- A few bumper stickers on the car in front of me at a stop light. Now are you beginning to understand why I didn’t vote for Obama? Can’t think of any reasons without knowing you—maybe you always vote Republican? Maybe you are opposed to more people having health insurance, believe that global warming is a hoax, are opposed to same-sex marriage . . . I really don’t know. Scott Walker for President. Or maybe you’re just an idiot. Then I noticed a New York Yankees sticker. That explains everything.
- I don’t want to live in California, and if I was forced to I would avoid SoCal like the plague. Still, I was impressed when I heard on NPR that the Los Angeles Times no longer publishes op-eds that deny that global warming is real and that human beings are major contributors to it. Why? For the same reason they would not publish letters denying that the earth is spherical. As the commenter said, when of 1000 qualified scientists 998 agree that global warming is real and the two who disagree are on the payroll of Big Oil, “the other side” no longer exists.
- Someone needs to invent a holiday that will land roughly between July 4th and Halloween on the calendar. Labor Day doesn’t count—I mean the sort of useless and over-hyped holiday that consumers will spend shitloads of money on. That way I won’t have to see what I saw in the local supermarket on August 3—a full aisle stocked floor to top with Halloween candy. That’s three months before the date, folks.
- My favorite sort of discussion (very common on Facebook) is the one in which the person with whom I am disagreeing doesn’t know the difference between disagreement and lack of comprehension. You know, the sort of person who continually says “What is it about my perfectly clear and 100% correct position that you don’t understand?” since of course there is no possible chance that I might understand perfectly and just disagree. Or that the person in question might just be wrong. Or that there is more than one supportable position on the issue. Sigh.
- For the “Who Knew?” file: Apparently many people have better things to do during the summer than read my blog.
- I struggled mightily over the weeks leading up to the first Republican candidate for President clown-car debate concerning whether I should watch it or not. I want to be an informed voter, of course, but the chances of my gathering any new information from the debate that might affect my vote a year from November are about as high as the chances of a bear not shitting in the woods. So the question has been whether the entertainment value (such as what the Donald will do the first time he is told that his two minutes are up and he doesn’t want to stop pontificating) will match or outweigh the threat to my blood pressure presented by voluntarily listening to people say things that I not only do not agree with but also would like to punch them in the face for saying.
- Update: I decided to risk my health and watch the debate. My impressions from last week: The Wicked
- Any number of forty-five minute sessions on a stationary bike at the gym all added together are not worth one forty-five minute ride on a real bicycle on any of the many wonderful bike paths in Rhode Island. This is going to make staying in shape during this coming winter very difficult.
- The next time I read or hear someone saying that he or she finds Donald Trump’s routine “refreshing,” I think I’m going to puke. There is absolutely nothing refreshing about someone saying whatever the hell they want, then saying “fuck you” to anyone who calls them on it. Unless you find galactic rudeness and arrogance “refreshing,” that is.
- More on the topic of bicycling—I’ve learned a few things about protocol and procedure in just a bit more over a month. Who walks, skateboards, runs, or rides where is pretty simple and clearly marked. Whoever is going faster works around whoever is going slower. It’s okay either to smile and say “good morning” to people as you meet them or pass them, but it’s also permissible to simply nod, or even to stare straight ahead and do nothing. And a rule that I strongly approve of—do not talk on your cell phone while doing whatever you are doing on the bike path. This isn’t listed anywhere, but the word has apparently gotten around. In dozens of hours of riding over the past several weeks, I have only encountered someone talking on their cell phone twice on the trail—both times it was more jarring than someone talking out loud on their phone at a movie theater.
- I heard last week that certain factions in the Democratic party want Al Gore to run for President. Al’s response should be: “I ran for President sixteen years ago and won. Been there, done that.”
- For those wondering about my response to the welfare in my back yard that I wrote about two or three weeks ago, an update. Welfare in My Back Yard I have learned that even creatures with brains the size of BBs can modify their behaviors. On the advice of several commenters on the blog and on Facebook, I reduced the number of suet cakes per day from six to three. The first few mornings I did this the three cakes were gone in less than an hour, then dozens of birds hung around for the rest of the day with the same “I’m starving” look that my dachshund Frieda puts on her face when she hasn’t eaten anything interesting in the past fifteen minutes. But soon I noticed that the three cakes were lasting until the end of the day; some mornings I found that there were still a few molecules left over from the day before. Our sparrows, finches, wrens, woodpecker (just one) and chickadees have learned how to pace themselves, in other words. Or maybe a bunch of them have discovered a bird version of Olive Garden’s unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks somewhere else in the neighborhood. Or maybe some of them died of starvation. But we’re saving $90 a month.
Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82)
In his 2006 Christmas sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tells the story of a visit he made the previous week to Holy Family Hospital in the Palestinian West Bank as part of an ecumenical pilgrimage with the heads of several other Christian denominations in Great Britain. Holy Family Hospital has the best-resourced maternity unit in the whole of the West Bank, equal to the best in Israel. But because of the current storms of political conflict within Palestine, as well as the local Israeli and international economic sanctions against the Palestinian government, no one on the hospital staff is sure from day-to-day where funding for next month’s salary is coming from. Foreign donations pay for the state-of-the-art equipment, but making ends meet requires a daily seeming miracle.
As Rowan Williams held a new-born baby in his arms, an infant who had been abandoned by the side of the road by his mother and brought by a stranger to the hospital, he asked Dr. Robert Tabash, the medical director of the neo-natal unit, what keeps him and his staff going in the face of challenges that often must seem insurmountable. “What we are doing here is important,” Dr. Tabash replied, “because the poorest deserve the best.” Period. Simple as that. Continuing with his sermon after telling this story, the Archbishop asks those congregated in Canterbury Cathedral “When you hear that, I wonder if you can take in just how revolutionary it is . . . this is probably the most radically unique thing Christmas and Christians bring into the world.”
As we begin yet another of the seemingly endless elecion cycles, as our elected officials threaten to allow the government to close down yet again–this time over the funding of Planned Parenthood, hamstringing or eliminating important social programs, it is more pressing than ever to ask what is to be done about our fellow citizens who are poor and disenfranchised, the ones upon whom the worst falls once again as we posture in favor of our preferred political and social agendas. As Rowan Williams points out, for those of us who claim to be guided by Christian principles, the Gospel message is clear. From the Beatitudes to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never wavers from the message that in the divine economy and social structure, the poor, the widows, and the orphans—the disenfranchised and those who continually fall through the cracks, in other words—are to be considered first. If there is one thing that guarantees divine judgment, it is the failure to show paramount concern for “the least of these.”
