Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Do You Side With Them Instead Of Us?

The question from evangelicals to Jews, and even to mainstream denomination Christians, has a plaintive quality. It is the anger of hurt, not hostility.

They are not siding with us for good reasons and bad. First, the question can fairly be reversed. If evangelicals really want other religious people on their side in the cultural battles, upholding (for example) the institution of marriage and the nurture of the young, they should consciously seek that alliance. Evangelicals know how to rouse each other for specific tasks, but don’t stop to remember that even those who tend to agree with them do not respond to the same language and appeals. Parachurch ministries, in some ways the connecting fibers of evangelicalism, are particularly bad at this. They focus their energy on convincing the like-minded that their particular cause rises to the level of requiring action. A host of other groups who might occasionally or more passively support a cause are left unmentioned. Mormons have joined cultural alliances because they respond to much the same language and values, not because evangelicals have done much good work recruiting them. Christians from mainstream Protestantism have a slightly different focus, framing needs differently. Roman Catholic activism uses language and concepts that are a little further away; Eastern Orthodox further still. These are language and conceptual differences that are easily overcome with a little listening. They draw from the same scripture; they are filtered through the assumptions of the American experience. Evangelicals recognise the sources immediately – it’s just not the way we would have put it, or the focus we would have had.

This is even more true in speaking with Jews. The gap is wider, but not uncrossable. Evangelicals should not always leave it to others to make the adjustment, having to parse language closely to see if there are any theological time bombs included in the proposals.

For example, all groups might heartily support the idea of strengthening marriage, yet have different focus. Some want to do battle against cultural forces which undermine marriage; others might be drawn to marriage enrichment, reducing domestic violence; strengthening the surrounding community; or any of a half-dozen other worthy causes. If you want them to support your causes, consider supporting theirs. I suspect that evangelicals have little idea what causes the synagogues support in their community.

Secondly, if you are asking who religious Jews will side with as their second choice, secular Jews or religious Christians, remember that they have good recent historical reasons for suspecting that Christians might not reciprocate the sentiment, and in a pinch, choose secular Christians as their second choice over religious Jews. Protestations that this was across the water and that our history has been different will only go so far.

But the third reason is a bad one, and evangelicals should have no illusions about it. I don’t think that urban, well-educated liberal Jews are dramatically different in their cultural attitudes than other urban, well-educated liberals. If they are underrepresented in the military, they are not conspicuously different than the gentiles of their neighborhoods. If they regard people from the South and Midwest as general yahoos who like the wrong music, wrong clothes, and read the wrong authors, they do not do so in a way significantly different than other urbanites. If they are entirely beholden to the Enlightenment framework of history, the self-congratulatory picture of how benighted the earlier people were compared to their wise selves, it is because they are a product of the same schools and authors as the gentiles in their districts. Do not assign Jewishness to what is primarily a cultural prejudice. On the other hand, don’t expect that Jewish historical religiosity will overcome it either. The Arts & Humanities Tribe has contempt for the flyover American culture, which is the primary competitor to their own cultural dominance. The lash out for in resentment for status reasons, though they couch it in other terms. Liberalism is its own religion, and a very intolerant one. (If Elisheva is still on board, she looks to be an excellent example of an exception to this stereotyping of us. Be alert for such.) (Update: Okay, maybe not.)

The fourth reason would perhaps be a bad one, but as so few people are aware of it, I’m not sure it can count for or against anyone. The Anglospheric, especially American experience of Jews is profoundly different than in other countries. The religious plurality which allowed all of us, including Jews, to flourish here is deeply related to the evangelical belief that conversion must be a result of persuasion and individual decision, not government decree or cultural pressure. It is not only evangelicals who believe in persuasion in religion, of course, but we are particularly known for it. And particularly despised for it. The irritation, even deep insult, that people feel when we attempt to persuade, is not perceived as connected to the stunning newness of the American experience. Such reliance on persuasion rather than fiat is so natural to Americans now that they believe it is the natural state of affairs. They consider it some vast inconvenience and intrusion when others try to convince them. They no longer remember the alternatives were far worse.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Are Evangelicals Misunderstood?

The conversation with Elisheva has been interesting to me, and I have carried much of it around in my head over the last week. We are getting far afield from “Why Are Jews Liberal?” But perhaps not. The question “Why Are Evangelicals Misunderstood?” by most of the world, including Jews, may be a larger part of that question than I originally thought. The accusations in comments sections of blogs may not be a good sampling. Yet those tend in the same direction so often that they likely indicate some percentage of the misunderstanding.

American Judaism is in greater danger from intermarriage and assimilation than it is from pogrom. As a consequence, Jews are more at risk from Catholics, Lutherans, and other mainstreamers than they are from evangelicals or even fundamentalists. They are in greater danger still from the gentle secularizers of society. That would seem pointlessly obvious, almost taunting – except the fear expressed about current Christians is nearly always pointed at evangelicals, not Episcopalians and such. This is so similar to the hostility toward evangelicals expressed by the secular folks, and even mainstream Christians, that I suspect there is much more overlap than credited. Jews, especially liberal Jews, focus their resentment on evangelicals for much the same reasons that secular people and mainstream Christians (especially liberals) do. This is not Tribal: Jewish, but Tribal: Arts & Humanities Culture.

Odd that the conversation with Elisheva triggered this line of thought, as she seems more an exception to this. Still she may find that some part of this resonates with her, and this may at minimum give her fresh eyes to look at those inside her tribe(s?) and out.

Strengths and weaknesses are often intertwined, and the great strength and weakness of evangelicalism is that it looks back in history only about 200 years, skips 18 centuries, and focuses again on the 1st C of the common era. Regarding the European historical events which Jews and secularists raise in accusation against Christians, the evangelicals agree with them entirely. They also consider that a completely separate issue from their own Christianity. The Crusades? The Inquisition? Exactly. That’s where the church went wrong and we’re trying to get away from. That wasn’t us. Roman Catholics come in for especial criticism, but pretty much all the liturgical European churches come under suspicion. It is a bit ironic that it is I mentioning it, as I consider this distancing of evangelicals from Christian tradition a problem. They are far more beholden to these European versions than they realise or acknowledge, and where they differ I believe they are often wrong. So I, who seem to have no ancestors (Swedes and Englishmen) who persecuted Jews, am the one who feels the connection to both the good and evil of the Church through the ages, and enjoins evangelicals to embrace that connection.

