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Sunday, July 18, 2021

Fathers, Friendship, and Holding onto Your Platoon (or Not)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This old Cal Grondahl cartoon, from many years ago, has been on my mind for while:

It first came back to my mind as I was preparing for a sacrament meeting sermon on Father's Day, back in June, the first time I'd been at a church pulpit since before the pandemic. As I've explained before, the ward that my family and I had attended for years officially disappeared over a year ago--and its elimination by the stake, with consequent changes in boundaries which ended up dividing us from just about everyone we were close to in our former ward, has combined with the lock-downs and the many upheavals of 2020 (both personal and political), to make it hard for us to get back into the church-attending habit. The cartoon thus really struck me, because it was, predictably, the husband holding back his hysterical wife, patiently emphasizing the facts of the situation: "there's nothing you can do." 

That's the stereotype, right? When there is a difficult reality to face, when there are hard choices to make, when sacrifices must be accepted and leadership is required, who is supposed to provide it, in the church's official imagination? The husband, of course--the father, the patriarch. It's a stereotype that finds support in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," after all: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” 

Sure, the Proclamation allows that "individual adaptation" may sometimes be necessary, and it's not hard to find statements from general authorities of the church implying how there may be all sorts of undefined exceptions to general principles like these out there as well, and that's even assuming you take the Proclamation seriously as a matter of doctrine (which I don't). But still, it's hard to be a member of such a culturally uniform body of believers as American Mormonism and not feel, as I do, at least slightly condemned for being, as I am, a weak father, someone reluctant to insist, in some commanding way, that my family has to attend a congregation that they mostly do not know, and a church that some of them--and, to a degree, I as well--have come to see over the past year and a half as, institutionally at least, partly irrelevant, morally as well as politically, to their lives. 

Maybe that weakness isn't such a bad thing; maybe American Mormon fathers can flip the cultural script, sometimes, and not necessarily play the stoic, authoritative, "there's nothing you can do"-types. (And considering the fact that our church's demographics skew heavily female as soon as you age out of childhood, that's probably an unavoidable flip, even if the cultural presumptions haven't caught up, and perhaps, given our all-male leadership, perhaps never will.) Still, as our family's participation in Mormonism, after decades of constancy, becomes doubtful and worried and inconsistent in the midst of the changes and covid-19 variants still out there, I can't help but feel somewhat at fault.

Lately though, as my family has continued to struggle along, I've stopped thinking about the husband in the cartoon, and started thinking about the wife, and her plea to hold on to her friends.

When Joseph Smith spoke of friendship as "one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism" he was speaking cosmologically; he may have given examples that were both personal and social, but his aim in introducing the idea, at least as I interpret the passage, is to emphasize how the friendship among members of the Mormon community will revolutionize the world, bringing us closer to the Millennial peace promised by the scriptures. Holding onto the Hendersons, as the cartoon satirizes, probably has no such theological weight. But...so what? Isn't it possible that insisting upon church activity in a particular place at a particular time, and thus upon supporting the leadership and the structures and the expectations culturally coded into the institutions of American Mormonism, all by way of a theological claim (the father in the cartoon might as well have said "Sharon, those with inspired priesthood authority have spoken; you can't challenge that"), is itself a stereotypically..."male" thing to do? Appealing to the cosmological principle of friendship, rather than real-world associations with one's actual neighbors and friends?

Of course, you will all say: dividing a ward hardly means you still can't spend time with the Hendersons! And that's correct. But we also all know that as fallen, embodied creatures, as creatures subject to human time and space, and subject to so many faults and limitations, we depend upon social structures to enable to us find and build upon the associations which bring virtue and purpose and joy into our lives. A Mormon congregation is, to twist slightly the famous Edmund Burke quote, "the subdivision...the little platoon we belong to in society." (Burke was talking at least as much about people embracing their place in the class hierarchy as he was about them loving their locality, but the general conservative principle holds.) 

