Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Some Notes on the First Mayoral Debate

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

The story of Tuesday night's debate is one of offense and defense. For better or worse, Mayor Jeff Longwell--at least at this early point in the race, and at least on the basis on this remarkably well-attended debate (Roxy's was absolutely packed)--is running entirely on defending his record of the last four years With the exception of one very slight snark about how the city's budgets always balance, unlike the state's (where his challenger Brandon Whipple has served in the Kansas House since 2013), the mayor never attacked Whipple at all. Whereas Whipple went on the attack frequently. Not always effectively; there were some points where he could have forced out into the open some important differences between the candidates, but chose not to, and there were other points where he picked fights over pretty unimportant, even silly stuff. But he was absolutely the one with the energy (so much so that at one point, while swinging his arm to make a point, he knocked over his water class, getting it all over himself and the podium). Mayor Longwell was calm--occasionally sounding a little weary at what probably seemed to him like having to explain the same point over and over again, but still, very much the confident incumbent. He's the one in the mayor's office, defending his place. Whereas Whipple has to make the case for change.

In this hour-long debate, the best expressions of that case came through two fairly solid attacks, both of which came in the first half-hour. The first had to do with development policies--not, unfortunately, the crucial reality that Wichita is an overbuilt city that needs to wean itself away from fiscally unsustainable construction projects, but instead the traditional (and costly) urban questions of enterprise zones, tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, and the like. Here Mayor Longwell was quick to point to new business and residential developments along Greenwich out east, along Maize out west, and along 21st in the north. Which, of course, presented a perfect opening for Whipple, whose legislative district lies in south Wichita, and who has made the lack of investment in the city's poorer southern half a key point in his campaign. (Whipple must of uttered some variation of the phrase "I want to serve all of Wichita, not just its richer neighborhoods" at least a half-dozen times.) After Whipple hammered him about south Wichita residential streets that still lack sidewalks, Longwell tried to defend himself by mentioning how he and the rest of the city council had come up with the plan that saved south Wichita's Starlite Drive-In theater. Whipple came right back at him, reminding him of the city's original plan to close the southeast Linwood library branch. Obviously this, like everything else that comes up in debates like these, is more complicated than minute-long statements and rebuttals can reflect. Still, this was a punch that landed.

The second successful attack Whipple made had to do with what Longwell, as well as everyone else paying attention to the race, knows is the mayor's weak spot--his administration's, shall we say, “failure to communicate” the land deals which accompanied his successful negotiations to get a AAA baseball team to come to Wichita. Longwell admitted the need to be more open in sharing information (at which point chuckles broke out all around the audience), but he insisted that it was a great deal for the city, one which will include a sizable increase in payments for use in the new stadium (which, of course, is itself theoretically going to be paid for the unfortunately typical arrangement of state bonds floated in the expectation of repayment via special taxing districts set up in expectation of property and sales tax receipts following, you got it, more development). Whipple blasted back that the ends don't justify secretive means, and pointed to the news just yesterday about how a deal to give away part of Wichita's downtown Naftzger Park to developers was set to slide though on the city council's consent agenda, without review or debate. Longwell frustratedly insisted that such was the fault of City Manager Robert Layton, and not him or the city council, but Whipple's point about transparency stands.

Can an incumbent mayor (and one who, despite the non-partisan character of the mayoral race, enjoys an automatic if unspoken partisan advantage?) be unseated by a bunch of moderately class-based complaints (Whipple's comments about "rich neighborhoods" is about as far as he seems willing to go; a socialist firebrand he definitely isn't) about development patterns and by a few well-expressed concerns about secretiveness and sweetheart land deals? My first guess is: "probably not," if only because there are a lot of voters along Greenwich and Maize and 21st who like Mayor Longwell, or at least probably don't particularly feel that they have been poorly served by his time in office. When you hear the mayor and Whipple basically say the same thing about funding the police department (give them more money!), exploring options for Century II (engage the citizenry!), retaining a high-skill work force (emphasize manufacturing and support WSU's Innovation Campus!), and a host of other issues, then the basis for the case Whipple needs to make only gets smaller.

For example, it's frustrating that Whipple, whose party membership alone suggests that he supports much stronger action to combat climate change than Longwell, nonetheless chose to pass that issue by when Longwell was asked about it, essentially following the mayor's lead in emphasizing various small-bore actions to assist in shifting to more renewable energy sources. And it's somewhat silly that the debate's discussion about mass transit, with The Wichita Eagle running this very week a long, detailed series on the challenges and problems our bus service faces, was derailed first into a back-and-forth about bike lanes, scooters, and the Q-Line, and then ended with sniping about whether or not the invitation Mayor Longwell's received, as Wichita mayor, to serve on a state transportation advisory committee constitutes him being "appointed" by Governor Laura Kelly. Basically, I would tell the Whipple camp: if these attacks aren't going to produce the sort of information to help voters assess Longwell's defense of his record, then don't make them. If Whipple’s only complaint with the mayor's approach to dealing with Wichita's potential water crisis is that plan the city has in place hasn't been reviewed by state experts, perhaps he should reconsider its political importance. If his defense of the idea that Wichita ought to clearly identify itself as an LGBTQ-friendly city is that important to his argument for retaining young workers, then perhaps it shouldn't be something he tags on at the end of a promise to spend more money on training and entrepreneurship support, and instead make it front and center.

In sum, I think the debate showed a incumbent with real weaknesses, but nonetheless enough confidence in his own record to--for the moment anyway--play nothing but defense, and a challenger who has some real openings to make headway with voters, but whose offense needs to be sharpened if it is to be entirely persuasive. We'll see what the next two months bring.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Climate Change, Dirty Hands, and the Grace (and Hope) of Limits

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Paul Schrader, the famed screenwriter and director, does not make subtle films. His latest movie, First Reformed--the story of a depressed, emotionally exhausted, and ultimately suicidal minister (played by Ethan Hawke), a man haunted his failed marriage, his dead son, his collapsing health, and an overbearing sense of guilt--is very much in line with the rest of Schrader's work. Artists, in his view, should want to "cleave a crevice in the viewer’s skull that they have to somehow close"; in this regard (if not in all others), First Reformed succeeds.

The tool which Schrader uses to open up the viewer's skull in First Reformed is essentially the same one which finally drives Hawke's Reverend Toller, a former military chaplain whose son died in Iraq, over the edge: the question of whether God can (or will) forgive His creation for the immensity of the environmental harm it has done to itself, and the worry, or perhaps fear, over what struggling with that question honestly will mean for ourselves. For someone already as psychologically unbalanced as Reverend Toller--as the complacent but basically decent-hearted mega-church pastor who watches over Toller at one point comments, Toller, unlike Jesus, spends all his time in the Garden of Gethsemane--it meant a descent into jihadist madness. One would hope that would not be case for most of us. But struggle with it we must, however much that cranial opening in our perspectives pains us.

This is not, incidentally, merely a question for those who believe in a loving God who orchestrated our creation. Those who continue to insist that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's desperate warnings about the need to contain global warming to 1.5°C is just Soros-backed nonsense, or that the overwhelming scientific consensus on the terrible threat of anthropogenic climate change is merely an example of paranoid groupthink, or that we're on the cusp of a providential cornucopia of food production once the tundra in Siberia finally all melts, can, of course, continue to believe whatever foolish thing they want (and can save themselves the effort of reading the rest of this essay). But increasingly, the crushing reality of increasing ocean temperatures, extreme weather events, drought-driven refugee crises, and species collapse is forcing most of us to wonder how to navigate this human-made enormity, whether religious believers or not. Just this week, Noah Millman commented in The Week that "the most inconvenient truth of all" about climate change is the realization that we have "no mode of living that allows us simply to exist within an environment in a natural fashion, no spiritual road back to a prelapsarian state," and Jonathan Frazen commented in The New Yorker  that we must "accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope." Their counsel that we must find new ways to orient ourselves and our posterity towards what lays ahead of us, despite the immense difficulties which will almost certainly attend that future, is refreshingly honest. The near-simultaneous appearance of their essays, along with my watching of First Reformed, made a perfect complement to Noah J. Toly's The Gardeners' Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, an unexpectedly deep work of political and theological reflection that I had just finished. Almost providential coincidence of influences, one might say.