Yet they have a point, not often granted them. They are quite intentional and emphatic in pursuing a 1st C Christianity, reinvented into America. For them to regard what transpired between approximately 300 – 1600 CE as having nothing to do with them is not ridiculous. It is hard to see what they could have done to make their disassociation more plain. To evangelicals, the Holocaust was enacted by typical lapsed Europeans who had reverted to semi-paganism. Americans were the rescuers. Crusades, same thing – and they are largely unaware that Jews were killed in it anyway.

It is the same perhaps, as Americans whose families immigrated after 1870 wondering why they are getting blamed for slavery and being told they owe reparations.

For those who always hold the history of the church in Europe in mind, I can readily see why the term “Christian Nation” would strike fear into the heart, and my suggesting that it is a rather mild problem must seem an evasion. Yet I say it nonetheless. When evangelicals speak of a Christian nation, there are some for whom that bitter anti-Semitism is a reality. But for most, it is more like how Americans look at Canada. Oh yeah, we forgot about you guys. Well of course you aren’t true Americans. How could you be? And we do think you go wobbly at the wrong times. But really, we weren’t trying to exclude you with all our comments that “America is the only country that this…”, or “Nowhere but America are the people…” You guys are pretty much okay, actually. Would it help if we said “North Americans” instead? (Cf “Judeo-Christian,” a phrase Jews tend to find patronizing or inaccurate, but does sum up what evangelicals mean once they’ve had a chance at a second draft. Is it right? No, but it is a far different evil than is popularly imagined.)

The anger of evangelicals often comes not from hostility but from the question Why are you siding with them (the secular) instead of us (the religious)? I can answer much of that myself and will in an upcoming post. But I wanted this out there before I went further.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Evangelical Retrievers

Evangelicals are the Golden Retrievers of Christendom. That’s making it a bit too easy-going, so I have tried on German Shepherds, Boxers, and a dozen other breeds to represent us, but I keep coming back to the retrievers. The analogy of a mixed breed with a lot of retriever in it might work, because we evangelicals often do bring in elements from all around the rest of the Christian world – and perhaps if you want to capture that dark side you could imagine that the mix-in breeds are from the more difficult lines.

Goldens aren’t stupid dogs but sometimes they look it. They are friendly – usually too friendly and trying to engage with you when you’d rather be doing something else. Fundamentalists are more like those little yippy dogs that are irritable. One doesn’t think of them first when one thinks of dangerous dogs, but when you encounter one that is angry, you suddenly remember they have sharp teeth and are not easily calmed. Plus, if you live with small dogs you are reminded that they bark a lot over very little.

Retrievers think of themselves as entirely innocent, not having any of the problems of other dogs at all. C’mon, don’t you want to play? Don’t you want to pet me? Don’t you want to throw me a stick? Let’s do things my way, you’ll love it. Why are you so mad at me? And they never quit. Okay, I admit it. I did chase squirrels. And a cat. I had forgotten that. Yes, it was me who took food off the table when you weren’t looking. And chewed the chair leg. Are you done yelling at me now? Why do you keep saying I’m a bad dog? I’m not a bad dog, I’m a wonderful dog.

When you grasp this, you will grasp why Evangelicals are puzzled by everyone’s reaction to them. We don’t chase squirrels. Well, okay, we do, but not so many. And we don’t bark except to protect the house. And to say hi. Was I barking just now? No, I wasn’t really. I’m just happy you’re here. Evangelicals think the world would be better if everyone was like them.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Ashkenazic-Centered Perspective

Elisheva's comment reminded me of something that used to be true, but I don't know if it still is. For good historical reasons, American Jews used to regard the words Christian and Gentile as interchangeable in everyday conversation. This is because the overwhelming majority of Jews were of Ashkenazic origin, from Europe. All European countries were at least nominally Christian of some sort, and the religious concerns of Christians tended to dominate the culture there.

Similarly, when Americans referred to Jews they meant Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, though most gentiles don't know that distinction. But even among those who knew that Sephardic (corrected: Oriental) Jews existed, or were aware of smaller communities in such diverse lands as Ethiopia and India, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, especially Central or Eastern Europe, were what they were thinking of when they thought of Jews. They were pretty much all that were here.

If you pressed them on the issue, both groups were aware that the generalization was sloppy and inaccurate , but everyday conversation is usually not taken up with such overprecision. I even recall two Jewish friends telling me that their own Jewish friends would sometimes look at them oddly when the consciously avoided saying "Christian" in conversation and used "gentile" instead. (One was a closet Buddhist, the other may have just learned to make the distinction for my sake.)

I thought this would slowly vanish, as everyone became more secular and everyone became more aware of the Middle-East. Yet I have no evidence that this has actually happened. Perhaps among younger Americans, both gentile and Jew, who are more used to friends having no religion at all, or a religion that is neither such as Islam or Hindu, this is changing. Also, both gentile and Jewish Americans have traveled to places other than Europe now, including Israel, Turkey, Egypt and other spots where there are Oriental Jews. Both factors would work to undermine the mental picture of Jewish=Ashkenazi and gentile=Christian. People my age might still keep the mental pictures and sloppy generalizations of our youth.

I have a couple of people I can ask about this, and I would appreciate if you all would as well.

Update: Don't neo-nazi groups use "Christian" in the same way, to mean "not Jewish?" Do they still do that? Fundamentalists are more likely to use it to mean "Not secular; you Jews are like, sort of okay."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Baby, Now That I've Found You

This was a bubble-gum, unattractive song by its original artist - who I will not even link to. When I first heard Alison Krauss sing it, I was floored. Somebody in that band has the remarkable ability to hear the beautiful potential even when the vessel is flawed. That may be rarer than the ability to write good songs. There's a sermon in that somewhere, about how God sees us and we should see each other.