We come into a subdivision, and we build, over time, memories, patterns of relationships, referents to people and events and experiences upon which we tell stories to ourselves about service, sacrifice, and simple pleasures. Can we do that anywhere, with any group of people, at any point of time? In theory, yes. But in practice, that kind of insistence (just start over again somewhere else!) valorizes exactly the kind of supposedly seamless, transactional modernity which, on a certain philosophical level at least, Mormonism ought to resist. In actual embodied life, becoming attached to a congregation takes time and costs effort--and as so many of us have experienced, the ward platoon we find ourselves may resist our best efforts at association (or, perversely, may bring out the associational worst in us). Thus to lose a subdivision that, over the years, came to mean seeing and catching up with and being comforted by the presence of genuine friends at Sunday meetings may well justify Sharon's desperate response.

Some will argue, not unreasonably, that the Mormon church is officially moving away from this kind of reliance upon congregational "platoons" anyway--that (perhaps inspired to prepare for the ward-and-activity-shuttering pandemic we have all experienced, and continue to experience) Mormonism is to become a "home-centered, church-supported" entity, and not just in the operations of Sunday School. To which I respond: well, maybe. If such decentralized hyper-localism--indeed, familialism--is to be the future of the faith, with our families (however we define them? or would only a clearly defined set of family associations count, perhaps those with the right sort of "Sharon, there's nothing you can do" patriarchs at their head?) serving as our "platoons," then some things needs to be seriously rethought, callings and boundaries and membership lists being just the start. In the meantime, though, we baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we covenanted members of this particular interpretation of the body of Christ, are called to attend and support and receive the ordinances of salvation in our several subdivided places. And the difficulty of returning to such, for families like my own at least, remains.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Why Councilmember Brandon Johnson Matters

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

My title is pretentious, of course; Brandon Johnson—the councilmember representing Wichita’s heavily African-American and traditionally Democratic District 1, a longtime community activist and an alum of Friends University where I teach, as well as someone I have a friendly (if not close) relationship with—matters to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons, most of them far beyond the specifics of current Wichita City Council debates. But as a someone who has spent decades observing and thinking and writing and teaching about politics, Brandon Johnson’s comments, towards the end of another marathon session dealing with the proposed non-discrimination ordinance before the council, were, whether he realized it or not, a deeply profound perception about the nature of political life, and it speaks well of his intelligence and perception that he said them. Watching the whole thing is a revealing as well as often depressing slog, but if you zip to the 4 hour and 6 minute mark, you’re hear this (edited slightly for clarity):

A 'community divided' [over]...a non-discrimination ordinance? I don't know if I would go that far. There are upset people. There are people who have questions right now. I forget how many e-mails I've gotten; from organized groups I may have had six or seven hundred e-mails. We may have seen the people outside. But [whether the delay is] 90 days or 90 years, there are going to be people who are concerned about this because it is offering protection to groups who are discriminated [against]....Whenever those opportunities come up, there is disagreement; there is division. Folks [will be] upset....Everybody's not going to agree with protecting folks. It's not going happen. There are folks who want to be able to do what they've been doing, think how they've been thinking. We've seen that outside...in the/ 'locker room' talk. We've seen this in some of the stuff we heard today, the 'I love you, but'. That doesn't change in 90 days. It's not. They are going be folks who are upset, still in 90 days.

The context, and the primary point, of his comments are actually quite straightforward, I think, even if that straight path is only clear in hindsight. So bear with me as I quickly run through the past four weeks….

A month ago, a proposed ordinance that would specifically require that national and state anti-discrimination laws regarding housing, employment, and public accommodations be enforced locally appeared upon the city council’s docket. The actual details and timeline of its preparation remain unclear--though it should be emphasized that Wichita currently has no locally specific civil rights ordinance at all, and it is to Mayor Brandon Whipple’s great credit that he saw the need for one. Unfortunately, in the originally presented ordinance, many of the terms describing those classes of individuals that would be protected were vague or undefined, and despite its stated intention, it actually included no specific enforcement mechanism, nor did it identify penalties should such a mechanism be put into effect. One thing that was clear from the outset, though, was that for both proponents and opponents of the ordinance, the point was the protection it provided to LGBTQ individuals, the state-level protections of which most people sympathetic to their concerns consider lacking, hence the move by several cities to make specific their inclusion. (The proponents of this effort regularly insist that this is a broadly motivated concern—Johnson explicitly says so in his remarks mentioned above—and yet no one really believes this, and no one really should: the arguments over the past month have overwhelming involved matters of gender identity and sexual orientation and the religious—specifically, the overwhelmingly conservative Christian—objections to such.)

