Tuesday, October 04, 2022

On Philosophy, Religion, Nazis, Conservatives, Leftists, Damon Linker, and Me

[Damon Linker--pundit, author, oft-infuritating centrist, and all-around great human being--recently lost his father, and is taking a break from his Substack to take care of family issues. I well understand how consuming the loss of a father can be, and my prayers are with him, his wife Beth, and their children at this time. I thought about delaying this post for a while, but then decided that it ultimately was, in some ways, a kind of a tribute to him and his, to me anyway, deeply clarifying philosophical journey, with just some perhaps interesting comments on political theory, metaphysical hopes, and regime-threatening racism along the way. Part of me thinks he'll appreciate that odd mix. Anyway, best wishes at this difficult time, old friend.]

 Damon and I have been friends for over two decades, going back to when we discovered each other in the late 1990s as two young ABDs working on dissertations on the 18th-century German educator and translator Johann Gottfried Herder. That launched a friendship--perhaps not a super-close one, but one that I've been consistently grateful for over the years--filled with deep disagreements and loud laughs over politics, religion, family, movies, music, and much else. Still, it wasn't until Damon started his Substack "Eyes on the Right," and particularly until he published a series of reflective, searching columns over the past couple of months, that I was able to see, via his writings, just how much we shared, and how much we were divided nonetheless

In the first of those posts, Damon identifies himself as "a peculiar kind...of conservative"; definitely a non-ideological, small-c conservative, whose primary motivation is a "persistent hostility and resistance to unpredictable, rapid change." Damon is up-front about how much of this is a particular anxiety of his, rooted in the painful upheavals of his childhood and young adult life. But it is also intellectual; he strongly identifies with the dispositional conservatism of Michael Oakeshott, who described conservatives as being those who "prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss." This kind of conservatism obviously barely has any home in the Republican party of today, or the last 40 years for that matter. Damon not only has no sympathy whatsoever to Trump and Trumpist reactionary wishes to "Make America Great Again"; he wasn't particularly sympathetic to Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" call when he was teenager either. So an ideological right-winger in any sense Damon most definitely is not.

But his same opposition to any kind of transformative promise or crusade also stops him from sympathizing with what he sees as Ahab-like obsessions with "getting" Donald Trump. He was long doubtful about both the Mueller investigation and the Trump impeachments, and he's one of the best advocates out there (or so I think, anyway, even though I don't agree with his conclusion) for the position of treating Trump as a wholly political problem, rather than risking further violence from his cultish defenders by reaching for some kind of legal solution to Trump's baleful effects on our elections. Hence Damon is a centrist Democrat and a "conservative liberal;" the kind of worried and frustrated philosophical centrist who'd probably find a lot of agreement with Judith Shklar (or Jacob Levy) and who joins the Niskanen Center. Turning to Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," Damon wistfully observes that, ultimately, what he values is "a place of rest. Constancy. Contentment. Stability. Reaching it, and then holding onto it. Preserving it against the ravages of change."

Those were the lines which struck me most, and sent me off on writing this long post...because that's me. I find everything about that statement simply beautiful, and could not endorse it more. I have a hard time thinking of anything I've ever written or spoken or done even just remotely associated with my obsessive interests in community, simplicity, family, and more that couldn't be summarized by the very same words Damon wrote there.

And yet, my own small-c conservatism ends up pointing me in an entirely leftward direction, however perverse or incoherent that may seem to some. Call it left communitarianism rather than left conservatism if you prefer, but ultimately it's all the same. It's a leavening of Karl Marx's economically-grounded socialism with Christopher Lasch's culturally-grounded populism; a recognition that nothing threatens settled and stable "places of rest" more than (as I wrote) "the dislocating, exploitative social power which the unregulated (and thus invariably concentrating and centralizing) flow of capital gives to those who master it," while also recognizing that any actually democratically empowering alternative to the exploitative, community-undermining reign of finance capitalism should have the aim of (as I also wrote) "jobs defended, wages secured, trade limited, cultures respected, neighborhoods supported, manual labor revived, proprietorship encouraged, industry regulated, corporations restricted, families embraced...and...done in a manner which [does] not rob authority and integrity from (quoting John Dewey--another Progressive!--here) 'the local homes of mankind.'" 