I call Toly's book "unexpectedly deep" because, in working my way through it, I did not at first suspect that stakes that Toly was aiming for. His work in environmental politics is important, but not, I thought, the stuff out of which grand theological insights are made. I confess that "ethics" as a discipline does not, for the most part, impress me; it too often, in my observation, gets taught and deployed in the context of already established secular and capitalist practises, and thus usually targets individual practitioners, not the structures of the practice itself. So while I enjoyed his reflections on Malthusianism, his unpacking of the "IPAT" ("Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology") formulation, and his invocations of Herman Daly and other environmental thinkers who have developed much needed steady-state or slow-growth economic models, I didn't find the book's argument remotely radical enough to be truly engaging. (For whatever it's worth, I teach Daly and similar thinkers as well, but at the present moment it is, frankly, "degrowth," rather than slow-growth, that we really need.)

But beginning with chapter 3, which starts with a brilliant consideration of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in conjunction of the disasters experienced by the village of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez's famed On Hundred Years of Solitude, Toly moves in the direction of the describing what he calls the "magical realism of climate change." His point is that, unlike every other environmental concern we might face--urban brownfields, polluted rivers, deforestation, etc.--climate disruption is a phenomenon whose structural causes are fundamentally interpolated with the structures of human choices; as he pithily puts it, "climate change originates with the tragic or, more specifically, with attempts to overcome it" (p. 61). As modernity--and, most relevantly, the hydrocarbon-focused "paleotechnic energy regime" of the industrial and post-industrial world--constructed and repeatedly reconstructed itself around the transcending of various ecological and sociological limits, it exposed new limits to the world that would not have been known otherwise. Following a thoughtful review of the relevant science, Toly observes: "What this means is that climate change embodies the tragic dimension of environmental challenges not only because it requires us to navigate tradeoffs and instabilities now, but because the social systems that have fueled the problem were originally generated by impulses to address limitations" (p. 63). Or as he puts it at length at the end of the chapter:

Among other things, climate change is slowly undoing our ability to ignore or deny the tragic structure of the human condition. Perhaps more than any other issue, climate change has exposed the tragic foundations of environmental challenges, the ineluctable guilt that attends acting on those challenges, and the temptations to denial, paralysis, nihilism, and moral skepticism that attend those challenges. Reckoning honestly with climate change, and with the challenge of climate governance, shatters the illusion of a tragedy-free existence, highlighting what we might describe as the enduring tragic climate of environmental politics. (p. 79)

To speak as a Christian, I agree fully with Toly's insistence that recovery of the sense of tragic, or in other words of limits, is essential to any appreciation of those goods which come to us as grace, as abundance. Without a consciousness of what we cannot do, or of what our doing cannot avoid necessarily implicating us also in so doing, then there can be no consciousness of that good which is beyond our doing. This confronts us with problems of agency and sin, of course. Early in the book, Toly commented that "'the tragic' in this sense is neither sinful nor the result of sin"--and I took issue with that. If sin is understood as the absence of, or the state of acting against, God's good will, then how could something experienced as tragedy not be tied up with sin? But later Toly's arguments led me to reconsider the meaning of his words--that is, perhaps we should understand the environmental tragedy of the entwining of human innovation and destruction, and the tragedy of the tradeoffs it forces upon us, as reflections of a "benign alienation." That alienation--for those who accept the Fall, anyway--is both what introduced the possibility of and what contributes to the continuation of sinful acts, of course, most particularly against the natural creation which the Genesis story tells us we were given some stewardship over. But it also--and here Toly draws upon the work of Albino Barrera--"draws us into to Christian discipleship," making "our allocative choices, or our choices among competing goods when we cannot possibly secure all of opportunity to be like God in choice and creativity....Apprehending the tragic reminds us of the enduring goodness of a finite creation and reveals the goodness of our limitations, as well as the goodness of the plurality of potentially legitimate but still not self-justifying ways to respond to the tragic" (pp. 88-89).

Trusting in God's grace in the midst of--indeed, actually though the medium of--our own alienation is a hard theological claim. Unfortunately, it was not the tendency of most American Christians in the 20th century to do political theology with the hardness of finitude, plurality, and tragedy in mind; Billy Graham, rather than Dietrich Bonhoeffer (on whom Toly relies extensively) was our collective preference. Too many of us were captivated by the idols of efficiency, utility, and inevitability, seeing God's will as, if not aligned with, than at least entirely orthogonal to industrial expansion. Of course technological progress and energy consumption must be unlimited; it's impossible to imagine things otherwise, right? The human creature demands it! This is what Wendell Berry trenchantly called "an economic and technological determinism, as heartless as it is ignorant." Toly invites us to realize how things can be otherwise. Not without painful tradeoffs, losses, and sacrifices, of course--but also not without hope for what he calls a "responsible Anthropocene."

What will it look like? Toly doesn't know. He gestures towards what geographer Doreen Massey calls "a politics of place beyond place," which he reads, in light of the finite and alienated fact of our existence, a fact that obliges us to dig into particular places and tend to those possibilities of fecundity graced to us (a possibility which he ties to Biblical cities of refuge), "a politics of place" that also "sees its identity as constituted partly by relations with, impacts upon, and obligations to others beyond its borders." As he concludes his book, "the gardener's hands are dirtied by their bearing the costs for others...because facing the tragic responsibility means giving up, undermining, or destroying one or more goods [one might think here of our ever-responsive energy grids, our industrial food systems, our fossil fuel-dependent addictions to global travel, our too-casual involvements with exploitative supply chains around the globe, and more]...that others may benefit" (pp. 116-117).

One need not rely upon Christian theology to recognize the wisdom of this kind of chastened, resolute, localized hope. Jonathan Frazen, in the aforementioned essay, doesn't advocate abandoning involvement with repairing or strengthening larger political and economic systems entirely--but he does center his own mostly (but perhaps not entirely) non-religious hopes on "smaller, more local battles....a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble," so that he  might "take heart in...small successes." For him, it's a community-supported agricultural operation that gives the urban homeless a chance to farm. Just more upper-class liberal do-gooding, some might sniff--but no one who takes both localism and the projections made by environmental science seriously, I think, can sniff at his final comments: "when the systems of industrial agriculture and global trade break down and homeless people outnumber people with homes....traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land--nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators--will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it." Toly, I suspect, would fully agree.

The fictional Reverend Toller, when brought into confrontation with the limits of his ability to respond to the horror and confusion that climate disruption is bringing into all of our lives, thought God was calling him to violently embrace the blackness around him. Toly's work helps us, believers and non-believers alike, to articulate a more hopeful response. It is not a recipe for something that our own contradictions ought to warn us away from deluding us into hoping for, but rather a recommendation for a hope which can co-exist with tragedy, a hope for endurance and grace as we do the hard, difficult work which this planet we have changed calls us to. Not a bad challenge, that.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #8: Flowers in the Dirt, Off the Ground, and Much, Much More

This month, I had to admit to myself that one of the things I'm doing with this series is spinning a narrative about Paul McCartney's work and career, one that is somewhat self-interested. In my last two entries, looking at Macca's musical efforts after his great come-back-from-Wings album Tug of War, I was talking about an immensely talented musician who, through his 40s, seemed like he just couldn't fully engage with his own talents. Perhaps not coincidentally, my own 40s were filled with a sense that, for all sorts of financial and family reasons, I just couldn't move forward in regards to any of matters I really wanted to. Now, I'm looking at an immensely busy five years in Sir Paul's life, from 1988 to 1993, during which he turned 50...and it just so happens I also turned late last year. The work McCartney produced during this short span is remarkable in its breadth, ambition, and even its relative musical success....which, again, is at least vaguely similar to the renewed sense of excitement and accomplishment I'm feeling as my sixth decade begins. No, I'm not turning the mulleted McCartney of the late 1980s/early 1990s into my spirit animal. But I'd be lying if I didn't recognize that my reactions to his music this month reflect something personal as well. So take that for what you will.

Anyway, let's check off the accomplishments. In 1988 McCartney and a bunch of friends cut a quick, polished record of classic rock and roll tunes, to be released solely in the Soviet Union. CHOBA B CCCP (or "The Russian Album" as it's almost universally called) is a rocking collection of tunes made famous by Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Leadbelly, Eddie Cochran, and more. It's all quite wonderful! (Paul's fundamental pop sympathies can't be denied though; the stand-out of the album, in my opinion, is his delightfully catchy take on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore.") In 1991 McCartney recorded a blockbuster of an Unplugged album, singing a fair number of Beatles tunes but also a lot of old blues and R&B numbers. It's also pretty wonderful! He's not a born bluesman by any means, but his renditions of "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and "San Francisco Bay Blues" are terrific. Also, in 1989 he launched his first international tour in 13 years, diving deep into the Beatles catalog before adoring crowds for the first time, and producing an awesome live concert album, Tripping the Live Fantastic in 1990. And then he did the same thing again only four years later, once again drawing from the tour another equally fabulous live concert album, Paul is Live. (Poke around the McCartney fan sites and histories, and you'll find plenty of people who talk about how the band Paul assembled during this period, who played on all the aforementioned albums as well as the studio albums described below, was perhaps is best ever, with two great guitarists--Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders and Hamish Stuart of Average White Band--complementing his bass in the same way Lennon and Harrison had done years before.)

