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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Matthew Workman Never Wastes a Drive

Matthew Workman is many things. He's a husband and a father, a story-teller and a writer, a journalist and a podcaster. He is almost certainly one of the foremost native English-speaking authorities on the Faroe Islands in the world. He knew Phillip Seymour Hoffman when they were kids (kind of). Most importantly, at least insofar as this blog post is concerned, he is a long-time Uber and Lyft driver in Portland, and he's written a book chronicling some of his adventures, Driver Diaries: Five Years of Driving Strangers Around Portland. You should order a copy.

I'm not doing this (well, not solely) to shill for an old friend, partly because it seems presumptuous to call Matthew that. "Old acquaintance" is more like it, though I'd like to think we like each other as much as any other set of old acquaintances ever like each other on Facebook, and that we would be friendly if we ever met in person again. (I did date the woman who later became his wife for part of a summer, but I don't know if that would contribute to the friendliness or get in the way of it.) We first got to know each other very nearly 30 years ago, when we were both students at Brigham Young University and, more importantly, involved in putting out a very, very unofficial off-campus newspaper named Student Review. I wrote about it here (and quoted Matt!) when it was going through a revival (its second or third, I think) close to ten years ago; the only evidence I can find of it today is a Twitter feed that hasn't really been active since 2016, but hey, who knows what the future may hold.

The point, however, is simply this: Matthew and I were both young college students, figuring out what kind of grown-ups we were going to be, and a lot of our growing happened through Student Review. The perspectives I brought to the paper, and the associations I built through it, were of one type, involving one cohort of people: for the most part, we were a ponderous and serious and determinedly outrageous bunch. Matthew's type was different. He wrote a regular column for the paper--"Matthew Workman's Wasted Characters"--and the persona he projected through his writings was thoughtful, but never heavy, sharp-witted, but never sarcastic. Mainly he was a light-hearted observer of the foibles of the our campus and our world (which, weirdly, was very nearly BYU's motto); his weekly columns become required reading among a surprisingly large cohort of BYU students. Frankly, I was kind of jealous of the guy. With the perspective of youth, in which a 1 or 2 or, maybe at most, 3-year-difference can appear like a massive cultural gap, I saw him and his gang as so much more easy-going, so much more comfortable with themselves than perennially fraught me and my particular gang of malcontents. On more than one occasion when I crashed at the crazy house where he and his pals threw their parties and cranked out their papers, I found myself sticking Matthew and his crew into episodes of "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" in my head. (I hope that comes out as complimentary, Matt.)

Well, anyway, life happens to us all, and decades go by without much, if any, contact between us. But slowly, social media puts us back into each others orbit, slightly. I was delighted to discover that he'd preserved the old name of his Student Review column for his blog. And then I heard about his plans for a book. Always late for things like this, I never contributed to the Kickstarter campaign, and missed the first batch of books. Luckily, a mutual friend had some additional copies, and shared one with me. I'm grateful he did. Is it the Great American Novel? Of course not; it's a self-published 100-page collection of anecdotes, so scale your expectations back accordingly. But when properly scaled, I think you can see that this book is a gem.

I'm not an Uber person myself, for reasons of both inclination and ideology, but Matthew's prose makes me kind of wish I was otherwise. In the more than 10,000 drives he estimates that he's made over his years as a drive, he's encountered a huge range of situations, less than 20 of which he includes in the book, but all of them are described with a charming mix of sympathy, bemusement, kindness, and wit. In the nearly three decades since I first started to read his work, Matthew has perhaps grown even more deadpan (when a woman his helping shares a sorrowful story of drunken sex, he can't think of anything else to say than "It's a bit early for that, isn't it?"; after being sexually propositioned by a handsome, apparently desperate man, he let's him off at his destination with a hapless "Enjoy the rest of your night!"). Not that he can't be serious; his trips have included a woman who had just escaped a sexual assault, a man delivering himself to prison; and, in the longest entry in the book, an affecting story of his attempt to deal with a woman likely suffering from dementia who couldn't tell him where she needed to go or who to reach out to for help. But, despite the occasional darkness of the book, there is a lot of ridiculousness and delight and some outright joy too--the ride that ended with him being able to drive his minivan onto the tarmac of the Portland International Airport, or the evening in which he had "two rides in a row where I could talk about penises without repercussion."

