The NRA hates you and me

Dear Rebecca:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay between civility and justice lately, resisting the idea that we have to hate our neighbors who think differently than us, feeling like any political victories we achieve in such an atmosphere might be hollow and rickety.

But then there’s this ad from the NRA:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FNRA%2Fvideos%2F1605896562755373%2F&show_text=1&width=560

(Sorry, the video is not embedding. Follow the link and watch.)

And, um, I’m terrified.

It makes me wonder if civility is beside the point. Safety is first, then justice. I see no love for their fellow citizens in this ad, no understanding – or even a care to understand – what might motivate them. All I see is hate and rage.

They hate you. They hate me. And they love it. They need it.

God help us all.
Joel

In Christ there is no East or West

Dear Rebecca:

I’m sorry I haven’t posted lately. My silence has been driven by two things: Busyness, but also a deep anger about our politics — with heartless Republicans and smug liberals — and, well, I haven’t trusted myself to comment rationally and persuasively.

I went to church this morning, though, and got to sing the traditional version of this untraditional Mavis Staples take on an old hymn:

The United Methodist Church has an interesting website devoted to the history of hymns. About the original version, it says this:

As UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young observes, “[t]he theme of Oxenham’s hymn, one of the most durable hymnic statements of Christian unity in the twentieth century, is from Galatians 3:28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.’”

Though originating in the missionary movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this hymn gratefully lacks the triumphalism and hegemonic assumptions of so many mission hymns of this era. Perhaps the author’s extensive travel helped him develop a sense of Christian unity beyond the racial and cultural differences that he observed.

This is my animating idea when it comes to the church, I guess. It’s why I resist Christianity as tribalism, or as a force that reinforces our tribalism. If there is a god and that being is the God of us all, what excuse do we have to separate ourselves and to exult in, be prideful about, those separations?

It was a good morning to be in church. A time to be reminded of some important stuff.

Sincerely,
Joel

Yes, They’re “Killing” “Donald Trump” in Central Park. Let’s Stop Insulting the Rubes, Eh?

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Dear Rebecca:

Here is the controversy du jour:

New York’s Public Theater lost support from two high-profile corporate donors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, on Sunday amid intense criticism of its production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” which depicts the assassination of a Trump-like Roman ruler.

“No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,” the company said in a statement on Sunday night.

“Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste,” the company said. “We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater effective immediately.”

Smart folks are snickering at this decision. “Julius Caesar” is clearly an anti-assassination play, they say, as anybody who’s read the play or seen it performed fully will know.

hayes

To paraphrase Shakespeare: The pundits do protest too much.

Yes, Julius Caesar is a play that ultimately delivers an anti-assassination message. Guess what? “Reefer Madness” is a movie that delivers an anti-pot message, but it’s enduring popularity … well, let’s just say its most enthusiastic viewers may not be taking “Reefer’s” prohibitionist message to heart.

There are a million examples in the history of art of wrapping spectacle in an “eat your Wheaties message” for the sheer sake of delivering spectacle. This way of telling a story reached real heights during Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the Hays Code required that movies ultimately have uplifting moral messages. As long as Jimmy Cagney converts in the last five minutes, he can slaughter as many gangsters as he wants during the preceding 90. Hypocrisy, they say, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Put it on stage, though, and it can be beautiful, even stirring.

Which is to say: If you think the Shakespeare in the Park folks might be trying to intentionally provoke and provide a little bit of anti-Trump spectacle by figuratively murdering him every night for a few nights before thousands of onlookers — well, let’s says you might have a deeper understanding of how art sometimes works than what you’re being credited with by the Chris Hayses of the world.

One can understand the play and still think those involved thought it might be a thrill to depict Donald Trump being shredded by knives. *

*Or Gregg Henry, who plays Caesar. He always plays a great villain. Would love to see him in this. 

Understand, I’m not getting into the ethics of “fake Nazi punching” or whatever we want to call this. I’m getting into the ethics of “insulting the public’s intelligence.” Liberals are acting smug because they understand  literature better, they think, conservatives are mad — rightly — to be treated like rubes, and, well, round and round we go.

If we’re going to have the catharsis of watching Trump torn apart every night, let’s be honest. Let’s own it. But let’s not tell people they’re dumb when they can see pretty well what’s probably going on here.

See you at the theater!
Joel

Why I’m Terrified by News That Hillary Clinton Used Prison Laborers as Servants

Dear Rebecca:

Have you heard that Bill and Hillary Clinton used slave labor in the Arkansas governor’s mansion? I thought it was a hoax, but it turns out not to be: The “slaves” in question were convicted prisoners on work detail. You can see how this is going to get complicated.

hillary-clinton
The evidence was in plain sight.

The evidence was in plain sight the whole time: Hillary described it in her 1996 book “It Takes A Village.”