And yet even Jesus, who himself was born into abject poverty and remained there his whole life, was fully aware of just how intractable these problems are. In the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus dining at the house of Simon the Leper, the very definition in that culture of an outcast. A woman arrives with an alabaster jar containing nard, a rare and expensive ointment. She breaks the jar and anoints Jesus’s head with the ointment, inviting well-aimed criticism from the disciples and others. “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And these critics were absolutely right—in their understanding of Jesus’s teaching, this was a violation of what has come be known as the “preferential option for the poor.”
Which makes Jesus’s response all the more shocking and confusing. “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” Not exactly what the group at dinner expected, I imagine. What is he talking about? How to explain this apparent moment of self-centeredness? I have heard many theological explanations for Jesus’s dismissive comment about the poor; I have even heard this very scene twisted into a justification for not funding social programs intended to help those in need. And I don’t have a good explanation for why Jesus is throwing the very persons he raises to blessedness in the Beatitudes under the bus.
But there is a strange and powerful connection between Jesus’s “the poor you will always have with you” and the Palestinian physician’s “the poorest deserve the best.” Why do the poor deserve the best? In our world we so often connect help for those in need with a prior explanation of why they are in need. If you are in trouble through no fault of your own, then perhaps I’ll help. But if you are in need because of your own bad choices or laziness, then you’re on your own. Still, the call to raise the disenfranchised to primary attention does not ask why—it simply says “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” What makes the poor so special? Why do they deserve the best?
The very existence of the poor, and the stubborn resistance of poverty even in the face of our best efforts to make their situation better, is a continuing reminder that every time we attempt to address the intractable problems of the human condition with yet another economic/social program or redistribution, we run straight into our own poverty. Every line we draw is partially drawn out of fear. Every wall we build to defend ourselves and keep out what we are afraid may destroy us is also a wall that keeps us in, a wall that will change us in ways we did not choose or want. Every human solution to fears and threats generates a new set of fears and threats. As soon as we try to sort out who we will empower and give the advantage to, we also identify who we are against; and that will undoubtedly create another round of poverty and anger and bitterness. Perhaps it is time to realize that the message of the gospel cannot be legislated or brought into existence through political action. What is required is far more personal.
Why do “the poorest deserve the best”? Not because they are in some strange way better than those who are not poor. The poorest deserve the best because, bottom line, all of us are incurably impoverished. Humanity itself suffers from poverty, the moral and imaginative poverty that time and again reproduces the same patterns of fear and violence. Despite our delusions of independence and self-made success, not one of us, not even the most financially secure and successful or confident law keeping and godly person, can in truth look after ourselves. The genius of the Christian narrative is that this is not only okay, it actually is the reason that God became human. In Deuteronomy, God tells the children of Israel that they have been chosen precisely because they are slaves and exiles, the most helpless community on the face of the earth. And this is why the poor are to be preferred—they are a constant reminder of the basic condition we all share.
This is also why we will always have the poor with us, why they will always stubbornly resist our best efforts to solve their problems. The poor will always be with us because we cannot escape our collective human impoverishment with exclusively human tools and strategies. Our giant goes with us wherever we go. The divine response? God does not let us have what’s left over from the grace given to holy and honorable people. God doesn’t look around for some small bonus that might come from the end-of-year surplus in the budget. God instead becomes one of us, an energizing force for change and reform that we cannot even imagine. As Archbishop Williams reminds us in his Christmas sermon,
The truth doesn’t change, “the truth sent from above,” about our own universal ruin and restoration and about what that lays upon us when we look at the various specific poverties we confront in our human family. We revert so readily to the idea that love must go where merit lies, that help must follow merit and achievement. But God apparently thinks otherwise.
The morning after the recent Fox News-hosted debate amongst candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the appointed morning psalm in the Anglican monthly cycle of “read through the Psalms in a month” was Psalm 37. Usually there are three or four psalms each morning and each evening, but this is a long one. Subtitled “Reflections on Good and Evil” in the Grail translation that I use, the psalmist is focusing on the good guys and the bad guys, the “upright” and the “wicked.” The wicked are mentioned fourteen times in forty verses—clearly the psalmist is living in a world in which the wicked are prospering and upright folks (like the psalmist) are waiting for the day when the scales of justice will realign and the wicked will get what they deserve. There is little of the impatience with the divine’s apparent lack of action in this psalm that one finds in others with similar themes; here, patience, commitment, and trust are the prescriptions for the upright as they wait for the wicked’s fifteen minutes of fame and power to end.
As she occasionally does, Jeanne joined me for my morning psalm, so I read it aloud. When finished, I asked “who do you think the ‘wicked’ are in this psalm?” “Probably the Amalekites, the Amorites, the Jebusites—one of those ‘-ites’ that the children of Israel were always worried about.” The people living in Palestine when the wandering Israelites showed up, claimed that Yahweh had given them the land that the “-ites” had lived in for generations, then proceeded upon divine authority to try to wipe the “-ites” out, in other words. I’m sure she’s probably right, but strangely the psalm got me to thinking about the debates I had seen the previous evening (I watched both the happy hour and main event debates). Just replace “upright” and “just” with “Republican” or “conservative,” then replace “wicked” with “Democrat” or “liberal,” and it all sounds very familiar.
It was clear that everyone on stage, for instance, was convinced of the truth of the following verses toward the end of Psalm 37:
In just a bit over a year, candidates promised in various ways, the accomplishments of the liberals will be no more. The Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, the proposed treaty with Iran—“they shall vanish, they shall vanish like smoke.” There was no doubt that many on stage suspected the bad guys of not only poor judgment but also of deliberate treachery.
The [liberals] make plots against the [conservatives] and gnash their teeth against them; but the Lord laughs at the [liberals], knowing that their day is at hand. . . . The [liberals] are watching for the [conservatives] and seeking occasion to destroy them. The Lord will not leave the [conservatives] undefended, nor let them be condemned when they are judged.
Although there was significant disagreement amongst the candidates about exactly how it will happen, all on stage agreed that before long, our long national nightmare will be over and conservative values will be restored.
See the [conservatives], and mark the [Republicans], a future lies in store for the righteous, but [liberals] shall all be destroyed. No future lies in store for the [Democrats].
Lest you think I am picking on Republicans and conservatives (and I am), Psalm 37 can work for liberals too.