Was it a book that changed my life for the better? No. But was it a read that put a smile on my face, that taught me things that I'd never knew before, and that make me think about the quotidian randomness and grace that ordinary life brings? Absolutely. Dave Eggers (not that Dave Eggers, another Dave Eggers whom Matthew knows) calls it in a blurb "the defining work of gig-employment era," and no, it's not that at all. Matthew doesn't have the sociological chops to reflect in that way on his work, and neither does he want to be that boring. What this slight book is, in the end, is pretty simple: it's a collection of stories about people taking an Uber in the Portland area, usually late at night, with thoughts both generous and sincere about those stories attached. Every single one of those stories is worth reading, and not one was wasted. Matthew, don't ever change; you gave me a good day this Saturday, and I appreciate it very much.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Thoughts on the Difficulty of Friendship at the Present Time

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

[A slightly expanded version of a presentation on civility I gave at Friends University on October 26.]

I have seen a lot of anger among my family and friends during this election season; I presume I am not alone in that. After I was asked to give this presentation I thought about that anger, and talked with my wife about it at length. To her, Jesus's cleansing of the temple is the emblematic scripture story of our moment, and I think she may be right. But what kind of guidance does it provide, if any, when we're thinking about a Savior who called all who aspire to be servants of Him to love one another, without reservation?  A Savior whose most loving words, to those who served Him best, was to call them friends?

My old friend Michael Austin once wrote a whole book about friendship in the midst of political disagreement. He began his argument in that book by considering Aristotle’s philia politike, or "civic friendship." Drawing on the work of some other scholars, he defined it as the fellow-feeling that any self-governing community depends upon as a very particular kind of friendship, one characterized by a sense of both the mutual self-interest which exists within a shared community, as well as a degree of goodwill. He quoted the philosopher Sybil Schwarzenbach, who once wrote: "Aristotle is not saying that in the just polis all members know each other, are emotionally close, or personally like each other….Political friendship is evidenced, rather...in the legal and social norms regarding the treatment of persons in that society, as well as in the willingness of fellow citizens to uphold them.”

Schwarzenbach's point about norms in Aristotle's account of how citizens are to be friends strikes me as important. Norms are social and historical constructs, assumptions about and expectations for the community systems within which we live; they are essential components of any social organization which exists over time. It is reasonable, therefore, to see the violation of a norm as a form of betrayal, or an act of injustice: that is, of sometone taking advantage of the civic friendship--or, rather, of the historical assumptions we all have regarding what we may expect from others and that which they may expect from us--upon which all of ordinary life in a community requires.

We can all think of examples of politicians violating what many would rightly consider to be crucial constitutional norms. But those social assumptions and expectations function in our lives beyond the level of party politics. For some, there are norms involving the trustworthiness of the police; for others, there are norms which assume the stability of gender. The fact that there are always subgroups within our community for whom these and other norms were not only not recognized but would have been considered the height of naiveté to take seriously is, I have come to think, part of the point: a feeling of betrayal doesn't only come from violations of norms, but from the discomfort which a shifting understanding of norms entails as well.

This is my armchair hypothesis: that one source of the anger is that we have had, all year long, constantly forced before us--thanks to a callous president regularly inventing and condemning enemies, thanks to lock-downs that exacerbated economic difficulties and shut down spaces of social escape, thanks to an omnipresent social media ecosystem which rips context from every story--the fact that norms held to by one, or some, or all of the different subcommunities of this country (norms about respectful political compromise, about the equal treatment of the races, about the integrity of law enforcement, about the predictability of gender identity, about the functioning of the economy, or even about the place of God in our lives during a time of pandemic) are being challenged, upended, revealed to be otherwise than what we believe, or maybe just simply betrayed. And so the anger at--and, sometimes, the hysterical insistence upon defending--the systemic assumptions we thought we knew flows ever stronger.

Obviously, a social media civil war isn't remotely the same as a real one. Michael, in his book, made use of Abraham Lincoln as well as Aristotle. Focusing on the great call of his First Inaugural Address--"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies”--Michael looked closely at how Lincoln's choices as a political figure reflected his understand of civic friendship, something which he called for even in the midst of a level of anger that far exceeds anything we've seen yet this election season. Interestingly, he pointed out what Lincoln, to use the terms I sketched out above, pretty explicitly did not think embracing a sense of mutual self-interest and goodwill towards those whom you may fundamentally feel betrayed by requires. He did not think it requires us to deny or hide our deeply held beliefs, even extreme ones. Also, he did not think it requires us to believe that all sides are equally at fault (if there even is a "fault") in the violation or upending or simply the changing of norms, and that the best compromise therefore will always be found in the mushy middle, as we are so often condescendingly told.

