Month: November 2016

The Price of Protest

The title here is meant to work on several different levels and perspectives, but primarily it is meant to echo Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phase “The Cost of Discipleship,” his book on Christian life amidst the rise of fascism. We had a song this morning in church based on his words. I don’t know the source, but sounds to me late in his life indeed:

“And when this cup you give is filled to brimming with bitter suffering, hard to understand, we take it thankfully and without trembling out of so good and beloved a hand.”

A fine sentiment for martyrdom, the bewildered hurt when, for all your good intentions, you are handed pain and sadness instead of joy. hmmph. (“more pricks than kicks” as Samuel Beckett so eloquently summarized from the Apostle Paul).

There is a certain amount of snarky joy that any victor feels in watching his competitor fight against the acceptance of defeat…and it is true that this fight is deep in our being, and is one we have exhibited since childhood. And in the ungoverned pscyhe of the 6-year old that fight is communicated to the world as mere tantrum. In this generous spirit (NOT), Trump supporters now gloat over the protests against his thin (and reasonably questionable, since Hillary did win the popular vote after all) victory. Again they exhibit the total self-bloated arrogance that has made them such an awful party for so long, more interested in petty political wins than governing. Thus they opposed everything Obama did, even when it fit their agenda (debt reduction anyone?). But let me allow them some empathy. I would be hard pressed to agree to a Trump-initiated debt reduction package, no matter how attractive the terms, for no other reason than to spite him the credit for such delicately diplomatic undertaking. And let us not kid ourselves as to the nature of the Yosemite Sam tantrum that the Trump supporters would have had if they had lost in the same manner (winning the popular vote and losing the electoral college).

What any reasonable Republican should understand right now, is that these protests of such felt urgency, the need to protest this particular result, would not have accompanied a victory by any of the other Republican candidates (even, I would argue, Ted Cruz). They protest this one because of the dirty, hurtful, and bigoted campaign that brought Trump the victory, playing to people’s worst fears and worst instincts. Most Americans, Democrats included, can accept democracy’s cruel results when a person or a policy that you despise wins an election. I’ll leave aside the millions of problems with media, money, voter suppression, and all the ugly problems that undermine democratic practice. But even with perfect democratic practice, we still would face results that we don’t like. Everyone knows this.

What the protesters protest hear is the hate that fueled this campaign. This is not to say that all who voted for Trump were filled with hate. But, all who did need to take a good look at themselves. You can ignore his bigotry and say we should take it with a grain of salt. But, as our eloquent current president has said, “words matter.” His words did not just insult people. They inspire violence, and we are seeing it, across the country. Thrown insults meant to hurt, meant to tell someone not only that they don’t belong, but that they should consider their lives and freedom at risk for merely being anything but “white” in that awful sense of the word.

People are drawing swastikas on things. You can give a long oration on the cultural symbolism of the Confederate flag, and how it is not all about slavery and racism etc., but who among us can say that the swastika bears any message but pure menacing hate? Okay, Hindus I suppose, whence Hitler stole the swastika, and twisted into his resentful and psychopathic fantasy. But I don’t think it is Hindu Americans drawing swastikas on things right now next to Trump’s name.

So we come back to Bonhoeffer, who was an extraordinarily dry theologian who became sort of sexy post facto because he felt that the Christian should find a way to resist Nazi bigotry. Let’s review that for a moment. We are all (with some frightening exceptions I know) horrified by the Nazi genocide, the impossibly inhuman murder of millions with industrial efficiency. But that came ten years after their rise, in the midst of the war. What Bonhoeffer reacted against was not an evidently murderous regime, but rather one that legitimized and preached bigotry, that placed the blame for all the changes brought by World War I and the Great Depression upon a segment of the German population. They told people that it was good to hate. They encouraged people to hate. They encouraged people to attack. They granted license for violence against a group of people who did not present a threat.

Bonhoeffer could have stayed in England when Hitler came to power, but saw what was happening. He saw the triumph of hateful words…the hateful actions were bound to follow. He then, fatefully, chose to return to Germany saying to a friend “If I do not go through this trial with my countrymen, I’ll have no standing to have any say in what comes after.” After being found guilty of contributing in a small way to a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, he was executed by the Nazi government in the midst of World War II.

