Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Quest

If you listen to the people who say they voted for Trump, they voted for the bombast and the blather and the spectacle.  They didn't vote for policy papers and wonkish discussions of complex issues.


So this isn't surprising:

President Donald Trump spent much of the first 100 days of his presidency reneging on the populist, isolationist policies he often espoused as a candidate. Trump, who pledged during his campaign to stand up to Wall Street and to put “America first” in foreign affairs has instead championed financial deregulation and conducted airstrikes in Syria.

But despite Trump’s flip-flops on economic and foreign policy issues, most of his supporters still feel they’re getting exactly the man they voted for, new HuffPost/YouGov polling shows.

The majority, 63 percent of voters who supported Trump in last year’s election* say his current policies are not very or not at all different from the ideas he espoused as a candidate. Only 30 percent of voters who supported Trump in last year’s election say his policy views are “somewhat different” since he took office — and just 4 percent say they are “very different.”
Trump sold the sizzle, not the steak.  He is credited, not with wooing voters with policy ideas, but energizing them with claims for "extreme vetting" and a wall Mexico would pay for, and "draining the swamp."  Those phrases don't mean anything, so how can you expect his voters to hold his failure to do any of those things against him?

He's signed 28 legislative actions, what more do you want?

Except "legislative actions" is a term like "extreme vetting."  Nobody used it until Trump did; so it means what Trump wants it to mean, and nobody else know what that is.  He did promise to do 30 things within 100 days.  He's reversed himself on ending NAFTA and labelling China a "currency manipulator" within 100 days.  He withdrew from the TPP, but since Congress never ratified and likely never would, that's nothing to brag about.  For the rest, he's signed 28 (or is it 30?) executive orders, more than any other President in the first 100 days.  But most of them have little or no impact, or have been suspended by the courts.  As for the rest of what he promised to do, no bills are pending, and the AHCA is the bill that didn't live (although, like the Questing Beast, he is King Pellinore in pursuit of it).

But he's still going to build his wall.  Go to sleep on it.  Even though he didn't even try to block the continuing resolution in order to force a vote on his "wall."  Because not nearly enough of Congress is ever going to vote for it, not even in the House; and his Homeland Security Secretary says it won't be the wall Trump keeps promising.  And he can't get it done without Congress.  Still, he'll do it.

Because his first 100 days have been spectacular.  Just ask him.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.


It's rather frightening, especially in the "inexorable progress" model of history, to consider how much of what nations do comes down to the personalities of the people in power:

President Donald Trump told Reuters on Thursday that he was "psyched" to terminate the NAFTA trade deal with Canada and Mexico, but changed his mind after their leaders asked for it to be renegotiated instead.

Trump said in an interview with Reuters that he will not hesitate to change course again and pull the plug on the North American Free Trade Agreement if the negotiations become "unserious."

His comments came at the end of a long 24 hours during which Ottawa and Mexico City were whipsawed over the Trump administration's intentions over the 23-year-old trade pact.

"You know I was really ready and psyched to terminate NAFTA," Trump said.

He decided that it would be better to terminate the trade deal after hearing about Wisconsin farmers' struggles with new Canadian dairy rules that were shutting out their milk protein exports.

"You saw that, you wrote about it," Trump said. "And I said I’ve had it. I’ve had it."

But after administration officials said a withdrawal order was being prepared, Trump said he received phone calls from Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking to renegotiate the pact.

"I’m not looking to hurt Canada and I’m not looking to hurt Mexico. They’re two countries I really like," Trump said. "So they asked to renegotiate, and I said yes."

Mexico, Canada and the United States form one of the world's biggest trading blocs, and trade disruptions among them could adversely affect farm, automotive, energy and other sectors in all three countries. NAFTA removed most trade and tariff barriers between the neighbors, but Trump and other critics have blamed it for deep U.S. job cuts.

I know NAFTA has a huge impact on the Texas economy, the state with the longest border with Mexico (and arguably the strongest cultural ties).  Simply walking away from NAFTA would be disastrous to Texas alone.  And it would have come over the relatively small issue of Wisconsin dairy farmers, the kind of thing a functioning government deals with at the level of "faceless bureaucrats," not at the level of a man who is ready to take his ball and go home.   Then again, this is coming from the man who said:

"I loved my previous life. I had so many things going," Trump told Reuters in an interview. "This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier."

One can only wonder what the hell he thought he would be doing.

Unintended Consequences


Maybe we'll find out....

Texas government comes out of the populist fervor of the 19th century.  The Texas Constitution is a Rube Goldberg machine for governance:  every major state office, from governor to Lt. Gov. (chief officer of the Senate) to Agriculture Commissioner to Land Commissioner to Attorney General (and on and on) is elected.  The Governor has no power over any other elected official, including but not limited to district attorneys  and sheriffs (I mention that because Rick Perry tried to threaten the job of the Travis County DA, and Greg Abbott tried to threaten the job, later, of the Travis County Sheriff.  Both are elected officials (we practically elect the dog catcher), so they had no power over them at all).  The Governor is, constitutionally, the weakest gubernatorial office in the country.

Bob Bullock gained great fame in Texas politics, and left a lasting mark on it.  The highest office he achieved as Lt. Gov. ("Lite Guv," Molly Ivins dubbed it), but he knew Texas politics better than anybody, and wielded that knowledge like a latter-day LBJ in the Senate, although he combined the power of LBJ and Sam Rayburn into one person.  In some sense he WAS Texas government; and he left the impression the Lt. Gov. position was the REAL constitutional power in Texas.

His successors have not fared so well.  Texas Monthly bought into this myth when they declared Lite Guv. Dan Patrick was "in charge."  Nothing Patrick has championed has survived in the House overseen by Joe Strauss, and it isn't likely even the latest iteration of a "bathroom bill" will get a vote in the House, much less get to the Senate.  There is no inherent power in the Lt. Governor's office; it's up to the person holding the office.  And Dan Patrick has shown he's more Greg Abbott than Bob Bullock.

Rick Perry stayed in office so long he accrued some power:  he appointed a lot of people, he held office longer than anyone else in Texas history (largely because he took over when Bush went to the White House.  Perry was Lt. Gov. under Bush, and one of the first proofs the power was in the person, not in the office.  Perry is better remembered as Ag. Commissioner (he defeated Jim Hightower) than at Lt. Gov.  He was truly a "Lite Guv."  Greg Abbott, current governor of Texas, is turning into a Trumpian figure.  He doesn't bluster like Trump, but he clearly doesn't have any power, either.  He refused to take a stand on the bathroom bill until a House version came up; and his backing of that bill seems to be making no difference at all.  He promoted some of the loonier conspiracy theories when Jade Helm passed through the state; promoted them by giving them any credence at all.  Otherwise, he's largely a cipher.  He likes to rail about issues that appeal to hard-core conservative interests, but he really doesn't do anything about them.

He's Trump-lite because Trump himself is proving to be so useless he's actually weakening the "Imperial Presidency":

These last-minute caves are undermining not only his own dealmaker reputation as a dealmaker, but the limited political capital a president has to sway resistant lawmakers or rally the American public behind a piece of legislation. Trump’s all-bark, no-bite presidency is weakening the office itself.
It's really hard to see Trump recovering the power of the bully pulpit anytime in the next four years.  He complains to Reuters that the job is much harder than he thought; although he seems to spend hours watching cable news and tweeting about it, and every weekend he can in Florida and on the golf course.  His negotiating technique is pretty neatly summed up here:

 On critical issues from Obamacare repeal to NAFTA renegotiation, an identifiable pattern has emerged. Trump makes an outlandish ask late in the negotiating process; White House advisers and lawmakers struggling to adjust to this new reality release a wave of contradictory statements on where the administration stands; and, ultimately, the President backs down, issuing a vague promise to circle back to the issue or claiming he never intended to do what he initially said he wanted to do, anyway.
It doesn't work for him, but what else does he know?  To expect Trump to overcome these strategies and become an elder statesman or even a Barack Obama (who, despite not being LBJ, actually accomplished quite a bit) is to expect a 70 year old man to spin a cocoon around himself and emerge some time later as a new being, completely transformed.