I'm not done. During these years McCartney also secretly released, as "The Fireman," Strawberries Ocean Ships Forest, a techno-dance collaboration with the English record produced Youth. It's cool! I was never much for rave music, but I can recognize good beats when I hear them, and this record has plenty. And then, still not done, he also released, to great fanfare, his first work of classical music, Liverpool Oratorio. I have to say, for the first time in this entry, this is something by Macca which I don't really care for. (Neither did pretty much anyone else, it appears.) I listen to classical music regularly, but don't consider myself familiar enough with orchestral forms to really, so take my opinion for a grain of salt. Still, if simplistic lyrics goosed up to an operatic level is likely to stick in your craw ("The Devil is evil / With a D. / And God is good / Without an O.") avoid this one.

That's six albums of music in a little over five years, and I still have to talk about his new studio work during this period, the music which all those tours were supporting. I'm happy to say, it's good--solid, engaging, and often really great pop music all around.

1989's Flowers in the Dirt came first, and it's the better of these two albums, though only narrowly. McCartney reached out to Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for this album, genuinely and bravely trying to challenge and mix-up the ruts he'd followed into, and it paid off. While I don't think any of the songs McCartney and Costello are co-listed as authoring count as the album's best, I feel like I can hear the influence of Costello's sardonic, jangly, literary sensibility through the whole record. The best of their official collaborations is the lead single, the unexpectedly smart pop confection (with a ridiculously fun video), "My Brave Face"; "You Want Her Too" and "That Day is Done" never really coalesce into great songs, but the choir that comes in "Don't Be Careless Love" catches you by surprise. Elsewhere the album includes the drippy "Distractions" and the terribly overproduced (but still charming, I think) wanna-be gospel number "Motor of Love"--and that's it for weak points, I think. "Rough Ride" is fine light-funk pop, "We Got Married" is an impressively dark, rough, and passionate love letter (perfectly appropriate for a man celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary the year the album came out), "Put It There" is a short, lovely ditty (and thankfully polished into it's own thing, rather than being left unfinished and lumped into a medley, as was so often the case with Macca's folky and homely moments), and "This One," "How Many People," and "Où Est Le Soleil" all have their rocking moments. But the album's stand-out is "Figure of Eight," a driving number whose lyrics don't really scan at all but which McCartney, adopting a raspy holler, simply yells into near-perfection. The extended version included on Tripping the Live Fantastic is even better than the studio cut; it becomes a pulsing, bluesy, ferocious love song, absolutely the best surprise discovery I've had in this journey through Macca's work since I stumbled upon "Get on the Right Thing" way back in February. Overall, this is a strong B+ album, certainly up there near Band on the Run and Tug of War, and one that most any other artist might consider their masterpiece.

1993's Off the Ground kicks off with the title song, which is a nice, shiny pop number, but not likely to be long remembered. Much better are the leftover McCartney/Costello collaborations "Mistress and the Maid," a bright tune with a spooky musical and lyrical undercurrent of danger and anger, and "The Lovers That Never Were," where the anger and frustration is banged out explicitly. The McCartneys animal rights-manifesto "Looking for Changes" is a worthy rave-up, while the emotionally--if not thematically--related "C'mon People" similarly serves as an engaging ballad. It's the little songs that're the best, though: "Hope of Deliverance" is a fun, upbeat bit of worldbeat music; the ostensibly square paean to domesticity "Peace in the Neighborhood" could have been a Motown classic; "Golden Earth Girl" is haunting; and "Winedark Open Sea" is plain beautiful. "I Owe it All to You" and "Get Out of My Way" are predictable and forgettable numbers, but "Biker Like an Icon" is a shock: as harsh and sharp and cool a musical story of misbegotten love as anything ever recorded by The Police (and with a video that looks like it was shot for a classic REM tune). This is solid B album, and a great way to bring this too-long entry to an end.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Why the Partisanship of Wichita's Mayoral Race is a Good Thing

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Four years ago, as Jeff Longwell ran against Sam Williams in the 2015 mayoral race, I mourned that the primary had been such a non-partisan affair. I definitely don't have any reason to feel that way this time around. The party differences between Mayor Longwell (who kicked off his campaign while surrounded by all sorts of Republican notables) and Brandon Whipple (who has served as a Democrat representing south Wichita in the Kansas House of Representatives since 2013) are pretty obvious, and seems likely to shape the race all the way up to election day. Which is, to my mind, a good thing.

Others disagree with me, obviously. For some, their disagreement is rooted in their nominal (though, as I argue below, rarely actual) opposition to political parties themselves, and their wish to have electoral contests completely untouched by such. For others, the problem was what they perceived as the partisan, "Topeka" style of the mayoral primary--in other words, their problem isn't with the parties themselves, but rather what they see (or think they see) parties in Kansas and the United States doing and saying. I think both of these perspectives are wrong, and that the partisan character of the mayoral race to come will benefit Wichita's political health. Let me see if I can explain why--though with my apologies for turning this into a discussion less about Wichita, and more about democratic elections in general.

To be clear, Longwell isn't running officially as a Republican, nor Whipple as a Democrat--their party affiliations will not appear on the ballot. Municipal elections in Kansas remain officially nonpartisan, as is the case in most cities across America, with a few notable exceptions (New York City, Indianapolis, Houston, Louisville, Philadelphia, and more). But the fact that they are known as a Republican and a Democrat, and are clearly intending to make use of Republican and Democratic networks to raise money, share their messages, and connect with voters, accomplishes the same thing. Which is the first and greatest advantages of being partisan: it enables voters make distinctions and connections in regards to electoral contests which are more informed, which in turn encourages the candidates themselves to share their electoral messages in more detail and more sharply. Simply put, candidates who run completely non-partisan campaigns for completely non-partisan elections tend to provide voters with less and less detailed information, because the incentive to drive home differences doesn't exist, whereas the incentive to offer moderate, centrist, technocratic bromides looms large. The result is an election like, well, the one we had four years ago--where two entirely competent white male business-friendly conservatives from the west-side of Wichita had to generate reasons for voters to choose between them, rather than building upon the actually existing range of opinions that exist across this city.

But wait, one might fairly interrupt--what's wrong with candidates who make use of "moderate, centrist, technocratic bromides," anyway? Doesn't that translate as "expertise"? And isn't expertise what we want when it comes to city government, not an agenda to push the city in one ideological direction or another? Don't lots of people see themselves as centrist, and in an era of intense national political polarization, surely many people see political moderation as something must to be desired, right? So why not hope for our city elections to operate along those lines?

There are least two reasons why I would issue a qualified--or even an emphatic--"no" in response to these challenges. Mostly, my reasons have to do with how we think about--or how I think we should think about--representative democracy.

First of all, the idea that there really is a large number of voters who genuinely find themselves somewhere between "conservatism" and "liberalism" as they have been constructed throughout modern American history, who honestly are independent and undecided between and therefore swing back and forth between the Republican and Democratic parties, and are equally dissatisfied with them both, is simply false. While it is true that Americans don't show nearly the trust in or support for political parties they once did, that doesn't stop them from consisting returning to demographically predictable voting patterns. Every honest student of politics must admit this--the data which shows that partisan polarization has grown even as more and more people eschew formal party allegiance is pretty obvious. And the small portion of the population who really do vote in ways that break from partisan patterns are rarely "moderate," in the sense of wishing to support solely whatever pragmatic, expert perspectives seem to work. Rather, the evidence is that they are mostly statistical creations, a fictional average capturing a mess of contradictory extremes.

All this means that most of the people who say they dislike partisanship are probably actually not complaining about the fact that there are parties where conservatives and liberals, or gun owners and gay-rights supporters, may find their interests most thoroughly reflected and thus choose to congregate around and support. Rather, they are probably actually complaining about, whether they realize it or not, is what they see as the effects of the patterns of partisanship in America today. I think that's a reasonable conclusion--because, of course, parties, for all their flaws, are collections free and concerned citizens, who form groups to raise money and promote that which they sincerely believe to be true. As frustrating as the process may often be, it's American pluralism at its most fundamental, and who can really be opposed to that?

