Potpourri, 11/15/18

1

I never really kissed dating goodbye as a teenager in the mid-2000s — to be honest, I was pretty late in kissing it hello. But like many who were brought up in contact with evangelical culture, I absorbed its tenets almost by osmosis even though I never even read the whole book. Falling in love means sharing a piece of your heart that you’ll never get back. Sex is a slippery slope, generally with disaster at the bottom. Hard decisions could be boiled down to one rule: Keep it chaste. Do things right, though, and you’ll get the reward you deserve. Follow the instructions: results guaranteed.

Christine Emba.

It’s the promise of a fairy tale ending that offends me. Evangelicals lack any tragic sense of life. (Just “pray away the gay,” for instance.)

Or maybe that absence of tragic sense is a besetting American sin. More Emba:

In essence, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and its (inevitable, if you think about it) fall represent a mind-set prominent in evangelical culture, but also in American society more broadly.

We insist that meritocracy works and combine it with a valorization of hard work (which itself stems from our country’s majority-Protestant roots). To maintain the story that success is accessible to all, we’ve developed a tendency to seek out and elevate simplistic formulas that we hope come with guarantees. Stay pure until marriage, and your marriage will flourish. Follow the “success sequence,” and you’ll never be poor. Go to the right school, and all career doors will open. Elect the right candidate, and America will be great once more.

But the dark side of all this is that when the formulas fail — as they so often do — it’s you who must have done something wrong. And then it’s up to you to fix it on your own. Bad marriage? You must have screwed around as a teen. Still in public housing? Should have gotten a better job. The if/then mind-set doesn’t take into account how much is actually out of our personal control, or the systemic forces — race, class, family history — that might hold someone back.

It is difficult to counter such an ingrained — and easy — habit of thought. But give him credit: In reevaluating “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Harris is modeling one way of doing so — he’s admitting to complexity and engaging directly with others, rather than sending down recommendations from above. Alas, even this admirable attempt won’t undo the harms that his formula caused in the first place.

But let the implosion of a cultural touchstone like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” serve as a lesson, or at least a warning. The next time we’re tempted toward too-formulaic thinking, we’ll know to take it with a grain of salt. After all, life is rarely so pure.

2

Once upon a time, Protestant congregations had pulpits. This was a form of church furniture, a glorified lectern as it where, behind which pastors read the text for their sermon and preached it to boot. Today, contemporary design of church buildings makes little of fixed places for anyone participating in worship, except for the drummer who may be quarantined in a drum shield.

… as ministers of God’s word, pastors’ actions, including their feet, while communicating a message of such great moment should encourage the idea of permanence. That is one reason for having a pulpit with serious heft. It symbolizes that what goes on in this space is of great significance and enduring value (though some look so permanent that even the coming of the New Heavens and the New Earth will not unsettle them).

The permanence of the word preached is also a reason for ministers to stay in the pocket behind the pulpit and not move around. At best, happy feet is a distraction that calls more attention to the man than his message. At worst, they invite liturgical dance. So if the argument from permanence does not help, maybe the thought of overweight men and women in leotards will assist pastors (some on the rotund side themselves) keep both feet firmly planted behind their congregation’s ample pulpit.

D.G. Hart

3

[S]cientists are … making declarations ex cathedra — as a direct result of intellectual movements that began in humanities scholarship twenty-five years ago.

So for those of you who think that the humanities are marginal and irrelevant, put that in your mental pipe and contemplatively smoke it for a while.

Many years ago the great American poet Richard Wilbur wrote a poem called “Shame,” in which he imagined “a cramped little state with no foreign policy, / Save to be thought inoffensive.”

Sheep are the national product. The faint inscription
Over the city gates may perhaps be rendered,
“I’m afraid you won’t find much of interest here.”

The people of this nation could not be more overt in their humility, their irrelevance, their powerlessness. But …

Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission,
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.

Alan Jacobs, the imminent collapse of an empire

4

[W]hen you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence, then guess what? You actually start to think that way. And then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes.

… [Y]ou cannot have it both ways. You cannot bleach divinity and Transcendence out of the cosmos and tell everyone that the whole affair is just an aimless and pointless accident, and then turn around and talk to us about the “moral necessity” of this or that urgent social cause.

Larry Chapp via Rod Dreher.

