interruptions to the familiarity of daily life and our relationship to public space? By extending relational accounts of public health and organizational ethics, we critique a narrow view of solidarity that focuses on individual compliance with public health directives. Instead, we argue that solidarity involves addressing structural inequities, both within public health and our wider community. Finally, we suggest possibilities for political world‐building by considering how new forms of human togetherness might emerge as we forge a collective ‘new normal’.

Their discussion focuses on togetherness as essential for responding to a crisis and yet the paradox of our traditional modes of togetherness being impossible.  They are critical of judging those who are non-compliant with public health measures, arguing that individual compliance is not the true crisis of solidarity revealed this year, but rather the larger systemic inequities.  Our frustration and anger should be directed at those concerns.  One reason they resist too much judgment of individual behavior is that the only way out of this crisis is to develop greater trust in one another:

Indeed, it seems as if many societies are at a serious juncture where we have the potential for making new choices about how we want to live together. The COVID‐19 crisis has also shown us that we too have a choice in that we can live our lives in fear and isolation, or we can start to trust one another again as we move back to our public spaces. Establishing trust will be important in helping people learn to adapt to the new normal in organizational spaces and other public places.

They conclude that the virus creates an opportunity to rethink human social and political relationships and to address the inequities and lack of trust we’ve seen: “An Arendtian politics is concerned with how we share the world in such a way that it becomes a place of belonging, not just for a few, but for humanity.”

These essays all share a robust vision of the human person which leads to an emphasis on relationships of solidarity, care, and trust and the opportunity to create new and better institutions and systems. 

This crisis does compel us into deep, visionary, and careful thinking as we use our best judgment to make wise and good decisions for ourselves, our families, our institutions, and our society.  We don’t want “bare life;” we want to belong to a flourishing humanity.


God and the Pandemic

God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its AftermathGod and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath by N.T. Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A quick read. The first few chapters weren't as substantive, but the last two were filled with good bits.

The book includes some interesting and provocative reflections on the doctrine of God ("Might we then say that God the creator . . . has no appropriate words to say to the misery when creation is out of joint?"), which then lead to fascinating ideas in pneumatology and ecclesiology. The church should be present where people are in pain and our first task is lament.

In his final chapter he expressed some of what have been my concerns in recent months. He calls the church to take safety seriously and not do stupid things, while at the same time lamenting that the church is being left out of its traditional role of being present with sick, dying, and grieving people. He also worries that "faced with a major crisis, [the Church] has meekly followed what seems to be a secularizing lead." That we have reinforced the idea that worship is a personal hobby we share with like-minded people.

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"Padre, You've Been Shot"

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My colleague the Rev. Darrell Goodwin, Associate Conference Minister for the Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota Conferences of the United Church of Christ, picked me up around 5:30 in the evening so we could head downtown to work as clergy providing pastoral care and de-escalation in an effort to avoid more violence, particularly loss of life while also bearing witness to those who were angry about yesterday's decision not to charge the killer of James Scurlock.

We parked on the outskirts of downtown, donned our clergy stoles, and began walking.  As we came up to the first of five police cordons we went through, I lowered my mask and introduced myself and explained why were were there, intentionally speaking first as the white man in the duo.  The first two cordons of officers sent us ahead.  At the close of each exchange, I wished those officers well and said I was praying for them.  In all the officers you could sense their worry and the tension of the day.

At the third cordon, we encountered a commander in military style fatigues who then walked us the remaining few blocks and through other cordons to where the protestors were gathered.  We walked up to the first officer there, who just happened to be Deputy Chief Kanger.  We again introduced ourselves, and he gave us elbow bumps.  We said what we were there to do and asked if we could be of help. He seemed very pleased and thanked us.  He asked us to talk to people who seemed particularly emotional, which is what we spent a lot of the evening doing.  This was the first of many conversations over the next few hours with the Deputy Chief.

Darrell and I headed to the front of the line.  We walked along between police and protestors introducing ourselves to both.  I generally led next with, "How are you feeling this evening?"  Which often elicited a long response.  In each exchange I'd close with offering to be of help in any way I could and told them I was praying for them.  One young man asked specifically for me to pray over him.  Many thanked us for being there.  A few talked about how churches needed to talk about these issues.

The protestors were almost all so young.  They were upset and afraid.  They didn't understand this injustice, why people keep getting killed, why nothing ever seems to improve or does so so very, very slowly.  A number of the protestors at front were engaging the police in conversations.  Occasionally they took pictures together.  

A few, and it was only a few, were more aggressive, yelling at the police.  Often other protestors gathered around those folk to try to de-escalate them, and the few clergy there (I think I counted six total over the course of the evening--fifty clergy would have radically altered the event for the good) also tried to engage those folk in conversation.  My experience was that most people just wanted their pain and anger heard and after someone listened to them, they appeared not as agitated.  Darrell did amazing work on more than one occasion talking someone down, including one person who early in the evening wanted to rush the cops.  