The chord changes at about 1:15 are exactly the sort of subtle but dramatic improvement that such folks can bring.

Why Are Jews Liberal? Part IV

Talking about Tevye before he gets lost.

As Woodstock was not the birth of a new nation but a farewell party for the 60’s, “Fiddler On The Roof” was not the resurgence or reemergence of historical Jewishness, but the wake, funeral, and elaborate gravestone for it. The revivals of the show, then, are a sort of Jahrzeit or Kaddish. I didn’t understand this at the time; not until years later, actually. Only after I had read Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and his Daughters, the original story that Fiddler was based on, did I even begin to see this. Aleichem’s Tevye is likable enough, but nowhere near as endearing. None of the characters are. The hues are more somber, the poverty and pettiness more apparent; it is all much more foreign. The 1960’s version is a disneyfied shtetl in tsarist Russia.

To those who weren’t connected to the phenomenon – my connection was through theater rather than Judaism – it isn’t easy to describe the peculiar intensity that would pop up around this musical. Everything would be going along as with any other rehearsals, when there would suddenly be a young woman with some schoolchildren, or an older man with moist eyes standing in the back. References to the show among theater people wouldn’t be any different than references to “Man of La Mancha” for 90% of the conversation, and then there would be some Jewish theater person – sometimes someone we had not even realised was Jewish – talking about the importance of the show, and of getting certain details right. Parents would sit their children down and make them watch the movie, wanting to talk about it afterward. When I did the show in 1972, strangers started showing up the last week before opening. Could they make authentic foods for a party after? They had some family objects from the old country they could bring, in case we wanted to do a display of some sort in the lobby. Producers for “Brigadoon” or “The King and I” have to scrounge and badger for such stuff.

Yet the script celebrates the vanishing of that culture. In American musical theater, romantic love is often the god worshiped, so it’s presence in Fiddler as a competitor to Judaism may not be that significant. But the minor gods and goddesses also win out in the end as well. Tzeitel undermines the parental and village authority in choosing her husband. Hodel pushes the envelope further in choosing Perchik. Chava creates the final rip, choosing a gentile husband. The Russians persecute, the rabbi can do nothing, men dance with women, the world spins out of control. But at least, Tevye sighs, we will always wear our hats. Except that Jews don’t wear such hats now, unless they are Hasidim. That world is gone. Fiddler on the Roof is the effort of the older Jews to tell the younger “Yes, that’s all gone and it’s better now. But there were some things worth saving, or at least worth knowing, so you will understand why we are the way we are.” The younger reply “Okay, that looks charming. Which things are worth saving?” To which the final reply is “We don’t know anymore.”

BTW, I was tempted for years to join one of the local productions of Fiddler, but somehow was always too busy. I would have made a great Tevye.

Why Are Jews Liberal? -Part III

Shorter versions of the essays mentioned in Part I. My own observations on these thoughts will come later, likely influenced by whatever brilliant things you folks write in the comments.

Norman Podhoretz, who wrote the book that got this particular round of the discussion underway, believes that over their long history, the Jews have looked to two places for their safety: the heavens and the government. Government has not always been their protector, certainly, but on balance, it has done much to restrain the mob and grant Jews rights. Now that many Jews are secular, the government remains their default choice.

Podhoretz further notes that liberalism is itself a religion, providing a substitute for secular Jews in America. In Canada, Britain, and Australia, liberal governments succeeded in pushing many Jews away by being strenuously anti-Israel. This has not happened in America, though Podhoretz believes it is happening increasingly now. The reasons that Jews became liberals are no longer in force, but that political identification persists beyond its usefulness, like a vestigial tail in evolution.

In the Commentary symposium, David Wolpe stresses that Jews have been outsiders and felt like outsiders for much of their history, and so identify with other outsiders. They vote their self-conception, not their self-interest. The comfort and at-homeness other Americans seem to feel, even if they are not wealthy or high status, or whose families have not been here many generations, is off-putting to Jews.

Jonathan Sarna believes that Jews are naturally conservative, but in the US, Reform Judaism is stronger than elsewhere, overriding that. The decreasing identification with liberalism among Jews in other countries, triggered by anti-Israel stances, will assert itself here as well as the left becomes openly antisemitic, Orthodox Judaism grows, and Reform Judaism weakens. (More from Sarna later)

Michael Medved is the bluntest of the group, stating that rejection of Christianity is the only remaining unifier among Jews. Even identification with Israel has waned as its policies have offended against liberalism. It is hard for any group to throw away that last scrap of cultural identity. Jews believe that antisemitism has its center in Christian culture, especially Evangelical or Religious Right culture, and so reject those most of all.
Today, however, the echoes of that poisonous hatred, complete with seething contempt for the allegedly disloyal and manipulative -“Israel lobby” in American politics, turn up far more frequently in the newsrooms of prestige newspapers or the faculty lounges of Ivy League universities than they do in Baptist churches in Georgia or Alabama.

Jeff Jacoby traces back to the time of the kings in Jewish history to remind that wanting to be like other nations doesn’t always work out so well. The desire to fit in, to not be distinctive has backfired repeatedly. In this generation, Jews have tried to be the same by being like other urban, educated, well-to-do Americans, adopting the reassuring religion of liberalism.
It is reassuring for liberal Jews to believe that all people are fundamentally decent and reasonable, and that all disputes can be settled through compromise and conciliation. It is reassuring to believe in a world in which nothing is ever solved by war, so that military force is unnecessary and expensive weapons systems are wasteful. It is reassuring to believe that America is a secular nation, that God and religion have no place in the public square, and that no debt of gratitude is owed to the Christians who created the extraordinary society in which American Jews have thrived. It is reassuring to believe that crime is caused by guns, that academia is the seat of wisdom, and that humanity’s biggest problem is global warming. It is reassuring to believe that compassion can be achieved by passing the right laws and that big government can create prosperity. It is reassuring to believe that tikkun olam—healing the world—is a synonym for the liberal agenda and that the liberal agenda flows directly from the teachings of Judaism.