Liberals don’t tend to describe the perceived truth of their beliefs as sanctioned by the divine, or at least not as often as conservatives do, but they could. Look around a little bit in your favorite sacred text and you can find something God says or does that will support your favorite thing. In addition, liberals suspect that in the reality many conservatives desire in their heart of hearts, there is no room for those who disagree.
My point is psychological rather than political. The discourse of Psalm 37 is of the same sort as the discourse in our current political climate, even our culture at large. It is one thing to disagree strongly with someone—that’s what discourse and debate are all about. But when the disagreement takes on a moral tone so that the person you disagree with is not only mistaken in your estimation, but also wrong in a moral sense (wicked or evil in biblical terms), then discussion and (God forbid) compromise become impossible. Simple listening becomes impossible. Positions become entrenched, opponents become vilified, and soon the stakes have become cosmic. The triumph of truth, justice, and the American way becomes dependent on my being right and those who disagree with me being dismissed as wicked and ungodly.
The problem, of course, is that it is very difficult to engage and discuss for very long in conversation with people whose beliefs and opinions are radically different from your own. As I listened to yesterday’s debates I frequently managed for several minutes at a time to listen objectively and make some informed judgments about the various players. Rubio and Kasich seemed better prepared than Walker or Cruz, Paul chose to be combative while Bush did not, Carson had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look to him, and so on. But then someone would state their position on some issue that matters to me and I would immediately fall into “You fucking moron! How the hell can any human being with a half-dozen working neurons actually believe that?” mode, from where it is but a short journey to the just vs. the wicked all over again. The offending person has morphed from someone I strongly disagree with into someone who the world would be better off without. It’s going to be a very long fifteen months.
Although I am a very liberal guy, I occasionally worry about the welfare state. I understand the need for any healthy society to have various mechanisms in place to assist those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves incapable of taking care of their own basic needs; furthermore, my Christian faith calls for me to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and protect the widow and orphan. But what of those who have found ways to work the system effectively, who regularly grab a handout at the taxpayers’ expense when they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves? Many of the students in my “Markets and Morals” colloquium this past semester were so concerned about welfare abuse that they were willing to live in a world with no social safety net at all—at least we would know that those who survived had earned it.
This summer Jeanne and I have been providing food for the hungry in a real time manner—setting it out on a first-come, first-served basis as quickly as it could be consumed. And it has been getting consumed so quickly that I have started wondering whether we are unwittingly contributing to a bunch of slackers who could take care of themselves if they would just improve their work ethic and stop looking for handouts. As I often do when confronted with perplexing challenges, I went to the experts—my Facebook acquaintances. The response was very interesting.
Bird lovers! We have bird feeders in our side yard–so many birds visit that we go through six cakes of suet every 36 hours or so. Mostly wrens, sparrows, chickadees, with the occasional woodpecker and even less occasional goldfinch. A couple of people have told me that one should definitely feed birds during the winter but not during the summer, since they can find their own food in the summer. I don’t want to be contributing to a dependent class of birds looking for an avian handout, and we are spending an increasing amount of money on bird food! What do you think?
The responses fell into several distinct categories. Some people just embraced the joy of helping make the lives of God’s creatures, no matter who they are, a little bit easier. But is the help primarily for those in need or for the self-satisfaction of the helper?
- Those beautiful birds are such a glorious part of God’s creation! We enjoy watching them, and so does our little indoor cat, so I feed and water the birds pretty much year-round. I will shamelessly admit that it is for my own enjoyment as much as anything else, regardless of the expense. Our yard is a welcome center for our fine feathered friends! Their symphonies fill the air, so it is a pleasure to sit out on the deck to observe them and listen to their concerts.
- They probably can find enough food in the summer, but…if you enjoy watching them…I’d say it’s worth the money (are they getting fat??)
Others suggested that some needs should be taken care of, but not others. Thread the needle between welfare dependence and self-sufficiency, in other words.
- I don’t feed birds, but I do have two bird baths. Clean water is even more necessary for their survival than food. Birds are always using the larger birdbath about 15-20 feet away from a large window, which makes it easy to watch them.
- Be sure they have water in the summer. They may be able to find food, but water is not as easy as it once was.
- I’m pretty sure I have contributed to the dependence of several generations of cardinals and chickadees. Concur about water. I try to keep my two bird baths filled and refreshed every couple of days.
One of the most frequent tropes was to express a preference for helping some, but not others, suggesting that it is better to feed no one than to risk the possibility that someone I don’t like might get some food despite my best efforts to keep them from it.
- We gave up on bird feeders – couldn’t keep the squirrels out of them. When we attached a cone to block their access from the ground, they just started jumping from the trees. They put on some great acrobatics shows, but, really, feed the tree rats? I don’t think so.
- I had such a hard time keeping squirrels from eating everything that I gave up on feeding them. I have heard that feeding them makes them less able to get food on their own.
- We gave up feeding the birds because the pidgeons [sic] chase away the song birds.
And some suggested that only very special types should get help.
- We only feed the birds in the winter with one exception being the humming bird.
- There are many places for them to find food & they manage well – No worries; they will be back . . . I just found out I have a hummingbird nest in a tree in my yard – I’m excited!!
The most nuanced response—the one that I found most attentive to all parties concerned—encouraged me to continue feeding everyone but to take closer rationing control.
- I feed them in the summer, but I am the boss of the bird feeder, and if they go through the seeds too fast, they just have to wait a couple of days. I try not to refill the feeder more than once a week.
My own responses to these various comments and suggestions reflect my own uncertainty about how to deal with these avian freeloaders.
- Just as I thought–I am contributing to the creation of a dependent class of birds.
- Well, I must admit that I am tired of the free-loading birds who always want their beaks filled when they should be out looking for jobs.
I finally ended up with this tentative decision:
- Thanks, everyone! I will continue feeding them but do better at managing their consumption–and I’ll address the water issue!
Truth be told, I suspect I will continue to feed them indiscriminately as they chirp innocently in the tree and our roof as soon as the feeders are empty. I am easily manipulated. I found it interesting and a slight bit disconcerting to find that my friends’ and my attitudes about bird welfare fell immediately into categories recognizable from the never-ending debates about social safety nets and welfare for human beings in this country. The important questions remain the same. What duties do we have to those who do not have enough? Why are people in need in the first place? Should those who have enough expect those who do not have enough to prove their worthiness to be helped? What is the difference between charity and duty? Are there limits to how much those in need should be helped? And if we can’t agree about birds, what are the chances achieving consensus about our fellow human beings? I headed out to fill up the feeders right now—I wonder how many of the dozens of birds in line deserve it.