It isn't, in other words, going to happen.

The office, it turns out, is really only as strong as the person holding it.  Trump has governed by executive order, but that's a very weak tool of governance.  His most egregious orders have been suspended by the courts; his other orders have turned out to be toothless paper tigers.  His approval ratings have been underwater since he took office, and he's shown no skill in maneuvering for his preferred outcomes.  He is weakening the office simply by his incompetence.  He has consistently presented himself as a "strong man," yet every foreign leader he has encountered has schooled him on his ignorance.  The President of China made him change his position on North Korea; Angela Merkel convinced him he couldn't use trade as leverage against Germany; the leaders of Mexico and Canada schooled him on NAFTA.  If he gets any weaker, he's going to have to turn the job over to Mike Pence.*

If you are a betting person, get in on a pool as to how long it is before Trump quits, or is forced from office.  His weakness as a leader is going to put blood in the water, and the stories about the corruption and graft, the blatant violation of the Constitution (taking money from foreign powers can be excused by Congress, but takes an explicit act to do so.  There is growing concern Trump benefits from state pension plan investors, an emolument the Constitution bans absolutely.).  There are so many ways to take down a king who is weak, that it is bound to happen to Trump.

The only question will be how long it takes.


*It's not just on the foreign front:

In the health care debate, Trump has been all over the map. He first warned Republican lawmakers that he would leave the Affordable Care Act in place and move on to other priorities unless they approved a bill to repeal and replace it. The ultimatum failed to sway skeptical conservatives in the House, and lawmakers bolted town for a two-week recess without voting on the measure. He and his aides then threatened to reach out to Democrats to resuscitate his stalled agenda, but that too went out the window. This week, the administration is once again pushing for a party-line vote on an Obamacare repeal bill.

As for that vote:

“We are not voting on health-care tomorrow,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Thursday night, according to the Washington Post.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ready! Fire! Aim!

Yeah, I'm pullin' out all the cliches

I'm a bit more bothered by the scam and grift shop being run by the current occupant of the White House and his family than by the book deal and speaking fees commanded by the former occupant of the White House.

Of course Obama is getting $400,000.00 from investment bankers just to talk to them.  That's where the money is, and frankly, Obama will never be in politics again in his life.  We've come to that stage where former Presidents must never hold public office again as long as they live Amen!  NTodd could tell us who the last POTUS was who left office to return to politics, but it's been so long now nobody can think of who that is (mostly because our President's have been old, and don't want to hold office again.  Then again, who would elect W. to anything, even now?  Or Bill Clinton, for that matter?).

Obama is a young guy with a long life ahead of him, and he's cashing in on his fame while he can.  What else does he have to sell?  I know it is required of all right thinking Democrats running for President to be disturbed by these speaking fees, if not to condemn them outright.  But if Elizabeth Warren wasn't angling for higher office would she A) be talking about this in the first place?, or b) be taking speaking fees herself, if she could?

She was, after all, a professor at Harvard Law School, not a volunteer worker donating her time and money to a food bank before running for Senate.  I mean, if we're going to start worrying about "optics" for this kind of thing, let's make sure the firing squad is properly circled.

Obama is not in government anymore, and he's taking money from people who want to give it to him for services rendered (i.e., giving a speech).  He didn't leave the White House to take up a life of monastic penury or ascetic denial.  Did you see those pictures of his vacation?  I'd like to be able to take a vacation like that and NOT have to go back to work when it was over.  We don't expect our Presidents to return to everyday jobs, so why do we disdain Obama's source of income?  As I say, I'd rather focus on the corruption of the current occupant of the White House than fret over the appearance of financial impurity in the former occupant of the White House.

Does the Democratic Party, which controls neither the White House nor Congress nor the majority of the 50 states, really need to worry about this right now?  At all?

Take Your Kids to Work Day at the White House








Who is he talking to?

No Wonder Trump Doesn't Watch CNN




Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck




If you add together Trump learning about the history of Korea (wrongly) from the President of China Trump being schooled by Angela Merkel:

Angela Merkel was forced to explain the “fundamentals” of EU trade to Donald Trump 11 times after he repeatedly asked to do a deal directly with Germany, a senior German official has claimed.

The US President reportedly exposed "very basic misunderstandings" of how EU trade works during a meeting with the German chancellor last month.

“Ten times Trump asked [Ms Merkel] if he could negotiate a trade deal with Germany. Every time she replied, 'You can’t do a trade deal with Germany, only the EU,'" the official told The Times.

"On the eleventh refusal, Trump finally got the message, 'Oh, we’ll do a deal with Europe then.'"
And then toss in this news from the past 24 hours:

President Donald Trump’s top advisers are embroiled in a debate over how aggressively to proceed on reshaping U.S. participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement, with hard-liners favoring a threatened withdrawal as soon as this week and others advocating for a more measured approach to reopening negotiations with Canada and Mexico.

Some of Trump’s advisers want a dramatic move before Trump’s 100th day in office on Saturday to fulfill a key campaign promise, while others say he can let the milestone pass and revisit the issue later through more formal procedures, according to two White House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Which had already shifted this morning to:

President Donald Trump won’t immediately terminate U.S. participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement, the White House said, after he spoke with the leaders of Mexico and Canada about ways to renegotiate the accord.

“Both conversations were pleasant and productive. President Trump agreed not to terminate Nafta at this time and the leaders agreed to proceed swiftly, according to their required internal procedures, to enable the renegotiation of the Nafta deal to the benefit of all three countries,” the White House said in a statement late Wednesday. Mexico’s peso and Canada’s dollar jumped after the White House’s announcement.
There really isn't any reason to worry that Trump will do anything rash or radical.  A)  He won't be personally renegotiating NAFTA; that's not what Presidents do, and even if Trump wants to, Trudeau and Pena Nieto won't personally sit down and negotiate with him.  B)  if Trump does get involved, he'll learn (eventually) why NAFTA is the way it is, and find out once again he doesn't have the whip hand in this situation (he never does, but always imagines he does).  C)  Trudeau and Piena Neto talked to Trump and showed him the error of his ways.  Seeing the pattern here yet?

As an example of how much power Trump doesn't have:



House Republicans on Wednesday night introduced a stopgap funding measure to keep the government open through May 5 while lawmakers work on a final agreement for legislation to fund the government through September.

The measure, introduced by House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), would keep the government open at current funding levels, according to a statement from Frelinghuysen’s office.

“This Continuing Resolution will continue to keep the government open and operating as normal for the next several days, in order to finalize legislation to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year,” Frelinghuysen said in the statement. “I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon. It is time that this essential work is completed so that critical programs and activities – including national defense –are properly and adequately funded for the year.”
Lamest lame duck to ever sit in the White House.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

This Will Happen


Right after Trump gets to replace the entire Supreme Court with justices of his own choosing without needing Senate approval:

President Trump said Wednesday that he has "absolutely" considered proposals that would split up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where judges have blocked two of his executive actions.

"Absolutely, I have," Trump said of considering 9th Circuit breakup proposals during a far-ranging interview with the Washington Examiner at the White House. "There are many people that want to break up the 9th Circuit. It's outrageous."

