Readings: Measuring the decline of our souls

Jonathan Merrit at NYT:

By searching the Google Ngram corpus — a collection of millions of books, newspapers, webpages and speeches published between 1500 and 2008 — we can now determine the frequency of word usage over the centuries. This data shows that most religious and spiritual words have been declining in the English-speaking world since the early 20th century.

One might expect a meaty theological term like “salvation” to fade, but basic moral and religious words are also falling out of use. A study in The Journal of Positive Psychology analyzed 50 terms associated with moral virtue. Language about the virtues Christians call the fruit of the spirit — words like “love,” “patience,” “gentleness” and “faithfulness” — has become much rarer. Humility words, like “modesty,” fell by 52 percent. Compassion words, like “kindness,” dropped by 56 percent. Gratitude words, like “thankfulness,” declined by 49 percent.

A decline in religious language and a decrease in spiritual conversations does not necessarily mean that we are in crisis, of course. But when you combine the data about the decline in religious rhetoric with an emerging body of research that reveals how much our linguistic landscape both reflects and affects our views, it provides ample cause for alarm.

I would argue that words like “patience,” “kindness” and “modesty” are not Christian words, certainly, but it probably is alarming if we as a society no longer use — or no longer have need to use — some of these terms.

There are two tiers of ‘the resistance.’ Which path will you take?

Over at The Week, I offer a caution against liberals who are ready to delegitimize the Supreme Court now that a conservative majority is firmly entrenched.

Another problem with the delegitimization agenda: It mostly works if you are in control of one of the other two branches of government. At this moment, undermining the authority of the Supreme Court means empowering a White House and Congress that are both held by Republicans. Maybe that changes after next month’s midterms, maybe it doesn’t. A conservative court may be just a minor obstacle to President Trump’s plans, but it can still be an obstacle. Liberals surely don’t want to be part of inadvertently making life easier for Trump, do they?

The column appears the day after I tweeted this, and found my timeline packed with angry liberals accusing me of surrendering to conservatives.

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I was trying to caution against short-term “fixes” to our political situation that don’t solve anything over the long-term, but a lot of folks saw it otherwise. (Including, it seems, a lot of folks who think FDR succeeded in his own court-packing scheme. He didn’t.)

But in thinking through all of this I realized that in the Trump Era there are two kinds of “resistance”:

• There are those who think Trump is the culmination of our systems failing us, that our institutions were built to protect white male power and they have finally given us him, and through him, Brett Kavanaugh. If this is your point of view, your solution to Trumpism might be something like “burn it all down.”

• There are those who think Trump has shredded and attacked institutions that have protected rights and kept the peace for more than 200 years. If this is your point of view, then what you want to do is work to preserve and restore those institutions in what is hopefully a forthcoming, glorious post-Trump era.

I think … both sides are right. Or, at least, both have an important point to consider.

Yes, the system we live in was designed and built for a relatively small group of people, and today’s reactionaries are using that system for its original intended purpose. The institutions have evolved over the years, but extracting them entirely from those original purposes is a difficult, maybe impossible job.

On the other hand…

Those institutions have evolved. Fast enough, far enough? No. There’s much, much more work to be done, certainly, if we can get through the current Bad Times. But the Supreme Court that has made it possible for guns to proliferate in America also struck some of the earliest and most effective blows for racial and gay equality in this country.

Today is Columbus Day, also known as Indigenous Peoples Day. We are heirs to flawed origins. We are also heirs to people who took those flawed origins and worked mightily and sacrificed much over decades and centuries to make a more perfect union. Their work today is threatened as it hasn’t been for a long time.

Me, I think the myth of the Phoenix is just a myth. Fire usually destroys more than it creates. The Law of Unintended Consequences is a thing. The world is full of examples of bad regimes being torn own and replaced with something worse. Revolution is a tricky thing that doesn’t always go where you expect. Caution might be useful.

Stepping back: We’ve arrived at this moment on the Supreme Court because conservatives have been planning for it and working for it, even through setbacks, for more than 40 years — and they’ve done it in full view. Liberals, for whatever reason, didn’t do the same work on the other side. So while we should work as hard as we can to protect rights in the short-term, we should also be aiming to build our own long-term effort to compete with conservatives. Today didn’t happen last week; it’s been happening since 1980, at least. Our best solutions to that challenge will involve a similar commitment.

Where does that leave me? A resistance viewpoint that I think is somewhat radical in outlook – sympathetic to critiques made by minorities and feminists – while being somewhat conservative (in the sense of cautious, not in the sense of being right-wing) in my viewpoint on the best solutions and practices going forward.

There’s danger in becoming MLK’s famously ineffective “white moderate” from that stance, I realize. I don’t have all the answers. I’m wrong sometimes. So I’ll try to keep listening to people who have lived most intensely with injustice, and try to work for justice as best I can — and hope my best actually works for the good.

No, Republicans don’t believe women

And Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court.

If it wasn’t Kavanaugh, it was going to be some other conservative. Once Mitch McConnell refused a hearing to Merrick Garland, then Donald Trump won the presidency, this moment of rage was inevitable. It is worse because of a belief that Republicans made a real effort to avoid fully investigating the sexual assault allegation made by Christine Blasey Ford. We’re not going to forget this moment for a long time.

