Emollients (I hope)

1

I would find it more convincing that Trump is “shaking up his administration,” as the press reports every day or two, if they’d first report the deep complacency that needs roiling. (I just haven’t noticed that on my own.)

2

Peggy Noonan thinks Bush I should have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize, and she, ever the speech writer, wished for more articulation of what he was doing:

[The collapse of Communism] was a crucial event in the history of the West, and its meaning needed stating by the American president. There was much to be lauded, from the hard-won unity of the West to Russia’s decision to move bravely toward new ways. Much could be said without triumphalism.

It is a delicate question, in statecraft as in life, when to speak and when not to. George Bush thought it was enough to do it, not say it, as the eulogists asserted. He trusted the people to infer his reasoning from his actions. (This was his approach on his tax increase, also.) But in the end, to me, leadership is persuasion and honest argument: This is my thinking. I ask you to see it my way.

Something deeply admirable, though: No modern president now considers silence to be an option, ever. It is moving to remember one who did, who trusted the people to perceive and understand his actions. Who respected them that much.

Peggy Noonan (emphasis added)

3

[L]ook at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.

Andrew Sullivan

Sullivan lays out the religious fervor of both the Trumpistas and the Social Justice warriors. Of the latter, he notes, “A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke.

But I never expected much from secular progressives, so I’m going to focus on his indictment of Evangelical Trumpistas:

  1. Their leaders have turned Christianity into a political and social identity, not a lived faith.
  2. They have tribalized a religion explicitly built by Jesus as anti-tribal.
  3. They have turned to idols — including their blasphemous belief in America as God’s chosen country.
  4. They have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ.
  5. They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made.
  6. Because their faith is unmoored but their religious impulse is strong, they seek a replacement for religion.

His conclusion: “The terrible truth of the last three years is that the fresh appeal of a leader-cult has overwhelmed the fading truths of Christianity.”

If that is true, we who still hold those fading truths can thank God that Trump is always shaking up his crypto-complacent administration rather than brewing up some Kool-Aid.

(I think it was Ross Douthat who said “If you don’t like the Religious Right, just wait ’till you see the irreligious right.” On Sullivan’s reading, it might be “post-Christian Right” or even “post-Christian politics” generally. But I like Douthat’s version better, nevertheless granting Sullivan’s point about our incorrigible religiosity.)

4

As much as Trump’s defenders may want to minimize “process crimes,” it remains a fact that the last two articles of impeachment drafted against American presidents featured clear evidence of, yes, process crimes. Process crimes are still crimes. It is an enduring feature of political corruption that politicians will lie about things that aren’t illegal but are politically or personally embarrassing — and when they lie under oath or cause others to lie under oath they violate the law.

David French

  1. Objectively, Trump is in a heap’o’trouble.
  2. Somehow, though, he brazens his way through so far. (See item 3.)

5

Trump, I suspect, isn’t unfunny. He’s anti-funny. Humor humanizes. It uncorks, unstuffs, informalizes. Used well, it puts people at ease. Trump’s method is the opposite: He wants people ill at ease. Doing so preserves his capacity to wound, his sense of superiority, his distance. Good jokes highlight the ridiculous. Trump’s jokes merely ridicule. They are caustics, not emollients.

… This is an angry age, in which Trump’s critics also simmer in rage, ridicule, self-importance, self-pity — and hatred, too. They think they’re reproaching the president. Increasingly they reflect him. [Alan] Simpson’s message contains a warning to us all.

Bret Stephens, A Presidency Without Humor.

That’s an important warning, but our humor should not leave history wondering if we were complacent. No, we’re still pretty shaken up.

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Why can’t we “turn back the clock”?

I have become increasingly interested in classical education, but was unaware that one of the Inklings gave a lecture which has been very influential in that “movement:” Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning.

The syllabus was divided into two parts: the Trivium and Quadrivium. The second part—the Quadrivium—consisted of “subjects,” and need not for the moment concern us. The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order … [T]he first thing we notice is that two … of these “subjects” are not what we should call “subjects” at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects.

One snippet toward the end particularly grabbed me at several levels:

We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back—or can we? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does “go back” mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. “Cannot”—does this mean that our behavior is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if “the Middle Ages” is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not “go back” to it—with modifications ….

This grabbed me, first, because it points out the fallacy in the modern faux truism that “you can’t turn back the clock.” Second, it shows precisely why the truism isn’t true. And third, it shows that using the very tools of learning that she says we need to recover. Thus does it tacitly explain what she early on alluded to as the “extraordinary inability of the average debater [today – i.e., 70 year ago] to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side.”

I cannot recommend this lecture too highly. I paid 99¢ for a Kindle edition, but it’s available for free other places, like this, which just happened to be my top Google hit.

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The Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.

(Pastor Greg Thompson by Rod Dreher in the closing refrains of The Benedict Option)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

On arguing with integrity

Seth Godin’s Saturday blog was evocative for me:

Each of us understands that different people are swayed by different sorts of arguments, based on different ways of viewing the world. That seems sort of obvious. A toddler might want an orange juice because it’s sweet, not because she’s trying to avoid scurvy, which might be the argument that moves an intellectual but vitamin-starved sailor to take action.