"Everybody immediately runs to the 9th Circuit. And we have a big country. We have lots of other locations. But they immediately run to the 9th Circuit. Because they know that's like, semi-automatic," Trump said.

His comments came one day after U.S. District Judge William Orrick temporarily blocked Trump's efforts to withhold funds from any municipality that refuses to cooperate with immigration enforcement officers. Orrick, based in San Francisco, argued that Trump had overstepped his authority in January when he directed the Justice Department to put immigration-related conditions on grants for so-called sanctuary cities that may not be directly related to law enforcement. The case, if appealed, would go before the 9th Circuit.

Other judges on the court halted two different versions of an executive action aimed at tightening vetting requirements for immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, because both actions called for a temporary suspension of some immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries.

"The language could not be any clearer. I mean, the language on the ban, it reads so easy that a reasonably good student in the first grade will fully understand it. And they don't even mention the words in their rejection on the ban," Trump said. "And the same thing with this [sanctuary city decision]. I mean, when you have people that are being enabled to commit crime. And in San Francisco, when you look at Kate Steinle being shot and here is the court, you know, right in that same general area. And when you look at a Kate Steinle, when you look at so many other things."
I quote that at length because the Washington Examiner betrays the same ignorance as the POTUS.  Judge Orrick does not, as implied, sit on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (the start of the penultimate paragraph in the quote implies as much).  Yes, that appellate court upheld the injunction against the first Muslim travel ban, and another district court held up the second version of that ban.  That version is up for hearings before the appellate panel in May.  District courts in the 9th Circuit have stopped Trump's more egregious executive orders, but so have district courts in other circuits.  The cases in the 9th Circuit have been brought by Attorneys-General, or cities, in that circuit.  They can't "forum shop."

Of course, the clear language that keeps hanging Trump up is his own.  Orrick cited it in ruling against the argument of the DOJ; the 9th Circuit cited it in their opinion that keeps sticking in Trump's craw.  But is Trump going to "break up" the 9th Circuit (does he even know what that means?)?  Sure, soon as he stands firm on the question of subsidies for Obamacare and gets the Congress to agree not to fund the government until he gets funding for his border wall; oh, and when he convinces the House to pass an ACA reform bill that he insists on, and no other.

Do I exaggerate?  Well, apparently he impressed the hell out of the Senate in that unprecedented briefing on North Korea today:





So he'll get the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals "broken up" about half-past never.  The guy couldn't be a lamer duck if he tried.

Please to be going away now

Yet another time Texas Monthly got Texas politics completely wrong.

I would comment at Salon, but they have a new comment system and I'm not going on Facebook in order to use it.

But here's the thing:  Texas has a "Legislature," not a "General Assembly."  Texas has a House of Representatives, and a Senate.  The Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 6, a bill aimed at stopping persons from using restrooms in public buildings that don't conform to the gender on their birth certificate.   Everyone understands what that means:  Dan Patrick, Lt. Governor and so "President" of the Texas Senate, gets to poke the Fort Worth Independent School District in the eye for laughing at his mighty sword.  No public building is going to post guards outside bathroom doors and ask for your papers before you can pee; but schools know who the transgendered kids are, and under Patrick's bill those schools can't do anything to make life easier for those kids.

Yeah, Patrick is a prick.

Which is really the only reason I'm going this far with this, except Salon alerts me that a new bill has been tendered in the Texas House, one meant to reflect the "watered down" bill of North Carolina.  Now, it is possible this bill will get through the Lege by sine die (the last day of the regular session) and it is highly unlikely Greg Abbott would call a special session on this issue even though he's now decided he likes this House bill.  But the fly in the ointment remains the same as it ever was.  Joe Strauss, the Speaker of the House, heard the cries of Texas businessmen and decided they spoke sooth.  He never said he was in favor of transgendered rights to pee where you're most comfortable peeing, but he did say he wasn't interested in the bill and quietly let SB6 die in the House without a vote.  Hence, the new House bill.  And what is it's fate?

Since last year, House Speaker Joe Straus has expressed reservations about the state adopting new bathroom regulations, describing the issue in November as not the "most urgent concern of mine."

"The Speaker's position has not changed," Straus spokesman Jason Embry said Tuesday in a statement following Abbott's remarks.
The Lege has a lot of important bills to get through before the last day of May.  Unless Joe Strauss decides this is one of them, Texas will likely be spared the embarrassment of making life that much harder for school children in Texas.

Being forced to run through hell....

"The path to paradise runs through hell."
Okay, sure....

I know you come here to get these questions answered, so I won't beat about the bush:  the movie  "Prometheus" was a piece of crap.  But it ended promising a sequel (something none of the "Alien" movies ever did, yet sequels were attached, awkwardly, one by one, and more and more senselessly, though I still like "Aliens" and "Alien Resurrection."  Sue me.)

"Prometheus" sucked pond water.  And it ended with two characters flying off to find the aliens responsible for the Aliens.  Xenomorphs.  Whatever.

Now comes the trailer for "Alien:  Covenant," which sounds vaguely religious again ("Prometheus" was set at Christmas (there's a tree on the ship somewhere), and there were other religious references, "Easter eggs" they're called now (!), sprinkled around.  Somehow the original alien who started life on our planet was a Jesus figure; or something.  Like I said:  a piece of crap.), and now it lands on the same planet that the ship "Prometheus" landed on (and where the first "Alien" movie will start, in 1979 but in the future from "Prometheus" and "Covenant"), because the iconic crashed ship full of eggs is there.  Wait, didn't that ship crash in "Prometheus"?   Or was it some other ship somewhere else?  I don't remember; and I don't care.

I wanna know where the other two characters went.  Because yes, the new trailer mimics the original "classic" trailer, but that's the problem:  this just looks like "Alien" with a new crew of bodies to dismember.  Haven't I seen this movie?

Where are the other two characters?  And how much exposition am I going to get about how the xenomorphs now look like the "classic" aliens, instead of sort of like the alien/human hybrid at the end of "Resurrection"?  They flew away, so what are they doing on this planet?  Is it a new ship that crashed there are remains intact for the Nostromo to find (although Nostromo found the ship on a planet inimicable to human life, and per the trailer, Covenant finds a demi-paradise).

One of the best things about "Alien" was there was no exposition, except for the one scene where Ripley nearly gets killed by the android on board, and gets him to explain, through the milky "blood" he is spitting up, that the Company she works for found out about the creatures and wanted to capture one, at the cost of the entire crew of "Nostromo" (they knew how to name space ships in 1979).  Now that's horror:  trapped in the haunted house (Scott himself called it that) with no chance of escape and no chance of survival, and put there by your own bosses.

Talk about a boss from hell.

"Covenant."  Well, like the Mayflower Compact, the crew landing on the planet mean to colonize it and stand by each other, so there's the "covenant."  We know the rest:  we've seen this movie before.

So where are the other two characters? They flew away at the end of "Prometheus," so what are they doing on this planet?  Is it a new ship that crashed there as remains intact for the Nostromo to find (although Nostromo found the ship on a planet inimicable to human life, and per the trailer, Covenant finds a demi-paradise). How does this tie into "Prometheus"?  I mean, I can understand not wanting to connect your film to that dog's breakfast (did I mention it really sucked?), but at some point this either has nothing to do with that film, or it does.  And I'm guessing there's more than one reason why no one wants to say how.

Keeping up with the Idiot In Chief





The challenge to this latest executive order (which even the DOJ didn't try to seriously defend) was filed by San Francisco, California.