God is in favor of same sex marriage because God placed a rainbow in the sky when the Genesis flood was over. QED. Me on Facebook
On the day before Independence Day I posted an appeal for a patriotic commitment to learning how to achieve disagreement on controversial issues.
I wrote that post a week earlier; little did I know that the very next day I would have the opportunity to work on this myself! I have often told anyone who would listen that the only reason I am on Facebook is that it provides an excellent vehicle for the dissemination of my blog (as do Twitter and, to a lesser extent, LinkedIn). But on the Saturday after writing about achieving disagreement I was having Facebook fun. In the wake of two Supreme Court decisions in which the majority of the justices had the good sense to agree with my own beliefs, and with only three days remaining before the official beginning of sabbatical, I was feeling good. With a bit of time on my hands I started throwing some things out there for Facebook consumption. Here are a few:
- I’ve been reading a lot of bad arguments today in which people use the Bible to support their position on same-sex marriage. Not wanting to be left out, here’s mine: God is in favor of same sex marriage because God placed a rainbow in the sky when the Genesis flood was over. QED.
- I think the President enjoyed being President this week–perhaps for the first time in six and a half years.
- For anyone still worried that same-sex marriage threatens the institution of marriage, meet two of those threatening people. Buster and Donna
- As usual, I am proud of my Episcopal Church. I offer this statement from the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island as an alternative to the religious outrage over yesterday’s SCOTUS decision being expressed by Catholic leadership and conservative Evangelicals. Episcopal Bishop welcomes Supreme Court’s decision on marriage
- I posted a link to this very cool map: States where same sex marriage is legal
- I put rainbows on my Facebook picture:
- And finally:
For those who are inclined to quote (or misquote) the Bible to support their anti-same sex marriage position, one of my all-time favorite television scenes:
This one produced one of the most interesting Facebook conversations I have ever participated in on Facebook, a conversation with a man I knew as a teenager during a year at Bible school more than four decades ago and with whom I connected on Facebook just a few months ago. Here is that unedited conversation.
- XXX: The important emphasis should never have been and shouldn’t now be Gay or not Gay but rather Saved or not Saved. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Emphasis should always be Jesus Christ. The rest will sort itself out.
- ME: I agree with your sentiment about the emphasis on Christ. I find the Evangelical “saved/not saved” language to be as problematic as the Roman Catholic “extra salus nulla ecclesiam [no salvation outside the church].”
- XXX: Saved/not saved problematic? Is there a third option? Perhaps the mark is missed when the saved forget 1 John 1:6….” the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”
- ME: The obvious third option is to refuse to use the “in/out” binary altogether. Christianity is one way to seek God–one of many. As a good friend of mine who is also a fine Catholic theologian says, “I fully expect to see my Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers in heaven.” Assuming there is a heaven, that is.
- XXX: Hmmm what we expect and what we get are two very different things. So either the Gospel of Christ is true or it is false and thus the plan of salvation is either true or false and thus the words of scripture are either true or false. Yes there are many perceived ways to seek God. Death will bring the true answer for each one of us.
- ME The good news is that God loves us and has made it possible for us to have relationship with the divine. Making definitive judgments about which ways of seeking that relationship are legitimate and which ways are not is well above any human being’s pay grade.
- XXX Really?.. even when scripture says that the only way to the Father is through Jesus Christ? How does the Muslim get around that? Allah? Seems scripture is very easy to follow and understand unless as I said above that the scriptures are false to begin with.
- ME You and I are working within very different frameworks, XXX. You’re assuming that I accept the Bible as the exclusive word of God, God’s only way of communicating with human beings. You are assuming that I accept the judgmental, narrow version of Christianity that I was raised in and that my father spent his adult life breaking free of. You are assuming that a God who is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance is willing to send the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived to eternal damnation. And you assume that “scripture is very easy to follow and understand.” I share none of those assumptions.
- XXX I do appreciate you being very candid. You are correct–two very different frameworks of thought. And I apologize– Yes my assumptions were incorrect. We all choose the roads we travel on. Only death will prove whether or not those roads were the right ones.
- ME I have appreciated the exchange, XXX, and agree with your final sentiment. I’d like to continue the conversation in the future.
- XXX agreed.
I congratulated my friend on the birth of his latest grandchild a couple of days later when he posted the news on Facebook and we promised to continue the conversation soon. I’m looking forward to it.
After our exchange, which spread over a couple of hours, was finished I thought “wow—maybe we just achieved disagreement!” It’s most unlikely that either one of us will nudge the other very far away from our very different frameworks of thought and belief relevant to same sex marriage, engagement with the divine, or what happens after we die. But it was a civil, even friendly, conversation between two people who significantly disagree on important issues because we began by finding some places where we agree. Imagine that.
I think it’s time for us to get a little bit more uncompromising in our defense of compromise. Jonathan Rauch
One of the many benefits of getting up early on Sunday morning in order to make the 8:00 service at church is that I can catch the last fifteen minutes of Krista Tippett’s radio program “On Being” as I drive. I first became aware of Krista several years ago when I was on sabbatical at the ecumenical institute in Minnesota where she first got the idea for her program a few years before my semester there. Her show—called “Speaking of Faith” at the time—aired on Sunday afternoons in Minnesota—I listened every week and was pleased when our local NPR station picked it up a couple of years ago. Not every week is a classic, but every once in a while there is an “On Being” broadcast that I just can’t stop thinking about.
A couple of months ago I tuned in just in time to hear one of her guests say the following:
I don’t know why it is, but I think we’re just at this moment in time where the public conversation is at a particularly low level of quality—the coarseness, the ugliness, the assumption of bad faith, the triviality, the sensationalism. I really think that so many people are aware of this . . . I can’t diagnose it, really, I don’t have a diagnosis. All I really know is it’s terrible, it’s bad for the country, it’s bad for our souls.
“Tell me about it,” I thought—the guest’s description nailed my perception of what public discourse has devolved into for the past several years. As it turned out, his comments and the larger topic of the conversation that day were not only timely, but are even more timely as we approach Independence Day this year, given the events of last week.