Please note: that is not a defense of the specific parties we have. After more than 150 years of dominance, our reigning two parties--and under single-member, winner-take-all elections, there will always be two reigning parties; that's just logic--have promoted campaign finance, candidate selection, and ballot access rules which result in an often rigged electoral game. Both parties have gone through massive evolutions over the years, reforming their practices and changing directions--sometimes dramatically--as voters and donors have demanded it. But still, I don't deny they are, overall, creaky and often corruption-laden bodies which have happily embraced today's media-driven emphasis on negativity and the resulting contempt for compromise. It would be great to see a reset.

I think the last thing which could bring about such a reset, however, is that relatively tiny group of (nearly always relatively well-off) voters who find that their opinions put them on the fringes of their respective parties, thus leading them to think it best to separate themselves from the dirty business of influencing or building coalitions of voters entirely. I am personally doubtful that a slow-growth, mid-sized, regional city like Wichita has a readily available set of "conservative" or "liberal" (much less "libertarian" or "socialist") solutions which Longwell or Whipple could pick and choose between as they seek election. But, assuming one still believes power should only be wielded by those elected to wield it, what is the alternative? The long, perhaps noble, but usually victory-less history of folks like Greg Orman, someone who understands all the above very well, yet apparently continued to maintain until the end that a message of neutral expertise and practical deal-making would motivate voters outside of that whole tawdry, pluralistic process? The evidence, to be kind, suggests otherwise.

None of this touches on the actual political realities on the current race: namely, the fact that a lot of people who are inclined to vote against Longwell are worried that Whipple's membership in the Democratic party is a death knell for his candidacy. It's a fair concern. But the politics of partisanship, of liberal or conservative candidates dealing with conservative or liberal voters (which, incidentally, Whipple has written a whole dissertation on), is a different issue entirely from the democratic, pluralistic value of partisanship. That, I think, is pretty clear--which is why I expect that the debates which surround this mayoral race will be much more valuable to voters than what we saw last time around.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

26th on the 13th

26 years married, 13 years in Wichita, all beginning on August 13, 1993, and August 13 (or pretty close to that), 2006. I like the look of those numbers. 26 years is a good long time to be travel down the road of life with one person, and for all the accidents and bumps and detours and misunderstood directions along the way, I'm grateful for the journey. Love you, Melissa. Hope you have a wonderful day, and a wonderful next 26 years. That's my plan, anyway.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Local Socialism and Civil Society

[Cross-posted to DSA's Religious Socialism blog; parts of this post were previous published here.]

When The New Republic ran its package of articles on "The Socialist Moment" back in May, its cover art used Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to invoke the fictitious couple famously portrayed in Grant Wood's "American Gothic," almost surely solely for humorous reasons. But there is something to be said, I think, for why that juxtaposition seems humorous. Part of it is almost certainly that Wood's painting is tied in our collective popular consciousness with a homeliness and a particular kind of conservative Americana. And, of course, socialism in America is not so coded. Rather, "socialism" is understood as radical and cosmopolitan--not the sort of thing that can be reasonably associated with older, church-attending farming couples, right?

Let me suggest otherwise. Democratic socialism is, I think, at least potentially compatible with, and perhaps even capable of drawing strength from, the small towns and churches of U.S. society.

One reason to make this argument is to respond to false assumptions made by those who might otherwise be sympathetic to socialist principles. The two somewhat critical pieces included in the New Republic package are examples. Both Robert Westbrook and Win McCormick recognize the way that the extreme inequality of capitalist societies today threatens the basic freedoms that democracies require to function. But both are suspicious of democratic socialism's ability to deliver a certain type of positive economic freedom without also squelching the diversity and plurality that characterize truly free societies.  Instead of democratic socialism, they turn to the social democratic ideal of "property-owning democracy" advocated by John Rawls, or to the civic republican ideal of an economy firmly subjected to a communally (and thus culturally) articulated common good. In both cases, these writers are looking to push against oligarchic wealth in the name of defending the power and liberty of persons, institutions, and communities.  Democratic socialism, to their mind, rightly opposes capitalism, but does not take pluralism seriously.

There is some basis for that fear. After all, when you see self-described socialists like Sanders speak out on behalf of Medicare for All and other universal programs, you might question what, if any, space is left for distinct groups of people who want to do things—even socially just things—in their own communally-articulated way. (The debate over whether a justly socialized and democratized health care system would still allow for private medical providers or private health insurance programs is just one example of this.) Westbrook and McCormick are not alone in thinking that many socialists have answered that question with a much-too-casual "none" in the past. But other—I think better—socialist thinkers have long recognized the failures of doctrinaire Marxism and instead insisted upon the "primacy of politics." In Sheri Berman words, this means acknowledging the place of a pluralistic, localized civil society in the overall socialist order and for real democratic debate and diversity within it. It means abandoning the dream of a perfect, rationally-unfolding socialist moment in favor of what Michael Walzer called an always contested "socialism-in-the-making."

We serve socialism poorly by failing to recognize how much of the opposition of conservative people, rural people, and most particularly church-going people to democratic socialism is the result of the sense that there would be no space under the socialist order for their communities and traditions. Given that many of those traditional beliefs and local practices are inegalitarian or exclusionary, why should we take their fears seriously? Well, perhaps because, when properly understood, at least a few of their fears are similar to our own. For example, some conservative thinkers recognize that what most threatens their familial and traditional aspirations isn’t the promise of democratic liberation and socialist equality; rather, it is the homogenizing individualism and consumerism of our corporation-dominated world. As Alan Jacobs, one such conservative, put it: "What [we traditional Christians] are battling against isn't a form of socialism....I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market—a kind of metaphysical capitalism. The gospel of the present moment is...'I am my own.' I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want." This libertarian attitude, however much it may sometimes seem compatible with the freedom that democratic socialism delivers, is, I think, one that anyone who takes genuine social liberation seriously cannot accept. Thus in at least a few small ways, socialists and certain conservative thinkers may be said to occupy a similar space.

I am not suggesting some grand communitarian-traditionalist-socialist alliance here, at least not without a great deal of careful theoretical exploration and clear limitations (some of which I’ve attempted in the past, under the title “left conservatism”). However, I am insisting that advocates of democratic socialism hurt themselves in the realm of political debate, and misunderstand themselves in the realm of ideas, when they present socialism as too universal, and too rational, to ever be republican in the classic sense: that is, attentive to the res publica, to people where they live. Economically, that's a silly argument: democratic socialism is about freeing people from the social power that prevents them from being able to make the choices and live the places and maintain the ways of life that they choose and love. But structurally and morally, the question remains. Will socialism allow for local democracy, even if that local democracy reflects the belief systems of local, perhaps traditional, perhaps religious majorities? That's a hard question. It is easy for socialists to see the value of church communities that are purposively engaged in social justice; it is less easy for us to acknowledge that the social empowerment of people, their liberation from economic tyranny, is a good thing itself, even if the resulting political and moral choices of those of faith don't match the egalitarian ideal. To quote Michael Walzer again:

The true home of socialism-in-the-making isn't the government; it is the political space that exists outside the government....The space is always contested, and the locus of the contests is civil society. Civil society is, like the state itself, a realm of inequality, where the powerful get more powerful and the rich get richer. Every civil association, every organized group of men and women, is also a mobilization of resources....This is an obvious story, but it isn't the whole story. Civil society is simultaneously a realm of opportunity for democratic and egalitarian activists....More than half a century ago, the British social theorist A.D. Lindsay described the "dissenting" Protestant congregations of 18th- and 19th-century Britain as schools for democracy. They were that, but they had intrinsic as well as instrumental value--and that is true today of all the associations of civil society that engage the energy and idealism of their members.

Note that this isn't an argument that civil bodies, once truly socially empowered, wouldn't be or shouldn't be changed by being more thoroughly economically integrated with the rest of society. They would be, and they should be—the most obvious reason for which being that no social organization, churches included, can ever, or should ever, fully go at their participatory tastks alone. And so the community group or faith organization that seeks its own approach to addressing social problems—housing the sick, treating the addicted, protecting the weak, listening to the ill—will be part of the larger network of other groups, large and small, doing the same thing, and such networks would profoundly—and democratically—shape practices and beliefs over time. But still, a recognition of the intrinsic value of what every church congregation, every faith-based community, every local or traditional body does when they become of part of socialism-in-the-making suggests that democratic socialism, unlike late capitalism, won't fundamentally homogenize all variety out of social life.