San Francisco had no choice but to file the case in the Federal court which just issued the preliminary injunction.  The 9th Circuit hasn't heard any appeals on this latest EO yet.  It's an open question whether the DOJ will even seek an appeal from this ruling.

It isn't "forum shopping" if you file the case with the district court that has jurisdiction over your city.

ADDING:

It seems even Reince Priebus is confused:

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus also said the court had gone “bananas” after it dealt another setback to Trump’s restrictive immigration agenda. The Ninth Circuit Court also ruled against President Trump’s travel ban in February.

“It’s the Ninth Circuit going bananas,” Priebus told reporters in his West Wing office on Tuesday evening, according to The Hill. “It’s clear forum shopping that’s going on in this country.”

Priebus called the court decision “something that will be overturned eventually” and vowed to “win at the Supreme Court level at some point.”

“We’re taking action to appeal this,” he added. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Which must mean stupidity trickles down......

LAME!


It's time to call it:  Donald Trump is a lame duck President.

His first 100 days is almost over.  Arbitrary that deadline may be, but Trump himself bragged incessantly about what he would do with it before he became President.  All he managed was to get a seat on the Supreme Court filled, an empty slot that made Barack Obama a lame duck for the last year of his Presidency.  Trump is topping that:  he'll be a lame duck for four years.

His complete inability to get the repeal of the ACA through even the House was the first sign.  Now he's had three executive orders suspended by the courts (his own DOJ didn't even try to defend his order on "sanctuary cities"), and his threat to set himself on fire if the Congress didn't give him at least $1 billion for his border wall was so thoroughly ignored by the Senate it's clear now that august body wouldn't cross the street to piss on him if he were....well, on fire.  And his tax "reform" plan?  DOA.

Stick a fork in him, he's done.

He flip-flopped on the whole "border wall" issue in one day more furiously than a landed bass.  He told conservative media he was going to fold like a cheap suit (even Rush Limbaugh believed it), then insisted that report was "fake news!", even as Kellyanne Conway said it was true and then Sean Spicer, the human wind sock, went before the press to say it was kinda sorta maybe true, but it's fake news if you say I said so.

And the Senate completely ignored him, and the Congress is set to fund the government by Friday so that no calamity occurs.  And Donald Trump?  He didn't bring the gasoline, or the matches; word is he's not getting around so well anymore.

Gonna be a long four years......

ADDING:  yeah, Trump's a lame duck.  It's what everybody is saying (I mean, if you have to tell Congress you're a player?).  You heard it here first.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Help thou my unbelief."

Pretty much like that....

"Belief," as in "Do you believe in the existence of God?", is only an issue for the church (or Christianity) if the baseline is atheism:  i.e., God cannot exist and cannot be "believed."

But most people are not atheists.  If they are indifferent to the claims of Christianity (for which apparently "belief" is paramount), then they are equally indifferent to the claims of atheism.  Both espouse the centrality of theistic thinking, one positively, one negatively; at least, that's the argument. And then it's just a matter of either/or, of who has the best argument.  And besides adherents to the arguments, who's interested in that?  Yes, there are people on the intertubes whose motivating purpose seems to be arguing about anything and everything, but especially politics.  Even most politicians, however, don't go in to politics to argue (though that seems to be their raison d'être since at least the "Gingrich Revolution"); they to it to serve in government (or line their pockets, if you want to be cynical).  There were once people who served in government to do what was right, generally.  Two names come to mind from the Congress:  Lyndon Johnson, in the Senate, and Sam Rayburn, in the House.  Turns out they were instrumental in helping Hawaii become a state, by overcoming objections from Representatives and Senators from the South.  Of course, they accomplished some other worthy goals, too.

They didn't do it because government was good or evil, was intrusive or exploitative, was a "deep state" or a "derp state."  They didn't do it because government was either/or.  Now, however, everything is either/or, to a pitched degree.  It's not the kind that is different, it's the degree.  There has always been a struggle between believers and non-believers; it's the degree of emphasis that's the issue.

Much as Christianity specifically has taken empiricism as the baseline for human understanding and epistemology (Christianity is on much sounder footing in Western philosophy connecting with phenomenology), so the discussion of religion in Western culture has taken atheism as the baseline, against which theism must assert its bona fides.  That is completely the wrong argument.  In fact, the problem is the diagnosis that an argument is what will "fix" the "problem" of the church.  Contrary to what may be common experience, people don't go to church to argue; and solving the "argument" of atheism v. theism won't bring people flocking back to church as if this were the 1950's redux.

People go to church because church means something to them, and because they find people of like mind there, people they can be friends with.  The Church of Meaning and Belonging can't get a foothold without the Church of Belonging existing first, and the Church of Belonging can't exist if people don't find people there they want to share time with.  Then there is the question of how they share their time, and why they share their time.

But why did "belief" become the dividing line of our thinking?  Why must we stand on one side or the other, with one side "wrong" and the other "right"?

Slate ran an interesting article about the "march for science," which turned on this concern:

Instead, the march revealed the glaring dissonance of opposing that trough of ignorance by instead accepting a cringe-worthy hive-mind mentality that celebrates Science as a vague but wonderful entity, what Richard Feynman called “cargo cult science.” There was an uncomfortable dronelike fealty to the concept—an oxymoronic faith that information presented and packaged to us as Science need not be further scrutinized before being smugly celebrated en masse. That is not intellectually rigorous thought—instead, it’s another kind of religion, and it is perhaps as terrifying as the thing it is trying to fight.

What the article argues for, ironically, is a more scholarly approach to knowledge, but does so in part by citing that Feynman article where the scientist relies on the hoariest of shibboleths (the "Middle Ages" were ignorant, then came the enlightened salvation of the Renaissance!) to make his point.   Talk about "an uncomfortable drone like fealty to the concept."  But that's that point, one drummed into me in seminary more than anywhere else in my education:  what you cling to as certainty is your idol, your false god, your deity made in your image.  It's a useful hermeneutic of suspicion to keep before one, because the either/or of belief (either you do ("fool!") or you don't ("wise!")), is just such a dead piece of silent, eyeless stone.

Jump to the end of the quote there, and "cargo cult" is connected with the broader non-science of Western culture:  religion.   Because religion is not "intellectually rigorous thought."  Except, again, as I said, the most intellectually rigorous education I ever had was in seminary, where every assumption was challenged and no answers were given.  I seriously doubt any student of any science had their assumptions, presumptions, and conclusions challenged as thoroughly as that.  Even law school only challenged how I organized my thought and how I analyzed situations.  Once I learned to "think like a lawyer," I had made it through the barrier between the laity and the learned.  I left seminary knowing much more about the challenges than the certainties, much less inclined to "march" for religion than to consider the place of humans in the world they were busy making.

How many scientists are trained to think that way, trained to actually call in to question everything they have been told in lower-school science classes for decades is true?  I don't mean the basic concept of science v., say, alchemy or astrology, but the conclusions of scientific research, of scientific thought, of accepted scientific theory.  Not to question it because it is wrong, but to question it because you can't truly understand what you don't critically examine.

When it comes to belief, everybody just believes:  that's the real foundation of modern Western philosophy.  Not Descartes' cogito, but his conclusion that he had to rest his thought on his cogito:  if he didn't accept something as a given, he couldn't establish anything.  His ability to think escaped his hermeneutic skepticism only because, without that escape, all he had left was skepticism.  You have to accept some givens in order to postulate a system.  If you insist your ideas are not founded in a belief, then you are insisting it really is turtles all the way down.  How many scientists study philosophy in order to understand empiricism, the philosophical basis of the scientific method?  How many study phenomenology, or world religions, or even take a course in philosophy of religion?  How many study formal logic, philosophy of science, the history of philosophy?  And yet in my seminary studies I studied philosophy, history, absorbed information and thinking from anthropology and archaeology, studied languages and how language affects our understanding, our perceptions, our thinking; examined and developed hermeneutics, systems of interpretation and analysis.  Do scientists study any of this?  Or do they just study the field of science they are interested in?