The spiritual crisis that faced him upon his return to Germany was how should a Christian live amidst a society that had abandoned Christian ethics, and yet still thought of themselves as Christian. All the German churches, out fear and significant outright support for the Nazis, had bowed to Nazi interference in their affairs and supported them. Bonhoeffer created what he called the “Confessing Church,” an unofficial body of believers who had no choice but to “confess” their opposition to the government. He sought to give guidance and spiritual sustenance to this group. In a rare moment of practical theology (more on his abstract theology in a minute), he advocated a sort of check-list as to how to confront government in general, but in particular one filled with frightening hate.

First, he argued, people of good conscience (in this case the Church, but they are reasonable rules for non-Christians) should give comfort and shelter to those who are the victims of the social order (with the implication that any social order has its victims, people who for whatever reason are disadvantaged or outcast).

Second, people of good conscience should call the government to its responsibility to protect its people from threats to life and limb, whether foreign armies, local criminals, or hunger, poverty, and disease.

Third, if a government proves to be itself a malicious threat to the people for whom it claims responsibility, then people of good conscience should “throw a spoke in the wheel.”

This phrase is a little anachronistic, but if anyone remembers that excellent old bike racing movie “Breaking Away”, there is a scene where the working class hero of the movie catches up to these mean Italian professional riders in a local charity race. Unhappy to see this pretender in their midst, they poke a spoke into his wheel. This causes his front wheel to suddenly stop, and throws him hurtling towards the ground where he lands, bloody and heart-broken at this malicious and uncalled for gesture, merely because he, an outsider, had dared to put himself among them. In one little scene, the movie pretty much summed up fascism.

In this case, Bonhoeffer is advocating some sort of terrorism, or sabotage at minimum as a response to a government that threatens its own people. This, in American right-wing patriot lingo is a Jeffersonian solution (the tree of liberty must be watered with blood from time to time….I’m pretty sure he was talking about armed rebellion not lynching here, but for many years American fascists practiced the latter rather than the former, and therein is the dividing line between righteous rebellion and fascism). Or as Trump put it “second amendment solutions.”

Bonhoeffer’s third option, we should note, only comes in the context of the more pacific and non-destructive mandates to protect and shelter the weak, and to peacefully protest government injustice. He did not like this last option, because it entailed destruction. But he had to consider it within the context of a theology he was developing in this particular historical context of “Responsible Action.” The Christian, he argued was called upon to risk one’s own spiritual purity in the face of communal injustice. To come before God after genocide and say, “but Lord I have not killed,” is to mock the commandment rather than obey it. (I’m paraphrasing all of this from memory, and I’m sure doing great injustice to Bonhoeffer’s theology). But to come before God at some point prior to genocide (at what point is really the big question), and to confess to sabotaging orderly government or killing supporters of such government, before offering one’s life for the first two on the list, is to confess to that great sin without just cause, making you a contributor to disorderly cycles of violence rather than a queller of them.

The one thing that unites nearly all of Trump’s supporters is the conviction that a vote for Trump was a vote of protest against a political system seen as injust, corrupt, and resistant to change. Only a fire-breather like Trump (ostensibly, and certainly falsely, independent because of his, less-than-appears, wealth) could take on this entrenched system (see earlier Facebook post on how a 25-year project to sully Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy succeeded). They were protesting. Perhaps there is much to protest. One big item of protest, for many Christians among these, is the legality of abortion. This is not the place to go into that debate, and I fully support the idea that we should leave this as a question of conscience rather than law. But I do understand that one of the few responsible reasons to vote for Trump for those who believe is the conviction that abortion is state-sanctioned murder and must be illegal. For them, Trump is the spoke in the wheel.

The implication of that phrase is that you intend to destroy the wheel and crash the vehicle, metaphorically here, the government. This is clearly the result of another generational ideological struggle: to take Ronald Reagan’s unfortunate little campaign slogan, and turn it into a nihilistic ideology “government is the problem.” Such is the price of protest. And that government better damn well be a hell of a problem, because the chances of recreating another one amidst all the hate and discord will be nearly impossible, especially without a hegemonic democracy prepared to offer protection and a Marshall Plan in order to create the fragile conditions needed to reestablish some sort of democracy.

For Bonhoeffer, the bigger context of “Responsible Action” was the now-abstrusely-abstract distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate”. The ultimate being the kingdom of God, but the penultimate being the state that Jesus left us in, warning that the end is coming soon, but somehow it never comes. I think the idea that God’s years are equal to so many human years (just as human years equal to so many dog years) is silly. I think we are talking about kingdoms outside of time, we are talking about human conditions.