So, does that mean that a community, church, and local property-respecting socialism will be a patchwork, filled with distinctions and differences from one place to the next? Within limits, probably yes. Indeed, I'm not sure how one can admit that political debates will still exist under socialism and not admit to such actual public or regional or faith-based diversity. Those socialists who would restrict diversity solely to a specific set of identities and deny that social equality can accommodate religious or cultural or spatial diversity as well are, I fear, failing to understand the place of what could be—and historically often have been—one of our strongest potential allies in keeping anti-capitalist and genuinely social and egalitarian values alive.

Back in January, Erik Olin Wright, a brilliant and profoundly original socialist thinker, writer, and organizer passed away. His book Envisioning Real Utopias had an enormous impact upon me; when I first read it, I found myself explaining and re-explaining its ideas to myself and everyone I met for months. The most important thing it did was explain how the Marxist shadow over socialist and all other forms of utopian thinking has too often kept thinkers on the left from recognizing the obvious: that what we want to do is empower civil society. That is, we are looking to make the mutual support that communities provide stronger, and to make our social and economic worlds more democratic. Hence we leftists need to be guided, first and foremost, by a "socialist compass," and we need to recognize everything that falls within that compass, including what he called "interstitial" entities and strategies—what a non-sociologist might call the thousands of initiatives and organizations which provide spaces wherein civil society, and not capital, rules. He acknowledged that the more doctrinaire Marxist thinkers would see these as a distraction from the longed-for revolution, but insisted that their emancipatory potential is nonetheless real. And as for those civil associations that strengthen community and provide shelter from the hyper-individualism of liberal capitalism through particularist, sometimes exclusionary, religious means? Should the Salvation Army’s gift drives or the Catholic church’s drug treatment centers, both of which have socially empowered and shared wealth many hundreds of thousands, be crushed by the rationalizing and centralizing Red Guards of some new socialist state? As Wright explained:

A vibrant civil society is precisely one with a multitude of heterogeneous associations, networks, and communities, built around different goals, with different kinds of members based on different sorts of solidarities....It is tempting to deal with somehow defining civil society as only consisting of benign associations that are consistent with socialist ideals of democratic egalitarianism....I think this is an undesirable response....There is no guarantee that a society within which real power rooted in civil society predominates would be one that always upholds democratic egalitarian ideals. This, however, is not some unique problem for socialism; it is a characteristic of democratic institutions in general. As conservatives often point out, inherent in democracy is the potential for the tyranny of the majority, and yet in practice liberal democracies have been fairly successful at creating institutions that protect both individual rights and the interests of minorities. A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment through associations in civil society would face similar challenges...My assumption here is not that a socialism of social empowerment will inevitably successfully meet this challenge, but that moving along the pathways of social empowerment will provide a more favorable terrain on which to struggle for these ideals than does either capitalism or statism (Envisioning Real Utopias, pp. 145-148).

I can imagine many socialists seeing the foregoing as a lot of murky meanderings. I find it beautiful: an olive branch to everyone who wants civil bonds to flourish, equal respect to increase, and communities to be strengthened. To voice such egalitarian goals in terms of community strength and stability might seem scarily traditional to some advocates of the socialist cause. They—we—should get over that fear. Democratic socialism, whatever else it is or could be, needs to be about taking root and building up a sense of equality and justice in particular places, through the beliefs and practices of particular people. Would that mean granting churches and communities that preach white supremacy or the prosperity gospel or conversion therapy or any other deeply unjust and unequal message the freedom to dominate others? Certainly not! But admittedly, distinguishing between churches and communities whose local empowerment has crossed the line into oppression (for example, a self-sustaining Amish farming community which declines to participate in a national health service on the one hand, an immigrant association that teaches female genital mutilation in its new parent classes on another) will not always be easy, or without the need for constant reconsideration as times and needs change. If, however, democratic socialists truly do wish to acknowledge the plurality of those human desires that real equality and respect will allow, working to find a way to make the most of the best which particularist communities and their believers can offer is necessary. And not only necessary, but beneficial, as the richness of civil society is, I strongly suspect, much more ennobling than many socialists may expect.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Wichita Mayoral Race: Winners and Losers

[For anyone interested, here is the original and somewhat more detailed version of my editorial on Tuesday's primary, which appeared in The Wichita Eagle this morning.]

The mayoral primary is over; let’s run through some of the winners and losers here:

Winner: State Representative Brandon Whipple. He was the first major challenger to Mayor Jeff Longwell to announce his candidacy, and as a longtime state representative, with a strong basis of support in his south Wichita legislative district, and a record as a moderate Democrat--or, more accurately, a fairly progressive Democrat on most social issues, and a fairly conservative Democrat on most fiscal issues--he had good name recognition and media exposure from the start. But of the three major candidates (Lyndy Wells being the third), he raised the least amount of money, though he had the most small-dollar donors. With both Longwell and Wells outspending him, and with the distraction of the small but sometimes angry fight between different factions in the local Democratic party (see below), resulting in some Democrats attacking the Whipple campaign, he probably had reason to worry about voter turn-out (also see below). In the end, though, the hard work of Whipple, his family, and his team paid off.

Losers: certain Democrats. Of course, city elections here in Wichita are (unfortunately, in my view) officially nonpartisan. But for all sorts of obvious reasons, party politics remains central to most serious candidates' abilities to raise money, develop a message, and connect with voters. And so, predictably, people invested making those connections always have their own opinions and priorities, and want to make certain party connections serve as a vehicle for their priorities, not someone elses.

As it happened, in this election there was a small but bitter fight–conducted almost entirely behind the scenes; with the exception of a single article in The Wichita Eagle, if you weren't a professional activist or politician or part of certain social media networks, you likely missed it entirely–over whose priorities would guide those voter connections. It isn't easy to tell exactly who was responsible for what being said or done in this fight (though there's plenty of accusations going around); hence my reference to “certain” Democrats. The point is, there were Democrats who supported Whipple’s campaign, and there were Democrats who supported Wells, or even Longwell, despite both being Republicans. Part of the reason for the fight is clearly ideological, rooted in ongoing arguments within not just the local Democratic party, but the state and national one as well, going back to the Clinton-Sanders fight of 2016 and dealing with, among other things, how (or if) the party should push its increasingly progressive priorities in conservative parts of the country. Looking at it this way highlights some real curiosities--for example, the fact that Whipple, who has a doctorate, wrote his dissertation on exactly this topic.

But ideology may only be a small part of the fight; more likely, what happened was mostly generational, with Whipple and many members of his team skewing young (the fact that his election night party was held at a downtown LGBTQ-friendly bar is just one indication), while some of the prominent figures who opposed him being people who have worked with the party for decades. Or if its not about the old guard and the new guard, then it's about personal and campaign styles, with some Democrats confident in their longstanding approach to Kansas's mostly conservative voters, and others wanting to flip that script. These are all serious issues, and it’s unfair to reduce it to a couple of paragraphs. But however you read it, the facts remain: going into the general election, certain–not many, but definitely at least a few–prominent local Democrats are going to be feeling angry, embarrassed, or frustrated; whether they stay on the sidelines, jump ship, or eat some crow and join Team Whipple remains to be seen.

Winner: Getting out the vote. GOTV operations are, for all their permutations over the decades, pretty much inseparable from the whole mystique of mass political parties throughout American history. And yet, there has hardly been a single election cycle over the last 20 years when someone hasn’t made the claim that the ground-game of politics is passé. Certainly it is easy to be convinced by expensive advertising campaigns, by the omnipresence of social media, and by massive party polarization, that perhaps the day of door-knocking is finally, truly over.

While primary election contests are different from general election contests in a dozen ways, I think one can nonetheless count this tiny election--with less than 10% of registered voters bothering to cast a ballot, which is unfortunately typical--is evidence against that thesis. Longwell had the advantage of incumbency and his record as mayor to promote, and Wells enjoyed the endorsement of many major players and organizations throughout Wichita (including the Eagle!). The big money and “establishment” narratives were nearly all on their sides. But GOTV cares little about narratives; it cares about making sure potential voters are “touched” by campaign workers directly, again and again. That operation, probably more than anything else, enabled Whipple to squeak by Wells, and advance to challenge Longwell in November.