The problems with the original ordinance resulted in a flurry of activity over the weekend, as Mayor Brandon Whipple scrambled (while away from Wichita attending a wedding) to placate furious LGBTQ activists and organizations, some of whom saw the proposed ordinance as a hastily slapped together affront to those who take LGBTQ concerns truly seriously. He was successful in this effort: by Tuesday morning, when the ordinance came before the city council for its first official reading, it had been significantly re-written, and it was representatives of Equality Kansas, and not the city’s staff, who providing explanations of the ordinance’s fine details. The frustration over this hurried process was immense (and I think, at that point in time at least, entirely justifiable). Councilmember Jared Cerullo’s objections to having been substantively excluded from the whole drafting process, despite being the only LGBTQ individual on the city council and thus an obvious partner to these discussions, was, I though, particularly poignant. It is very likely, despite Whipple’s impassioned pleading (in contrast to Johnson’s quietly supportive approach), that the whole thing would have been voted down if Councilmember Becky Tuttle hadn’t gotten the city’s legal department to assure the council that the whole ordinance could be effectively re-written again before its second reading. With that, it passed 4-3, with Tuttle and Councilmember Cindy Claycomb joining Whipple and Johnson in voting it through.

By the time the ordinance came before the city council again, however, it was clear that enough changes had to have been made to its language, its details, its definitions, and its enforcement process, that it was substantially a brand new ordinance, requiring a reset to the whole process. The new first reading was an endless, 5+ hour parade of opposition—again, overwhelmingly reflecting conservative Christian concerns—and, in a much smaller key, support. In the three weeks since the prior discussion of the proposed ordinance, there obviously had been a lot of organizing, yet little formal discussion in the venues established for such—specifically, the DABs, the advisory boards established for each city council district. Part of the reason for this was the July 4th holiday, which made it hard for people to get together and actually have an organized conversation. And in this vacuum a lot of misinformation predictably spread, in particular from the Sedgwick County Republican Party, though the local Democratic party’s response to the GOP’s attack got things about the proposed ordinance wrong too. (It’s worth noting that some local conservative activists went beyond talking points to calling upon their followers to contact—or maybe outright harass—certain councilmembers at their homes, and tell them that their election prospects depend upon their changing their votes.)

All of this, from what I can tell, simply served to underline an emerging consensus, one which I heard repeatedly when I attended Councilmember Bryan Frye’s re-scheduled DAB meeting after the first reading of the new, substituted version of the ordinance: this whole discussion has been unnecessarily heated and hasty, and has sown division and disagreement throughout the city, because of both confusion over, and the disrespect shown for, the city’s normal legislative process. For myself, while I have no disagreement whatsoever that the process in bringing this ordinance forward has been a complete mess (and while there is a lot of fault for that, it has to begin with those who wrote it and introduced it in the first place, particularly Mayor Whipple), the result at this point in the process is nonetheless, actually, a pretty excellent non-discrimination ordinance, one that would serve an important purpose. On the basis of some exchanges I both listened to and had with Councilmembers Cerullo and Claycomb at different events during this in-between time (both of them had ended up supporting the ordinance at the previous marathon city council meeting, and both of them are up for re-election this year), I thought sympathy for the resulting policy would win out over anger regarding the process. I was wrong—which is what brings me back, at last, to Councilmember Johnson’s wise comment.