The relevant excerpt:

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 4.51.47 PMScreen Shot 2017-06-08 at 4.51.53 PMScreen Shot 2017-06-08 at 4.52.05 PM

I admit. It was kind of breathtaking to read.

And then, on second thought, it was kind of personally horrifying. Why?

For a couple of reasons: First, it’s been 20 years since the book came out. Only now is a fuss being made. That means that a bunch of people read it and didn’t think much about the Arkansas tradition – or, in the pre-Internet age when the book came out, didn’t have the voice needed to make the fuss gather momentum.

Second: I can’t honestly say I would’ve done differently.

I think I’m a conscientious fellow. I argue against racism every chance I get. I argue against sexism the same. And yet, I know I’ve been betrayed by a blind spot now and again. It will almost certainly happen again.

It’s easy enough for me to imagine being in Hillary’s shoes: Not comfortable with a practice, but also not wanting to make a fuss about “tradition,” especially when it saves taxpayers a few bucks, and especially since they’re convicts and especially since I know I’m a conscientious person and will treat them well and … oh dear, it’s a slippery slope to being a slave master.

(There are those who will still argue that this was a good deal for convicted inmates, but there’s also a lot of evidence that the justice system is built to feed black men into prisons, too. Watch Ava Duvernay’s “13th” for a quick primer on this. I’m inclined to the latter point of view more than the first. In which case, the moral rule is this: Don’t accept service from people in shackles. Refuse to benefit from that.)

So: I think what Bill and Hillary Clinton did was wrong, and I think it was profoundly human, and that’s what terrifies me.

I’ve been thinking about the ways injustices sustain themselves — I’ll be writing about Jim Comey on a similar topic in the next few days — and one of them is that they embed themselves in custom and tradition, take on an air of authority, make it easier to accept than to challenge.

I’m pretty sure I’m not a better person than Hillary Clinton. And that terrifies me. How easily would I accept slave labor?

Do you know for certain that you would do better?

God have mercy on us.

Sincerely,

Joel

White Dudes and Wonder Woman

Dear Rebecca:

Over the last year, some of my friends have offered up this jokey-not so jokey prayer in public: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

It came to mind today as I watched white dudes react to the runaway success of the new “Wonder Woman” movie. Frankly, it’s been an awkward grapple.

Here’s Rich Lowry at National Review, wondering why we can’t just enjoy a good superhero flick without getting caught up in feminist politics.

The critics have swooned, and some of them have literally cried over the movie. This is a bit much. The advancement of women in this country, or even just in Hollywood, didn’t depend on the production of a better female superhero vehicle than, say, Elektra (Rotten Tomato rating: 10 percent). Nor is it unusual anymore to see women beat up villains on screen. This hasn’t stopped people from losing their minds — a new American core competency — over Wonder Woman.

More complicatedly, David Edelstein at New York found himself, er, revising and extending his previous remarks giving the movie a mediocre review. After answering charges he’d spent too much time contemplating his looks, he answered the broader charge that he simply didn’t take the movie seriously enough:

I underestimated how much a superheroine at the center of a woman-directed film would mean to many people, and descriptions I considered lively and complimentary would come across as demeaning. Moreover, if Wonder Woman will empower women at this moment in history — in which reproductive rights are imperiled, and an admitted groper is working to undo decades of gains for women — then some of the criticisms of my review are just. I reserve the right to think that this is not, overall, a very good movie. But it is an important one.

For which NYT columnist Ross Douthat offered this bit of snark: “It’s a mediocre movie, but I didn’t understand how important mediocre movies are to the Cause.”

…which seems to miss the mark a bit.

The key to understanding why mediocre movies might be “important to the cause” goes back to Lowry’s column: He’s right! Elektra was a lousy movie that did lousy business. And what happened? Despite the flowering of the superhero genre over the last decade, nobody’s seen fit to make a major female superhero movie again until about now.

When superhero movies about white guys do badly, nobody puts that on their white guyness. Ryan Reynolds survived the critical failure of Wolverine and the failure failure of Green Lantern before finally striking gold with Deadpool. Now, it seems, he’s set for life. Short story: White guys don’t have to worry about mediocrity being a major setback.

Meanwhile, the studios offered up three major women-centered superhero movies over the course of 30 years, they flopped, and based on that — instead of the fact that the movies just sucked — the dudes-that-be decided there wasn’t an audience for women-centered superhero movies. They even decided women couldn’t be the villains.

Wonder Woman, it seems, proves that’s wrong.

So the response to Lowry is: When women are getting as many of these opportunities as men, maybe we’ll be able to dial the conversation back a bit. Until then, the process is natural.

And the response to Douthat is: Maybe you shouldn’t sneer at people taking seriously something you don’t have to take seriously because it will never be a problem getting a superhero movie made about people who look like you.