The Gospel reading today was from Luke 21. Jesus is telling people that the temple will soon fall, and that there will be wars and insurrections and all kinds of other disasters, but that “the end will not follow immediately.” Here is where he leaves us, amidst what Bonhoeffer called the “penultimate”. We await, as old Beckett awaited Godot, forever. That is the human condition. We can imagine the possibility that some peaceful kingdom exists, but we can’t quite imagine what it is, and we can never quite create it. There is something mathematical in Bonhoeffer’s imagining here, the ultimate is a limit that the equation can never reach.

So, Bonhoeffer argues, we must seek to act responsibly amidst this imperfect, and often fearful, penultimate condition. We must act despite our fear of sin. But we must act first and foremost, with mercy, with empathy, with respect for the delicacy of established order, but also fully conscious of its injustices.

When Jesus calls us, he said in a turn of phrase meant to be understood far less morbidly than it sounds, he bids us come and die. But he leaves us responsible for that the life that precedes that ultimate fate. So the protesters angry at Trump’s vulgar victory are not “crybabies”. They are Bonhoeffer’s people of good conscience, calling his government to its responsibility to the people under its dominion, and that includes all who voted…and all who didn’t.

“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death,” Jesus continued alarmingly. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Protest is pricier than most of us Americans, amidst our comforts, can manage. Grant them their respect. Peaceful protest is not half as fun as playing with guns, but far more responsible.

1933 in America

What now?

It looks at this point that Trump, against all liberal expectations, is going to win…in a landslide. I may be able to get over his gloating and the ugly ego trip that he will go on after winning this thing. But it will be much harder to get over how he won this thing. He did it in such an ugly and dirty way. And this proves that it worked.

First we have to give a lot of props to HIllary Clinton who could not have fought a better campaign. And she fought, skillfully at every turn. She could not have conducted herself better in the debates. The problem was they just didn’t matter. She was not playing reality TV bluster backed by alt-right brownshirt scabs. The Republicans knew that somehow people were always suspicious of her, somehow she was considered untrustworthy. And then they attacked her over and over and over with invented scandals that were designed only to feed this narrative. None of them really cared about Benghazi, this was a tragedy that happens in a violent world, like the embassy bombings in East Africa or the Beirut bombing. They just knew that with this incident they could feed that narrative that she is untrustworthy. They also knew they could then turn it into a fishing expedition, looking for emails or cables that would make her look bad. And then they found the private server, which was not a big deal. Several high ranking people have used similar systems. And the reality is there is no evidence her server was ever hacked, and of the 30,000 emails, there were something like 200 that had classified information in them, almost all of that information was only classified in retrospect, and was not marked as classified at the time. There were 3 emails that were marked as classified in an irregular way, that was not initially evident, a small “c” appeared in the wrong place. So these three emails got overlooked. But because her server was never hacked these three, unimportant emails were never compromised. On the other hand the official State Department server was compromised by a mentally unstable army private, who happened to have enough clearance to download thousands of emails which did some damage to American diplomatic relations. So Hillary’s private server was, in this sense, safer than the official government servers. The whole thing was another invented scandal. None of the Republicans cared about her private server. What they wanted was the private emails, the non-governmental ones, that they could pore over with greedy eyes looking for the hook for yet another fishing expedition. All of this just to feed the narrative that she was untrustworthy. And you know who got hooked? We did.

Hillary plays a tough game, and she is perhaps a little two-faced in the way all politicians are, and that is not even the source of our doubts about her. Our doubts about her largely stem from the fact that she is a woman, and men hate her for getting out of her place, but so also, I’m afraid, do many women. She has to show a sort of happy face that we all know to be false, because behind that mask she is playing a very grim game. But in the most important basic way, I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton fights for the America I know. I may not agree with her on every issue, every tactic, every ploy. But I know that she fights for the America that I know. She fights for inclusion, she fights for freedom, she fights for equality, she fights for economic growth. She fights for the America that I know. And we have let her down, and in doing so, we have shot ourselves in the foot.

And I’m angry at all the self-satisfied liberals like myself. I’m angry at the angry progressives who work themselves into a nihilistic glee, so happy with their ability to criticize every effort at constructive compromise as institutional racism and imperialism. I’m angry at the unthinking people who are so blind to the hate in themselves that they could vote for such a hateful person. I’m angry at the insane racists of the alt-right and their lynch-mob enthusiasm for online bullying. I’m angry at the gutless Republicans who watch him stomp all over American virtues and hardly raised a whimper of protest.  I’m angry at everyone except those who fought a good fight for Hillary Clinton. Maybe for a million strange little cultural reasons it was an impossible task (a realization that is only possible in retrospect). But they fought.