So far, so good.

The difficult part is this: Even when people making an argument know this, they don’t like making an argument that appeals to the other person’s alternative worldview.

Worth a full stop here. Even when people have an argument about a political action they want someone else to adopt, or a product they want them to buy, they hesitate to make that argument with empathy. Instead, they default to talking about why they believe it.

To many people, it feels manipulative or insincere or even morally wrong to momentarily take the other person’s point of view when trying to advance an argument that we already believe in.

And that’s one reason why so many people claim to not like engaging in marketing. Marketing is the empathetic act of telling a story that works, that’s true for the person hearing it, that stands up to scrutiny. But marketing is not about merely sharing what you, the marketer believes. It’s about what we, the listener, believe.

Godin links to his book that fleshes out this theme.

I think Natural Law arguments come, well, naturally to me because I’ve internalized some of the Natural Law. I don’t argue that way, rather than from “Thus saith the Lord in Hezekiah 12:14,” because even if Hezekiah tipped me off to what the Lord said, what the Lord said tipped me off to the way things really are, not just to some “do it this way or I’ll hurt you in the bye-and-bye (which you therefore won’t find sweet).”

By my lights, then, I’m not entering dishonestly or manipulatively into someone’s alternative worldview, but (like Hezekiah quoting the Lord to me) pointing out to them what they truly believe because that’s how things truly are. There’s a lot of things that people “can’t not know.”

I guess this means that I don’t accept Godin’s premise that, deep down, people have divergent worldviews about deep-down realities. They merely have really, really thick ideological defenses against admitting reality (“really thick” as in “I’m not all that persuasive”).

Or maybe I don’t see what I’m doing as marketing, but as something more important than that trying to sell soup, soap, or legal services.

Now flip it over. I find very annoying people who have abandoned or never seriously professed the Christian faith, but who try to put their ideas into what they fancy as “Christian” terms — who try to appeal to what they fancy my alternative worldview. This includes, notably, things like the Facebook mêmes on the themes “if you were really a Christian you’d …” or “look how hypocritical these ‘Christians’ are.”

  • It generally comes across as insincere or as a form of browbeating a putative intellectual inferior;
  • It is generally tone-deaf to how Christians (at least Christians like me) think and talk (what I’ve branded “pretexting”); and
  • It generally posits something that isn’t really that way — that is, it tries to say that I as a Christian should believe some way (despite my perception that it’s unreal) simply because that’s what they get out of flying over something Jesus said at 30,000 feet and 500 mph.

I suppose the same could be true of a Christian from one tradition trying to translate their beliefs into one of the significantly different Christian traditions, too.

If I’m right about this “flip it over,” then despite Godin’s theory that they don’t like making an argument that appeals to the other person’s alternative worldview, they make it anyway. Do they think that the thing of which they’re trying to persuade me is no more important and fundamental than soup, soap or legal services? Generally, when people whip out their faux Christian hectoring, they’re talking about some fairly important stuff.

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I hadn’t intended to go here when I started writing, but yesterday brought news of a swarthy politician, who on the face of it, is appealing to people of faith to join him and his blond wife (“Heidi” is her name; how precious is that?!) in prayer, but who does so through a webpage that invites your public endorsement and won’t let you even sign up to pray with them unless you give him your e-mail address.

Since when does one sign up to pray in cyberspace? Does he really believe in prayer or is this a form of pretexting? Although he was targeting a different demographic than me, can I be offended anyway?

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

 

“God terms”

Having yesterday expressed my bafflement at a genre of article after an instantiation thereof appeared at First Things, let me commend R. R. Reno’s “God Terms in Public Life.” It’s not what I thought. It’s better than that.

Every culture thrills to its favored words or concepts. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver dubbed them “god terms.” They’re the argument-ending, conclusive words that we find intrinsically persuasive because they express our deep prejudices about what’s good and true and beautiful.

Weaver wrote The Ethics of Rhetoric after World War II. The god terms in his day were “progressive,” “democratic,” “scientific,” and so forth. If a local school board was unsure about changes introduced by the recently hired district head, he could reassure them with these god terms. “Our goal with this new plan is to provide the children of Muscatine with a progressive, scientifically-designed curriculum that draws on the very best of our democratic traditions.”

Changed god terms signal changes in culture. For example, the value of “scientific” has declined. Today’s brand managers are far more likely to describe a new toothpaste or shaving cream as “organic” than “scientifically proven.” Agricultural scientists and developmental economists can make excellent arguments about the virtues of genetically modified seeds. They allow increase yields while reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. But the god term sweeps all these considerations away. Organic is good; its opposite is bad. Therefore genetically modified foods must be prohibited. QED.

Among todays God terms are “equality,” as in:

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If you find that offensive, blame me for the example, not Reno, and go enjoy a thought-provoking angle on a chronic human condition.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.