And the response to Edelstein is … well, I kind of wish he hadn’t written his response at all. Critics are inundated with fanboy — a term I used advisedly — criticism whenever they diss a superhero movie, and maybe he should’ve just shrugged it off. Today’s piece was too defensive to come across well, and certainly didn’t appear to be as considered as most of his film criticism usually is.

But read those last sentences again. He doesn’t owe Wonder Woman, the movie, undue respect if the movie hasn’t earned it. Indeed, he says that his review of the flick — that it’s “not … a very good movie” — stands. He can acknowledge that it’s an “important” movie, though — a judgment that belongs to a slightly wider conversation than the “thumbs up-thumbs down” movie review might permit. Did he do wrong with the initial review? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t miss out on something.

Underlying all this (I think) is this sense, among white dudes, that their experience is the median, and that the white dude consensus about, well, anything is the conventional wisdom — maybe even objective truth — about a thing. But we all bring ourselves, our lives into the movie theater with us, and those perspectives affect how we see the movie. To say a movie is “important” without calling it good is a way of beginning to acknowledge those other perspectives.

It’s worth noting that the front page of Rotten Tomatoes “Wonder Woman” page features 20 reviews of the movie — and just five of them are women. The second page? Twenty more reviews, just one identifiable woman.

Think that influences our perspective, even a tiny bit?

I’m not sure that I’m articulating exactly what I want to say here. (One friend allowed I might be suffering from kneejerk leftism on this matter.) It just seems to me that white dudes — I am one — are often like fish in the ocean: They swim in a culture that often facilitates their desires. That’s not a culture that requires them to consider the feminist politics of a piece of art, or one that makes them grapple with why a movie might be important without necessarily appealing to them.

Apparently, it’s very upsetting when something comes along to challenge that.

Going to see the movie this weekend!

Cheers,

Joel

How Minorities Get Written Out of American History

Dear Rebecca:
Robert Curry, writing at The Claremont Review (a sort of righty version of the New York Review of Books) takes aim at those sad tropes of political correctness:

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Barack Obama famously declared that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” Yet no Founder was a Muslim, and it is generally agreed that the first mosque in America was a tiny one in rural North Dakota, started in 1929. How then are we to understand Obama’s claim?

How indeed? Well, Curry says, Thomas Jefferson waged war against piracy, and many pirates were Muslim, thus: “In this sense, then, Islam can be said to have been a part of America’s story from the beginning: it defined an enemy of the new nation, forcing America to summon the capacity to govern and defend itself.”

(Mansplain voice.) Well, actually...

Muslims arrived here before the founding of the United States — not just a few, but thousands.

They have been largely overlooked because they were not free to practice their faith. They were not free themselves and so they were for the most part unable to leave records of their beliefs. They left just enough to confirm that Islam in America is not an immigrant religion lately making itself known, but a tradition with deep roots here, despite being among the most suppressed in the nation’s history.

The story of Islam in early America is not merely one of isolated individuals. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims, and many sought to recreate the communities they had known.

So. Do slaves count as part of the American story? I’l go ahead and say yes.

Jesus Wants Me to Love Donald Trump (Or: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?)

Dear Rebecca:

Wait. Wait a minute. Gotta finish listening to this Elvis Costello track.

OK. Where were we?

Oh, yeah. It turns out that there’s going to be plenty of room on my “I hate Trumpism, but I’m going to love Trumpistas” bandwagon. As in: I’m possibly the only one on it.

That’s ok. I didn’t expect anybody to embrace it, really, and some of the objections are really, really good. What the last few days have made me realize is this: The advent of Donald Trump has made me embrace the Mennonite aspects of my personality much more than I’d realized. I like to think of myself as an agnostic, but the wisdom I’m seeking — and appeal to — has its roots in pacifist-Christian traditions that find their fullest expression among Mennonites, Quakers and other so-called “peace churches.” There’s a contradiction there for me, no doubt. It’s not going to be resolved today.

It also means that the stuff I’m writing here might be of limited use to a general audience. So.

Still, I want to talk about a couple of issues that were raised in response to my piece this week, if only to be more clear.

How can you talk about being friends with people who are clearly bad? There are a few variations on this theme, and I don’t mean to oversimplify it here, only to cover the broadest ground.

So let’s talk about Martin Luther King Jr.

I acknowledged in the last piece that King, in the 21st century, is kind of problematic. Lots of people whose commitment to racial equality seems, er, less than stout, appeal to his example regularly, sometimes to mean things he probably didn’t mean. Some of those people prefer to see black folks embrace nonviolence because that means they’re not going to face the armed rebellion they so surely deserve.

Still, I’m kind of surprised that some folks these days seem to dismiss his example so easily. When I talked about King’s example with an online friend this week, her response was: “He got shot.”