Everyone following the news knows what happened yesterday: another long parade of opponents, though this time with an almost equal contingent of better organized, better informed supporters of the proposed ordinance, followed by an even more contentious display of accusations, insults, apologies, and bargaining involving the five councilmembers who had supported different versions of ordinance at different times (most of which revolved around the mayor, who started out loudly demanding passage but quickly found himself on the defensive—as Whipple himself once quoted his wife as saying during a class I’d invited him to speak at, with his election at least city council meetings aren’t boring any longer). Councilmember Tuttle proposed tabling the ordinance for 90 days, until early October at the soonest, to allow for more DAB participation, a city council workshop day, and the involvement the city’s new Diversity, Inclusion & Civil Rights Advisory Board, which relatively quickly garnered majority support on the council and passed 5-2. (The arguments over the Civil Rights Advisory Board have been interesting—originally it was Mayor Whipple who claimed, when challenged over their lack of involvement in the shaping of the ordinance, that the board was just starting out and couldn’t productively play a role yet, but when Whipple, accepting that he’d lost the votes of Tuttle, Cerullo, and Claycomb, suggested quickly involving the board and bringing the ordinance back for another second reading in 30 days, it was Tuttle who said they board was just starting out and wasn’t organized enough to do so.) It is at this point that Johnson’s comment, which was framed as kindly rebuke to Tuttle’s successful motion, becomes relevant.

In the larger scheme of things, Tuttle’s proposal is perfectly reasonable. As Max Weber famously put it more than a century ago, politics is the “slow boring of hard boards.” It’s a difficult and time-consuming process—so why not take some more time to work through these hard questions? Johnson’s response, which explicitly referenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” with its condemnation of “white moderates” who told King to slow down and wait (Johnson could have just as easily referenced King’s blistering 1964 follow-up to that famous letter, Why We Can’t Wait), puts things in a different context. A focus on the legislative process, and the time and compromises involved, can be civically empowering, and is often central to any serious effort to think clearly about what “government by the people” actually means. But just as often, unfortunately, a focus on process can become an almost rote incantation, something imagined—usually not explicitly stated, though it sometimes is—as an entirely apolitical, non-partisan, and non-“divisive” way to address the reality of disagreement in our pluralistic society. As I observed in a recent column in The Wichita Eagle, this ideal is an old one, but it is also one that has never consistently worked, and today increasingly does not represent reality. The growing recognition by some that the contentious “management” of deep disagreements, through allowing everyone to organize and have their say (sometimes endlessly) and then somehow discovering a compromise in the midst of the fighting, rarely results in a policy that satisfies anybody or even works is, to say the least, kind of frightening.

Johnson’s comments, without ever going into this kind of theoretical detail, foregrounds this reality. When you are talking about really deep disagreements—and you can’t get much deeper than those between people who, on the one hand, draw upon long personal histories with discrimination of and contempt for their sexual identities and orientations, and people who, on the other hand, draw upon devout religious beliefs and (more relevantly) presumptions about the legitimate social expression of those beliefs—why would you think anyone will change their mind? However poor the process of shaping the proposed ordinance was up until yesterday (and it definitely has been poor, though there are examples from recent Wichita history of controversial decisions being made with even fewer and less transparent conversations than this ordinance has gotten over the past month), there is no reason to believe that the process going forward from this point on promises any kind of revolutionary break-through. As Johnson subsequently said, the only options going forward now are maintaining the protections provided by the ordinance, or weakening them by allowing more exceptions to be introduced. (Johnson didn’t mention the third, entirely obvious option: that more discussion might actually result in the ordinance being defeated entirely, despite a clear majority of members of the city council being on the record saying that local enforcement of state and national non-discrimination laws is necessary.)

Tuttle defended herself politely here, insisting that she wanted this ordinance passed, but believed that the delay—with more DAB discussions, with a council workshop, with formal Civil Rights Advisory Board involvement—will actually make it stronger, with broader public support, or at least great public acceptance. Johnson clearly disagreed with her, and I feel he was right to do so. I can’t emphasize this enough: taking the painstaking, slow, civic-minded approach to crafting rules and making decisions is absolutely essential when your goal is to increase public involvement with a problem, because the problem is general and the possible responses to it are multiple and unclear. This is exactly why I and many others have insisted, for example, that the city council must go slow in making decisions about the future of Century II; despite the efforts of some to present it as an all-or-nothing choice, it obviously is and shouldn’t be.