And here we were all thinking that Hillary had a chance to pull the Senate along with her. Who are these silent voters who voted for Trump? How were they not on the standard polls? What does this mean? (sounding like an idiot I know). And we are idiots, all of us. Voting for Trump seems totally idiotic to me. Such a gaseous and vulgar jerk, but it is his shallow and selfish unpredictability that makes him dangerous.

What now? In a more work-a-day political sense we remain with a government of checks and balances. And in a more work-a-day basis we will face a Republican party still in crisis. They may occasionally act as a check on Trump, but mostly they will be convinced that they never should have opposed him. They will give in to most of his whims. They will seek to pack the supreme court with right-wing judges, but to the extent that these are trained professionals, this is the least of our worries. They will try to dismantle Obamacare for whatever that is worth, hard to say what will come in its place, but I think we can expect its collapse. They may actually opposed some of Trump’s protectionism, but there is no doubt that they will pass a haphazard and extraordinarily irresponsible economic plan, and all the trends that created the angry class that supported Trump will only continue, and more than likely they will continue to blame Democrats and Chinese for these trends, and the division, hatred, and polarization will only get worse. Frightening.

What now? Democrats can embark on a Republican style assault of sheer opposition to everything and everyone. That would only feed the Republican beast. This is not a symmetrical fight. Democrats cannot use the tactics that Republicans use. They are dishonest and bullying and unfair. The Democrats can’t do this because the American public would not let them. Democratic partisans would not support an all-out obstructionist assault, and Republicans and Trump supporters would accuse them all kinds of high calumny and somehow it would stick in ways that it does not stick to them. They see the whole process as “litigation”. You use any and all tactics to win, which simply means not allowing the other side to get anything that might be labeled as “success”. The Democrats can’t pursue that strategy. It just won’t work for them, for us. We can only use obstruction tactically. But in the end we’ll have to find strategic points of compromise with a truly awful majority party.

What now? We’ll have to try to understand something about the Trump voters, and empathize with them, try to see things from their perspective. I understand those who would simply hate the racist “deplorables,” who would gloat over the sinking white men who have tried for so long to maintain a marginal privilege over non-whites in the stratum of the working poor. There may be some I-told-you-so comeuppance that feels good. But we have to do the opposite. We have to love our enemy. This is to say, we have to love even the proto-brownshirts among them. We have to love them in the way James Baldwin suggested to his nephew that we have to love them. We have to love them as Jesus said we should love them.

We have to love them as they face the bewildering horror of what the Trump presidency will do to them. It will not ennoble them, it will not cure their social ills, it will not save their jobs, it will not save the society they seek to save. They will rage, and they will rage against us, not themselves, not Trump, not the Republicans, not the drugs, not the failed economic policies, not the crass and hateful politics. They will rage against us. But we have no choice but to love them, because we cannot sustain ourselves (as they do) on hate. And we have to live.

What to do with us white people?

I feel compelled to include the "us" in the title of this post, because somehow I’m forced not only to recognize but also announce my racial identity before commenting on anything. Why do I feel forced into this? Why has racial identity become so central to not only consciousness but communication?

I understand in many ways why. I understand the process by which non-white Americans have sought to gain recognition in popular memories and media dominated by white people. I understand the historical construction of a various kinds of white ruling classes, and subject or working classes as well. I understand the particular sense of "vulnerability" (as the president put it) that non-whites feel before police forces whose consciousness is shaped in profound ways by their sense of what race means to their day-to-day work. I understand the sense of fighting against stares, against prejudices, against stereotypes and notions of beauty etc.

Or maybe I don’t understand any of this, because after all I am white and I hope can at least claim to be aware of my own privilege. But if I am white, why do I feel so lost?…actually I know, and it has very little to do with racial identity or consciousness and much more to do with religious identity and other aspects of cultural consciousness. And in many ways that is the bigger point I would want to make in an essay like this. What we "are" in a racial sense, must primarily be understood as a cultural consciousness not a racial consciousness, and this is not just because, as any scholar will tell you, that race is a cultural construct and is largely meaningless except for the meaning we attach to it, but also because that is really what is at stake here, cultural consciousness and the trajectory of culture. Like economic issues, the cultural trajectory is far out of the hands of politicians, and public policy can have only marginal impact on these cultural issues…but they can have some impact.