Well. Yeah. So did Gandhi, from whom King borrowed a lot of his approach. Their deaths were tragic, and I don’t mean to treat them lightly here.

But it’s also clear to me that Gandhi and King led movements that created unprecedented breakthroughs in their respective societies. Gandhi used nonviolence to help the Indian people achieve self-determination; it’s thanks to the movement King led that the laws evolved to guarantee the right of black people to go to vote, go shopping, and get an education like their white peers.

What they did worked. Did it produce 100 percent victories? No. Such victories are rare. But their societies were transformed. That’s a big deal. Not to put too fine a point on it: What have you accomplished for justice lately? (I’m speaking of a general “you,” Rebecca, not you you.)

What both men sought was justice and reconciliation.

King:

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.

Gandhi:

My joy was boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby – not even money, certainly not my soul.

The intertwining of justice and reconciliation was important to both men. I’m not sure why we find it so easy to ignore, or even dismiss, their examples.

Which reminds me of a point I really, really want to emphasize:

When I say “justice and reconciliation are intertwined,” it is not to diminish the role of justice. If I suggest that justice requires reconciliation, then the opposite is also true: Reconciliation requires justice. That means true friendship won’t be achieved until justice is. Seeking reconciliation isn’t about being namby-pamby in the pursuit of justice, but rather recognizing that reconciliation — while a good unto itself — is probably necessary to cement the gains that justice makes. The best example of this? South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. 

I’ve got some more thoughts about what that means, but maybe that’s for another post.

Wait. One other thought:

Does this mean I have to love Trump, too?

Short answer, yes. Kind of. Ugh. Longer answer: It’s complicated.

This conclusion makes me itch, frankly. But if I’m seeking wisdom from the Mennonite tradition, then I Timothy 2 probably bears some contemplating:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior…”

So does Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, loveyour enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven

(Aside: This is why I’m skeptical of Christianity as tribalism. Because this is the opposite of tribalism, and what’s more, this shit is really, really, really fucking hard to do.)

Now: My own inclination is to make some distinctions. When I say I’m going to love Donald Trump supporters, dammit, it’s partly because they’re not Donald Trump. Best I can tell — and I don’t know his heart — he does awful things without remorse and for entirely base motives. The people who voted for him? Somewhat more complicated than that. I’m more complicated than that. Recognizing my own humanity forces me to recognize theirs, which forces me in turn to offer a bit of grace.

(True story: I cut off contact with a high school friend who, I felt, made racist jokes about Obama. When my mom died, though, he organized a dinner of guys from my graduating class upon my return to my hometown. It was an act of grace from an unexpected source. And I hate the racism I still perceive in this guy. But I also see where he’s trying to be better than what he is. So what’s my duty here?)

(This stuff is hard.)

Longer story short: Donald is responsible for his own actions more than his supporters are, though they bear some responsibility. If I get around to reconciling with him — and hoo boy, justice will have to be involved there — it’ll be after justice and reconciliation have happened, for me, at a broader, societal level.

Am I rambling? I’m rambling. Sorry. I’m thinking out loud. I’m almost finished with this post, swear.

Are we really in a civil war? I have a tremendously smart friend who objects to one of the core ideas of the last post: That we’re in, or headed for, a sort of civil war.

“Yeah, there’s a foul mood out there, and there are some paranoid people. And maybe it will get so bad that we’ll all freak out on each other. But I doubt it,” he writes. “I think we’re in an unpleasant period in our democracy. Not the first one.”

I hope he’s right. My own sense of things isn’t quite as hopeful as that, admittedly, and the people who I’m in contact are probably mostly in the top 15 percentile of Americans in terms of how much they care about politics. But politics isn’t everything, and maybe if I stepped back, I’d see more clearly that we’re a long way from that civil war.

Like I said, I hope he’s right.

All of this ruminating, which you’ve been so kind to read — or at least scan — probably isn’t a good guide to political organizing. It’s my own attempt to figure out how to live justly and humanely in an unjust and inhumane world. Your mileage may vary.

As I told one interlocutor:

I hate to get mystical about all this, but: On one level, I suspect that we’re each of us called to different roles in this. I think it’s clear the approach I want to take — one of resistance, and yet also fiercely resisting the ways polarization make us miserable — is one that few other people agree with, or can see a through-line to obtain the kind of justice they seek.

“You do you” is a bit of a cliche, but it’s also a mission statement. I’m taking the approach I take because I think we’re in a dehumanizing era – Trumpism is, I think, dehumanizing – and I want to resist that to the point that I don’t even give myself permission to dehumanize the Trumpistas. I’m not necessarily good at that, but I also think it’s a lot to ask of folks like you. This is my mission, not yours. That’s OK.

Maybe that’s enough for one day. Thanks for listening to me think.

Sincerely,
Joel