For those whose leftism is fundamentally liberal, which means fundamentally about expanding individual autonomy and opportunity in opposition to collective or environmental limits, or at least is fundamentally oriented around a fear of threats to those liberal goods which, however undeniably bourgeois, have nonetheless made hundreds of millions of lives immeasurably better (no, I don't deny that--I may not be much of a liberal, but I am, adjectivally and procedurally, quite liberal in a Bryanesque way all the same), this kind of thing might only sound like another apology for those invariably authoritarian "red-brown" alliances. As Richard Yeselson once claimed in response to a defense of Lasch by George Scialabba years ago, limiting individual experimentation and expansion in the name of community or simplicity or family or most anything else kills off the engines of liberal capitalism, which only means that there will be less to go around, and "dividing up less [however fairly and justly] leads not to serenely making your own buttermilk, but to fascism." To all that I can only say: yes, I can see that coherence of that terrible intellectual path, and will do my best not to go down it. But my "best" doesn't involve me fleeing from it entirely, particularly not in the direction of Damon's centrism. On the contrary, unlike my friend's pragmatic "distrust [of] romantic longings," I don't think I have ever really even so much as blinked at the prospect of contemplating radically populist, economically mutualist, or religiously communalist collective movements to shore up the things I think must be conserved in the face of liberal modernity. Does that mean I live a localist, agrarian, Luddite life in total support of such things? Not at all. But I don't have any particular distrust of those who aspire to so do, and I try to teach all about them as much as I can.

So what is the real dividing point between Damon and I, the dividing point which led to two people who, in terms of actual electoral choices, are rarely all that different, but whose justifications for those choices and whose hopes for better future choices are radically distinct? Of course there isn't just one thing that led two instinctively small-c conservative people to become a careful centrist liberal and unhappy Democrat on the one hand, and a constantly disappointed but still dreaming utopian and dues-paying Democratic Socialists of America member on the other. Perhaps its as our respective material and cultural backgrounds: Damon grew up in a highly fractured and secular urban milieu, and his conceptions of stability reflect the cosmopolitan pluralism of Isaiah Berlin, while I grew up in very tight and religious and almost-rural milieu, and perhaps unsurprisingly my conceptions of stability reflect the land-based communitarianism of Wendell Berry. (Or, to be utterly academic and nerdy, for anyone who wants to read our respective dissertations, perhaps its because the work of Herder which Damon found most important was his deeply historicist Yet Another Philosophy of History, emphasizing the cultural incommensurability of the rival, particularist goods that different nations will always legitimately conceive and pursue, whereas my favorite work by Herder was the religious anthropology he laid out in Letters for the Advancement of Humankind, emphasizing that there is a centripetal force in all the various expressions of human difference that point towards the unified realization of truly common goods.) But if I did have to pick just one thing, it would probably be the way our personal histories were shaped the undergraduate and graduate educations we received.

In another thoughtful column, Damon talked about how he hopes to "to attain a modicum of wisdom about what mixture or balance of competing visions will be best for the political community as a whole." His unavoidably aristocratic language there, deeply infused with classical philosophical presumptions about the need to "exercise of independent judgment" by "not just standing apart from the various factions on the playground" but also rising above it, reflects his predilection for authors like Aristotle, Thucydides, and Tocqueville, but also his education by scholars working in the tradition of the political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss. Damon acknowledged that his "own skeptical and somewhat pessimistic liberalism has been shaped by [Strauss's] work," which among other things preaches its own kind of careful moderation, counseling those who aspire to truth to, as Damon wrote elsewhere, "[protect] society at large from the acids of skepticism and doubt unleashed by philosophical questioning, while simultaneously [speaking carefully so as to protect] philosophers from the righteous indignation of citizens who (rightly) suspect that such questioning undermines belief in the gods of the political community and thus corrupts the virtue of its citizens." In this Damon is hardly unique--there are plenty of liberals whose careful, borderline-aristocratic skepticism were at least partly influenced by scholars shaped by the legacy of Strauss. One of those is the historian Mark Lilla, who was an important figure in Damon's intellectual development. But either way, Strauss's presentation of philosophic inquiry as mandating a certain kind of  "esotericism," a hiding of the truth about ultimate goods from the unenlightened, has an unfortunate magnetic appeal: a promise that hard, uncompromising, almost invariably illiberal and undemocratic truths, truths which ordinary people cannot handle, are available to a select few.