These are issues that come up in George Packer’s insightful (as usual for him and any number of other top-notch New Yorker essayists) piece on Hillary Clinton and (to put it more crassly and over-simplified than he does), her white guy problem. She points out that Hillary (let’s just go ahead and call her that, partly to distinguish her from Bill, and partly to humanize her, and I suppose inevitably partly to dis her as a woman who we estimate to be undeserving of the masculine habit of calling public figures bluntly by their last names sans all titles and salutations…such is the power of language that we cannot even call someone by their name, first or last, without invoking a whole raft of cultural implications…and I am not mocking that circumstance…the untamable power of language is real, I am very aware of that, and fully approve, as if approval for such an inevitability is necessary…take a breath)…that Hillary says she knows she can’t win hearts (which is to say just like that, or perhaps even permanently, she doesn’t aim to do such impossibilities any more, a lesson she learned while dealing with her own husband perhaps)…anyway, in a steely conversation (as presented by Packer) she says she’s not out to win hearts but to simply change policy, and let those policy changes influence the culture. An admirable sense of the limitations of politics….which is a reminder that politics is only one aspect of cultural/social/political disputation… if one aims to influence culture, winning the presidency is not so necessary…just become a media phenomenon in any medium and push for influence, a task now made easy by anyone who can attract attention in the social media (full disclosure, I’m trying to be a bit coy here by posting all sorts of hopefully increasingly personal confessions onto social media here on wordpress and have them go completely unnoticed in full public view…funny huh?)

So, if you want more on white populist revolt and what Hillary things she can do about it (very little except make herself available to the revolters) and Obama’s (see, there I go, I don’t just call him Barry, or even Barack both of which would seem presumptuous and rude…and yet we talk easily about Bill and Hillary…and I kind of like that about them…as some female comic said years ago, Rosie O’Donnell or Paula Poundstone I think, who are kind of like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to me, not fully distinguishable), we were mostly introduced to them in our living rooms during a Super Bowl about a century ago, and we are all asking why we are seeing this couple, Hill and Billary and why are they talking about their marriage problems in the middle of the football game? It doesn’t get more intimate than that…and I even recall a Tanzanian saying (surprisingly) that when Bill came on TV there he seemed like an uncle. How he does this I don’t know, but because he could, Hillary seems like a slightly overly unctious white grandmother pretty much representative of the current generation of grandmothers, including my own mother…and so she becomes Hillary… which suggests that her unpopularity is simply a matter of dumping on someone who we know all too well and has become, in our eyes so judgmental of those closest to us, a little too big for her britches…which is a far worse thing to say about a grandmother than just calling her Hillary….so Hillary it is, a woman who’s only grown in my esteem as I’ve watched her fight….I leave the last names to Trump for now, so monstrous that use of a mere first name makes me a bit queasy…"The Donald" seems a little to back-slapping familiar, I’ll maintain a polite distance from the likes of him)


What to do with the white people?…I mean us white people, jeez.

Actually, that’s enough for now…save that question for later. I do think there is much to be redeemed, even celebrated in white culture such as it is. I think that might even be possible without the active denigration of other groups, but it may not be possible without causing offense. It may not be possible without regarding, with some sense of celebration, activities which were inextricably linked to various kinds of injustices. The only approach to all of this, to all of history really, is to realize that human life is built amidst injustice. This is the core issue that Christianity seeks to deal with…and other religions as well, I know. We need to appreciate what is "white" amidst history with all its injustices. You may say I then minimize these things, you may say I indulge them, justify and celebrate them, gosh. We have to confront history and let it be history. Otherwise we’ll never recover what it means to be American (ugh, I know that sounds just awful to certain ears, even mine, but I do love the unruly aspect of Americanness, and it seems a shame to accede too easily to the intense sorting out of identities as if they were so many species for a Linnaean sociologist to sort out).

I have to admit, I’m still far more convinced by the virtue of the melting pot as opposed to the fruit salads and other atomistic metaphors. Let them come and get completely mixed up at the most intimate level and shape something completely new in a bonding as intimate as sex and childbirth and suckling at the breast. None of the ingredients can remain the same, the original element is indissolubly mixed with all the newcomers. None shall retain its original attributes, all shall contribute to something wholly new. Fruit salad is what we have now, segregation at the level of identity even if we live side by side…we aim not to mix…of course even fruit salads eventually sort of decompose into a runny soup…again all the better the metaphor, the new alloy of the melting pot.