What did Lincoln think civic friendship in the face of the systemic collapse--or at least the feeling of norms collapsing all around you--requires? On Michael's reading, it requires one to operate on the assumption that everyone can change their mind; that no one's position in the midst of the fraught debates all around us is absolute. It also requires us to prioritize fairness--not the abandonment of one's beliefs, but a fairness in the expressing of them, always allowing others to express the same. Most of all, it requires us to be willing to play the long game, to patiently accept the legitimacy of small steps. Patience, incidentally, is one of the key themes of Compassion & Conviction, a book some colleagues and I have been reading together with a group of students this semester. At one point the authors--all of whom are long-time activists and pastors in African-American communities--observe that:

Patience is often in shorter supply for the zealous convert to a cause than the long-suffering laborer for justice. It is not usually the most vulnerable who are the most vitriolic, nor is it usually they who have persevered for what they believed who are most bitter. Instead, often the people for whom these issues are primarily emotional are trying to prove their commitment rather than just being committed. Those who have advocated for an issue for a long time, on the other hand, are able to track progress, are respectfully aware of the various points of disagreement, and understand the terrain (pp. 120-121).

That impassioned call to patience, and Michael's reading of Lincoln, are both powerful, I think. But I can also think of reasons to dissent from them. What if the very idea of “fairness” is part of the norm that appears to have been systematically broken or never consistently applied in the first place? What if cognitive research and social science and long hours of arguing with people on Facebook have proven to you that, actually, people never really do change their minds? Most of all, what if the patient long game which Michael embraces has already been intolerably too long? (Keep in mind here that Martin Luther King, Jr., himself wrote a whole book, titled Why We Can't Wait, about those annoying calls for civil rights protesters and demonstrators to be "patient.")

I can come up with no easy solution for how one is to deal in a friendly with one's fellow community members when dismay or confusion or consternation or anger over the breakdown of systems and assumptions dominates. So instead I come back to Jesus cleansing the temple--not just overturning tables, but taking a whip and driving those who were collecting and changing money at those tables out into the streets. I have no idea what kind of mental state we are supposed to understand our Savior to have had in this story. Was He sorrowful? Or was He, actually, angry? Angry, perhaps, at the realization that the system of sacrifice under the temple priests and Levites had become so exploitative, that the norms by which poor Jews were given access to temple rites had become so warped, that there was nothing left to do but take direct confrontational action, and literally upend them all? I don't know, and I doubt any believer can know. But believers can and should, at least, recognize that, even while the call to love and friendship--to say nothing of the minimal civic application of such--remains, it remains, at least if we include this scriptural story into our understanding of Jesus, in conjunction with both a recognition of the legitimacy of feeling betrayed, and a recognition that our responses to perceived violations of or confusions over norms and expectations will not always be eternally passive.

At one point in his wise book (wise in terms of political ethics, certainly; whether it is wise in terms of addressing failed political systems and norms is something that remains to be seen), Michael frames civic friendship as a hope. That, I think, is the only true point I can conclude with. The civic friendship which can exist in a community is fundamentally always going to be an act of faith, a holding onto a "conviction of things not seen."  We don't know--we can't know, until it actually happens--if the norms and assumptions and expectations whose seeming collapse angers us are final; we don't even know if some of them might not be opening up a window for systemic change that might appropriately be described as providential. In the meantime, so long as this community that we know is still here when we wake up in the morning, the call of Jesus can, I think, be at the very least expressed as a continued hope to be able to treat our fellow community members as friends. “We exercise civic friendship, or fail to exercise it, when we decide what kind of society we want to be. We vote on this question every day–occasionally in a formal election but more often through the purchases we make, the people and institutions we choose to associate with, and the things that we give our attention to. No law can force us, and no syllogism can persuade us, to care about other people; only friendship can do that. But when animated by a genuine concern for the well-being of others, we can find ways"--and I would add here, “to restore failing norms” or “to rebuild or replace flawed or discriminatory systems” or perhaps merely, as Michael wrote--"to make our society more just” (pp. 38-39).

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Three Thoughts (with Supporting Subpoints) about Trump, Biden, and the 2020 Election

It's a week before the election. I cast my vote early, and very likely a large percentage of anyone who happens to read this has also. So this isn't about changing anyone's mind or convincing anyone of anything. This is just pure testimony--me stating, for myself and anyone else who cares, where I stand. Also, it's long and very navel-gazingly. So, you've been warned.