Occasionally I had to explain to some protestor why what they were demanding some cop to do was something that couldn't be done last night, trying to help them see how unreasonable demands didn't work, but that those demands could be channeled, were legitimate, and could be pursued.  

I talked for a while with one of James Scurlock's brothers, who was so heartbroken and was there to thank people for peacefully representing the family as they had asked.

Shortly after we arrived one very young woman was asking the front line of police if everyone could march together.  A pastor from Zion Baptist heard her and brought her to the Deputy Chief to talk and eventually the Deputy Chief okayed that, so the crowd, with some police included, marched around the Old Market.  For a good part of this march I walked alongside the Deputy Chief and we discussed how to help the situation when the 8 o'clock curfew rolled around.  During the march around I also ran into a church member there protesting.

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I was most troubled by one very angry woman who had a toddler with her who walked along the line screaming at all the cops.  I tried talking to her child, and she snatched him away and then wouldn't talk with me.  Darrell tried, and she wouldn't talk with him.  But eventually she did, and Darrell kept trying to talk her into taking care of her baby.  She did eventually seem to disappear.

Some of the young people were wonderful positive influences on the crowd.  One young man, crying, got everyone to kneel and asked all the cops to, and when they did, the crowd erupted in positive cheers, suddenly the cops were swarmed with hugs, hand shakes, and selfies.  This occurred shortly before the curfew, and I believe is one reason that many of the young people left before the curfew.  They had been heard and their pain acknowledged.

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Suddenly as the curfew fell, the crowd was very different.  Many of the folk who had been there on the front lines for hours had left and there were new people.  It was also a much whiter crowd than earlier.  At that point Darrell and I began trying to talk them into leaving peacefully.  One couple asked, if we do leave, which way do we go, we look boxed in.  So, I asked the Deputy Chief, who told me to the North, so we began passing out that information.  It was clear that some did not trust us or the information.  It was during this time that I had protestors asking if I was really a cop.  Or I overheard them say to others after I had talked to them, "You know he's a cop, right?"

I saw two young women, the eyes above their masks revealed their fear.  I stepped up to talk to them.  "What happens now?" one of them asked.  I told her that those who remained would be arrested.  "I can't be arrested.  Where do I go?"  I told her she was to walk north.  I took the two of them to the Deputy Chief and had him confirm that for them.  So those two young women started out the exit route.  A trickle of others began to follow.

And suddenly, some idiot in the departing crowd through a water bottle, and some police began shooting pellets at the people leaving.  I was horrified, as I had sent them that way.  I ran into the street screaming at the cop who was firing to stop as the Deputy Chief had sent them that way.  The look he gave me, I thought he was going to turn his weapon on me, but he did not.  He did quit firing.  A media person nearby said, "Yeah, they fucked that up."

We kept encouraging people to leave peacefully, even after that happened.  There was a moment when the protestors were completely closed off from the exit route.  Darrell and I were standing together with the media across the street and began yelling for the police to make an exit route.  Which they listened and did.  Suddenly, some shots and tear gas were released not far from there and so many took the opportunity to run for the exit.  Darrell and I were walking along and got a little separated.  A couple of cops began insisting I move along.  I told them I'd been working with the Deputy Chief in getting people out and was waiting for my clergy colleague right behind him, he told us snidely, "You should have left already, it's after curfew."  He didn't listen to our explanations, but we moved along, encouraging those leaving to keep going and not turn around and yell or anything as doing so risked everyone going that way.

The gas now came our direction and I was coughing and struggling momentarily to breathe.  A woman came up and squirted water on my face and in my mouth.  Moments after that, as I was walking along behind the protestors with my arms raised and yelling, "Leave peacefully" I was knocked to the ground by an impact on the back of my neck.  I yelled "What hit me?" as the realization and fear began to dawn on me.  A young man ran up to me, "Padre, you've been shot." Darrell grabbed me and pulled me against the wall of the building to make sure I wasn't bleeding.

At that point we rushed along behind the exiting protestors continuing to encourage them forward.  We finally turned a corner and found four police to whom we explained what had just happened, who we were, that we had been told by the Deputy Chief to go that way but had been shot and gassed.  We asked what was the safe way back to our car and they directed us.  We had to repeat this conversation a number of times.

We finally made it back to our cars and had to drive a circuitous route back to my house where Darrell dropped me off and then drove himself home.

I've never seen so many cops. So many of them in full military gear.  There were military-style vehicles in the streets.  It was horrifying.  There are so many different and better ways to let people express their justified anger without creating a war zone.

Today my entire body hurts, but my soul hurts even more.