David Gelernter provides an intriguing explanation: Jewish secularism and liberalism are but a part of the larger secularising forces of Western thought, including a shift toward liberalism among vestigial Christian institutions. At a deeper level, he sees this as a death wish of the West. Low birthrates, a willingness to have national culture subsumed under EU culture, increasing enthusiasm for assisted suicide, and death with no cultural rites or comment are marks of nations and individuals who have given up the struggle against barbarism, wanting only to be peacefully left alone, preserving an attractive physical environment and comfortable standard of living, regardless of the cost to later humans. Money quote:
mulling German history in particular, one wonders whether the Germans ever were more than half-Christianized, whether paganism hasn’t always appealed to the lofty German Geist. It’s not surprising that Germany should be a leader not only in the new liberalism but also the new paganism.

William Kristol Why are Jews liberal? God Only Knows. Kristol has looked at the many discussions and explanations and come away unconvinced. Better that Jews should learn again to be good Jews than try to answer that. They don’t need more sociology, more “Whither Judaism” conferences, but Jewish religion and education. “Either they’ll come to their senses or they won’t”

The Volokh Conspirators, being attorneys, put some effort into showing how Podhoretz and conventional wisdom arguments don’t cover the map. Ilya Somin notes that Soviet Jews in America are entirely secular, but conservative. The Jews of Britain, Canada, and Australia are more divided between left and right, perhaps because there is no Religious Right in those countries. Jews tend to divide like other Americans on questions of economy and social welfare, perhaps even being a touch more conservative. But on social issues Jews, especially Jewish women, are far to the left of the mainstream. They tend to fear and despise evangelicals.

David Bernstein responds that Jews fear and despise conservatives and especially evangelicals because of political ignorance. They greatly overestimate evangelical antisemitism and underestimate the prejudice of other Democratic groups. Also, they are more Democrat voters than liberal voters. Being anti-Israel is seen as a negative, a probable indicator of hidden antisemitism; but being pro-Israel is not a positive, as Jews find hidden unattractive reasons for this support. Somin agrees that political ignorance, especially how sizeable African-American and Hispanic populations are against them, is a key factor. But he thinks this won’t change much.

Other conventional wisdom explanations, provided by Podhoretz and Sarna but largely discounted by them as inadequate hypotheses, however ingenious:
Liberalism reflects prophetic Jewish values; it is Judaism secularized.
Liberal proclivities form part of Jews’ genetic inheritance; they are biologically predetermined.
Conservatism has long historic ties to anti-Semitism; Jews reflexively recoil from it.
A “radical subculture” from Eastern Europe created and sustained the Jewish love affair with the Left; these immigrants socialized their descendants into liberalism, and they their descendants. And so forth.

I have heard further suggestions, some unattractive enough that one hopes they are not true. But all should be up for discussion.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Spin Prediction

If anything gets passed by Congress on health care, Obama's supporters will say that was what he had planned all along. It reminds me of throwing snowballs as a lad, claiming that whatever I happened to hit - branch, pole, car - was what I had been aiming for.

Why Are Jews Liberal? -Part II

(Tevye will eventually make a guest appearance in this series)

I grew up under the misapprehension that Jews were the third-largest group in my city, after WASPs and French-Canadians. Not until I was an adult did I realise that this view was demographically impossible. Not only were Jews not disparaged in my family, they were openly admired. I was in love with Rabbi Handler’s daughter Honi in 4th grade, and more briefly, with his successor Rabbi Klein’s daughter Judy in 6th.

I was in high-track classes and a math and science guy to boot, so there were Schwartz’s, Sugarmans, and Shapiro’s all around. Cohens & Levys, Altmans and Youngers. Normal life. I greatly misunderstood some things about them, however, despite having a synagogue in the neighborhood and hanging out at the Jewish Community Center my freshman year. I thought they were all a deeply religious people, much more observant and fervent than we Christians were. This was not, in retrospect, because they did any explaining of their faith and customs to me. I believe I concluded that on my own from their attendance at Hebrew School and learning a foreign language for religious study alone. They had their own foods, and rules about them. This all seemed a worthy intensity. Furthermore, the Jews in my Bible stories were all intensely concerned with God, and as they had “only half” the Bible, it seemed reasonable that they would thus be specialists in that part.

Not until after college did I learn that many Jews were quite secular, and it came as a shock. It was my Jewish friends I spoke to about my conversion, not so much to convert them, but because I felt they would understand. Learning that Jack Schwartz had taken a class in comparative religion and been taught by a rabbi that prayer was really just mystic thought, found in all religions, seemed some great sin against the universe. Why did some Jewish hierarchy somewhere not put a stop to such things? Someone was ruining the faith of Jewish children! Such was my naivete.

Nor did I know that Jews in general tended to be politically liberal. I thought it was generational, as it was with gentiles. Rich business people were Republicans, but their wise and sensitive children were Democrats. That many of the other folksingers at our coffeehouses were Jewish seemed unsurprising. They were the smart kids, therefore they were also liberal socialists concerned with justice. Like me. I don’t know where I learned about prejudice against Jews in America. Only rarely did another child tell a Jewish joke or make slurs against them in my presence, nor did any of my Jewish friends complain about or make reference to prejudice. I conclude I must have read about it in news magazines. Just sheltered and oblivious, I guess.

I came late, well into adulthood, to this whole idea that Jews tend to be more politically liberal. That gives me both an advantage of some objectivity, but also a considerable disadvantage in not knowing some things down into my bones as others might.

How To Slant The News

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me included mention of one ACORN scandal this week. They focused on the two white kids' clothes, and how they didn't really look like a pimp and a prostitute. Hahaha. What jerky goofs those conservative white kids are, don't even know how to look the part. They mentioned that ACORN had long been a target of right-wing groups and bloggers, and had fired the people involved in the incident.