1) Donald Trump is not the worst president in American history. But he is personally corrupt, administratively irresponsible, stupidly (and often gleefully) divisive, and politically destructive (and not in any remotely productive way), plus he has promoted all sorts of policies which I profoundly disagree with. Of course I was never going to vote to re-elect him, and neither should have (or should, if any of the 14 people reading this are undecided) anyone else.

1.a) I sincerely mean that first sentence. Not only do I not believe Trump to be the worst president in American history (how to compare this whiny, ignorant, self-aggrandizing grifter and sexist jerk to the outright murderous Andrew Jackson, or the outright racist Woodrow Wilson, or the outright criminal Warren Harding?), I do not even think he's the worst president in my lifetime as an adult capable of voting in presidential elections.

1.a.1) In our present era, while presidents can be--as Trump has fully shown--personally corrupt, administratively irresponsible, socially divisive, and politically destructive, the administrative state has, thankfully (and, to be sure, only thus far--those bureaucratic guardrails and behavioral norms can't survive forever when they're disregarded as they frequently have been by our current president), for the most part effectively prevented the people who wield the executive power of the American state from fully pursuing whatever murderous, racist criminality may be on their minds. So what do I think is the worst thing that a president can, in this day and age, manage to do? How about invading another country on the basis of misleading, flimsy, or outright false information fed to you by an economic and ideological cabal whom you stupidly and self-interestedly gave complete trust to, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the wounding and traumatizing of millions, the expenditure of trillions, and ruination of whatever limited diplomatic or moral authority the American state could have wielded over roughly one fifth of the planet, prior to 2003?

1.a.2) So yes, Donald Trump is not as bad a president as George W. Bush was. Take a bow, Mr. President; you have, so far, managed not to trip over that impossibly low bar. Congratulations.

1.b) As for the rest, well, if you don't agree with me now, why would I be able to convince you? So suffice to say I think Trump is personally corrupt (see here), administratively incompetent (see here), socially divisive (see here), and politically destructive (see here). Admittedly that last one is specific to our present dysfunctional liberal constitutional order, but if you believe that his destruction is or could be a politically constructive long game which is paving the way for a better alternative in the future, I disagree there too (see here). And then there's all the ways his populist talk seems to me to have been mostly a complete sham (see here), and all the ways he's presided, when he has actually presided at all, over what seems to me mostly the same pro-business, conservative Republican agenda that I happen to fundamentally disagree with (see here), and all the ways his mixture of crudely stylized patriotism and vindictive cruelty led him to expand our already inhumane border patrol policies into what seems to me to be an immoral horror (see here). Also, I'm unconvinced that the record number of judges he's appointed will serve America well (see here), I don't see much worker-empowering upside in the trade wars he's picked with China and other countries (see here), I consider his supposed triumphs in moving the America's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to have been disruptive distractions from his general foreign policy incompetence (see here), and I'm appalled, as I think everyone should be, by his irresponsibility when it comes to fighting the covid-19 pandemic (see here). So yeah: he didn't get my vote. If he got the vote of anyone reading this, well, I'm sorry to hear it (though not surprised, I guess).

2) Like I would estimate better than 90% of however many Democrats, liberals, socialists, and other left-leaning people who ever read this, Biden was not my preferred candidate in the Democratic party's presidential nomination race. But I didn't think twice about voting for him, and I hope lots of you did too.

2.a) I'm genuinely not sure how much of a change saying that is for me. My personal history of votes for presidential candidates ever since I became eligible to vote is, at present, evenly divided between Democrats and independent or third-party left-wing challengers and symbolic candidates: Clinton (1992), Nader (1996), Nader (2000--write-in), Kerry (2004), Obama (2008), Stein (2012), Sanders (2016--write-in), Biden (2020). My argument for those votes--which I made many, many, many times over the years--was always, for all its varying details, fundamentally about contextuality. That is, every vote takes place in a specific electoral context, and that context--constructed out of, at the minimum, the candidates available to vote for, the parties which nominated them, the electorates voting for them, the calculations at work as the candidates and parties appeal to certain members of the electorate in their particular districts and states, and much more--should be respected for what it is, as opposed to pushing it aside in favor of a demanding narrative of absolute, a-contextual choice, which is so often the default conclusion of many under our two-party system. In the actual absence of such a narrative (which is as I think it should be), it seems reasonable to me to allow some legitimate place for expressive concerns of an aesthetic and moral and ideological nature as a part of one's voting decision, rather than insisting that an overriding utilitarian calculation about the democratic accumulation of power is the only thing that matters (especially when that hypothetical accumulation of power somehow has to happen in the context of a democratically-disempowering structure like the Electoral College). Anyway, sometimes all those concerns, in their varying contexts, left me feeling good about supporting the Democratic party's candidate for president with my vote; other times they didn't, and I expressed myself otherwise. So maybe this year isn't any different.