The title of that “On Being” conversation a couple of months ago was “The Future of Marriage”; the speaker I just quoted is David Blankenhorn, who argued against same sex marriage as a social good both in California’s tumultuous Proposition 8 debate as well as in his 2007 book The Future of Marriage. He is also founder and director of the Institute of American Values. Blankenhorn’s conversation companion that day, along with Tippett, was Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a lifelong journalist and the author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. Rauch is a gay man and has publically debated the gay marriage issue with Blankenhorn so often over the years in various forums that they ultimately became good friends. In the midst of the intellectual arguments for and against, both men realized that they shared something important in common. As Blankenhorn put it in a New York Times op-ed in 2012,
My intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.
It was a costly decision for Blankenhorn financially. Half of his institute’s board members resigned and half of his funding dried up. Together in 2015 Rauch and Blankenhorn launched a joint initiative called The Marriage Opportunity Council, crossing liberal and conservative, gay and straight boundaries.
The hour-long conversation is fascinating and informative—I encourage you to take a listen.
But on the cusp of Independence Day, I am particularly interested and intrigued by the final ten or so minutes of the show. Neither Blankenhorn’s nor Rauch’s intellectual arguments convinced his friend to change his mind on the issue. But the evolution of their friendship and dialogue is an illustration of what they call “Achieving Disagreement.” Blankenhorn’s description sketches a possible approach to raising the low level of public discourse in this country:
It’s easy to have a false disagreement. I can just say, “Oh, you’re a bad person and you’re stupid.” I can just have a belief. But to actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. We have to have a relationship to do that. And part of achieving disagreement means identifying areas of common ground. It means finding out where we agree. . . . In today’s world of hyperpolarization and the sheer idiocy that is our public debate on most days, ninety-eight percent of the time, the heart just cries out for this kind of serious effort to achieve disagreement.
This very difficult but necessary strategy transcends any particular issue. Human beings are capable of falling into polarized and ossified positions on every issue imaginable—what would it be like to start difficult discussions with an extended search for what those disagreeing share in common? In the case of Blankenship and Rauch, discovering that they both were equally committed to strengthening marriage as a social institution changed everything—it got them past the divisive issue of who should be allowed to be married.
Jonathan Rauch argues that “achieving disagreement” is not only a good strategy for engaging with controversial issues, but also is our patriotic duty.
I believe there’s an element of patriotism about this. I believe that there are higher values, ultimately, than what each of us wants as individuals. I discovered in you [Blankenhorn], I thought, someone who understood that you’re a multivalue person and that as strongly as you felt about marriage, that you felt even more strongly that we have to share the country. And it is our duty as citizens to find ways to live together. And that’s a higher value still. I equate that with a form of patriotism. When I see someone who won’t compromise, I see someone betraying the core purposes of our Constitution, which is to force compromise.
In a culture in which compromise has come to mean weakness and lack of principle, it is refreshing to be reminded that our country was constructed by its Founders to run on the fuel of compromise. To read James Madison’s Notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention that produced our Constitution is to be immersed in a several month long exercise in compromise. It’s time to return to that positive energy. As Rauch continues,
I think of it as a duty. I think there are higher things than being right. By compromisers, by the way, I don’t mean people who give up on their core values and roll over and get rolled by the bitter partisans on the other side. I just mean people who at the end of the day say, “You know what? I’m not going to walk out of here with everything I wanted.” I think it’s time for us to get a little bit more uncompromising in our defense of compromise. I think we should understand and say this is a matter of patriotic duty to our country. . . . If your idea of compromise is the other guy’s going to agree with me . . . You are not being a patriotic American and you are betraying the founding premise of this country.
On this day before Independence Day, I commit myself to being a better compromiser. I am as willing and as capable of demeaning and belittling those who disagree with me on issues that are important to me as the next person—but I can do better. In Monday’s post I will tell the story of how someone who believes very differently than I do and I unexpectedly achieved disagreement the other day—on Facebook, no less! For now, enjoy Independence Day—and don’t forget to compromise!
In J. M. Coetzee’s strange and fascinating novel The Childhood of Jesus, the precocious child David has a difficult time understanding numbers. Oh, he knows their names but is not inclined to put them in the order that the rules of mathematics specify. Nor is he inclined to accept the rules guiding any accepted human behavior—he wants to live in a world in which things are valuable and right to the extent that he likes them, and he is not willing to arrange numbers in the proper sequence that everyone agrees upon. After one too many patient attempts to steer David toward conformity, his guardian Símon sputters “The answer to all your Why? questions, past, present and future is: Because that is the way the world is. The world was not made for our convenience, my young friend. It is up to us to fit in.”
This business of knowing when to fit in and when to creatively resist expectations is a lifelong challenge that all of us grapple with on a daily basis. At the heart of that challenge lie questions so fundamental that they literally shape our reality. Is the search for truth more like a treasure hunt or a creative, artistic process? Is meaning something to be found or to be made? Tentative answers to these questions frame one’s encounter with both oneself and the outside world. As Plato famously suggested, it is difficult to imagine meaning as the target of an open search, since I won’t know if I’ve discovered the goal of the search unless I already have a sense of what I’m looking for. But if meaning is something that each of us creates throughout the process of our lives, what hope is there for shared meaning, for truths that are not just mine but everyone’s in common?
Although both by nature and philosophical preference I am more of a “creative process” than “treasure hunt” sort of person when it comes to engagement with meaning and truth, I spent this past semester exploring a seminal text in philosophy written by one of the most eloquent advocates of the “treasure hunt” model in the Western tradition. Plato’s Republic is, among many other things, an extended development of the idea that Truth is objective, that meaning is something to be found, not created, and that enlightenment is a life-long process of being freed from the clutches of our ego-driven subjective “truths” in order to slowly discover what “Truth” really is. Plato’s paradigm for Truth is mathematics, a discipline that with its objective principles and rules exposes the truth-seeker to a world in which what is true is not up to me but is available to those who are willing to commit themselves to “the sight of the Truth.” Plato makes an extended argument that moral values and virtues properly understood exhibit the precision, certainty and objectivity of mathematics. Indeed, mathematics is Plato’s exemplar of the nature of truth; he insisted that only those who love geometry could enter his Academy, because it is through study of mathematics that one becomes accustomed to the nature of all truth.
If my students this past semester—actually, over the past twenty-five years—are an accurate sampling, Plato’s commitment to the objectivity of truth is strongly opposed to our contemporary intuitions. As I often do, I introduced the problem early in the semester with a simple question about a couple of basic truth claims. I wrote two sentences on the board,
A. Two plus two equals four.
B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.
then asked for observations about what makes these truth claims different. Within short order the students point out that A is objectively true (as are all mathematical truths), while B is subjectively true (as are all aesthetic claims). If someone denies the truth of A, we assume that either that person doesn’t know the basic rules of arithmetic, is deliberately being a contrarian, or simply is nuts. If someone denies the truth of B, however, no problem—there’s a reason why we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all.