A lot of Republicans they believe, for whatever reason, Ford was either lying or badly used by Democrats, implying they’re reading to hear and help real victims of sexual assault. But there’s no reason to believe them.

Why? Because they don’t even believe men who tell us they treat women badly – or, at least, not enough to keep those men out of power.

Donald Trump on the “Access Hollywood” tape told us he sexually batters women.

Donald Trump told us that he would go backstage at beauty contests to see young women in various states of undress because he could.

Donald Trump told us repeatedly how he viewed his own daughter in sexual terms.

Republicans made him president.

So it’s hard to credit statements from Republicans about how this time they couldn’t believe a woman, and oh dear, the fakers like Dr. Ford will make it hard for the real victims, like they really want to help sexual assault victims who have been abused by powerful men.

All they have to do is believe a woman’s word – or a man’s repeated confessions – when it costs them something, once. Believing that Democrats have done bad things – and they have – is easy. Do it when it means losing a Senate seat, or a spot on the Supreme Court, or the White House.

Until then, the evidence is that Republicans just don’t care enough.

Readings: Bret Kavanaugh, R-SCOTUS


Kavanaugh’s written draft of his statement to the Judiciary Committee, submitted on Sept. 26, was nonpartisan. It spoke of “a frenzy to come up with something—anything … that will block a vote on my nomination.” But while Ford was testifying on the morning of Sept. 27, Kavanaugh, by his own account, rewrote his remarks instead of watching her testimony. After the word “frenzy,” he inserted the phrase “on the left.” And before the words “grotesque and obvious character assassination,” he inserted “anger about President Trump,” “revenge on behalf of the Clintons,” and “left-wing opposition groups.” These revisions weren’t the work of a man defending his honor. They were carefully crafted appeals to political tribalism.

What would a fair-minded person say?

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I’m going to risk frustrating some friends with the following comment:

I can see how a reasonable person might look at the the testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Bret Kavanaugh, feel sympathy for her, yet decide there’s not enough evidence on the scale to block his confirmation to the Supreme Court. 

I wouldn’t vote for him. And I’m against confirming Supreme Court justices on a “tie goes to the runner” rule regarding sex crime accusations. Honesty compels me to differentiate what I can be certain of versus what I strongly suspect to be true. But if your vote comes down to “did he do it or not?” and you legitimately decide it’s not proven enough, well, I don’t love it. But I get it.

The problem, one that lingers after all of this is over? I see so few reasonable people backing Kavanaugh.

For many people on the right, the existence of Ford’s accusations — and the way Democrats in the Senate have handled them, or the media’s coverage of them — have become justification enough to rally to Kavanaugh’s support. You can see it in the columns of Bret Stephens and Rod Dreher, as well as polling suggesting that Republican enthusiasm for the midterm elections has suddenly shot through the roof. Understand: This has nothing to do with his qualifications for the court, or his innocence of the allegations, but instead represents the crystallization of the effyoucracy (sound it out) at its most pernicious.

What seems like a million years ago, I wrote about how we as a society would handle allegations like Ford’s if we were more oriented toward believing women yet wanting to ensure that no person accused of sex crimes was deprived of a fair process for judgment.

There were three points. Let me focus on the first for a second:

When a woman makes an accusation, it would mean pursuing all available lines of evidence to weigh the truth of her claims.

Let’s acknowledge that this claim, coming publicly 36 years after the fact, is tough to fairly adjudicate. But the public evidence is that all available lines of evidence were not pursued. Instead, we’ve increasingly been treated to warnings about perils of false accusations. About half the country seems ready to take this lesson from recent events: That men are the real victims here.

Instead, the president has mocked Ford.  To cheers, laughter and applause from a Mississippi convention hall full of Republicans. Other Republicans have promoted the idea that Ford is too ugly to rape — and used a fake photo to “prove” it, too boot.

And finally, some of the same people who say the public evidence is insufficient to withhold office from Kavanaugh use that same evidence to assert that she is a liar. They want modesty in judging their man, but boldness in accusing the woman who accused him.

What is reasonable about all that? How does that balance our duties to listen to victims and to protect the rights of the accused? What would a fair-minded person say about all of this?

I try to be fair-minded, even acknowledging my biases. And I’m well aware of the Gospel admonition to pluck the log out of your own eye before pointing out the cinder in your neighbor’s. So I’ll also acknowledge that Republicans would probably, at this point, mention people like Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton and point out that the GOP doesn’t have a monopoly on this sort of thing.

My response to that is twofold:

• First, they’re absolutely right. Liberals shouldn’t get too snooty with the idea that Republicans uniquely protect sex offenders, because we have a not-too-distant history of trading feminist principles for political power.  It’s ugly, and we need to deal with skeletons in our own closet.

• Second: Fuck that.

Pardon the language. But even if conservatives are entirely right about Kennedy and Clinton, let me let you in on a little ol’ concept: Two wrongs don’t make a right. The existence of a sordid history involving Democrats and women does not license Republicans to add to that. Women deserve better from all of us, regardless of political party or inclinations.

I think we can honestly say they’re not getting it.