5

From before the election, but when I was otherwise occupied:

Trumpism … is the new normal. It is not going away. And there is no going back. The challenge for the center-right and center-left across the West is to accommodate this new normal in ways that do not empower authoritarianism, provoke constitutional unraveling, or incite civil unrest. And it seems to me that the lesson of the last two years is that the Republican Party is unable and unwilling to perform that function. It has turned itself into a cult behind a figure hostile to liberal democratic norms, responsible government, and any notion of moderation. It is less a political party than a mass movement sustained by shame-free, mendacious propaganda around a man whose articulated values place him more in the company of Putin and Duterte than Merkel and Macron.

The GOP cannot be talked out of their surrender to this strongman. With each rhetorical or policy atrocity, they have attached themselves more firmly to him. The dissenters are leaving; the new members of Congress will be even Trumpier than the old. They have abandoned any serious oversight role. Their singular achievement has been supplying judicial ranks who will not stand in the way of executive power. That was the real issue in the Kavanaugh nomination, as Newt Gingrich blurted out last week. A subpoena for the president from the special counsel would be fought, he promised, all the way to the Supreme Court, which is when we would see “whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.” This is a party bent on enabling authoritarianism, not restraining it.

That’s why I will vote Democrat next Tuesday. I have many issues with the Democrats, as regular readers well know. None of that matters compared with this emergency. I don’t care, in this instance, what their policies are. I am going to vote for them. I can’t stand most of their leaders and fear their radical fringe. I am going to vote for them anyway. Because it is the only responsible thing there is to do.

The Italian leftist, Antonio Gramsci, famously wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We live in such a time, and we have in front of us one of those morbid symptoms: the current Republican Party. You know what to do.

Andrew Sullivan.

Or as William Blake put it:

what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I’m not at all certain that “judicial ranks … will not stand in the way of executive power” or that such was the aim of confirming them, but Sullivan otherwise is right about the abasement of the GOP, and the House has indeed flipped to the Democrats.

I wrote last week that the midterms would finally tell us what this country now is. And with a remarkable turnout — a 50-year high for a non- presidential election, no less — we did indeed learn something solid and eye-opening. We learned that the American public as a whole has reacted to the first two years of an unfit, delusional, mendacious, malevolent, incompetent authoritarian as president … with relative equanimity. The net backlash is milder than it was against Clinton or Obama (and both of them went on to win reelection).

What I take from this is that Trump really does have a cultlike grip on a whole new population of voters, as well as the reliable Republican voters of the past. That’s not just 42 percent of the country (to use Trump’s approval rating); it’s a motivated 42 percent. And what Trump has successfully done, by corralling right-wing media, tweeting incessantly, dominating the discourse, tending so diligently to his base, and holding rally after rally, is keep that engagement going. Most presidents are interested in governing and sometimes take their eye off the ball politically. Trump is all politics and all salesmanship all the time. And it works. If he can demonstrate this in the midterms, imagine what his reelection campaign will be like.

I’ve been razzed a little for using the term “existential threat” to describe Trump two and a half years ago. But I used it in a specific context: He was and remains such a threat to liberal democracy. Not democracy as a whole. Strongmen can win election after election with big majorities without rigging the vote. A single political party can co-opt the judiciary, or capture the Senate, by democratic means, for illiberal ends. I mean by liberal democracy one in which pluralism is celebrated, power is widely distributed, justice is dispensed without regard to politics, the press is free and respected, minorities protected, and where an opposition has a chance to win real, governing power. The space for this in America has significantly shrunk these past two years and this election has only consolidated that new status quo.

Andrew Sullivan

I’ve detested the Republican party long enough now that my reflex to cringe at Democrat victories passes very quickly, replaced by a resigned feeling of “we are soooooo screwed!” — no matter which major party wins.

6

When you obsess about a problem, you have less energy and passion to pursue solutions. When you fret over every outrage, you elevate those outrages. Stories trend because consumers engage with them, clicking and sharing them, not because the news media dictates that they trend.

I think it would be a solid and beneficial step for us all to simply come to the realizations: Trump is going to Trump. He’s going to lie. He’s going to wink at the racists and Nazis. He’s going to demean women. He’s going to embarrass this country. It’s all going to happen.

Nevertheless, we can take this stand unequivocally: It is all unacceptable and we stand in opposition to it. It is not normal and must never be met as such.

But we must also focus on the future.

Charles Blow

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