That's the sort of appeal, as Damon has discussed at length, has warped far too many young conservative scholars into accepting philosophical criticisms of democracy as not just arguments worthy of contemplation--since, as Strauss himself wrote, "the ultimate aim of political life cannot be reached by political life, but only by a life devoted to contemplation"--but as exclusive, comprehensive truths which deserve to be politically enacted. Such exclusivity, when poorly understood, can become an apologia for Trumpist-style America-Firstism. Even more tragically, it sometimes settles in people's heads alongside other, even uglier political exclusions: that the esoteric truth of the world isn't available to those of the wrong background, the wrong gender, or the wrong race. And so Strauss, who fled the Nazis to come to America, planted seeds that sometimes grow up alongside genuine Nazis (one of whom, Greg Johnson, whose name I don't remember but whose face I think I do, very probably--as best I can determine from Damon's research anyway--sat beside me in a seminar on Martin Heidegger, another German radical thinker as well as a one-time Nazi, taught by my dissertation advisor at Catholic University of America in 1999, where both of us graduated with our PhDs in 2001).

The connection to Heidegger is important here, because like Damon and some of those mentioned above, I read a lot of Heidegger once upon a time, both at my undergraduate and graduate institutions. And like Strauss, Heidegger's comprehensive arguments about the metaphysical weaknesses of Western philosophy--or, more accurately, the metaphysical flaws about the very structure of and the central apprehensions about human existence which liberal democracies and modern notions of individual rights are the flawed fruit of--can have a seductive appeal. Damon talked about this on a recent episode of the excellent podcast, Know Your Enemy. Responding to a question of how Lilla's skeptical liberal break away from the influence of more extreme interpretations of Strauss might have played a role in Damon similarly not being overly seduced by his philosophical esotericism, Damon reflected:

I mean it's funny; it was partly over Strauss, but it was also over Heidegger. I went through a period in grad school where I was, like, deeply seduced by Heidegger and I was just reading him all the time. Not just Being and Time but a lot of the lectures that at that time were just being translated….There was a period there where I really had a kind of temptation to sort of just take the leap. And Heidegger is one of those thinkers who can inspire that. A kind of…religious conversion, like an all-encompassing worldview. It's also like a wrench that can be used to shatter the entire history of Western thought to pieces...a ready-to-hand tool of deconstruction right there. In this period I already knew that Lilla was very skeptical about Heidegger. There was a point in which I started sort of haranguing him, insinuating in a very-handed, Straussian way: “Why don’t you have the courage to really look at these things? This is the truth!” Lilla wrote a very memorable, hand-written letter back to me, in which he basically insinuated that I have Daddy issues...."You’re always looking for some teacher to kind of show you the light, and then they disappoint you, and you leave them behind; you should be a little more skeptical.” He was just always counseling skepticism. Like: “Fine; try on those garments, see how they feel. But then put them down; keep them around, but don’t make them your wardrobe.” That’s my own awkward metaphor, but it very much was: just be cautious! And I think for Lilla that comes from the fact that he was a teen-age convert to a kind of evangelical Christianity, that he then worked his way out of, and it informs his entirely intellectual make-up; you know–don’t get fooled again! That kind of attitude…he ended up passing on to me to some extent, and by the time I got to a certain point, I had inculcated it enough that I was by then pretty inoculated from it all on my own.

I don't have a story like that, but I have a Heidegger story of my own, the practical outcome of which is quite similar to Damon's, but the intellectual path it took me on--one I'm still on to a certain degree--being very different from his. Basically, I wonder if it just come down to the two individuals most responsible for bringing me to an appreciation of Heidegger's deep critique of modernity being Jim Faulconer, a philosopher at Brigham Young University, and Stephen Schneck, a political theorist and my dissertation advisor at Catholic University of America. They are both serious scholars and devout religious believers--a Mormon who has written extensively on devotional topics, whose essays have been enormously important to my faith life, and a devout Catholic who has spent the second half of his career articulating an alignment between Catholic social justice teachings and progressive politics; currently, he serves as an appointed member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. And while neither were pious in the classroom--unlike some faculty at both universities, neither ever opened their classes or seminars with a prayer--in retrospect, I have realized that they introduced to impressionable students and budding scholars deeply discomforting critiques of the run-of-the-mill liberal, rational, and individual verities which the capitalist markets, the scientific methods, the technological tools, and the democratic principles which Western modernity takes as settled, critiques not just from Heidegger, but Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Gadamer, Arendt, Rorty, Ricoeur, Wolin, and more, and did so in ways that suggested anything but, as Damon put it, "a wrench that can be used to shatter the entire history of Western thought." On the contrary, to me this introduction to deconstructive arguments--expressed by some of them in the midst of an ugly anti-Semitism, which Faulconer and Schneck never failed to expose as actually undermining the better readings of these individuals' own argument--was received, to use the language of Alan Jacobs, as an "invitation to repair."