C. X is right (good) and Y is wrong (bad).
X and Y can be anything that people are inclined to make value judgments about. I simply ask “Is C more like A or like B?’ When we venture into the realm of moral truth claims, in other words, have we entered a realm more like mathematics or art? Objective or subjective? Finding or creating? In twenty-five years of teaching, students have overwhelmingly given the same answer—moral truth claims and judgments are more like B than A. Morality is subjective rather than objective, in other words. In my Plato’s Republic class last semester, only two students out of twenty-five present claimed that moral claims are objectively true—and they were both Catholic seminarians.
When I asked the other twenty-three students—many of whom were the products of Catholic primary and secondary education—why they bundled moral and value truth claims together with aesthetic claims as subjective, most zeroed in on the problem of moral disagreement. Essentially their argument was that since people disagree significantly across the board about every moral issue imaginable, and given the apparent absence of any authoritative perspective from which it could be judged who is right and who is wrong, moral disagreement looks a lot more like the Mona Lisa squabble than whether two plus two equals four or five. The real problem is that, unlike mathematics, there is no working and accepted objective standard to which one can appeal when trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong in a moral disagreement. Rather than do the difficult and challenging work of seeking objective standards, it is much easier to assume there are no such standards in morality (except perhaps extreme tolerance) and place moral truth claims in the subjective category. We get to create them ourselves without being answerable to an objective standard—because there isn’t any such standard. Let the discussion begin.
In The Plague, a central and early text in another one of my classes this past semester, Albert Camus raises the possibility that despite the apparent subjectivity of moral claims, there comes a time when one must hang on to moral commitments with the tenacity of two plus two equals four.
Again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.
Here the narrator of The Plague is commenting on the “sanitation squads” in the novel who, rather than hiding from an apparently random and incurable plague that is sweeping across their city, taking the lives of hundreds of their fellow citizens per day, choose to embrace the basic moral task of facing the danger head on, putting their own lives at risk in the service of making the suffering of others slightly less intense and their environment slightly less dangerous. When asked why they have taken on such a thankless task, the members of the sanitation squad always answer with mathematical simplicity. Some things just need to be done. And sometimes what needs to be done is as obvious as the truth of two plus two equals four. “But what you are doing may very well lead to your death,” someone might object. “So be it.”
Camus’ point is strengthened significantly when considering that The Plague is not just a powerful work of fiction but is also a multi-layered allegory. Published in 1947, the bulk of the novel was written during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, with the various characters in the novel representing the different reactions of French citizens to totalitarianism, the loss of their freedoms, and the extermination of undesirables. Those who, as did the sanitation squads, chose to address the Nazi plague in the face of overwhelming odds of failure are those who recognized that even in a moral world turned upside down, sometimes the truth and what is right are as obvious as a simple sum in arithmetic. We studied a number of such people during our “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium; many of them—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the members of the White Rose, Maximillian Kolbe, and others—lost their lives for daring to insist that two plus two makes four, just as Camus described. But that doesn’t change the fact that even in the world of morals and values, some things are as clear as mathematical truths. Sometimes it really is that simple.
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you are awake
Big Brother? The NSA? CIA? IRS? No—this is about Santa Claus, the most benign stalker ever. According to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the jolly fat elf has even appropriated moral authority over us: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” Who gave him that authority? For that matter, who gave him permission to monitor my sleeping habits? As a kid I was entirely in favor of Santa Claus’ generosity with presents once per year, and was in awe of his amazing ability to almost be omnipresent, visiting every abode on the planet in one short night. But I found his interest in my bedtime routine and my moral behavior to be a bit disconcerting and creepy.
This week some of the top news stories, in the context of renewing the Patriot Act, have focused on to what extent the right to privacy of citizens in this country has been and continues to be regularly invaded by various government agencies in the professed interest of national security. At this point, a disclaimer—I am one of the least paranoid and most trusting persons on the planet. Accordingly, I have found the outrage, the self-righteous indignation, expressed by many in all sorts of ways rather amusing, especially given how each of us cavalierly leaves a trail of identifying information in our wake each day. The indignation often appears to be directly dependent upon who happens to be in charge at the time. I also wonder just how gullible a person has to be to imagine that this is anything new or beyond what has been the case ever since the beginning of the digital age.
A question that never fails to generate interesting classroom conversation is What do human beings want more—security or freedom? Students invariably conclude that, as is the case with many interesting questions, the answer almost entirely depends on context and circumstances. My freshmen this year were four or five years old on September 11, 2001, and each of them could tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing when the Twin Towers fell, just as I remember vividly President Kennedy’s assassination when I was six. Four short weeks after 9/11, Jeanne and I flew from Providence to Fort Lauderdale for a conference where I was giving a paper and chairing a session. All I remember about the conference is that at least a third of the academics scheduled to give papers did not come because they did not want to get on an airplane. But I clearly remember the Fort Lauderdale airport on the day we returned to Providence. It took us almost three hours to get through security, the terminal was filled with armed military personnel, all of which would have been unheard of a month earlier. But most remarkable was the behavior of the hundreds of travelers whose schedules were being disrupted by the inordinate wait. I did not hear a single complaint; indeed, what I did hear was regular “thank you’s” from those in the lines directed toward those whose job it was to keep us safe. If anyone was bemoaning the obvious loss of freedom in exchange for at least the appearance of security, they were not saying it out loud.
After telling this brief story to my students not long ago, I asked What do you think would happen this coming weekend if people at the airport had a similar experience—hours to get through security, lines moving at less than a snail’s pace, armed soldiers at every turn? One student’s quick response summed it up concisely: “People would be pissed!” And so they would. Why? Because the overwhelming sense of insecurity that pervaded everything and everyone in the weeks after 9/11 have been replaced by a general sense of security, simply because nothing on the scale of 9/11 has happened on our turf for a number of years. A line like the one in Fort Lauderdale in October 2011 is okay today in Tel Aviv, London, Riyadh, or some other place, but this is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Don’t mess with our freedom to do what we want when we want in the way that we want—unless we don’t feel safe, then feel free to suspend our freedoms in whatever ways deemed necessary, so long as you guarantee our security. I am sure that if the news of NSA surveillance was leaked shortly after a terrorist attack, the outrage would not be over violations of our right to privacy. The outrage would be over why the surveillance had not been more extensive and more effective. As the ad slogan says, “Appearance is everything.”
