Ford, Kavanaugh, and Our Relentless Need to Be Entertained

In his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that the advent and ultimate rise of television gave birth to a new epistemology in Western discourse (he wrote this in the 1980s). This claim is more than simply “the medium is the message,” as we have often heard. It is deeper than that — rather than television simply being our new mode of communication and forming the kinds of things that we discuss, television (that is, the combination of images and sound that makes up what we know as television) forms the very basis of what we can know and how we know as a society. Television (and, it could be argued, later iterations of it, including the internet, social media, YouTube, music streaming, etc.), with its focus on fantastic images that stimulate the brain bends our societal discourse towards entertainment.

In such a society, where television and its iterations are entirely inseparable from social fabric, every other sphere of human discourse will ultimately be viewed and understood through the lens of entertainment. Our news, our politics, our religion, our economic choices — all of them will eventually be filtered through the lens of visual and audible stimulation. As various programs and content compete with each other for attention, those which are most visually stimulating will naturally shape what we know and how we know, because our brains are essentially lazy, and impulsively value stimulation over difficult mental labor.

The even bigger challenges now are that our modes of discourse have shrunk in meaning and quality in the last decade. A YouTube video that is longer than five minutes is probably not worth our time. A blog post over 500 words is difficult to follow. Twitter, with its (now) 280 character limit, seems to set our natural attention span.

I wondered about this last week during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. For ten hours, our nation sat and watched — first Dr. Fords testimony of her experience, and then Kavanaugh’s attempted rebuttal. But what did our comments about that hearing focus on? Kavanaugh’s angry, partisan responses when questioned heavily. Dr. Ford’s harrowing recounting of her experience that night. Lindsey Graham’s outrage at the alleged mistreatment of an upstanding civil servant. What was not clear was that this trial was truly about discovering the truth about what happened that night. Sure, that was the veneer of the hearing, the “why” this hearing was happening. Just under the surface, however, our desire for a partisan battle over the soul of our country roiled. The entire hearing came across like a courtroom scene in a movie — the anticipation of seeing Dr. Ford walk in the room, the emotional buildup to her story, the recesses and breaks that functioned like commercial breaks to build anticipation for the next scene, the righteously angry Judge Kavanaugh, the side-room deals being made between Flake and other senators, and on and on and on.

Television and its iterations have made such hearings nothing more than another form of entertainment, no different than ancient gladiatorial fights, wherein we can, without fear of recrimination, satisfy our thirst for blood and battle and the thrill of the fight. And after this week is over, and Kavanaugh is or isn’t confirmed as the next SCOTUS nominee, we’ll be itching for another.

What is Trumpism? A Riff on David Brooks

A cursory glance at any political commentary over the last two years will provide us with multiple, disparate answers to the question in the title of this post. Usually, answers include some mix of nativism, celebrity culture, authoritarianism, and tribalism (i.e., a strong distrust in institutions).

David Brooks, in a recent op-ed at NYT (“You can be a conservative or a Republican, but not both”), gives what I think is a better answer, though he does so unwittingly. The article actually attempts to give a short history of conservatism and its beginnings as a response to Enlightenment political thinking. He writes:

Enlightenment thinkers were throwing off monarchic power and seeking to build an order based on reason and cosent of the governed. Soceity is best seen as a social contract, these Enlightenment thinkers said. Free individuals get together and contract with one another to create order.

Conservatives said we agree in general but think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to creat order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Inividual freedom is an artifact of that order. [Emphasis mine]

This is an important distinction: liberalism tends to think that individuals freely create order, ex nihilo. Conservatism (real conservatism, anyway) thinks order is already inherent in the human social experience, and individuals are not fundamentally autonomous or simply “free” to act however we please. The point Brooks ends up trying to make is that Trump isn’t a true conservative, and neither are those following his vision of politics:

[Trump] doesn’t base his belonging on the bonds of affection conservatives hold dear. He doesn’t respect and obey those institutions, traditions and values that form morally decent individuals. His tribalism is the evil twin of community. It is based on hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy mongering and distrust. It creates belonging, but on vicious grounds.