But as you get close to the point—by whatever the means you get there—where all those multiple options narrow down to one solution or one proposal or one course of action, one which you can only support, oppose, or amend, the civic essentialness of continuing engagement rapidly diminishes. There comes a point where rehashing the process becomes mostly a way to make attacks against (or defend yourself from against) the existing solution. Again, we all know this—we’ve all been part of meetings which never end and never accomplish anything, because someone is always upset with whatever might be done. As Councilmember Johnson said, the one thing you can count on in a free and pluralistic society like our own is that “there is disagreement, there is division.” You can argue, of course, that when it comes to this non-discrimination ordinance, Wichita—or at least our city council—is not at that narrow decision-making point yet. But that is a judgment call, not a determination that can be made in a dispassionate, objective, principled way. And if I may conclude by beating a favorite dead horse of mine, this is exactly why parties, and partisanship, is both 1) useful, and 2) unavoidable.

Why useful? Because parties frame for voters the sorts of priorities that will guide the judgment calls which different politicians will make after everything that goes into the legislative process is done, and thus allows voters to have some input over how and when and for what reason their elected representatives will say “okay, no more talk; it’s time to vote.” And why unavoidable? Because, as much as many city councilmembers (including Johnson himself!) may profess a deep commitment to just neutrally following what staff provides them with and making whatever decision their constituents seem to prefer, much of the time, in actual fact, voting in response to party priorities is exactly what they are doing anyway. I’m sorry if some take offense at that, but I can only plead that it’s very difficult to look at the votes that have been cast and the justifications that have been offered over this past month and yet still believe that the necessity of these people to negotiate the reality of both Republican and Democratic voters in their districts isn’t a central part of their decisions as well.

As another old saying puts it, politics is like making sausage—you shouldn’t look at it too closely. For better or worse, the people of Wichita have been granted, over the past month, a close tour of one particular sausage factory. The process was flawed, as legislative processes so regularly are, and if you want to hold Mayor Whipple responsible for that, you certainly could (I do, at least in part). But the resulting sausage is also, if you’re in political agreement with people like Councilmember Johnson, pretty good. Of course, if you’re not in political agreement with people like Councilmember Johnson, you probably don’t think it’s good at all. That’s called disagreement; that’s the nature of politics. When a city like Wichita comes to the point of division, you could wait in the hopes the divisions go away, or that your staff will come up with some new approach to mollify things, or that some other process could be tried to moderate extremists on both sides. I might work; hey, I might be wrong! But I don’t think I am, and I don’t think Councilmember Johnson is either. Hence today, after a very long month for every member of the city council (and three more months, at least, before they do it all again) I salute him and thank him for his clear-eyed perspective. As the man said, eyes on the prize, sir; eyes on the prize.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Why Championing American Values May Not Be Enough

[This is an expanded version of a column which appeared in The Wichita Eagle on Sunday, July 11.] 

When Mike Pompeo launched his "Championing American Values” political action committee recently, he employed what some would call some pretty dark and defiant language. The Biden administration's economic policies are "sickening," and their foreign policies are "naive." Claiming that the United States of America is "the most exceptional nation in the history of civilization," Pompeo insisted that America today is confronting “the dividing line between freedom and oppression.” Leaning heavily upon his military background, Pompeo's PAC foregrounds the idea of a conservative, pro-Trump, Republican calvary riding to battle against the Biden administration and the Democratic party, filled with "pipehitters" who will "never give an inch...against the radical Left’s agenda." A milquetoast foray into national politics this was not.

Personally, I don't find any of this language all that unusual, or even especially extreme. It doesn't frame itself in terms of an apocalyptic culture war, as so much political rhetoric today does, after all. Instead, it's actually entirely conventional for political action committees: it aims to win elections, specifically to "take back majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and in state legislatures." You can't get much more normal for American party politics than that.

But perhaps the very normality of Pompeo's stated intentions is what makes his language stand out to some observers? Hard to say, but the fact that some people can look at something as routine as a political action committee and see it as a frightening harbinger perhaps says something about the broader fears held by some in America today.

Of course, fear is actually part of Pompeo’s argument. If “the encroachment of socialism” and “the woke cancel culture” really are dire threats to “our liberty and freedoms,” as Pompeo’s announcement suggests, then perhaps every America should rightfully fear whether our constitutional democracy will survive. But if so, then the fact that Pompeo’s appeal does exactly what, according to at least one understanding of our constitution, we are democratically expected to do suggests that seeing our current constitutional situation as especially dire may be flawed.