Repair what? That which our Western metaphysical presumptions, our capitalist socio-economic confidence, and our distinctly modern belief in the possibility of--indeed the presumed moral requirement of--human technological mastery, all work unknowingly to cover over. To me, the importance of Heidegger's teaching about aletheia, or "unconcealedness" or "disclosure," as that which phenomenologically resides at the heart of "truth," was that it pointed toward, lurking within every claim or discovery, an original and prior revelation, an es gibt--that, in other words, something about that which is, is a gift that has been a given, and that something, that gift, should be attended to. Derrida's articulation of "the trace" functions that way as well; as Jim once wrote, Derrida is can be understood as almost a kind of negative theologian: "the point of his deconstruction is to help us remember what the text calls us to remember but then forgets by its very nature.....deconstruction calls us to the act of remembering, wonder, and praise, and in that to a remembering relation to what we have forgotten rather than to the descriptions of what we have forgotten."  (To those familiar with Heidegger, it should probably go without saying that both Faulconer and Schneck approached his writings with a strong emphasis upon--or at least it appeared to me--the post-Kehre or "turn" towards the poetic in Heidegger, rather than his pre-Kehre work of Being and Time and such.) 

In short, from all these thinkers I received, thanks to Faulconer and Schneck, not an invitation to a potentially threatening truth which warranted liberal skepticism, but rather a philosophical appreciation which communicated more than anything else an appreciate the constructive possibilities of our essential, always particular, but nonetheless collectively shared naiveté. Our very understanding of the world and our place in it, and our ability to think and speak about such things, are conditioned by deep structural "always-alreadys," horizons of understanding--expressions of language, culture, and more--into which we have been thrown and which we can have no other moral obligations towards except the work of tending and care...which is not the same thing as protectively preserving those thrown realities against any change! On the contrary, the aim shouldn't be to distance oneself from the fray, but to authentically engage with it. 

Is that a pretentious (and therefore potentially exclusionary) assumption of one's "authentic" right to engage in acts of tending and building, something which others presumably lack? That the hunt for authentic engagement can become so is something I acknowledge above. But these philosophers, and those who taught me about them, helped convince me that everyone, including those who only wish to exercise a serene, moderate, practical judgment over those still in the cave, are equally subject to thrownness, and thus equally obliged to articulate a subjectivity that puts them in some relationship to the world, even they just wish to survey it. To put it simply, I kind of think we're all unavoidably engaged in the same project-making and meaning-creation. And yes, I do mean creation, which can be just as much directed towards stability as towards reform, revolution, or reaction. You don't have to agree with Marx's Thesis 11 that the point of philosophy is to change the world (though I mostly do)--but it is worth considering, as Stephen once put it to me in a discussion about the German philosophical tradition (from Hegel to Husserl to Heidegger and beyond), the possibly that truth isn't something to contemplate and perhaps, at best, strategically create the conditions for: it is something to be lived. As the sort of Christian who leans more towards abiding notions of grace rather than restrictive notions of commandment, and as a Mormon whose beliefs include a healthy dose of utopianism (however buried over by Mormonism's embrace of modernity those 19th-century ideals may be), how could all that not fail to click for me?