That paper from Feynman about "cargo cults" doesn't display much more than a muddled, popular understanding of religion, history, and human culture.  Anthropology is the scientific study of human culture, but what Feynman knows about that subject seems to be the pop culture notion of a "cargo cult" being one-for-one mapping of non-scientific, i.e., "religious," thought.  Anthropologists wouldn't even engage that kind of discussion, because it is as ignorant as saying the planets are set in crystalline spheres rotating around the earth.  I know this, Richard Feynman apparently doesn't; yet he is lionized for his "knowledge."  Except, in certain areas, it should be spelled "nollij."

What's happening in modern American society is a dissolution of cultural bands that once held the center together.  At least it seems that way, though I'm not so sure those bands were ever so strong or binding as we imagine.  Most of us either remember the '50's, or take our starting point for American culture from there, and tacitly use it as our starting point for what we believe (v. what we know, in this context) about where we are now.   I've quoted Eliot's "Choruses from 'The Rock'" time and again, about culture falling apart because of motor cars; words he wrote almost 100 years ago now.  Cars mean nothing to us now, now it's cell phones and social media dividing us up.   But, as Howland Owl said of nuclear physics, the situation ain't so new, and it ain't so clear.

We despise ambiguity; we want certainty.  Many a scientist, or one scientifically trained, will outright reject or find reason to denigrate, Kuhn's ideas about science and "paradigms," because Kuhn introduces a conditional ambiguity into science.  Similarly Schrodinger's cat tells us, not that the cat is neither dead nor alive, but that we can't predict with accuracy the reality of the state of the cat, we can only observe it by opening the box.  The ambiguity is inherent in the position of not yet observing the contents of the rigged box.  We want certainty, but the paradox of Schrodinger's thought experiment is that we can't have it without intervening (opening the box).  Kuhn's ambiguity is that science is a human system, prompted and guided by human interests (and by the drunk under the streetlamp).  But science must partake of the divine, the true, even if that "true" is the cosmos itself.  We want to link our understanding of the cosmos to the cosmos so what we know what we know is "true."

We despise ambiguity; we want certainty.  If I say I know God in my life, I'm immediately charged, or understood, as saying "God exists."  We want that certainty because if God exists, then certain things must be true.  But saying "God exists" is not the same thing as saying "A platypus exists."  Surely it's odd to find a platypus in the wild, but the existence of the platypus means nothing to my life, to my culture, to my world.  To say "God exists" is to say something entirely different than to say "My daughter exists," even though that statement has more meaning for me personally (and for her).  I tend to agree with Tillich on this one:  that the concept "existence" or "To exist" can't really be applied to a concept like "God" (and already someone will think I've slipped a card from the middle of the deck by using the term "concept," but it is the right term in this conversation).  My father is dead, but does that mean my father doesn't exist?  If by exist you mean "alive," then no, he doesn't exist.  But his absence creates a presence that is still quite real for my mother, for my family, and the memories of him are no less real than they were when he was alive.  Let's face it, most of what we know about friends and family is memory, especially as they grow older and move on.  I have a large extended family I seldom see anymore, yet they exist for me even as more and more of them pass on. Not only in memory, but in me:  I am who I am because of friends and family.  I am my father's son, just as my daughter is his granddaughter.  "Exist" goes far beyond a name etched into a headstone, or simply still drawing breath.

We want certainty, and we cheat to get it.  God must "exist" as people do, as trees do, as platypi do; because that is existence as we know it.  Except it isn't, of course; a tree I don't know about still exists, whether I know about it or not (unless you are a Berkeleyian, and I don't think there are many of those left around, though I would never say they don't exist!).  But does a tree have existence?

Ambiguity is the heart and soul of thinking; which may be why we despise thinking so much.  Thinking never leads to certainty; it only leads to more questions.  So, ironically, to march for science is to march for uncertainty; and to not understand that is to abuse scientific reasoning as much as to declare certainty about God is to abuse Christianity.  Am I certain about God?  It is not a question I can answer, because it is not a valid question.  I have faith in God, which is to say I have trust in God.  Does that mean something to you?  Perhaps no more than if I say I love my wife.  I cannot prove that statement, but who asks me to?  People said Bill Clinton could not love his wife, when he betrayed her trust so often and so publicly.  People questioned how Hillary Clinton could love her husband, and in a simpler world perhaps they would have conformed to some expectations and divorced, or at least been publicly miserable about each other.  They didn't, and we all had to realize whether or not they loved each other was not for our determination.  No one asks if my love for my wife exists, but perhaps we could ask if it is true.  Again, how would I prove it?  I've known couples who loved each other even after their divorce, or without any benefit of marriage.  Do such externals prove something that cannot otherwise be true?  How do I establish that truth?  If you say I cannot love my wife unless I prove it, my first question will be:  what does "love" mean to you?  If you say I cannot believe in God until I prove God's existence, I have two questions for you:  what does the word "God" mean to you?  And what is "existence"?  Is it a property inherent in materiality, or a property of being?

You can see where this goes.  We use language too loosely.  We don't like to think about what we are saying, so busy are we to say it.  Buckminster Fuller reportedly spent a year in silence, trying to recover the proper use of language.  I'm not sure language is recovered in silence, so much as the use of it is discovered, perhaps even revealed (surely a revelation is at hand!) in usage.  Rather like life itself; even the desert fathers lived in community, not in solitary isolation.  If they had not contacted some other living soul, how would we know they were ever there?

Do I believe in God?  I do.  Do you understand what I mean by "believe" and "God"?  Probably not.  Do I communicate anything except confusion when I answer the question?  Undoubtedly so.

Such is the ambiguity of the current situation.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Case of the Non-Practicing Lawyer


I'm trying not to think too hard about the Trump AP interview because Lord have mercy!  Besides, everybody's talking about that, so let's talk about Trump's favorite conspiracy theorist and child custody hearings.

I used to think Dahlia Lithwick knew something about the law.  Now I think everything she knows she learned from Perry Mason re-runs:

What we will have learned in the aggregate is that we were foolish enough to suppose that putting an Alex Jones in a courtroom would force logic and deference and authenticity. This trial was a test to see whether Alex Jones would concede that any truth-seeking mechanism other than Alex Jones himself could be trusted. That’s the same test Donald Trump puts us to every day. What’s left to be determined is not what the truth is. It’s whether the systems that exist to test truth can recover from what we have become.

Only a person who had never set foot in a real courtroom during a real trial (or hearing, in this case) would suppose the courtroom was a "truth-seeking mechanism" that "would force logic and deference  and authenticity."  The courtroom isn't even a "system[] that exist[s] to test truth."  We don't have those in reality, because reality is not scripted.  No one confesses to the crime and submits to the absolute authority of "truth" because the world simply doesn't work that way.  I mean, didn't we all learn this when O.J. was acquitted, or the cops who beat Rodney King to a pulp walked away free?