Winner and Loser: Mayor Jeff Longwell. Obviously he’s not really a loser: he not only was one of the two winners of the primary, he was the one with the most votes–32% for him, compared to Whipple’s 26%. And that was with the mayor’s campaign very much in low gear (in contrast to what it will surely be the case for the general); he spent less than half of the money he raised for the race, after all. But nonetheless, you have to see the big picture: his record as mayor inspired a major challenger from within his own political party, and he barely had the support of 1/3rd of the primary voters. True, he can look back at his 2015 primary win, when he advanced with only 28% of the vote, and went on to be elected mayor. But in that case, he wasn’t the incumbent. By comparison, incumbent mayor Carl Brewer won 77% of the vote in the 2011 primary, before cruising to re-election, while incumbent mayor Carlos Mayans came out of the 2007 primary with only 26% of the vote, and went on to an embarrassing loss.

None of this takes away all the obvious advantages Longwell will enjoy in November. His record as mayor is obviously positive to many (it's probably not a coincidence that a ceremony honoring the completion of one major part of the baseball stadium which, for better or worse, is bound to be Longwell's greatest legacy, took place the day after the election). But looking at the results on Tuesday night, I suspect our mayor didn’t feel quite like the winner he would have prefer to have been.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #7: Press to Play

Mid- to late-1980s McCartney was, I suspect, trying really hard, and just getting frustrated with what he likely thought were paltry results. He was in his 40s, media opportunities and technology was exploding all around him, and he surely wanted to be a part of it. He wrote a slight, over-synthed (though with a fine bass line) pop number, "Spies Like Us," for what was anticipated to be a big hit comedy in 1985, but the reviews were terrible (deservedly so), making the song something of an embarrassment. He was recruited to be the final performer at the British half of Live Aid, the biggest pop and rock concert spectacle ever up that time (and maybe ever since), and for two full minutes his microphone wasn't properly turned on (not to mention that the stars who played his back-up singers couldn't--or wouldn't--harmonize on "Let it Be"). The story that I remember hearing at the time was that it solidified his determination never to tour or play big concerts again. (At that point, it had already been nearly 10 years since he'd last gone on tour.) Obviously I'm imposing a narrative upon a diverse events more than 30 years in the past--but still, to me it makes sense. The decade that had started with him apparently finding some new creativity and resolve as Wings finally dissolved, unfortunately seemed to be slogging towards its end with Macca just not able to do what once came naturally, or so I imagine it must have felt to him.

All this is essentially an introduction to my giving Press to Play, his way overproduced 1986 album, a D+--a lower grade than what I gave his barely-there first solo album McCartney or his somewhat desperate final Wings albums, London Town and Back to the Egg; the only work by Macca I think is worse is the embarrassing McCartney II. And that really makes no sense! McCartney was genuinely sweating it in the studio with this album, collaborating with some great pop/rock musicians--The Who's Pete Townshend, Genesis's Phil Collins, 10cc's Eric Stewart. And the album's 13 songs cover a lot of territory; this isn't Macca noodling around with a couple of loose ideas and themes and calling it good. I can recognize the work here, and I've tried to respect that; I've genuinely tried harder to like this album more than any other McCartney production I've listened to all year (I've certainly given it more listens, at least, than any of the others). But I'm sorry--I'm sure the album has its defenders, but to my ear, the hooks just aren't there. It is far, far less than the sum of its parts.

Sure, there are moments of really cool instrument work or surprising melodies throughout the album. The soaring bridge in the midst of the sappy ballad "Only Love Remains"; the propulsive beat at the beginning of "Move Over Busker," before it gets lost in an busy wall of sound; the great wacka-wacka guitars buried by a bunch of unnecessary strings towards the end of "Tough on a Tightrope"--all very good. But overall, few of the songs leave you with anything after they're finished. "However Absurd" probably has a wonderful, introspective song somewhere inside all the hollering and synth horns. I wish McCartney had come up with "Angry" when he'd been working with Stevie Wonder a couple of albums previously; he might have been able to brings its vague R&B feel forward. And I wish the delightfully poppy "Feel the Sun" had been fully developed, instead of being tacked onto the end of the unmemorable "Good Times Coming." I'll admit his vocal work on the Memphis-style burner "Stranglehold" is pretty wonderful, but the saxophone honks drive me nuts. "Pretty Little Head" is, well, clearly trying to be a Peter Gabriel song, so why not just give it to him to sing it? And the album's sole radio hit, "Press"? It's got a groove, but mainly I just remember the video.

In the end, I was frustrated by Press to Play; it should have been at least a decent album, but it really isn't. There's nothing on it that I could fairly call "bad," yet all of it is, I think, completely disposable nonetheless. A wasted effort. So what next for Macca? Well, I'm going to end this entry with just one album, because it seems to me the obsessively productive McCartney, circa 1988-1993, needs an entry separate from this misfire. What did he do? In short order he got back to touring; he released albums of electronic music, classic rock-and-roll standards, acoustic recordings, and a classical oratorio; and he hooked up with a song-writing partner who, by all accounts, was the first person to actually constructively challenge McCartney in the studio in more than 20 years. August will be a busy month, but it'll get the taste of Press to Play out of my mouth.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Listening to Macca #6: Pipes of Peace and Give My Regards to Broad Street (Album and Film)

After multiple re-listenings, I can't help but feel that these two albums give us a McCartney that is fully of the 1980s; that's just the best way to put it. Pipes of Peace has its roots in leftovers from the recording sessions of the amazing Tug of War, but as he continued into the decade, it seems like the hungry, sometimes funky, sometimes brassy, spirit of that album was smoothed over, as Paul got leveraged and diversified and streamlined with the corporate mood of the times. That's unfair, of course, but still--once he was jamming with Stevie Wonder, now he's making syrupy, lite-funk pop with Michael Jackson? Once he was seemingly in recovery from the exhausting attempts to get more out of Wings than it might have been able to give (or he might have been willing to accept from it), now he's making movies and cartoons (it's not bad, actually) and is all over MTV. That's probably unfair, but I just couldn't help but see Macca, circa 1984, as a product. It'll be interesting to see if that impression lasts.

Pipes of Peace didn't get harsh reviews, for the most part, but it didn't get good ones either, and I concur with that sentiment; it's a C album, maybe C+ at most. The title track has grown on me some; its middle section, in particular, has a wonderful martial melody to it, with a good use of pipes and percussion. But it's still ultimately just an okay pop song, the same as can be said for "The Other Me" or "Average Person." "Keep Under Cover" has a nice funky groove, and "So Bad" is almost sultry, something McCartney really almost never achieves (I think the effect is primarily due to Ringo's steady, subtle, pressing drum sound). Other than that, I just don't think "Say Say Say" has worn well at all, and "The Man" doesn't use MJ's talents particularly well, in my opinion. (If you're going to turn a song into a hand-clappy, chorus-heavy number, then Macca should have gotten the whole Jackson 5 involved.) I think the best cut in the whole album is the jamming number he composed with Stanley Clarke; considering what I said last month about McCartney's skill with the bass, it's fun to hear him trade licks with Clarke, a jazz-fusion bassist extraordinaire. (Also, "Ode to a Koala Bear," another bit of Macca silliness which he actually turned into a pretty great number, should have been on the album, rather than a B-side.)

Give My Regards to Broad Street is just kind of a limp project, I'm afraid--not terrible, once again, but also not very good."No More Lonely Nights" was deservedly a solid pop hit, but the only other new songs on this soundtrack album, are "Not Such a Bad Boy" and "No Values," both of which are forgettable. McCartney obviously was more enveloped in the actual movie and in producing new versions of previous hits; of all of those, the only one which really is really pretty wonderful is "Ballroom Dancing," which gets turned into a fabulous, jamming, classic rock and roll number. "No More Lonely Nights" itself (or at least segments of it) appears on the album in three different versions, as both a country-western tune and, in a long close-out to the album, as an extended disco number. It's not bad, but not really worth the price of the album. But if you want to hear every version there is of "Silly Love Songs" or  "For No One," it's not worthless. Maybe a C-, I say.

Oh, and the movie? Kind of terrible. Jokes that don't work, line-readings that are unconvincing, and extended dream sequences that are more goofy fan-fic than anything that propels this half-ass film along cinematically. (Did we always want to see Paul, Linda, and Ringo play out a Sherlock Holmes drama in Edwardian garb? Yes, of course we did.) I watched the whole thing, but that's so you don't have to.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Where Does "Restoration Christian" Authority End, and "Mormon Christian" Authority Begin?