Perhaps the reason why worrying about the threat of someone watching me and knowing my deepest secrets, whether Santa Claus or the government, has never been high on my radar screen is because I learned at a very early age about the impossibility of escaping the scrutiny of the most effective and omnipresent stalker imaginable.
Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it through and through.
If I climb the heavens, you are there; if I lie in the grave, you are there.
Your eyes saw all my actions, they were all of them written in your book;
Every one of my days was decreed, before even one of them came into being.
Now that is effective surveillance, straight out of Psalm 139. The first time I read Orwell’s 1984 as a sophomore in high school, I had no difficulty imagining a world in which everything about me is an open book. This is not because I sensed that the government’s intrusion into our lives was becoming more and more pervasive, but rather because I had known about the divine stalker, the God who would show me a Technicolor movie of my life at the Last Judgment, focusing on all of my sins and failings, since I had learned how to walk. Perhaps this is why I have always found the Deist idea that God created the world then left us alone to do the best we can or the notion that God created the world partially complete and gives us the task of completing it somewhat attractive. I’ve known many people, my mother, for instance, who are comforted by Psalm 139’s information that God knew everything about me and had every detail about me planned out while I was still in utero, but not me. I just wanted God to get off my back and leave me the hell alone.
As long as my image of God is as the divine Big Brother—benign or otherwise—who knows everything about me before I think it or do it, the problem of squaring that sort of cosmic surveillance with even a shred of human freedom and choice cannot be solved. But perhaps the intimacy of God’s connection with my life can be understood differently. As is often the case as I ruminate on divine/human relationships, Incarnation provides a new perspective. What if God is not an external monitoring agency, keeping track and keeping score, but mysteriously interwoven with each human being so intricately that divine and human cannot be separated? What if finding God and finding me are the same search? These are open questions, but the very notion of incarnation, of a fusion between divine and human, removes the fear factor, the concern that someone somewhere is holding me to a standard that I cannot possibly satisfy.
While on retreat a couple of summers ago, I met Cyprian Consiglio, a Benedictine monk who is a renowned and respected musician, composer, and author. My favorite of his compositions is “Behind and Before Me,” a setting of Psalm 139. In the CD liner notes, he writes the following about this song:
Ancient wisdom tells us that the beginning of the spiritual life is when we realize that God is within us—how long it takes us to reach that realization! But the next stage is when we realize that we are in God.
If nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. Christopher Wiman
The other day while at the grocery store I was surveying the vast array of Keurig coffee possibilities on display. Among the offerings was something from a San Francisco based company called “Fog Chaser.” I immediately moved to the next possibility, assuming that “Fog Chaser” would something like Starbucks on steroids—West Coast people like coffee that will make your hair stand on end. Several years ago while at a conference in Berkeley, CA, Jeanne and I wandered the town’s main street looking for coffee that our New England Dunkin’ Donuts tastes could handle. Knowing from experience that both of us hate headache-producing Starbucks products, we stepped into a little coffee shop and asked “Is your coffee as strong as Starbucks?” “Hell, no!” we were told, “Our coffee is much stronger than Starbucks!” No coffee for us that morning until the institutional fare at the conference. And no “Fog Chaser” for me.
The name reminded me of a novel I had just finished a couple of days earlier, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest: The Buried Giant. Ishiguro’s work is brilliant, creative, and mesmerizing, but this one was not one of my favorites, certainly not as good as The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go (which I had just used as the basis for the final paper assignment in one of my classes). But it was good enough to stay with, and—a sure sign of a novel worth reading—I’m still thinking about it even though I am now in the middle of my second novel since finishing. The Buried Giant is set in post-Roman, pre-Norman conquest England, a generation after the already mythical King Arthur and Merlin. We find through Axl and Beatrice, an old married couple at the center of the narrative, that a strange amnesia lays over the land. Axl and Beatrice clearly still love each other several decades into their relationship, but they remember only bits and pieces of their past history. They have a son, but they don’t remember why he left home years ago nor do they know where he went. They know there have been some problematic events in their years together, but can’t clearly remember what these things are. And this memory malaise is not just what one might expect from a couple of people in their seventies—it afflicts everyone.
Without revealing too much of the story, it turns out that the collective amnesia is the work of the dragon Querig, lurking behind the scenes and driving the action throughout. The old couple’s wanderings as they try to find their son intersect with two knights, both claiming to be on a mission concerning the dragon with clearly conflicting intentions. The very breath of the dragon causes people to forget, to lose their memories—slaying Querig will remove this dragon-fog and restore the land to memory health. Yet, as usual, it isn’t that simple. Years earlier, Britain had been afflicted with civil war between the native Britons and the newcomer Saxons, a war with King Arthur and the wizard Merlin at the center. Peace came to the land when the dragon, empowered with Merlin’s magic, just by its breathing existence caused the warring factions to forget why they were fighting. Fast-forward several decades to the time of the novel, and the land lays under a dreamlike trance having forgotten most of the past.
But not everything has been forgotten. Wistan, one of the knights Axl and Beatrice meet in their wanderings, is on a mission from a neighboring warlord to slay Querig. The mission of the other knight, the aging Gawain from King Arthur’s court, is only revealed toward the end of the story—his mission is to protect the dragon. As long as Querig lives, the land will be at peace. But with peace comes a price—loss of memory, tradition, and identity. What price is worth paying for peace? What things are worth sacrificing one’s identity for? These questions and many others are at the heart of Ishiguro’s work.
In the days since finishing The Buried Giant, I’ve been thinking about the various ways in which I am tempted, as I suspect everyone is tempted, to live in a self-induced fog. Living in a fog is not the same as sleepwalking; rather, it is living with only partial awareness of one’s surroundings and fellow human beings, even of one’s own beliefs and commitments. I find that one of my main tasks as a professor is to provide students with some fog-lifting guidance and tools. Such tools are useful in making one’s beliefs cohere, for instance. Constructing a coherent set of beliefs is not like a trip through the cafeteria line, where everything goes with everything else. What one believes concerning God’s existence and nature should shed light on other things one chooses to believe. The position one takes on the dignity and value of human life should both illuminate and limit what one can believe concerning a host of other issues. To succumb to the temptations of compartmentalization is to choose a fog-enveloped existence in which one wanders from one commitment to the next with no awareness that these commitments are united in one human being.