2.b) Except it is--because this year, I actually do think that the "demanding narrative of absolute, a-contextual choice" is real, so much so that, even though I know it is basically impossible to imagine my state of Kansas will delivering its Electoral College votes to anyone besides Donald Trump, I nonetheless think it's important for me to vote for a candidate that I have significant aesthetic and moral and ideological reservations about.

2.b.1) What are those reservations? Well, aside from a not-particularly-credible-but-still-nonetheless-plausible sexual assault allegation against the man--an allegation which contributed to the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization I'm a member of, deciding to issue an explicit Biden-non-endorsement--the plain fact is that Biden, unlike both other Democratic candidates whom I donated money to and wrote in support of over this campaign season, is a bone-deep institutionalist and moderate, a politician who by all accounts deeply believes that the norms of our national government, our political parties, and our liberal capitalist order, can and should be made to work as they are, rather than recognizing their essential dysfunction and supporting something new. So for the hijacked (and democratically indefensible) judiciary he advocates forming a bipartisan commission to study the problem. So for climate change he goes back and forth on fracking, unwilling to commit to either the science or politics. So for health care, and the philosophically incoherent but still sometimes life-saving mess which is the Affordable Care Act, he rejects the obviously cleaner and more coherent Medicare for All, and instead insists upon Obamacare 2.0--"Bidencare," which may set up the goal of a true public option for those desperate for health insurance coverage, but still sticks the American health care system with the same insurance-company-managed superstructure. All of which, to be sure, may involve significant improvements over the status quo--but none of which suggest any intention of aiming the executive branch in the direction of the sorts of revolutionary changes which our dysfunctional government and sclerotic socio-economic body politic truly needs. Was there any real chance that electing Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to the presidency would have resulted in anything different, all talk of revolutionary longings aside? Yes, practically speaking I actually think there was. But that chance is lost now; Biden is who will be on the ballot, and then leaves me far from excited.

2.b.2) Unless, that is, maybe Biden is actually, as has been suggested, a Konrad Adenauer figure, an old and  re-assuring and unexciting political leader who comes to power in the wake of (or, in our case, in the midst of) a devastating crisis, and exactly because he threatened no one who was invested in preserving their respective institutions, was therefore politically capable of pulling off massive institutional changes nonetheless? That's a hopeful argument! It's the flip-side of the paranoid argument advanced by those convinced that the genial, resolutely liberal Biden is smuggling into the executive branch, in the person of Kamala Harris, a Black Lives Matter socialist radical (though how anyone who read the news at all over the past year and saw all the criticism during the primaries of Harris's time as California's top cop could believe this truly confuses me). As someone sympathetic to both socialist radicalism and massive institutional change, I'd love it if either of these arguments turn out to be true. Probably neither of them will--but regardless, that's not why I said I didn't have to think twice about casting an, in Kansas, almost certainly entirely symbolic vote for Biden.

2.c) No, the reason I said what I said is that I've been convinced that my vote for Biden is, as I wrote above, only almost entirely symbolic. I do not have any confidence that my vote for Biden for president here in the state of Kansas will provide any electoral help to replacing Donald Trump as president--but I am unable to shake the possibility that my one vote, along with millions of other votes, just might provide actual popular help in making that replacement stick.