You would never have known from all their chuckles about purity rings and Brooks Brothers suitcoats that there were four incidents (is it up to five now?) of ACORN willingly aiding child prostitution.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberal?

This seems to be the topic of the month where I visit. Norman Podhoretz has a book out with this title and has a summary at Wall Street Journal. Over at the libertarian law blog, Ilya Somin has three posts on the subject and David Bernstein weighs in as well. At Commentary, there is a symposium on the subject by David Wolpe, Jonathan D. Sarna, Michael Medved, William Kristol and Jeff Jacoby.

That should keep you busy all night if you are interested, so I am going to keep my contribution short at first. I think this will be a series, however, as many issues come into this one.

Not very surprisingly, I thought of the tribal aspect of all this, first from the Jewish side, then from the conservative and Evangelical Christian sides, as those angles seemed to be coming to the fore in the lengthy comments on all those posts.

I seem to have a God with an ironic sense of humor. Those who don't believe in God may say instead that I have formed God in my own ironic image. I have nothing to refute you with on that. I was thinking hard about the cultural side of the question, wondering how much the big-concept urban versus rural, association of right-wing with Nazism, north-south, and underdog-rooting aspects weighed out, and chuckling at the rather small cultural item one commenter had put a lot of stock in: hunting, which evangelical Christians tend to do and Jews don't. I couldn't see how that was going to be a big deal when compared to the other factors.

But I did understand it somewhat. One of my grandfathers went back to Nova Scotia with his brothers once a year to go hunting, but no one else in my family did. It just wasn't us. It wasn't something we did. So I could understand a Jewish attitude of It's just not something we do. But I didn't feel it deeply.

So on this very evening, Kyle asks whether he can get piercings. Kyle is 13. Permission for this isn't even remotely under consideration. It's just not something we do. I felt it powerfully, and despaired of how to explain to a child who grew up in a different (hard rock, drug use, skateboarding, minor criminality) culture. It's just not us. How do you explain that to someone who doesn't already see it, already feel it in his bones.

And it's also not quite true. My brother got an ear pierced in the 70's while he was in college, and he is very like me in many ways. So "we" do that after all.

My own tribalism, and the ghost of my grandmother via my mother rises to find me. Very funny, God.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Just Wondering

Getting off the media reservation and reading conservative news sources is something we postliberals do, er, have done. Which comes first? Does reading/watching/hearing conservative sources as opposed to the standard liberal ones create the change fairly automatically by reflecting reality better, or do you have to already get it to a certain extent to read New Media without your head exploding?

If the former, we might do better to simply challenge people to read other sources rather than attempting to argue with them.

It's sort of like the idea that wags had about bringing down the USSR by dropping planeloads of Sears Catalogues on them; or more seriously, the Bible distributors who work to simply get Bibles into a country to work on their own even if no missionaries are there.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lecture Style

I cannot sit and listen to someone deliver information to me in lecture style for very long at this point. My ability to get information from the internet, switching from subject to subject at my earliest discomfort and getting it all in text seems to have ruined me for the old method. Text can be skimmed, reviewed, or held down for examination at will. Going to a 60 or 90 minute lecture many times a week for school now seems inconceivable to me. I was never good at it any any stage of my academic career, but I could at least endure it.

But perhaps not. I can recall clock-watching and tuning out well back into elementary school, and the classes I remember as intersting were math classes where we had problems to work or humanities classes where there would be at least some discussion. Teachers who let me read, write, or daydream – that worked, too. Okay, so maybe I’m not any worse at this now. It sure seems it, though.

I am less enamored of sound in general, which I imagine is part of it. I seek silence more often. I take a break from group conversation more readily. That is likely hearing-related. Though I hear folks just fine, it may be that I am losing some frequencies, destroying nuance and giving everything a blaring sound.

I have opposite impressions listening to a speaker. The first is that s/he is trickling information out too slowly, larding up with normal conversational speech filler such as qualifiers and repetitions; the second is that too much information is being imparted – new subjects introduced late in the game. This would suggest some storage problem is at the root. I can automatically structure an auditory lesson into some workable package, but once that structure is full, or new information does not fit neatly into its design, I cannot absorb more. People continuing to speak actually interferes with learning at that point, as they increase the noise-to-signal ratio. It becomes physically tiring to listen to them, straining to pick up content important enough to be attached to the scaffolding. It’s not just sermons (though no one should be going longer than fifteen minutes at this point), because I have the same impression at Grand Rounds or department meetings, with and without Power Point or handouts. Very quickly, there is not enough that is new in the speaking to attract the ear. I get annoyed. The lecturer clearly thinks that something new and important is being delivered, but it sounds like a minor elaboration to me. The mental tiredness is similar to what I experience when listening to someone with a heavy accent. One has to listen very hard, but one does not get much back.

When I have to teach, I hope it is not like that for my audience. I fear it may be. I find even professional speakers on video – presumably selected in Darwinian style for higher interest and ability – tough to listen to. Maybe my standards are just too high for speaker quality these days and I’ve gotten spoiled. Maybe I’m just getting more stupid as I age.

I have attempted at times to switch to a note-taking style, without much success. How in the world did they listen to three-hour sermons in the old days? Were they more patient, or just so understimulated during the week that the novelty gave them wings?


What did evangelical kids do during congregational meetings before there was Veggietales? I had trouble remembering yesterday. There were other videos before the mid-90’s but I can’t recall them. Some rather serious cartoons, I’m thinking. Filmstrips, maybe. Stretching further back, there were always Arch books and variations on the coloring and let’s-all-sing methods. In the 50’s and 60’s there were flannelgraphs. Bringing in a movie was a pretty rare treat, and seldom as good a movie as we hoped.

I have long claimed that I hated flannelgraphs, but I don’t actually remember what I thought of them as a child. Perhaps I liked them fine, and only acquired my anti-flannelgraph snobbery as a teenager wanting better production values. When a fellow short-term missionary brought out a very elaborate set to show to the children of Romania, I was appalled. I hope I hid my contempt. I was certain that this was one more example of inflicting Romanian Christians with the outdated entertainments of American fundamentalists. Could Scripture Drill Teams and translations of “Arky Arky” be far behind?