Lithwick's effort is a muddled analysis, which is unfortunate because she starts off on the right track:

Jones v. Jones isn’t going to be the trial of the century or even the trial of the week, legally speaking. It’s just going to be an excruciating display of what divorce lawyers see every day: parades of experts and paid professionals telling stories about missed visitation and forgotten teacher meetings. There may be an amuse bouche of shirtlessness and chili and ironic pleas for media restraint, but what this jury is seeing, day in and day out, is what it looks like when two wealthy former partners are prepared to spare no expense to destroy the other, with allegations about sex, booze, and money as tabs 1-1,000 in the trial binder.
Yup.  That's what custody hearings are like when both sides have the money for them.  Below that high-priced arena level, custody battles are even more tedious.  More often than not they involve partners with no money for experts, or one partner who has money and the other (guess who?) who has almost none.  I represented a mother who had returned to her career of "adult entertainment" because she needed the money.  Her husband used that against her to get custody of their child.  That's more often the dynamic of custody battles; well, that and trying to get child support from a parent, or blood from a stone.  One grows quickly accustomed to the number of people willing to work menial jobs for cash only, so they have no wages the court can garnish, so they can avoid, at all costs, the obligation to provide support for their children.  Truth?  Logic?  Authenticity?  Alex Jones is a model of probity compared to those people.  But those people aren't famous, and can't afford lengthy jury trials, so we don't use them as our standard for how the courts should work.  They remain invisible.

Alex Jones is anything but invisible; and any sign of comity is a sign of conspiracy:

Lest you think that is a judge trying to penetrate the tedium of a jury hearing with a note of wry humanity, or even gently nudging Mr. Jones' in his excessive concerns, oh no, it's not that:

 This is a performance of Jones-style paranoia in which even the judge winkingly plays her designated part as bartender to the paranoid fringe.
Um...okay.  This hearing is not, as Ms. Lithwick started out noting, about the character and value of Alex Jones as a public figure; it is about whether or not Mr. Jones is fit to be a custodial parent (and the same question applies to his wife).  How the judge's comment compromises that issue is beyond my understanding, but then:  I've actually spent time in a courtroom representing a party to a custody hearing.  Ms. Lithwick seems to still believe law is about Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  A notion even the most starry-eyed law student is disabused of after only a few hours in any courtroom setting.

Ms. Lithwick wants to turn the persona of Alex Jones into an avatar for what ails America, and what ails America most is Donald Trump.  Mr. Jones becomes a representative of the no-accountability model that allowed Donald Trump to win the Oval Office.  Mr. Jones is subverting the legal system the way Donald Trump subverted the political system:

The point of this litigation is not to ever get to the point of litigation. It is to persuade people that the trial is the show, and his authoritative and lucrative radio performance is what’s real.
Except the only people who are going to reach that over-heated conclusion, besides legal analysts who think the legal system is completely divorced from the law itself (which is pure and holy, apparently), are the fans of Alex Jones.  From what little I know about this hearing, I would be happy to be representing Ms. Jones.  Her ex-husband is not doing himself any favors.  Whether he destroys his public reputation or not (a dubious hope under the best of circumstances), he's not helping his claim that he's a model custodial parent.  As for the idea exposure to the light should have made Mr. Jones explode like a horror movie vampire, or reveal him to his ardent followers as the cockroach he is, well:

Welcome to reality.  Word comes today that only 2% of those who claim to have voted for Trump regret their vote this nearly-100 days in.  Quelle surprise?  "A man [sic] hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."  Alex Jones has a small audience, in absolute terms, and isn't all that important even if his audience includes the President of the United States.  After all, Trump appointed Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon to White House positions, and how did that work out?  Yes, Alex Jones is an incredible yutz, but in the real world even if the murderer did break down in tears in the courtroom gallery and confess to one and all that they did it, someone would still believe the confessor was innocent.

No system of law forces "logic and deference and authenticity" on the people.  The law rests on the authority of the state to decide who is worthy of custody and who isn't, and enforces that decision with the police power of the state, if necessary.  By and large we defer to that power, even as we grumble (someone always does) about the outcome.  But do we all see the truth and acknowledge without equivocation who the "bad guy" is?  In all of human history that's never happened before; why should it happen in a courtroom in Austin now?

"And it's one, two, three strikes you're out!"

Josh Marshall drives the final nail in the coffin of Bill O'Reilly's stint at FoxNews:

In other words, he thought there was a chance that the people deciding his fate would see this email and think “Hey, wait a second! We were going to fire O’Reilly. But now it turns out we’re just being set up, used as pawns by liberals like Mary Pat Bonner to get us to fire O’Reilly, who’s really the victim in all this!”

In many ways, there’s a much, much more important story going forward about the fact that the people deciding O’Reilly’s fate had known for many years about his behavior and happily tolerated it. But why would O’Reilly think that this email amounted to anything? I would submit that in this final moment, O’Reilly was duped by the ‘war on christmas’, liberal media bias dumbshit victimology racket he had been selling on his show for two decades: comically melodramatic, victim-preening nonsense aimed at whipping up feelings of resentment and rage. In other words, he was deluded in these final moments of his cable TV existence by his own racket! His goose had long been cooked. But this was his final undoing.
The context here is an e-mail O'Reilly wrote to his lawyers making this his argument for keeping his job (just before his firing was announced).  I don't care about that, per se, but about that last paragraph.  O'Reilly complained of a campaign to "get him" that was not a secret conspiracy but a public effort, one aimed at unseating O'Reilly precisely by being public about its aims and efforts.  But O'Reilly "was deluded in these final moments of his cable TV existence by his own racket."  Donald Trump complains about "paid protestors" and now thinks they are conspiring to complain about his tax returns which, since he won, nobody cares about, right?  Like O'Reilly, Trump has made his public career, and now his political career, out of "whipping up feelings of resentment and rage."  And it seems fairly clear Trump is deluded by his own racket.

But Trump is the President of the United States, not some guy pulling a cable audience of 4 million (which still isn't that much of an audience on broadcast TV).  As fell O'Reilly, so too will Trump fall. His latest fantasies are that healthcare reform is happening, even though nobody has seen the proposed bill, and that he's accomplished great things in his first 100 days, although nobody can name two of those accomplishments.

O'Reilly was kept on-air by his audience, which was aging along with him (and aging faster than the general population, in the sense they were the "old old" who, not coincidentally, voted for Donald Trump).  But it was the Millenials (and younger) who got so man advertisers to drop O'Reilly's program that the fix was finally in, and O'Reilly the quintessential angry grandpa, was not allowed to return to the stage.  That point actually bears noticing:  the young people, who so despise sexual harassment, unlike Boomers who grew up on it (let's be honest), brought Bill O'Reilly down.  And O'Reilly never saw it coming.

Donald Trump's approval rating has been underwater since he took office.  It should really be stated in negative terms (the difference between approval and disapproval), since the disapproval consistently runs higher than the approval.  Bearing down on the vaunted "100 days," he has nothing to show for his tenure, except an extraordinary number of days playing golf (surely a record!), and an equally extraordinary number of weekends at his own resort in Florida.  His "comically melodramatic, victim-preening nonsense aimed at whipping up feelings of resentment and rage" got him into the White House; it clearly isn't helping him there now.

As fell O'Reilly, so too will Trump fall.  However, O'Reilly just took $25 million of Rupert Murdoch's money with him; what damage will Trump's inevitable collapse do?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Has it only been 100 days?


Well, that's definitive, isn't it?

The "100 days" ends on Friday (or Saturday, or Sunday, or next week, I really haven't counted) and the government hits the debt ceiling that day, too.  So Mick Mulvaney, who apparently slept through the last two months and doesn't understand the legislative process any better than his boss, thinks Congress can walk, chew gum, dance a jig, and recite the Gettysburg Address all at the same time.  And pass a continuing resolution to fund the government a bit longer (how long?  A week?  a month?  Six months?) and reform healthcare (because we don't need committees and hearings and a legislative process, we just need a "bill" and a "vote"!) by Friday.