On Sunday evenings for the past several weeks, NBC has been running A.D., a multi-week miniseries event about what happened to the early followers of Jesus after he headed home. In spite of the multiple liberties taken with the story, A.D. captures one thing very well—the challenges of and the dangers involved with keeping belief alive after the original inspirations are long gone. Those of us who seek to live out faiths with ancient roots in the contemporary world continue to grapple with these challenges. But as Christopher Wiman reminds us, a self-induced fog often makes the challenges even more difficult.
Just as some of Jesus’ first century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that grace takes in our everyday lives. . . . In fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.
The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self—to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.
It is Memorial Day, a great day to honor those who have made sacrifices over the years, including the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to protect our freedoms. It is also a good day to consider how well we are living out the freedoms that these sacrifices were made for.
Jeanne and I are anxiously awaiting the release of Season of Three of House of Cards on DVD in July (we don’t do the streaming thing). On this Memorial Day I am thinking about politics; in one of the early second-season episodes, then Vice President Frank Underwood (played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), fresh off another policy victory energized by skillful manipulation and lying, turns toward the camera for one of his patented asides to the insider audience. “I’m the second most powerful man in the country without a single vote being cast in my favor. Democracy is so overrated!”
Frank knows, of course, that technically the United States is not a democracy—it is far too big for that. It is a representative republic, in which eligible voting citizens elect representatives who then cast votes on behalf of those who elected them in legislative bodies from the local to national level. But this doesn’t dilute Frank’s intended point, which is that what matters in politics is power, manipulation, who you know, and money. This is true in any sort of government, since all forms of government are run by human beings, creatures motivated by self-interest and greed more than anything else.
Frank’s point puts him in good company. Plato’s and Aristotle’s Republic and Politics are respectively two of the greatest works of political philosophy in the Western tradition, and even though both Plato and Aristotle were thoroughly familiar with the Athenian experiments in democracy that we look back on favorably, each were highly critical of this form of government. When Plato lists various forms of government from worst to best in the Republic, he ranks democracy as next to worst, only slightly better than tyranny.
There are many reasons for these great philosophers’ rejection of our favorite form of government, some of which were undoubtedly personal. Plato’s mentor Socrates, remember, was convicted and condemned to death by a jury of 501 of his Athenian peers in a straightforwardly democratic fashion—and Plato never forgave either Athens or its ludicrously misguided form of government. A generation later, when Aristotle found himself on the wrong side of the political landscape in Athens, he left town immediately, reportedly commenting “I do not intend to let Athens sin against philosophy twice.” Aristotle ended up going north to Macedonia where he was hired as tutor to a young man who would soon become one of the greatest tyrants the world has even seen—Alexander the Great.
Although their philosophical problems with democracy were many, Plato and Aristotle agreed that democracy’s deepest flaw is that it is built on a serious misreading of human nature. Democracy’s unique calling card is its openness to treating all eligible citizens as if they are all equally qualified to participate in making political decisions, an openness that is rooted in the bizarre assumption that these citizens are fundamentally the same in some important and relevant way that qualifies them for participation. This notion of fundamental human equality is so misguided that it would be laughable, say Plato and Aristotle, were it not that the effects of taking this notion seriously are so problematic.
Does it really make sense to invite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to choose political leaders along with those far better suited by education, class, and abilities to do so? No more than it would make sense to invite a senator into the bakery or butcher shop to bake pastries or cut up a side of beef. There is an obvious hierarchy of skills and abilities, both physical and mental, among human beings and it makes obvious sense that a working society should identify these strengths and weaknesses efficiently so that each person can do what she or he is best suited for. This is why Plato ranks aristocracy—the rule of the aristos or the “best”—as the best form of government. Democracy is built on the idea that since all human beings are fundamentally the same, each of us can legitimately consider ourselves equally qualified for everything, including choosing our leaders. To which Plato and Aristotle say “Bullshit.”
I remember facing these issues clearly in November 1976 as I walked into a polling booth in Santa Fe, New Mexico to cast my vote in my first Presidential election—Carter vs. Ford. As many first-time voters, I was dedicated to being the most informed voter in the country that election cycle. And it was a tough choice, much more difficult than any of the nine Presidential elections in which I have voted since. I had decided, after much thought, to vote for Carter a few days before the election and did so with pride on the first Tuesday of November. The polling place was the elementary school just a couple of blocks down the street from the house we were renting; as I walked home after voting, I started having disturbing thoughts. What if some fool who had not spent one second thinking about or studying up on the issues followed me into the voting booth and voted for Ford rather than Carter because he liked elephants more than donkeys? What if my uncle, who always votes straight Republican because he thinks Jesus was a Republican has already cancelled my vote out? This sucks! Why should some uninformed boob’s vote count as much as my vote wrapped in intelligence and insight counts? Whose stupid idea was this “one person, one vote” thing? Exactly what Plato and Aristotle want to know.
Over the succeeding years I have had many opportunities to tell this story to a classroom of students and to share my proposed solution. Voting should be considered as an earned privilege for eligible persons, not as a right. Citizens of an eligible age, if they choose to vote, should be required to pass an eligibility quiz at the polling place—say a 70% on questions based on current issues and events as well as testing for basic knowledge of how government works—before entering the booth. I often tell my students that a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion. This would simply be a real application of that truth. I’m not saying that the quiz should be as demanding as what immigrants are required to pass for citizenship—how many natural-born citizens could pass that—but something between that much knowledge and total ignorance is not too much to ask for.
My students, by the way, almost always think by a slight margin that this is a good idea. Those who don’t often raise questions like “who is going to construct the quiz?’ to which I reply “I will.”
The only reason to favor democracy in its various forms over other forms of government is the equality thing. If, notwithstanding Aristotle, Plato and the vast majority of political minds historically over the centuries, we truly believe that all persons share a fundamental equality so deep and definitive that it trumps the whole host of differences staring us straight in the face, then democracy is an experiment that deserves our continuing, energetic commitment and support. But simply saying that everyone gets to vote regardless of race, gender, social status, wealth, or other difference-making qualities is not a sufficient expression of our belief in fundamental equality. Not even close.
If we truly believe, in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words, that “all persons are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we dishonor that belief by thinking that everyone getting to vote covers the bases. If we truly believe that all persons possess equal dignity as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with social and political arrangements that deny equal access for vast numbers of our fellow citizens to the various structures intended to facilitate the flourishing of that dignity throughout a human life. It is fine once or twice per year on Memorial Day or Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.