Yet the younger Romanian kids loved flannelgraphs, and I was glad I had piped down. Did Catholics have flannelgraphs, or was that considered too Protestant? Eastern Orthodox flannelgraphs, with Saints Cyril and Methodius in icon form – that would be cool. Except it probably wan’t that interesting if you actually grew up with it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Boston TV

My mother discouraged us from watching this show, as it might be too scary. Such were the times.

But we watched Boomtown all three hours every Saturday. If you were sick and stayed home from church on Sunday, you learned that Rex Trailer was on three hours then, too - and played hymns on his guitar.

My brother and I tried the rope tricks. That is, I made him stand across the room with one of Mummy's cigarettes in his mouth and I would flip a hunk of rope and knock it out. I can't imagine I never missed, but I don't recall any accidents.

I don't know all of the words to "Hoofbeats" or "Boomtown," I'm afraid, though I could get part of them down.

Congregations, and Corporate Worship

There are any number of sites around the web where people are putting forth the idea that they can have a Christian life separate from a community of believers. They counter the criticism implied in the scripture "Forsake not the fellowship of the saints" by noting that they can have fellowship by calling a friend, or communicating online.

There is much to be said for this approach, as it does eliminate much of the distraction and dross of congregational life. Certainly the Desert Fathers must be accounted among the true Christians, whether their approach was correct or not. But even the Desert Fathers moved toward a community life of meals and prayers, leading eventually to monasticism. I doubt it ever got quite like this -

but the joke is closer to the truth than people popularly imagine.

Many also returned to society as well, regarding their time in the desert as one of instruction, much as Paul or John the Baptist had done.

But my question is not directed at those who seek a Christian solitude with such intensity, but those who live in the world as before but absent themselves from formal congregations. How do you expect to have growth if you don't have to deal with bad Christians (either amiable folks whose piety is suspect, or difficult folks who are believers)? And how will you deal with bad Christians without good Christians to support you?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Of Studies

Reading maketh a full man; conference maketh a ready man; writing maketh an exact man.
Sir Francis Bacon "Of Studies"

Best of June 2006

We were still debating stretching a wall along our southern border in those days. I interviewed an old New Hampshireman who thought we should build it for symbolic reasons, if nothing else.

Three years ago, it was still common to deny that the Religious Left even existed. I spent a lot of energy on that myth, and now no one doubts it. I think I'll take full credit. You're welcome.

Ned Flanders and Evangelical Pathology

Rush was wrong - sort of. And Buchanan is nuts.

One of the first pieces in my extended discussion of Cultural Tribes (sidebar), The Influence of Doonesbury.

Car Talk offers a political solution. I don't like it, explaining why using hamsters.

Hating Wellness Fair at work. Body worshipers.

How America works. Diffuse Power and No One Is Minding The Store.

Two ethical-religious discussions, on Pascals Wager and Proportionality.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A General Note On Blog Commenters

Whenever I encounter in a comments section someone who has a standard signoff like "Cheers," or "Regards," it is abundantly clear that they really mean "F-you." This is especially true of people who sign off "Peace." Watch for it.

Probably not coincidentally, they make the exact same lame joke about my online name. To such folks I say And also with you.

Small Fry Club

Big Brother Bob Emery. I hadn't realized he was national long before he was the local lunchtime kiddie show guy in the Boston area. We went home for school lunch in those days - if your district's school attendance report still refers to "half days absent" that's why - and I watched his show at my grandmother's every day at 12:15. He would raise a glass of milk in toast to the president every day while "Hail To The Chief" played in the background. I remember when the portrait switched from Eisenhower to Kennedy. I was only 7, but I had some vague knowledge that the two were from different parties, and I wondered if there might be some trouble with that on the show. It was reassuring that there wasn't.

He played the ukulele, and I still remember the intro song.
Oh the grass is always greener in the other fellow's yard
The little row we have to hoe - oh boy that's hard
But if we all could wear green glasses now well it wouldn't be so hard
To see how green the the grass is in our own back yard.

And the closing song.
So long, small fry, it's time to say goodbye.
Be back again tomorrow noon and then
We'll have some fun, there's some for everyone
So don't forget we have a date
Tomorrow noon and don't be late
So small fry, so long.

Next up: Boomtown, Fantasmic Features, and Major Mudd (IBBY). I hope you feep well.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Birthers, and Vague Doubts

I haven’t said much about this topic, as it’s not an issue that means that much to me. As it continues to hang around, however, it deserves comment.

If one looks at the wording of the poll questions on the subject, they are framed in terms of doubt rather than disbelief. Even among the fieriest complainers on right-wing blogs (the ones I see, anyway) there is more emphasis on the fact that Obama can’t seem to be bothered to prove his constitutional eligibility.

Democratic pollster David Beattie conducted a survey last month in one competitive congressional district that found that more than a quarter of independents believed Obama had not proven his natural-born status. The same sentiment was expressed by nearly 6 in 10 Republican women -- a group that Beattie said would be important for a Democratic victory.

He declined to name the district because the polling was private, but said that such questions about Obama's background seemed to be a "proxy" for voters' growing unease with Obama's ambitious agenda, which has included a potential push to create a government-sponsored health insurance plan. (LA Times)

I agree with Beattie’s assessment that the issue is a proxy for a growing number of vaguer discontents about Obama. I doubt the general citizen who spends more of her day concerned with events in her own life than document trails of politicians is convinced that Obama was born elsewhere. Such dark fantasies seem more appropriate to movie plots than to the light of day. Folks think But it is the Constitution, after all, and seems pretty straightforward to rectify, and shouldn’t a president be more…more reassuring about such things?