The constitutional reading and democratic expectation I'm talking about is the Madisonian one, laid out in Federalist #10. His entire vision of our constitutional system will handle disagreement and diversity is premised upon the idea that we Americans, in order to promote our disparate values, will form discrete factions. Through those factions--which came to be most purely embodied through the mechanism of political parties and interest groups, though it is doubtful Madison himself had any so institutionally formal in mind--voters can attempt to influence the government one way or another, by recruiting candidates and lining up voters and cultivating donors with resources and more, all with the aim of winning elections. But given the diversity of America, none of these factions will ever elect enough people to be able to achieve majority control of the government on their own. Thus they’re forced to compromise, to work together. None of the relevant groups ever get all that they want, but all get enough to keep on going.

As I said, that’s one understanding—an understanding that looks at Pompeo’s new PAC, and salutes him for taking the exact same electoral actions which every other political action committee, working on behalf of every other possible set of values, also does. We may be deeply divided in our policy preferences when it comes to what we want our government to do, but how can we worry too much about the influence of one division or another when we’re all going about our political business in the same way anyway?

Some worry, I suspect--and I count myself as one of them--because we recognize that the bumpy but supposedly consistent “going” mentioned above actually doesn’t always work the way some constitutional thinkers believed it would. For me, the reasons it doesn't work the way it was supposed to are rooted in democratic theory itself; as I've written before, I suspect that Madison's vision of pluralism presumed a controlling classical republic background (as represented by the men who would be the presumed default leaders of these factions; "men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters" as Madison called them), and thus by praising factional interactivity as he did, he was actually undermining the conceptual requirements of his own constitutional vision. But even if I'm wrong, and Madison really was just a pragmatic liberal all the way down, with little interest in the common good, preferring just to manage our diverse, we still must confront the fact that he was a product of his time and place. Worried American citizens today don't have to know anything about Madison's philosophy or constitutional theory to suspect that things may go very wrong when factions, thanks to long-standing government dysfunction and increasing cultural divides, become sources of permanent frustration and anger. The hard truth is that the traditional story of American pluralism provides no solution when such impasses emerge. The Civil War, which there was no compromising out of (despite the delusions of some revisionists), is proof of that.

True, vague talk about how we may be facing “another civil war” is pretty common, on both the left and right, so much so that, as I wrote above, Pompeo's language might arguably even seem tame by comparison. And frankly, such language is arguably to be expected. Madison's whole system assumed people will be passionate believers, and will fight hard for their factional causes. But that fighting, at least in the century between the end of the Civil War and the breakdown of the New Deal party system, took place in a context where, among other things, media outlets were subject to political requirements which standardized a certain degree of regional variety and fairness, the controlling presumption of whiteness effectively enabled cross-ideological compromise, and campaign finances were closely watched enough that there was rarely any upside in political extremes. But the civil rights and women's movements, combined with technology and money and deregulation, have long since broken down most of these electoral structures and practices which once defined our factions, with the result that political movements are increasing driven by which ever micro-faction can effectively leverage grievances over values, so as to allow them to dominate their fellows by pure momentum. As a result, it’s become easy for the passionate believers to assume they face uncompromising extremists, not fellow citizens that they’ll have to deal with eventually. As that assumption becomes standard it become self-fulfilling, making Madison's vision seem ever more quaint and out-of-date when we consider the cultural conflicts of today.

I confess I have come, over the past 10 years, to embrace this dark diagnosis almost entirely. That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of reasons to think things aren’t all that bad; locally, in particularly, I suspect good government through traditional pluralistic politics is still possible. When all is said and done, though, if you’re one of those who look at political actors like Pompeo and—even if you agree with the values he expresses—wonder a little about just what the endgame of his absolutist language is, then you’re like those of us who are beginning to fear that our constitutional machinery for dealing with disagreement may not be able to handle the internet-empowered, shame-resistant, mutual-destruction, cultural factions of today. Does that mean that some entirely new electoral and political machinery is necessary? I suspect so—but unfortunately, getting any compromise on what that machinery should be remains far away as well.