So perhaps that's the story. Not remotely all of it--I could talk about my early exposure to Rousseau and my friendship with Marxists and my years in South Korea and my subsequent fascination with East Asian political thought and the work of Fred Dallmayr (my dissertation advisor's dissertation advisor), and who knows how much more Damon could add to this description of his thinking, even assuming it's accurate (which I hope it is, mostly). But maybe this is enough to add up to a proper intellectual account of where I'm coming from, philosophically speaking, when I read friend's reliably smart but also occasionally disconcerting commentary, and see in it someone whose perspective I both value and understand, and enjoy learning from, but at the deepest level--as opposed to the much more practical and needful political level--I simply don't share at all, however much our justifications for what we believe sound the same. Damon has a small-c conservative sensibility, which makes him want to skeptically push against anyone whom he suspects of wanting to upset the apple-cart, and for that the liberal pluralism of an Isaiah Berlin works far better than any comprehensive philosophical vision, particularly the poorly-read Straussian one too common on the American right today; I also have a small-c conservative sensibility, but since I also believe--thanks to the influence both philosophical and religious visions--that we are all already and invariably in the midst of constant apple-cart-upsetting anyway, I find myself instead pushing to find the space and grace to authentically realize, to locally build or rebuild, that which constituted the cart in the first place. If that makes any sense. 

Oh well. That's friendship for you. It's been years since Damon and I had a proper (non-alcoholic) symposium; this post can't serve as one, and it's the wrong time for one as well, but this heterodox Mormon left conservative raises a class to his mostly secular conservative liberal friend all the same. My memories of you are a blessing, Damon; at this time, I wish your memories of your father to be the same for you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

What Emporia (and Kansas) Has Lost

[Two weeks ago, Emporia State University President Ken Hush pushed through a plan that allowed him to engage in a devastating "restructuring" of this small, beautiful state university in southeastern Kansas. I wrote a piece about it last week; this is a slightly expanded and updated version.]

The sad news coming out of Emporia, with at least 30 members of the faculty of Emporia State University fired on a single day, did not garner much attention state-wide. (The best source of news about what's been done to ESU continues to be The Bulletin, produced by the journalism students at Emporia State, a program that has now been halted, along with more than 30 others.) That’s unfortunate, and not just because the firings were a terrible blow to the education of hundreds of ESU students. It’s unfortunate because the changes at Emporia reflect a misunderstanding of what I think--as a non-tenured (by choice) university professor at Friends University in Wichita, KS--higher education in Kansas realistically is all about, and what it can aspire to be.

The population of Kansas as a whole is growing at a slow pace, relative to the rest of the country—with a few of the states heavily urbanized counties increasing in size at a decent pace, but with our more expansive rural areas mostly shrinking in population, sometimes quite dramatically. This is the reality which all the universities and community colleges operating under the Kansas Board of Regents umbrella, and all the different independent liberal arts colleges across Kansas, have to deal with. Add to the decline of potential college students the burden of tuition costs, the plentitude of educational alternatives, and the many re-evaluations which the pandemic brought on, and it is obvious that Kansas’s colleges and universities must rethink how they do business.

Which they have done, and continue to do. It is wrong to suppose that the faculty who teach classes, run workshops, administer internships, and provide training are removed from the kind of hard choices and experimental strategies which the aforementioned pressures make necessary. On the contrary, it is those faculty who do the legwork in figuring out how to combine old programs or innovate new ones, and reconstruct majors and courses to reflect diverse student needs. This has happened multiple times at my institution in the years that I’ve taught here, and almost all the faculty I know here in Kansas, whether at large institutions or small ones, have gone through the same.

Why do all that extra work? There are cynical answers, to be sure: "you'll lose your job, otherwise" is an easy snark. But that cynical take cannot fully account for the immense creativity and resources which Kansas's higher education teachers regularly dedicate to keeping what they do both institutionally solvent and educationally successful. So mostly, I believe it’s because the teachers at those institutions have committed themselves to teaching Kansas students, and that means meeting them where they are: in all those diverse cities and towns, large and small, in all those distinct regions, both rural and urban and in-between, and developing unique educational approaches to serve all those different student needs. It means making our colleges and universities “native to this place,” to quote Kansan Wes Jackson—and that requires the knowledge which only long-term job support makes possible.

Which is exactly what President Ken Hush has undermined at Emporia State, by getting permission from KBOR to fire tenured faculty without any particular explanation. He sold it as grand plan in “workforce management,” dismissing incremental approaches to re-developing ESU as insufficient. Perhaps Hush sees this as an ideological win over a bunch of supposed radicals weighing down the efficient, education-to-job, libertarian machine that he perhaps imagines that ESU could or should otherwise be, but he's deeply misinformed. In practice tenure—which varies greatly from one institution to another—doesn’t promise faculty any kind of lifetime promise of intellectual isolation from the pressures and shifts of the educational landscape. Rather, by providing a degree of job protection (like due process guarantees that they will not be hurriedly or arbitrarily terminated, not unlike the job protections enjoyed by police officers, fire fighters, public school teachers, and many more), tenure enables those with the necessary expertise to take the time to build creative, lasting connections in the midst of students’ ever-changing educational needs and situations. A building which Hush’s decision has now made harder at ESU, crossing a line which Kansas higher education really can’t afford to break.