The Obama defense that the whole idea is ridiculous and the president shouldn’t have to be bothered with addressing every cockamamie rumor about him is a reasonably good point. If the natural-born citizenship were the only question arising, I don’t think it would have legs. But this seems part of a pattern. The resignation of Van Jones stirs up both the old questions about Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright – that Obama has connections to some seriously left-wing people – and to the more recent questions about his actual appointees, revealed to be a remarkably concentrated sample of tax evaders, political threateners, and incompetents. We expect the president to be more reassuring about these issues as well. We don’t want to keep asking “who’s minding the store?”

Most people are willing to accept a decent explanation. Obama was somewhat reassuring that all his radical friends had gone mainstream, and those who hadn’t he was no longer influenced by. His more visible appointees have often had resumes that seemed at least superficially acceptable. Yet in none of these cases did he give a fully adequate response, only a mostly adequate one. Those inclined to doubt his words from the start pointed out weaknesses and discrepancies in his statements. For the rest, it’s easier to believe than to disbelieve, and folks go about their business, filing the incidents under “That’s probably OK.” Yet at some point a voice in one’s brain goes “Y’know, there are an awful lot of probablies in this basket.”

The high-profile events of the summer have only served to reinforce the doubts. Whatever people know about bailouts, stimulus, budget, and now health care, they know that it’s a heckuva lot of money. An unprecedented amount of money. More, much more, than foreign wars cost. People had plenty of doubts how much bang for our buck we were getting for those wars, but at least there were always things we could point to that might justify them. At least we did something against terrorists…at least Saddam’s gone and Iraq has elections…at least there’s been no more attacks…maybe it will all work out okay. But with these new huge sums the reassurance continues to drain. Are the automakers doing better? Weren’t they supposed to be doing better by now? Why hasn’t the stimulus stimulated? Was it supposed to take this long but I missed that part? The off-the-cuff trashing of the Cambridge PD, the stupid interactions with the Russians, the Brits, Hondurans, and the Saudis – all these add to the impression “Is this guy American in the deeper sense of someone who loves this country and wants to fix it? Or is he just trying to remake it?” Any doubts attaching to his origins would likely be a magnet.

I doubt 6 in 10 Republican women in any county in America think Obama was born in Kenya. If someone has numbers that contradict that, send ‘em on. My reading of the sentiment is that people believe he’s being cavalier with American attitudes and rules in general, and wondering if that extends even to our most basic American contract, the Constitution. Politicians are supposed to be bright and snappy about easy constitutional things. It’s a gimme putt. Folks wonder why he can’t be bothered.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Archie Bunker

Archie has occurred to me a lot recently. I saw very few episodes of the show, but discussion of Archie was always in the air in the 1970's. Perhaps I haven't given it due credit in my journey from left to right on the political spectrum. My politics aligned somewhat with Michael's, but I found him an unlikeable character. The show had clearly lined up to show Archie and his ideas in the worst possible light, buffoonishly so, and this struck me as artistic abuse. As it became clear who Norman Lear and Rob Reiner were in later years, the portrayal of Archie made more sense. They had no understanding of the ideas they were mocking - even I, who also mocked them, found the stereotype to be more worthy of agit-prop than comedy. The artificial setups to always show Michael as the intelligent, thoughtful one held a childish unfairness.

But that wasn't what stuck in my craw. Michael lived in Archie's house. In all the commentary about Archie I never heard that mentioned. I imagine it came up on the show, but it was conveniently overlooked when people absorbed the stereotypes. It seemed the most basic fact about the situation: Gloria had a poorly-paying job, Edith took care of everyone, Archie provided most of the support, yet it was Michael who was delivered the put-down lines.

Perhaps my resentment at deferring to my stepfather through those years was part of this. I certainly thought of criticisms, challenges, and put-down lines while living in his house. But you just didn't say them. Respect for elders entered into it, but in an even more basic value, there is an enormous ingratitude in criticising a person while sitting at his table.

I doubt I was entirely acquiescent. Even more, I was likely to display my resentments with sullenness and distance. But still...there were places you just didn't go. I don't think that's as true anymore. The ubiquity of blended families has made that virtue unsustainable even as myth.

Because Archie gradually became more endearing, and Michael became the butt of later episodes, I assume that the writers were just being true to their craft more than their politics. Stereotypes that stark cannot long endure on the stage.

The Tea Parties and town halls have brought my thoughts back to Archie. The participants in those events are not Archie Bunker buffoons, but they are portrayed that way. So it occurs to me - even if the stereotype of those Joe the Plumbers were true, isn't it their house? Aren't they the ones supporting the rest? Aren't their critics coming off a lot like Michael - self-righteous, condescending, sarcastic.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


Y'all can pray for commenter Retriever, though I can't share why. Very discouraging times right now.

You folks who don't usually pray, remember that you often get moved to the front of the line when you try. Maybe it's a surprise factor or something.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Why We Shouldn't Apologize For Genesis

I consider Genesis to be more than a creation myth, but find no harm in examining it as only a creation myth for purpose of discussion and understanding. An interesting parallel exists between the story of Prometheus and Genesis. Pandora is told not to open the box, a similar story to the forbidding of the eating of the fruit of a single tree in Eden. The fruit is eaten, the box opened, and all the evil of the world results. The other characters in Pandora’s story are Prometheus and Epimetheus – forethought and afterthought. Which are the two things necessary for the knowledge of good and evil. Think about it. Unless one can imagine events being different than they are, one cannot know good and evil, cannot know choice. Animals at higher levels can know conflict, whether to obey the command or eat the food, but can only react to the stronger stimulus. Only when one can imagine how things might be otherwise can there be moral choices.

There are lots of similarities of creation myths worldwide – people being formed out of clay, an original god forming land, sky, and water out of chaos. Floods, eggs, and light figure prominently. Lots of them have gods or animals mating to create the various aspects of the world. Multiple gods and goddesses come onto the scene shortly after. Those are interesting in that they all seem to preserve some greatly similar original story of our origins, but that’s not what I am interested in here. The most philosophically sophisticated in terms of how good and evil came into the world boil down to two, the Greek and the Hebrew, and they are similar.