[I recently was invited to speak about Mormonism and authority at local ecumenical Christian conference here in Wichita, sponsored by the Eighth Day Institute during their annual "Florovsky-Newman Week." I've done stuff with Eighth Day a few times before, but this was a real challenge, talking about Joseph Smith and the Mormon doctrine of apostasy in front of a mostly Catholic and Orthodox audience. The following is an expansion of my comments.]

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The question of "secularism" in the (formerly?) Christian world today is often expressed as one of authority. It is one thing to place one's faith in the existence, teachings, and salvific promises of Jesus Christ, but another thing entirely to trust that one is in an "authorized" relationship with Him. The guiding assumption of this conference, grounded as it is in the legacies of John Henry Newman and Georges Florovsky, is that such confidence is to be found by orienting oneself--whatever that may mean--to the Church Fathers. As the conference's own announcement describes it, "by returning to the common Tradition, by learning to read the Fathers as living masters, rather than as historical documents...[we] deepen [our] understanding of the authority by which the Church grounds her faith and morals."

This description immediately prompts the question: what the hell is a Mormon doing here? Because for committed, orthodox, church-supporting Mormons (which, to be frank, I am not, at least not entirely), the very language used here, even the capitalization, is a problem. To assume the normative value, much less the salvific authority, of an enduring Christian “Tradition,” or a single Christian “Church,” whose parameters were definitively explored by Christian "Fathers"--all of it runs smack into the current official doctrine of "the apostasy" in Mormonism. Specifically, the Mormon church teaches that: "After the deaths of the Savior and His Apostles, men corrupted the principles of the gospel and made unauthorized changes in Church organization and priesthood ordinances. Because of this widespread apostasy, the Lord withdrew the authority of the priesthood from the earth. This apostasy lasted until Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820 and initiated the Restoration of the fulness of the gospel." This would seem to suggest that Mormonism includes no substantive theological connection to or agreement with the idea of 1) a continuous Christian tradition, or 2) the importance of early articulators of that tradition, or 3) a universal church body that we have a portion of. We are, or at least long have been, when it comes to speaking theologically about the authority of our claims, a highly exclusive bunch.

This does not mean Mormonism has no capacity to articulate any coherent notion of Christian authority. But it does mean that when we Mormons argue among ourselves about that which is "authoritative" and that which is not, as every other Christian denomination does also, we have some additional wrinkles to smooth out. Without going into great detail here, we struggle continually over conflicts between such rival sources of authority as: duly ordained leaders held to possess priesthood/ecclesiastical authority over set populations of the faithful (ranging from local Sunday school classes all the way up to the whole church; those individuals on the latter end of that scale are usually referred to as "general authorities"); the scriptural canon (which we hold to be the Bible plus three books of writings produced by Joseph Smith, all of which are accepted as "revealed" to one degree or another) and the ability of individual members to engage in what one Mormon scholar called “dialogic revelation” by studying them; and finally the promise of general, authoritative inspiration via the Holy Spirit to all, particularly those who make and are faithful to covenants with God--both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, it is worth noting, regularly quoted the passage from Number 11:29: “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

Now two of those three elements appear to be inseparable from Mormon teachings about the apostasy. First, the assumption (in line with Catholic teachings) that God, through Christ, established a specific line of authority for His church, meaning that with the corruption of the church, said line had to be restored through the power of God, giving us Mormons the claim of priesthood authority tied up with latter-day prophets. Second, the assumption (in line with most Protestant teachings) that God reveals His authoritative word in such a manner as to be available to all people through the reading and study of scripture, meaning that the restoration of lost Christian authority had to involve the revelation of new scripture, giving us Mormons the Book of Mormon. This isn't the only way Mormons understand these two claims, obviously--but by and large, they seem to fit what is broadly accepted within my church. Hence, the origin and character of the Mormon claim to Christian legitimacy--or a good two-thirds of that claim, anyway--would seem to arrive via the doctrine of the apostasy, and through no other route.

But that gives rise to a different question: does the aforementioned definition of apostasy, taken directly from the Mormon church's website, actually fit what lays at the roots of Mormon notions of authority? Might it be that those components of the Mormon argument over Christian authority which I just laid out do not actually require the assumptions which are understood as attending them? In other words, maybe what has long been called "The Great Apostasy" in Mormon circles doesn't, and needn't, mean what most Mormons think it does? I am not saying that I, or anyone, can simply redefine words or rewrite doctrine willy-nilly; I am not a historical relativist. But neither am I a philosophical Platonist or Augustinian--rather I am, like everyone reading this, a modern individual, whether I claim to approve or such or not. And that means that I experience a world characterized by individual choice, interpretation, will, and agency; as Charles Taylor put it, in modernity the world has lost "the power to impose a certain meaning on us" (A Secular Age [Harvard, 2007], 33). So with that interpretive freedom in mind, I would like to ask if my own situation as a Mormon seeking Christian authority is, at least insofar as my relation to the Church Fathers and the larger Christian tradition goes, necessarily quite as theologically exclusive as may have been long assumed (by both Mormon Christians and non-Mormon Christians alike).

The first thing to note is that the key issue here--the claim to "apostasy"--is hardly unique to Mormons. On the contrary, the "apostasy" of the Christian faithful, and the need to "restore" authoritative Christian teachings, has characterized the reflections of many pious Christians for centuries, even before the "secular age" which Taylor explored could be said to have fully arrived. You have the Brethren of the Common Life, John Wycliffe and the Lollards, many aspects of the Radical Reformation, the Puritans, the English Separatists, and perhaps most relevantly here, the American Restorationist Movement: an evangelical, revival-based Christian social movement which radically shaped the Baptist and Methodist churches in the United States, gave rise to Disciples of Christ, the Church of Christ, and the independent Christian Churches of America--and maybe, depending on how you look at it, my own Mormon faith as well.

To those unacquainted with the language of men like Barton Stone, Alexander Campbell, William Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, and other trained ministers (usually but not always Presbyterian) who, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, pushed for a radical democratization and open-ended rethinking of Christian principles in line with the experiences of white (and, on rare occasions, black) Christians across the frontier of the newly independent United States of America....well, let me share some passages from their writings (all are taken from The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History [Chalice Press, 2013]):

“As celebrated as the era of [Protestant] reformation is, we doubt not but that the current era of true restoration will transcend it in importance and fame, through the long and blissful Millennium to come....Our quest for the ancient gospel and the ancient order of things distinguished us from every other cause plead on this continent or in Europe since the great apostasy”--Campbell, 1825.

"Those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ have been called today by Divine Providence to meet this emergency, to bring forth the restoration of apostolic Christianity, as part of the onward course of Christianity around the world"--Moore, 1832.

"Any candid person who reads the history of [the Christian] religion as it has been practiced in the world from one period to another would find nothing but a mixture of folly and wickedness from one end of the earth to the other....except among that portion of mankind who received direct revelation from heaven"--Sidney Rigdon, 1834.

Who is that I just slipped in? Sidney Rigdon, an ordained Baptist minister who found himself drawn into Campbell's orbit and became persuaded of the need for a restoration of true Christian teachings and authority--and then he encountered Joseph Smith, and the movement that Campbell himself referred to contemptuously as the "Mormonites." Rigdon later became, for a short time, a major leader in the Mormon church, without much apparent need to rework his original restorationist sympathies. Not that the claims of this new church, in the midst of so many other newly established or separated or transitioning churches, weren't unique--or at least, it is easy to reconstruct them as having been today. Consider how Smith described the revelatory experience he had as a 14-year-old boy in 1820, the vision of God and Jesus Christ--two separate personages!--in response to his question about where true Christian authority was to be found, and which of all these churches Smith should attach himself to:

“I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’ He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.”

But the thing is, it is not clear that the anti-creedal theological exclusivity which characterizes this account of what we Mormons refer to as "the First Vision" was, in fact, what people like Rigdon heard in the early 1830s, as Smith's church began to grow in the midst of the Restorationist revivals all around him. The above account was written and published in 1838, 18 years after the 1820 event. Smith's earliest description of his vision does talk about the "apostasy"--but only in reference to the moral condition of the whole Christian world, and not as a specific condemnation of the reigning confusion over Christian authority:

"By searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament. I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world....I was filled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord. And he spake unto me, saying, ‘Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life. Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me. And mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth, to visit them according to their ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles. Behold and lo, I come quickly, as it is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father.’”