Trump needs an accomplishment!

Oh, and if the Dems don't agree to pony up at least $1 billion for the "border wall," Trump will shut down the government.  Given that the President's approval numbers are still under water, and that he's proven a tower of Jell-O in negotiations (anybody remember who pulled the last attempt at healthcare reform off the floor of the House at the last minute?), Congress trembles in fear.  Well, except for:  the Democrats; every Congressperson in the four border states (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California), including four GOP senators.  Trump can't get that border wall through the House, much less through the Senate.  And he has all the clout of a wet noodle, anyway, so his efforts to get it passed amount to the demand "VOTE NOW!"

Because he has no clue how the legislative process works.

Honestly, this isn't even a clown show anymore.  This is just children in a sandbox pretending to be adults.  And of course the last redoubt is Trump's decision to pull the plug the last time:  he didn't really want that bill passed anyway.  Sort of like AG Session's claim this morning that he was just kidding about that "island in the Pacific" stuff.  Except he wasn't, because he reiterated his complain that "one judge out of 700" could thwart the will of the President, as if the only purpose of our legal system is to stand behind the POTUS and genuflect in the direction of D.C.

Well, when the POTUS is an extreme right wing Republican.  Otherwise:  states rights!

Count backwards from 100....


I'm going to paraphrase this run down of what Trump has done with his first 100 days (10 to go!  Never too early to celebrate!)  from Slate, because it is so good.

a)  still not even a bill on health care reform, and Ryan is now telling the House to focus on not shutting down government by Friday.   Which means:

b)  tax reform?  Not so much, and no time soon.

c)  Rollback Dodd/Frank?

I got my hopes up that I'd have something to cover when I saw that Trump had signed some executive orders relating to the rollback of Dodd-Frank financial regulations. But it turns out those orders, which the president made a show of signing, were just instructions to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to "review" the regulations.
d)  North Korea?  China's problem.


And of course,

 the powerful Navy armada he'd bragged last week about sending to the Sea of Japan to intimidate Kim Jong-un turns out to have been 3,000 miles away from the Korean peninsula at the time. So the U.S. isn't really doing anything in that area right now either.
e)  NAFTA?  Let it be.  China a "currency manipulator"?  See North Korea, above.

f)
The Russian hacking/cybersecurity report that Trump said would be done within 90 days of his taking office is not only not done, it hasn't even been started and it doesn't seem like anyone knows who's even supposed to be doing it.
g)

The "major investigation" into voter fraud that Trump said Mike Pence was launching two months ago has never been heard from again.
h)
The Iran nuclear agreement—whose dismantling Trump called the "number one priority" of his administration—remains intact. But—and stop me if you've heard one this before—the administration just announced this week that it would launch an "interagency review" of the Iran deal! It "did not say how long the review would take," Reuters reports.
i)  Remember the "wiretapping" of Trump by Obama?  Or Susan Rice spilling the beans and "unmasking" people?  Yeah, nobody else does, either.

j)

Israel/Palestine, the opioid crisis, veterans' health care and a number of other issues have been assigned to Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, who has no policy or political experience and reportedly developed a foreign-policy position during the 2016 campaign by looking up the word "China" on Amazon.com and calling one of the authors whose names came up.
k)  The Muslim travel ban?  Over to you, General Sessions!

And the cherry on the sundae:

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump told reporters that he wanted Congress to vote on “both” a spending bill and revised health care legislation by the end of next week.

“I think we want to keep the government open, don’t you agree?” Trump said. “I think we’ll get both.”

On Friday, however, Trump walked that timetable back, saying there was “no particular rush.”

“It’ll happen. You’ll see what happens,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s next week. Next week, doesn’t matter.”
It's the weekend.  He needs to play some golf.  Maybe next weekend, too.

Friday, April 21, 2017

My mommy? Or Umami?

That's me in the spotlight....

I was actually hoping the word was going to be something slightly more elegant, like "umami."  Umami is the preferred word for taste, now; sweet, salty, sour, and bitter are so passé (as is "passé").  All flavors now revolve around "umami," even if we aren't quite sure what that flavor is (the four basics at least had the virtue of being distinctly identifiable).*

Instead, we get something that sounds like a new puzzle fad:  "tsundoku".

Apparently I'm not that bad; I don't pile stacks of books on the furniture (the Lovely Wife won't allow it).  I do leave books scattered about the house, but singularly, not in piles.  I do have seven sets of bookshelves in four rooms, and left to my own devices would probably put shelves in every room in the house.  Except then I'd have that many more books and shelves to dust, so it's probably just as well.

I have books from my graduate school career, from law school, from seminary, and just from my own predilections.  I have fewer and fewer novels, although at one point that's all I read.  I hardly read any more, not compared to the consumption of books in my youth.  I read my way through everything worth reading (which was a lot, but not everything) in three libraries in my hometown (two at school, and the Carnegie downtown, long since no longer a library.  *sigh*).  I was quite sure, in my youth, that I'd end up like this:


I may yet.  But my problem is I don't have more books than I could ever read; I have more books than I want to read.  "And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."  I finally got old enough to think the Preacher might be on to something there.

*yeah, I know, "meaty," "brothy."  Just go ahead and say it tastes like chicken.

"A government of laws, not of men"

Isn't that the idea?

“I wasn’t diminishing the judge or the island of Hawaii, that beautiful place, give me a break,” Sessions said later in response to Velshi, who asked about criticism of Sessions’ remark. “I was just making the point that’s very real: one judge out of 700 has stopped the President of the United States from doing what he believes is necessary to protect our safety and security.”

It only takes one judge; that's how the system works.  Any imputation from the Attorney General or his office that the judge's decision was invalid per se marks that office holder as unfit for the office.  It also raises a question of simple competence:  why is this man still talking?  Why does he continue to defend an indefensible statement, because every response is more risible than the original statement.

It doesn't matter where the ruling came from; it doesn't matter how many judges signed off on it.  If AG Sessions thinks the executive orders of the President he serves are superior to the legal opinions of a judge in a court of competent jurisdiction, he thinks so little of our legal system he should not be heading the Department of Justice.

"Where's all the people?"


So here we go, again:  Christianity and the problem of "belief".

Even if it is true that American liberalism would flourish if it returned to the churches, the prospects for that happening are slim. The biggest reason people have left the mainline is not sociological. It’s theological. People simply don’t believe what the churches teach about God. No social or material inducement may make a difference. In that sense, secular liberals are more sincere about belief than are adherents to the prosperity gospel, which promises riches to the faithful.

No, I'm not going to argue with definitions of "belief," as if that would make a difference to anybody; and I'm not going to attack the "theology" of the idea that people are leaving mainline churches because of theology.  In fact, I think that's true.  I think the problem is the age of churches, v. the age of "millennials."  As the article points out a few paragraphs earlier:

Half of American Presbyterians are age 59 or over; half of atheists and agnostics are under 34.

(No, we're not going to argue the boundaries of 'atheist' and 'agnostic,' either.  Take them as read.)  Valid or invalid, the statistic is arrestingly accurate, and puts me in the median age of Presbyterians, if not of most mainline denominations.  And take it as read my millennial-aged daughter, who loves me dearly, would not get out of bed on Sunday morning to come to church if I still had a pulpit.  Because I would be one of the younger people there, and she would be one of the youngest.

Age does matter.