In 2018, the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualsim that leads to a vicious tribalism.

So what is Trumpism, then? It’s not conservatism or liberalism. It’s not just tribalism or nativism or authoritarianism. Instead, it is simply the very worst aspects, and the distorted, extreme pictures of what unfettered liberalism and conservatism look like at the same time. Trumpism is a fundamental belief in the autonomous individual that can do as he/she pleases as long as those actions garner power. Trumpism is also interested in creating the kind of belonging that conservatives desire — but it is a false belonging, built ultimately on distrust and fear.

Another Day, Another Shooting

What continues to confound me about this continual, ridiculous process through which we constantly seem to be cycling is not that the shootings are happening — I think we’re past the point of being surprised that people, teenagers, whatever, with access to such destructive weapons will use them against other people.

No, rather, what continues to confound me is that Christians are continuing to support a political party funded (at least in part) by an organization that fights for the right to make such weapons in the first place. Such an organization obviously has no actual regard for the dignity and value of human life — its only concerns are power and profits. Christians that continue to hold on to the idolatry that is the American right to bear arms (and all that we are told is supposed to come with it) are blatantly ignoring the writings of the Gospels and Paul. The very Lord we claim to follow clearly modeled and taught some form of radical nonviolence (see both the Sermon on the Mount and every Gospel’s recounting of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection). Further, Paul’s interpretation of the life and work of Christ is clear: it is foolishness, a scandal, nonsense to the “wise” and “powerful” of the world. And yet, Christ our hope, our victor has laid waste to such powers and principalities. How? By doing the very opposite of what we would do — that is, he made himself nothing, less than nothing, “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.”

The “thoughts and prayers” Christians offer in these situations will continue to sound like a clanging gong and a noisy cymbal to those who see that the Lord we proclaim is not really our true Lord. Christians, let go of your attempts to grab hold of your rights and power and feeling of security in this world. It is nothing more than what the God-man we claim to follow did.

A Government of the People

From Ted Chiang’s recent piece on AI and Silicon Valley, “Silicon Valley Is Turning into Its Own Worst Fear”:

What I’m far more concerned about is the concentration of power in Google, Facebook, and Amazon. They’ve achieved a level of market dominance that is profoundly anticompetitive, but because they operate in a way that doesn’t raise prices for consumers, they don’t meet the traditional criteria for monopolies and so they avoid antitrust scrutiny from the government. We don’t need to worry about Google’s DeepMind research division, we need to worry about the fact that it’s almost impossible to run a business online without using Google’s services.

This is perhaps my biggest concern with unfettered capitalism in the 21st century. I do not trust corporations to protect the common good, nor do I trust the three biggest corporations ever created to not exploit the marginalized/oppressed in society. Further, individual action is difficult to consolidate into meaningful action against such large entities. In situations such as this, when the dignity of humanity across the spectrum is threatened by faceless corporations or entities with limitless appetite for profit, we require a united front – a governing system controlled by the people to ensure the safety of its citizens – that limits the power of these corporations significantly.

Don’t Just Vote – Build

Now that we have our presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, America as a whole is in a state of unrest. As usual, I am hearing and seeing the same things I have heard when every election cycle rolls around: “Well, I may not like it, but I’ll just have to vote for the lesser of two evils.” “I really don’t like ______, but he/she is WAY better than ______.” (I know faithful Christians on both sides of the aisle).

I also see a lot of disappointed or disaffected people who are refusing to vote for one of the primary nominees, and are instead planning to abstain or vote third party. To this, others are saying things like, “Not voting or voting for a third party is just a vote for ________! You can’t let that happen! We have to do whatever we can to keep him/her out of the White House!”

I see a few problems with this (I disagree that a third party vote is thrown away, for example). But I want to address something different. Since the mid- to late-20th century, the Republican Party has, in general, been the party of Evangelicalism. We’ve seen the rise of the moral majority and the religious right. We have associated the revival of conservative Christian values with voting for the right party and the right person and then – maybe then – we will build a society that is just and good and blessed by God.

When Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, he taught using parables. He spoke of fields and farms, seeds and planting. Even in Jesus’ world, this would have been subversive. The Romans brought “peace” and their kingdom by the sword. They were a political machine, the likes of which had not been seen at that point in history. They were efficient and ruthless.

And then Jesus comes along saying things like, “The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” And, “[The Kingdom] is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” And again, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

It seems to me that Jesus, among other things, is trying to make a pretty specific point about how the Kingdom of God is made manifest in the world. Leaven takes time to work through flour, planting seeds and waiting on them to sprout requires patience and hard work, mustard bushes were essentially considered weeds in the ancient world, and took over whole areas if left unattended.

Perhaps these parables can speak to us today. What if the Kingdom of God doesn’t come by force or might (or, dare I say it, even by democracy!)? What if the Kingdom of God comes by the slow, faithful actions of those who follow the way of Jesus? Maybe Christians ought not vote for the lesser of two evils, because in the end, it won’t matter – what will matter is whether we joined God in building the Kingdom the way Jesus described the it.

Do not relegate your participation in the building of the Kingdom of God to voting in the general presidential election every four years. The more subversive act in our American culture that prides itself on democracy and freedom of choice and individualism is to transform the community around you by being a good neighbor, giving to those in need, supporting those who are hurting and helpless, and doing the sweaty, ugly, brutal work of building real relationships with real flesh and blood people.

Donald Trump and Blind Tribalism

Super Tuesday has come and gone, and with it, Trump has conquered. It’s become abundantly clear that, not only does Trump have a chance at the nomination – he is the current GOP frontrunner and will likely gain the nomination of the Republican party.

What has baffled me the most during this entire circus election cycle is the lack of Trump support I have heard from the people around me. My friends and family make up a wide swath of the political spectrum, from those who #feeltheBern to hyper-conservatives. With few exceptions, virtually none of them are Trump supporters. In fact, it’s not even like they’re apathetic or ambivalent – many of them are appalled at his likely success in becoming the GOP candidate.

How can we account for this?

I think at least part of the answer lies in what I’m going to call ‘blind tribalism.’ Mind you, this is purely based on my own observations of both the current political landscape and my interactions with people, either via social media or in person.

Several Republicans I know, though they have concerns about common issues (abortion, gay rights, immigration, small businesses, the size of the government), have expressed a deeper, more primal desire: winning at all costs.

Take the following interaction as an example:

“I have been going back and forth between two candidates for over a month then at the last moment voted for neither and chose the man I most believed can win in November because making sure it is NOT Hillary (sic) or Bernie is more important to me than the lesser distinctions between say Cruz and Rubio.”

And this isn’t the only example I could give you. These kinds of comments and attitudes betray a much deeper issue with the American public. People (mainly Republicans) are fed up with the current state of our government. They feel disenfranchised, left out, voiceless. Because of this, they have decided – despite Trump’s poor character, penchant for racism, foul-mouthedness, and complete lack of governing experience – if Trump wins the Republican nomination, it is more important to stand with the Republican party than it is to allow a Democrat to win. They have decided to align with someone who will supposedly gain them power in exchange for not concerning themselves with the actual principles of conservatism (limited government, the objective existence of an enduring moral order, the value of freedom and property, and so forth). Trump, it can be argued, does not stand for the values of true conservatism. It’s quite obvious, in fact, that he is pursuing power for the sake of power. He gets to think what he wants, say what he wants, and do what he wants. As the president of the United States, he would make a mockery of the office he would hold, and he has not even slightly indicated that he would pursue the common good for the larger American society.

My friends that don’t care about this, however, have lost themselves in blind tribalism. They have forsaken conservative values for the sake of power. They have done so in the name of denying Democrats another four or eight years in office – all without any thought towards the fact that Donald Trump winning the presidency is not winning. The only person that wins in this scenario is Donald Trump.

If you are a Republican or consider yourself a conservative, do not vote for Donald Trump in your primary. If he wins the nomination, I urge you, DO NOT VOTE FOR DONALD TRUMP. At best, his presidency will be a circus, a little piece of reality TV to turn on every once in a while. At worst, he will erode the moral fabric of our nation, make a mockery of the US among other nations, and begin to take away the fundamental rights all Americans enjoy that are guaranteed by our Constitution.