In our slow-growth state, tenure is probably best understood as one of several policies that makes more likely--for at least some, anyway--the sort of job security and intellectual stability which is necessary if committed faculty, those who choose to root themselves in the particular, sometimes shrinking, Kansas communities their various institutions serve, are to develop a real connection to both their students and the diverse topics of study which can bless their lives. Emporia State did that, in teacher education, in library science, and much more, just as Fort Hays and Pittsburg State and my own Friends University also do so, in their own specific ways. One can only hope that ESU will be able to continue to provide some of that unique service to those Kansas students who need it—but it will be harder now, and that’s a shame.

Monday, September 19, 2022

A Comic (But Not Comical) Take on Mormon History

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

As an intellectually-inclined, book-obsessed, life-long member of the Mormon Church, I have read many histories of my religion. I’ve read so many, in fact, that unfortunately I sometimes forget that such histories aren’t necessarily being written for knowledgeable believers like myself, and I end up criticizing them for getting some small detail wrong or for skipping over some academic controversy, forgetting that the purpose of good histories is to tell a story, one that draws you in. And when it comes to telling a story about a religious movement, presenting something compelling is essential, because if the story-teller can’t convey the circumstances or the feeling that drew people into the faith in the first place, the history can’t succeed at all.

All of that is to say that I wish I had been able to get over my intellectual pre-occupations and more fully enjoy the amazing accomplishment of Noah Van Sciver’s JosephSmith and the Mormons–a wonderfully researched and captivatingly (and sometimes quite beautifully) drawn graphic novel when I first read it. Across more than 400 pages, Sciver presents an unconventional telling of the 19th-century, frontier American beginnings of the faith he was raised in, departed long ago, but has maintained a curiosity about and a confused sympathy for ever since. The tale it tells is mostly straightforward; it emphasizes some characters who rarely get much attention in typical Mormon histories, mostly bypasses some of the most intriguing beats in the story of Mormonism, and some might even argue that it is overly apologetic in its treatment of Joseph Smith. But as a literary whole, it needs to be acknowledged as a history as solid as many more scholarly ones, something I didn’t appreciate at first.

But given that most readers won’t be engaging this book in scholarly terms, let’s focus on its artwork and its comic method. As a work of visual story-telling, the novel–which Sciver worked on for years–is stunning in its craft, even if you’re not a fan of the purposefully rough, earthy, stylized naturalism of his drawings. Most impressively, Sciver chose to never insert himself in the panels as an omniscient narrator. Instead, whether he was introducing the historical actors of his story (beginning with Smith himself, whom he depicts as a hard-working, religiously sensitive young man with a weirdly magnetic personality, busy contributing to his family through difficult labor and occasional treasure hunting) or providing transitions as the locations change (the books follows the community formed around Smith’s revelations, particularly the Book of Mormon, as it moved–sometimes due to persecution, sometimes due to self-induced financial calamities–from New York to Ohio to Missouri to, ultimately, Nauvoo), every panel is either a stand-alone visual or includes dialogue between characters, most of which are well attested within existing historical records. (In a concluding section, Sciver lists the works of history and biography that most guided his research into the conversations and conflicts that he builds his story around.) Thus, as an artistic and historical story-telling project alone, especially in capturing the crude sectarian violence and near-Pentecostal religious passion which characterized the early years of Smith’s religion-building, as well as the sense of holiness and deliverance it promised, Sciver’s work deserves great praise.