Now of course, you do not have to accept that Joseph Smith actually had this vision. Similarly, you do not have to accept that the charismatic gifts, the fiery preaching, and the spirit of restoration which forms the foundation of more than a dozen Christian churches during this era were all, in fact, the genuine work of the Holy Spirit and the will of God. But no one disputes that the Disciples of Christ, however distant from the Church Fathers they may be, are nonetheless certainly part of the Great Tradition. So just who decided that Mormon claims to Christian authority are categorically distinct and separate from all these others, especially given that the early language of Mormonism regarding apostasy and restoration is not obviously all that different than the same language used by other, more widely accepted Christians, who similarly confronting a Christian world that was seemingly filled with corruption and confusion, and similarly searched for God's authority?

The answer to this is not entirely clear. We can't even really be certain, at least insofar as I can tell, the Smith himself was emphatic about this distinction or separation; for example, it's hard to make sense of his comment, "we Latter-day Saints are Methodists, as far as they have gone, only we have advanced further," when one insists that, as his later description of his vision suggests, he had had a set of theologically exclusivist assumptions divinely impressed upon his mind. And Smith was not alone in making connections with other Protestant searchers and radicals in those early days; as one scholar observed, reflecting upon the many Campbellites and others who joined with the new Mormon church in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in the early 1830s: "for many, John Wesley and Alexander Campbell rhetorically became a John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness to prepare the way for the advent of Mormonism." (Both quotes taken from Standing Apart: Mormon History Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, eds. [Oxford, 2014], 66, 71.)

Was the problem the Book of Mormon itself? That's plausible; after all, while disagreements within the broader Christian tradition about the legitimacy of any particular church or movement conjoining its search for religious authority to angelic visitations and divine visions have nonetheless been ecumenically accepted, claiming a whole new addition to the story of the Risen Christ might be beyond the pale. Except that those who embraced Smith's teaching and church at the time do not seem to have taken the specific content of the Book of Mormon terribly seriously, which suggests that they would not have assumed that the book itself necessitated a complete separation from the main Christian tradition. On the contrary, the revelation of a new book of scripture was mostly taken, from what letters, journals, and sermons of the day tell us, as evidence of the power of God, of spiritual gifts and the ministering of angels--something revivalists all across early 19th-century America were calling for, and frequently claiming. So perhaps the practical genesis of the exclusivist articulation of the Mormon theological position was simply the state of competition which existed at the time? Certainly Campbell viewed Mormons less as a radically new heresy and more as an upstart challenge. He wrote once about “the conversion of a Mr. Booth, a Methodist preacher of very considerable standing, many years on the circuit, to the New Bible [meaning the Book of Mormon],” dismissively adding that Booth's conversion may have, at best, “prolonged the existence of this new religion a few weeks” (cited in Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations [Kofford, 2009], 287-288).

Mormonism obviously lasted longer than a few additional weeks; we're on our way to our 200th birthday in a little more than a decade. Through the growth and changes of those two centuries, the language by which we explain ourselves--both to others and to ourselves--also grew and changed. Late 19th-century and early 20th-century Mormonism in particular moved away from emphasizing the role of miracles, angelic visitations, and spiritual gifts (all of which fits well with the standard Weberian arguments about the "routinization of charisma"), and gradually extended a kind of mid-20th-century professionalism and bureaucracy into our self-understanding (within Mormon circles, this decades-long process is called “correlation”). During these years, the imperatives of missionary work and general branding led to an increased reliance upon extensive scholarly arguments to clarify what "apostasy" and "restoration" actually meant. The arguments made by 19th-century mainline Protestant historians about the corruption of Catholic, Orthodox, and later Protestant traditions came to be widely cited by church leaders (thus supporting the assumption that of course other churches are wrong; they are bad apples which fell from a bad tree). And among the church's intelligentsia, much European philosophy became an equally important part of an argument against the Church Fathers, with Greek philosophy being presented as having undermined the covenant basis of original Christianity, thus justifying the need for God to begin entirely again with a newly restored church.

But in recent years, a small but growing number of Mormons are recognizing the problems with those articulations. For one thing, those Protestant histories are now recognized as having been mostly wrong, or at least highly tendentious in how they presented early Christian history. And more serious philosophical reflection upon early Christian texts reveals not a single “original” Christianity that is subject to being lost or restored, but rather a multiplicity of Christian perspectives, whose rapid evolution involved interpretation, negotiation, and even councils--something that actually isn't unknown in our own church's history. I do not mean to suggest that Mormonism is about to collectively abandon correlation and routinization and a way of thinking about its own authority that was consistently and emphatically embraced for more than a century. But it is undeniable that the old reliance upon “apostasy” is fading (though hardly disappeared) in Mormon circles. The realization that the apostasy foretold in the New Testament involves not the replacement of Christ's gospel with apostate beliefs, but rather a turning away from godliness and from being willing stand before God as one who accepts His covenant (suggesting more a need for general moral reformation than doctrinal restoration), to say nothing of the simple fact of Mormonism's increased recognition of the humanitarian and moral goals it shares with so many other Christian churches, is slowly--though maybe not surely--suggesting a need to rethink our claims to Christian authority. The Mormon scholar Miranda Wilcox summaries this rhetorical and conceptual situation well:

"Mormonism's 20th-century Great Apostasy narratives constructed exclusive and narrow boundaries between the true [Mormon] Church and apostate Christendom. Such division was not the case in earlier Mormon narratives, which depicted Joseph Smith’s revelations as building on and adding to the truths of traditional Christianity....The Hebrew Bible illustrates ways in which Israelite narrators--prophets, psalmists, historians, scribes, and editors who formulated, transmitted, or edited sacred texts--widened boundaries in retelling stories of their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt as they reshaped their collective identity during periods of cultural transition....Are [we] confident enough to refashion their separatist narrative into a narrative of interrelation?....If [Mormons] were to complicate the ending of their story, their category of self might widen, and they might come to imagine restoration as an unfolding process in which [we] are still engaged--a process that has involved and will continue to involve dynamic interactions between divine and human agents beyond the scope of just Mormon institutions"--or, I would add, just Mormon historical references (cited in Standing Apart, 104, 106-107).

Imagine if we Mormons gradually, creatively, interpretively, turned aside from our church’s long history of tying our claims to Christian authority to the salvific exclusivity of Mormon conceptions of priesthood and ecclesiology in the midst of an apostate Christian world. What would remain? A history of miracles, revelations, gifts of the spirit, the ministering of angels, even new scripture. Would any of those have to be articulated as a entirely disjuncture from the overall Christian tradition, or would any of them have to be accepted as such by other, non-Mormon Christians? Just how necessary in the Christian tradition is the insistence upon a closed canon, upon the end of revelation, particularly as regards accounts of Jesus Christ? That is not a question I can answer, but it is a question we Mormons probably will not be able to avoid struggling with in the years to come. Whether or not a reconsideration (and perhaps a retreat) from exclusivist understandings of Christian authority are likely in the near future, Mormons are struggling with new questions of identity which cannot be easily extricated from it.

My church is probably better known through our missionary program than by anything else, and for many decades that program, and its presumed necessity given the apostate world around us, was embraced as central to our self-understanding. But now many our asking: how do we justify our missionary program, how do we articulate ourselves in light of the Great Commission, when the long-standing appeals that the Mormon church has depended upon (which could be reduced to either "other churches are not baptizing in a way that will be accepted as authoritative by Christ" or "we can authoritatively guarantee you eternal family happiness") increasingly no longer make sense to the world we are called, as Christians, to save? I don't imagine that this presentation will successfully address all such questions, but maybe it can add something helpful to those who struggle with them.

I end with another quote from Alexander Campbell, whose accepted place in the Christian tradition perhaps opens a door to Mormonism's place as well. Speaking the subject of Christian unity, he wrote: “No mortal need fancy that he shall have the honor of devising either the plan of uniting Christians in one holy band of zealous co-operation, or of converting Jews and Gentiles to the faith that Jesus is the seed of, in whom all the families of the earth are yet to be blessed. The plan is divine. It is ordained by God; and, better still, it is already revealed. Is any one impatient to hear it? Let him again read the intercessions of the Lord Messiah, which we have chosen for our motto. Let him then examine the two following propositions, and say whether these do not express Heaven's own scheme of augmenting and conversating the body of Christ. First. Nothing is essential to the conversion of the world, but the union and co-operation of Christians. Second. Nothing is essential to the union of Christians, but the Apostles' teaching or testimony.” That, I presume, might not be acceptable to everyone as a full summation of the debate over Christian authority. But, might it not be acceptable to everyone as at least a start?