2.c.1) I actually don't believe Trump is a fascist; "incipient fascist figurehead" is the term an old friend of mine used, and I think that fits better. The fact that Trump's own narcissism and stupidity have contributed to undermining his own authoritarian tendencies is, as some have noted, no reason not to take seriously the potential threat which all his divisiveness, vindictiveness, and irresponsibility presents our political community with. This is a man who--perhaps humorously, perhaps trollingly, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps even he doesn't even know the difference--would not even unambiguously admit to respecting the peaceful transfer of power. His paranoia and resentment (particularly where President Obama is concerned) instead makes it necessary for his every engagement with that question to turn into a whining disquisition on FBI abuses, voter fraud, and other false and/or irrelevant claims which he uses to give himself cover for refusing to commit to an answer. And for all the systemic harms and flaws built into our system, to have it be ripped apart by a leader who might, just might, use mobs or the military to keep himself in office--no doubt preceded by reams of lawsuits over ballots and state election rules, all of which would quickly end up before a Supreme Court which would issue decisions on these matters in a manner that we'd have every reason to fundamentally doubt--would not result in anything that could be easily built upon in the future. Hence, everything, no matter how small, that every voter can do to affirm the Biden side of the "absolute, a-contextual choice" before us is, in this election at least, imperative in a way that I simply don't think has ever been so clear before.

2.c.2) Is this an inconsistency in my thinking? Knowing everything I do about Duverger's Law, about political socialization, about party polarization, I still do not apologize for, and still think there is a place for, thinking about presidential elections in a manner that makes space for expressing those aforementioned aesthetic, moral, and ideological concerns, and thus sometimes voting outside of the two-party system, rather than simply insisting upon making the usual utilitarian calculation between the Republican and Democratic candidates. But if I believe that, then doesn't that mean I'm in principle kind of unconcerned with the possible influence which not engaging with the existing system may somehow have on down-ballot races and other electoral contests, while in this one case I think that question of influence just happens to be absolutely central? I admit that may be an inconsistency. In my defense, though, I argue that my vote for president will, in fact, be counted and added to a total, a total that in our present context just might have some role to play in representing an actually popular repudiation of the man abusing our system, whereas in every previous context I can reconstruct in my memory, I can come up with no plausible popular connection between, say, voting for Al Gore in Virginia (where we lived in 2000) and thus making it that much less less likely that the Supreme Court would stop the recounts in Florida, or voting for Hillary Clinton here in Kansas four years ago, and thus somehow influencing one or more of 70,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to change their minds. Also, please note: while I have occasionally been tempted, I've nonetheless never once allowed my aesthetic, moral, or ideological reservations with a candidate to get me to express myself through voting outside the two-party system in local or state contests. Why? A lot of different reasons, many having to do with my ability to actually, democratically interact with local and state candidates and their relevant electorates in a way that I never could on a national scale--but mostly because democratic movement-building through the existing parties isn't short-circuited on the local or state level by the Electoral College in the states I've lived in, thank goodness.

2.c.3) So, anyway, in case anyone is confused: I reject the idea that every vote in ever election should be imagined as subject to an overriding utilitarian calculation about the democratic accumulation of power, but I do believe, in the light of the context of 2020 and President Trump's bad record and his probably unlikely but nonetheless still actually possible even worse potential, that in this election I, and everyone, ought to jump on that overriding utilitarian calculation and take it all the way to voting for Biden at the ballot box. Or in other words, do exactly what Natalie Wynn of Contrapoints tells you to do.

3) All of the foregoing has involved a piling up of arguments about our electoral system, so let me finish with this: I think everyone who can legally vote should always vote, I think as many adult citizens as possible should be legally able to vote, and I think everyone adult citizen should always vote in every electoral contest they can.

3.a) Are there too many elections in the United States, such that my above-stated belief can lead to voter exhaustion and representative cowardice? Yes. Between the ever-evolving and ever-increasing demands of campaign finance, our never-ending and increasingly unpredictable social media and 24-hour news cycles, and the transformation of political parties into something closer to polarized personality cults than machines of democratic representation, elections have frequently become warped and stressful and extreme events, providing little of the breathing room necessary for responsiveness and little of follow-up necessary for accountability.

3.a.1) Overturning Buckley v. Valeo and removing the constitutional block which that interpretation of the First Amendment placed on serious democratic arguments about the appropriate way to regulate the way money warps candidate and interest groups agendas and behaviors would be very helpful here.

3.a.2) The complete public financing of elections would be better, of course, but so would replacing our entire liberal capitalist and constitutional and electoral orders with a confederal system of environmentally sustainable, mostly autarkic egalitarian communes and ward republics which operate on the basis of a combination of direct democracy and proportional representation. But as this isn't a post about my more utopian fantasies, let's just leave that here and move on.