So the problem is still not theological, otherwise Joel Osteen's services would not be packed with younger people, and so many non-denominational and non-mainline churches would not be flourishing (in the parts of the country where they do.  Granted this is as much cultural as anything else.).  But in another sense, it is.  When I was preaching the gospel according to Dom Crossan (well, strictly speaking, I never was, but might as well have been for the elder members of my flock), the young people (teenagers then; adults with children of their own by now) liked it.  It was the "old people" who didn't.  (They didn't, as it turned out, like a lot of things.  Let's keep this simple for the purpose of discussion, okay?)  I knew there was a theological component that appealed to the "olds" and one that appealed to the young.  Let's set "atonement" as the line of demarcation.

It's a dangerous line, because it's the surest way of getting me labeled an "atheist," if not at least a "non-Christian" or at best a "liberal Christian," meaning too liberal to be trustworthy in matters theological.  Again, the fight over my theology is not the issue:  that this theology provokes a fight, is the issue.  Is such a theology, then, to be dismissed, quelled, kept quiet, discarded?  Am I throwing out the baby with the bathwater to preach it as a valid Christianity suitable for a new generation, as new wine to be put into new wineskins?

The interesting thing about that metaphor is that the wine is always wine; it is not fundamentally altered from the traditional definition of "wine" by being new.  It's still wine, and wine still needs wineskins, or in modern parlance, bottles.  The metaphor now might be:  do we need corks, or are artificial corks acceptable?  Tradition says only cork will do; but cork was only used because synthetics were not available, and synthetics to do the job cork did, without the problem of supply and destruction (since so many more people like wine today than did before) are now actually superior.

You can tell already, if you didn't know, that I'm not interested in arguments about conserving traditions.  In my experience traditions do quite well on their own.  I find liturgical worship far more interesting than "modern" worship, or even the Reformed tradition of worship so many Protestants are familiar with.  This is not, however, a universal pleasure, as well I know.  Still, I find it a tradition with virtues, with life, with adaptability, as opposed to the modern forms of foolishness I saw in videotapes in seminary.  Or the dull, rather lifeless forms I sat through in the Reformed tradition, forms beloved by some but deathly dull to me.

But what about that issue of "belief"?

I suspect that for many of the spiritual liberals Jain and Levites are talking about, there is just one problem: belief. According to a Pew Research Center study released last year, the most common reason adults gave for disaffiliating from the religion of their childhood was that they no longer believe. Only a quarter of them identify as atheists or agnostics; the rest are, religiously speaking, “nothing in particular.” These non-religious Americans do tend to be politically more liberal than religious ones. They are Douthat’s audience.

Even though his argument is mainly sociological, Douthat acknowledges that belief is the key obstacle. But where Pascal invited the nonbeliever “to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions,” Douthat browbeats the atheist. “Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.” This glib approach only makes skeptical readers dig in further against faith. Belief is no trivial matter; you can’t taunt someone into it.

Going back to Christianity’s origins, Paul taught that it was belief, not ethnicity or social status, that made someone a Christian, and faith, not deeds, that made a Christian worthy of salvation. The Protestant Reformation and, later, the growth of Evangelical churches reiterated this emphasis on belief as the core of Christianity and the prerequisite to belonging to the church. In the gospel according to Prince, now a year departed, Jesus assures his listeners, “All I really need / Is to know that you believe.”

As any number of atheists who attended a seder for the Jewish Passover last week could tell you, belief is not inherent in all organized religious practice. But it is in Christianity. The teaching that Christianity is first of all about belief was intended to open church membership to any person. In a skeptical age, it may be the biggest impediment to greater Christian affiliation and the broad-based civic Christianity Douthat wishes to see.
I think there are as many different definitions of "belief" in those paragraphs, as there are uses of the word.  But that analysis doesn't approach the fundamental problem.  The question is not "What do we mean when we use the word 'belief'?"; the question is:  "Do we need to define 'belief' in a way that makes sense to people today?"  Because I don't even agree that belief is the core of Christianity; in fact, I think the insistence on the point is the problem.

Then again, I'm an atheist; or a closeted agnostic; or a "liberal Christian."

Younger Americans who have left Christianity are simply taking a longstanding Christian doctrine at its word. The churches told them they had to believe in order to belong. They don’t believe. So they left. In doing so, they may well have left a vacuum in their lives and communities. But in an important sense, they may also have taken Christian teaching more seriously than the Times’ official believer does.

Belief was once the cement that held together the church as a pillar of society, the argument goes.  It doesn't anymore, and frankly it hasn't since at least the 1960's.  None of this is new, it's just an ongoing change in Western culture that dates back to the Enlightenment.   Then again, was it belief that made the grandparents of my German-descended church members say "You must go (to church)!" in German? (It sounds so much more imperative in that language.)  Was it belief that made my alcoholic grandfather sober up and get to church every Sunday morning?  Was it belief that made my father go to church, even as he grumbled about every pastor the church had but the one he liked, long ago?  There wasn't much belief in my parents' reaction to my decision to leave a failing law career with a 1 year old daughter in tow and move away for one more post-graduate degree and yet another career, this one in ministry (except a belief I was making a mistake).  How much belief have I ever seen in any congregation?  How much was belief a motivator for any of the people I pastored, the ones who loved me and the ones who despised me?

I don't think any of them were motivated by belief at all:  neither in the certainty of the existence of a Cosmic Judge who would weigh us and find us all wanting, nor in the assurance of a loving God who wanted only the best for us.  That was background; but it wasn't foundational.  Something else was foundational, and I'm not sure at all that something else was theological.

People found in church what they wanted, what they needed.  My fondest church memories are of people my age being there.  I had friends in church that I didn't have at all in junior high, and new friends in church in high school.  My parents had friends in church we socialized with frequently:  Sundays after church, Friday or Saturday nights; Christmas and birthdays and New Year's and 4th of July.  They had children my age, we were all friends because of the church we all knew each other through.  Did belief really matter?  We said it did, when questioned; but was that just a socialized response?  That church no longer exists, either for my daughter or for me.  The church I grew up in was the church of my parents, and they persisted in it long after I was free to go, and then I moved away.  I found churches with people my age, but fewer and fewer with people my age and religious preference (not a "mega-church," thank you very much!) or, later, with children the age of my daughter.  Then I became a pastor and churches kicked me around and I left altogether (again, recapitulating early adulthood), and there the story becomes too personal to be universal.  But what happened to that church of my childhood?  Did we lose our belief?  Did we lose our theology?

Or was the change sociological?  Some left the church of my childhood over perceived matters of theology, but it was really no more important (or valid) than leaving because you didn't want the church by buy new carpet for the sanctuary, or you didn't like the new pastor.  It was never because of "belief."  Why is it now?

I suspect because belief is an easier target to aim at.  Of course, I can understand why people want to think it's about "belief" when you have office seekers wandering in front of microphones to say stuff like this:

"I personally believe, as many Montanans do, that God created the Earth. I believe that God created the Earth. I wasn't there, I don't know how long it took, I don't know how he did it exactly. But I look around me at the grandeur in this state and I believe God created the Earth."
I don't believe what that guy believes, but what theological position am I going to take that's going to fix the perception that his belief is my belief?  Preferably something I can fit on a bumper sticker or sing in a hymn, because nobody wants to come to church to read my theological arguments.   I don't think, however, arguing about my belief v. his belief, or even about the subject of belief at all, is going to do a thing for mainline Protestantism.

Establishing churches where people feel welcome and are among people their age, will.  What kind of church would interest people as young as my daughter?  How would I know?  I'm an old guy, and I'm sure my beliefs about it are a very secondary consideration.  There are reasons to continue the work of the church that are far more concrete than "belief."

Believe me.