On Hospitality and True Conservatism

Something dangerous is happening in American Christianity – especially the section of American Christianity that calls itself ‘conservative.’

Most people would consider most Christians in America relatively conservative, but what do we mean by this term? Do we mean that Christians are aligned with the Republican party? Do we mean that we are fiscal conservatives? That we find value in tradition? That we accept established systems of belief over what is new and ‘progressive’?

I have a feeling that, most of the time, when we say that a group of people is conservative, it is a reference to a political leaning within the American two-party system. But what if that is not only a misuse of the word, but a co-opting of the conservative ethos by the political and ideological powers that be? My inclination is that Christianity is inherently conservative (we value tradition, the voice of Scripture as the Word of God, and other established truths from historical Christianity as guides for ethical and metaphysical ideals), but that the Republican party has latched itself onto the ‘conservative’ label so as to gain a base of followers without also delineating which of its stances are actually conservative in the Christian sense, and which are American, right-wing, ideological commitments.

What am I getting at here?

Recently, after terrorist attacks in Paris by ISIS, at least 26 different states in the US have announced their opposition to accepting Syrian refugees. All of these states, according to the article, are under Republican governorship. This stance has been expressed under the guise of national security, with the thought that ISIS extremists will use the refugee situation to infiltrate the United States and commit acts of terror on US citizens. (All of this, despite the fact that the US has perhaps the strictest screening policy for admitting Syrian refugees in the world.)

Those who call themselves conservatives in America are often Christian and often Republican. The way we understand our two-party political system forces us to do so, for the most part. Denying political refugees from a country torn apart by violence, I would like to argue, is perhaps not surprisingly Republican. It is, however, not very conservative, and worse, anti-Christian.

By this I mean that conservative, orthodox (those who affirm the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds in their entirety) Christians have no leg to stand on, faith-wise, to deny refugees asylum during times of crisis.

Our faith is informed by and filtered through the lens of the Word of God in Scripture and the Word of God in Christ. Throughout Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, God requires Israel (over and over!) to care for sojourners and foreigners, to give them citizenship within the land as need arises, and to integrate them into society. Again and again, God’s reasoning is that the people of Israel were once sojourners in a foreign land. When God gave them land to flourish, God expected his people to use the gift given to them as a blessing to the nations around them. His anger came against them sharply when their desire for security and wealth and prosperity was kept to themselves. There are dozens of biblical references that show this: Deuteronomy 10:14-19, Zechariah 7:4-12, Isaiah 16, and a lot more. They are not difficult to find.

Further, the New Testament gives a host of examples and exhortations regarding hospitality. Christians, in following Jesus, are to care for the oppressed, the poor, the downtrodden, the forsaken. Matthew 25 gives us the clearest, easiest-to-understand command from Jesus on this:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

(Matthew 25:31-40 ESV)

I’m not sure there is a way around this if we want to truly follow and obey Jesus. Other examples include Paul in Romans saying that the mark of the true Christian is “extending hospitality to others” (Romans 12:13). Hebrews 13 also exhorts believers to extend hospitality to strangers.

I will say it again: there is absolutely nothing Christian about denying safety and refuge to foreigners fleeing a crisis. Our national security is a non-issue. Jesus did not say “‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me, except when there was a possibility that a terrorist might infiltrate our ranks and threaten your security.'”

There are no conditions on hospitality in the Christian sense. Do we honestly think that it was less dangerous to be hospitable during the Roman occupation? Do we honestly think that serving and following Jesus does not entail some risk? Our savior died on a cross, for goodness’ sake! Not only that, he doesn’t say that following him will make our lives easier. On the contrary, he warns us that it will be the exact opposite! Sacrifice is not easy. Bearing a cross will be wearisome, burdensome, and will perhaps require our very lives. If that is the cost of being a Christian and following Jesus, then so be it. But do not deny refugees in the name of Christian or conservative values. Doing so devalues Jesus and betrays the Christian faith.

Be conservative. Be faithful to Jesus. Extend hospitality.