3.b) More particular to the whole point of this post, why do I believe that everyone should cast a ballot, even in presidential contests when the Electoral College renders millions of votes every year (though maybe not this year; see 2.c.1) essentially meaningless, at least insofar as the aforementioned utilitarian calculus regarding the democratic accumulation of power is concerned? Because, fundamentally, voting is one of the basic practices of citizenship, and being a citizen means being a member of a liberal democratic civil society, a particular kind of civil society that will not endure--which would mean the loss of all the small-r republican virtues (respectful pluralism, civil discourse, attendance to the common good) that a genuinely functioning civil society allows--without its members going through the practices. This is straight out of Tocqueville, folks. Yes, I do know, and have a fair amount of fondness for, those who reject the claims (and, true, the invariably bourgeois pretensions) of civil society in favor of forms of membership that are more radically participatory and democratic, more economically socialistic and mutualist, more truly--as opposed to merely "respectfully"--pluralistic and decentralist. I wouldn't have listed my utopian fantasy replacement of the U.S. Constitution above if I wasn't willing to admit to feeling some real affection for that more deeply communitarian alternative. But I also have a lot of affection for the ordinary bourgeois goods which our liberal democratic state has been able to provide--not always, and not to everyone, but consistently enough--to me and my loved ones and hundreds of millions of others. Therefore, if there is a way to participate in the republican practices which our civil order appears to require if it is to flourish, and there is no clear reason to believe that going through the motions of those republican practices are actually making harder the expression of mutualist, decentralist, communitarian alternatives, then I just don't see any good ethical reason not to so participate, from the most local level all the way up to the highest national one, especially when the aesthetic, moral, and ideological caveats I mentioned in 2.a) are in place.

3.b.1) One final point: is voting the only such practice? Of course not; it's not even the most important one--organizing, demonstrating, volunteering, speaking out, donating, protesting, running for office yourself: all of those are equally or more important than the vote. But if the vote is legally there for you (and it ought to be), one ought to make use of it. Doing so more fully expresses oneself as a citizen, and the republican expression of citizenship in liberal constitutional state, for all its capitalist corruption and democratic dysfunction, is no small thing--especially if it contributes, if only as a popular safeguard, to the removal of a bad man from the presidency, as I hope will happen one week (or one week-plus-however-many-weeks-of-lawsuits/demonstrations/riots/enormous-whining-from-the-con-man-in-the-White House) from today.

Vote well, everyone. 2020 has been enormously horrible; let's not add to it, shall we?

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Sukkot and Settling Into Fall

 [Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This year I planted a spring garden for the first time. Probably because of the pandemic, but because of other plans that I've been thinking about for a while, I decided early this year to up my gardening game--putting in raised beds at last, planting in mid-March, expanding the range of vegetables I aimed to grow: lettuce, broccoli, eggplant, green beans, and more. Most didn't work out, but it was a good struggle along the way. But with August and September, and the need to convert my classes online, the pressures on my time increased, and the garden (along with some of those other aforementioned plans) got pushed to the side. Perhaps not coincidentally, my once rewarding garden took a serious dive, in terms of both productivity and the enjoyment I took from my increasingly limited engagements with it. So it was with some satisfaction that yesterday I ripped out all the wilting tomatoes and long-since-exhausted peppers, as I usually do around this time of year. But this year, I also started prepping for a fall and winter garden. It's Sukkot, after all; time to build my settlement anew.

I've always been a fan of holidays, about which I've written a great deal over the years. I suppose I've always attached myself to them because something in me is always looking for ways to ritually connect myself to the seasons, to the rhythms of life, and to the people--family, friends, and other communities that I find myself, by choice or chance, enlisted into--who go through those rhythms and seasons with me. Holidays allow me to take a moment of time, a day on a calendar, and find in it something that puts me into a collective articulation of meaningful connections, through traditions and practices and celebrations and acts of remembrance. So I seek out holidays, and grab onto whichever one's I can. And the beginning of autumn gives me plenty to graft into my yearly routines, none more so than Sukkot, an ancient Jewish festival of the harvest--or the "ingathering," as it is usually translated.