If you add in the bit about Prometheus, after stealing the fire, symbol of intelligence, being chained to a rock and having his liver torn out every day, there is an additional similarity. The liver was thought to be the seat of contentment – not very far from the idea of being cast out of the garden and having to work by the sweat of the brow thereafter. There’s a beginning of philosophy here, not just a story about how objects came into being. I recently heard a pastor say he could make almost a whole career out of preaching from the first three chapters of Genesis.

Comfort Zone

It is not that unusual to see young people who were successful in school go into teaching. This is particularly true of young women. It is an environment whose rules they have mastered. It’s easy to see why they would find it comfortable, at least initially. I suppose there could be something mildly pathological about it, being unwilling to enter unfamiliar and adult environments, but I doubt that lasts very long.

I wonder if it is even more true at the next level of education. I don’t simply mean the academic rules of engagement, but a fondness for something about college culture.

And Now Five

We were granted permanent guardianship of our nephew Kyle this week. He remains our nephew, not calling us Mom or Dad (though he intermittently does say "my parents" to refer to us collectively), but he is living here as a son.

So now I have five.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


As a postliberal by political designation, I have both affection for and frustration with the major brands of conservatism: SoCons, NeoCons, PaleoCons, Populists, and Libertarians. There has been a lot of ink spilled – well, electrons activated is more accurate – over how torqued off many conservatives are over the social conservatives. They would come back and be good Republicans, they say, if we would just tell the Religious Right to shut up, and remind them they are not the whole conservative movement. And those others are just sure there are lots of folks like them who would vote for small-government Republicans as well if we would just kick the RR a few times. The libertarian and paleocon strains, including the younger and ideologically purer, as well as older country-club Republicans, lead this charge.

The nomination of Sarah Palin really pushed these guys over the edge. That strong a statement that the SoCons were a key part of conservative fortunes struck them as evidence that things were continuing to trend in the wrong direction.

I have considerable sympathy with this reaction, as I know enough folks from the Religious Right to be aware that some of them are a bit much. They do tend to get worked up about causes and make a lot of noise about evolution in the schools, or end-time prophecies they think are coming true. They leap to conclusions. They overinterpret.

So get over it already. As a purely practical matter, those issues bring in more votes than they lose. The individuals making noise might drive some people away – especially your friends, Muffin – but most Americans don’t pay obsessive attention to what is happening politically. They go about their everyday lives, only activating when a threshold of annoyance is reached. I don’t like this gay marriage thing. and the government is spending too much money anyway. Or, The Democrats want more ridiculous gun legislation and are becoming foreign-policy wusses again – I’ve had it. Socially conservative issues are a big part of that. It’s one thing to say we should emphasize the commonality of small-government/less-intrusion issues. I couldn’t agree more, because that’s what government is about – governance, not culture. But actively distancing yourself from socon issues is a net loss. Whatever your feelings tell you. However tired you are of your center-left friends sniggering about Palin. Suck it up. Snigger back. There are plenty of targets. Don’t go all tribal and want your coalition to all be people you’d like to go on a road trip with.

The belief that conservatives would attract just oodles of new people, or attract back the disaffected, does not have evidence to support it. It’s the spending and Washington double-standards that have pushed people away. The other flavors of conservative would like the socons to follow their lead and emphasize those issues. Persuasion might be a good idea, don’t you think? If that hasn’t occurred to you, maybe you’ve got personal issues you shouldn’t be bothering the rest of us with, Jack. Yeah, I know. It’s the Religious Right who’ve got issues. Never their critics.

It hasn’t been the socons who have let the side down over the last decades. While there are wild-spending Republican politicians who pander to the socons (Trent Lott, call your office), it generally hasn’t been the Religious-Right approved legislators who have been spending the money. They have often been the beleaguered defenders of smaller government. The socons aren’t the ones who stayed home and pouted because nominees weren’t to their liking. They’ve held their noses and been coalition players for the sake of the larger goals. They show up. They make phone calls. They put out signs. Even in less-religious, socially liberal places like New Hampshire, you don’t have a party without them. In the northeast, you might get a net gain of votes if you threw the socons under the bus. Yet I am not sure even of that.

Additionally, even though they put things in overdramatic language, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. While the libertarians have very strong points about individual freedom and may eventually prevail under the law about same-sex marriage (for example), the gut-sense opposition of the socons is likely to prove out. It’s going to be difficult to prove that same-sex marriage in Europe has caused its deterioration of marriage and wild increases in out-of-wedlock births. They may both be products of a deeper cultural force, not one causing the other. But the one has indeed followed after the other. To take another example, it’s going to be tough to prove that legalised abortion has led to tolerance of euthanasia, including the Dutch practice of withdrawing life support even without anyone’s permission. But the latter did happen after the former, as predicted, and one can make a connection that is at least superficially plausible: less respect for life.

Jonah Goldberg has noted that conservatism is not so much an ideology as an avoidance of ideology, a refusal to make grand theories about how things work and try to fit reality into them. It is an attitude toward government and society rather than a theory of government and society. The various flavors of conservatism tend to believe that people are accountable for their actions. Socons are among the most adamant about this, which is a commonality of opinion not to be despised, however much disagreement there is on specific issues.

Did Medicare D Help?

I consider Medicare D odious. One more government bureaucracy with arcane rules providing a service for a lot of people when only a minority needs it, at huge expense. What’s not to like, eh? Like No Child Left Behind, it always struck me as exactly the sort of government fixit that George W. Bush learned at Bush 41’s knee: better and cheaper than what the Democrats were trying to sell - and trying to solve a problem that actually does exist - but still more bad than good.

It occurs to me however, that a tipping point in the opposition to Obamacare has come from seniors, who often follow closely the scary parts of legislation that affects them. Had Medicare D not been in place, that might not have played out the same way. Add medication insecurity to the intense AARP advocacy to support Kennedycare, seniors might have gone the other way.

There’s no way to play out the counterfactual, but it is at least plausible that Medicare D provided the necessary hedge of protection against complete government takeover. I’m changing the grade on that from F to “Incomplete” while I think about it.