Sometimes spoken of as the Festivals of Booths or the Festival of Tabernacles, the idea being to remind the ancient Israelites of the tents they dwelt in during their years in the desert, with the harvest association being a component of both the time of year when Sukkot falls (after the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, both of which connect to the autumnal equinox), and the tents or booths which would be erected out in the fields, as people worked day and night to get the crop in on time. The result is a joyous holiday of thanksgiving, with commemorative, temporary sukkahs being erected in homes and yards by observant Jews. The sukkah, taken in its fullness, is a sign of both permanence and transience, of coming out of the desert and settling into the promised land, the land of Israel, as well as a consciousness of how the blessings of that arrival, and the harvests having a home makes possible, are contingent things, as easily taken away as the sukkah is taken down once the harvest season is complete and the seven-day holiday is at its end. That ambiguity, that the felt need to make and identify with and make fruitful use of a home, which at the same time will never, ever--at least not during this moral existence, anyway--truly be one's own, speaks to me deeply, and never more than in the fall.

I've written about Sukkot a few times before. I reflected upon it back before my family found its place here in Wichita, KS, and I first planted my vegetable garden; I wrote about it again a few years after that, once we'd put down roots here and the kids were finding their place at school and we were finding our rhythm in our congregation; and then I wrote about it one more time, about six years ago, when I was deeply engaged in a slow, long process of Bible study, perhaps as a ways of dealing with the fact that our family had just started going through what would eventually become the most consequential, disruptive, and stressful time we've ever experienced, the effects of which are, perhaps, in our present pandemic moment, finally playing themselves out...or perhaps will just continue, in different forms, so long as we have our place here on Earth. Throughout it all, the seasons have turned, and my gardens have (usually, anyway) grown. What calls me back to it today?

It's the idea of the fall garden, I think. It's that, instead of beginning to move into my usual fall and winter mode, I have instead decided that, with a little planning and work and luck, I could have growing things into the winter months--and then maybe , after a spell of dormancy, into the earliest spring as well. Not a huge amount; I'm no master gardener. But I think I can keep the soil and water working well enough, and I think I can turn the compost frequently enough, that some Swiss chard, sorrel, and spinach might carry on through. Hardly a radical idea, but a challenge to the seasonal routine for me--a disruption, even, though a positive one. It means that instead of tearing down and leaving fallow, I am tearing down and settling on some other temporary arrangement in its place. Not all the hoses will go in the shed for the next seven months; I'll still be doing the work of ingathering for months and seasons yet to come. That pleases me. It makes me, at a time when it sometimes seems that the only constant is the legal and electoral and climactic and epidemiological chaos, more rooted than ever before.

In a couple of my previous Sukkot essays, I ended up making use of the writings of the scholar and Times and Seasons blogger Rosalynde Welch, which surprised me as I looked up these old posts of mine (perhaps our seasonal sensibilities are similar). In one of them, she compared the bi-annual Mormon tradition of watching General Conference broadcast from Salt Lake City to the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar--but then added an important caveat:

Of course, worship always involves more than an act of communication; it is also a sensory and social experience that video can never fully replicate. So streaming video will never replace the experience of worshiping together during the rest of the year. No matter how capacious the broadband connection, it cannot transmit the warmth of a handshake, the space of a chapel, the taste of the sacramental bread and water. Those human-to-human connections will always be at the heart of Mormon religious practice–and of virtually all other cooperative religious endeavors, as well.

As our family begins our seventh month of home church--a practice that, despite the fact that our ward (or, rather, the ward we've been assigned to, since boundaries got changed during the covid summer) has begun limited meetings again, is likely to continue for at least a while longer yet--these words of hers are particularly poignant. Our family is more than a half-year into making new rhythms and traditions, all without the handshakes and hugs that our local instantiation of the Mormon community might have provided. The bread and water emblem's of Christ's sacrifice we have in our home, but the chapel space we do not. Insofar as matters Mormon are concerned, our home has been our sukkah, the temporary--but feeling more permanent by the week--place we have settled on. It was one thing to imagine our worship community reduced to various distanced and streamed routines during the summer months--but now, as we move into fall, into winter, into the times to holidays and collective articulations to come? this may be the hardest time of all. Like Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf told the assembled Mormon faithful listening to General Conference yesterday, there may be even harder times yet to come as well.

Uchtdorf also told us about planting our seeds well, though. Buried in soil, the seed, like the soul, nonetheless continues its work. So this Sukkot, perhaps in the spirit of all my other ruined (perhaps later to be reborn?) routines, I am not putting away my seasonal arrangement, but stretching it out, and maybe stretching out our family's harvest too, keeping my hand in the soil, to see what can be gathered in yet. I am settled on this commitment, this additional engagement, and feel good about. How permanent will it be? How permanent can anything ever be? For now, I'll just wait on, and work towards, the coming winter, and after that, the spring.