Consider these examples, taken from Sciver’s own website. First, a depiction of the moment, soon after the founding of the church, when Smith was tarred and feathered, in the attempt to get him to abandon his visions and get out of town:


Next, a series of panels dramatizing Smith’s preaching, as he uses the story later related in the Book of Moses to provide an inspiring history of, and prophesied future for, the world:


Finally, Sciver’s haunting artistic recreation of the notorious reading of Smith’s revelation on plural marriage to Emma Smith (whom Sciver depicts as a long-suffering, tragic believer in her husband’s promises and revelations):

Those looking for panels exposing Joseph Smith as con-artist will be disappointed, as will those looking to see him discoursing faithfully with angels. Sciver’s style is to bring to life that which his contemporaries, both believers and enemies, said about Smith and his words, and his choices are intriguing. The inner life he is able to visually grant to Emma is touching, and his treatment of Bennett led me to feel like I could partly understand his motivations, and that's no small accomplishment.

In sum, there are many fine scholarly histories of Mormonism out there, but not nearly as many books which effectively tell the story of the beginning of Mormonism in a way which respects the appeal which enabled it to emerge from those early years and become the major religious institution it is today, an institution that, for all its many flaws, is still adhered to by people like me. Sciver’s comic shows a compassionate curiosity about those people, and for that he has my thanks.

Biden's "Soul of the Nation" Speech, Take 2

[This is a rewritten version of a post of mine from two weeks ago, which this morning appears on the website Current. My thanks to Eric Miller for editing and focusing my ramblings down, kind of in the way I hoped to do for Biden's necessary but definitely-not-first-rate speech.]

President Biden never used the word fascism in his “Soul of the Nation” speech in Philadelphia on September 1. But considering the outrage many supporters of Donald Trump expressed at the speech, particularly focusing on its (poorly chosen) staging and imagery, perhaps he might as well have. At a fundraiser he had already expressed his opinion that “the entire philosophy” motivating Trump and those Biden called “MAGA Republicans” is “like semi-fascism,” and considering the way Trump’s cult of personality operates, that label, as John Fea recently pointed out, makes a certain amount of sense. As for those who denounced the speech as divisive and confused (some of them saying so even before the speech was actually given), they likely would have responded that way no matter what terminology Biden had used to describe the authoritarian threat posed by Trump and his followers.

My own guess is that Biden avoided formally using the word “fascism” because of the recent short seminar he convened to discuss threats to democracy, which no doubt included many reminders of the complex crosscurrents in American history. But given the unfortunately rambling nature of Biden’s speech, the suspicion of some of Biden’s opponents that he simply forgot to use an f-word he clearly believes applies to them is plausible. 

What isn’t plausible, though, is dismissing Biden’s specific accusations, whatever label they did or did not invoke, as logically incoherent. On the contrary, they build upon each other well.

Biden made three key claims: (1) “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution.” (2) “They do not believe in the rule of law.” (3) “They do not recognize the will of the people.” 

Given the social media-induced ignorance of our moment, the substantive accuracy of the events and actions to which these claims refer could be endlessly contested. And it’s true that Biden’s unnecessarily partisan praise for various Democratic legislative priorities probably incentivized such contestation. Still, in terms of political theory, his claims fit together well. They effectively situate Biden’s own position regarding these threats to our democracy. 

First, consider the matter of “respecting the Constitution.” Biden’s critics are quick to turn this accusation against him, most recently for his constitutionally debatable student loan forgiveness order, insisting that Biden’s actions show a presumptuous level of Constitutional disregard. In response, one can point to the anti-democratic stance Trump and his supporters regularly took when asserting that while president Trump could legitimately claim near-total executive authority. 

But maybe it’s best to back up a pace or two and pose another question: What does it mean to “respect” the Constitution, anyway? 

It can’t simply mean adhering to its specific text. In his 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval, Thomas Jefferson himself mocked those who “look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.” Jefferson suggested instead that “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” In today’s words, that might be called a “living” or a “progressive” understanding of the Constitution. Presumably the overwhelming majority of MAGA Republicans would denounce such a position, while many in President Biden’s party would embrace it. But if you accept that interpretations of the Constitution can and should change, what are the grounds for a charge of disrespect?

Thinkers like Sheldon Wolin provide some guidance here. Wolin saw government constitutions in what might be called “performative” terms, as repositories of the democratic tension between, on the one hand, a contractual basis for the ordering of the people who live in a particular place and have some kind of imagined community with each other (i.e., a demos), and, on the other, the practices, rituals, and norms that appropriately embody the operational details of that contract. This means that our understanding of what counts as an acceptable constitutional performance—from issuing executive orders to accepting the certification of Electoral College votes—is not necessarily identical with the legal specifics of the contract itself. Which is why saying that something is “legal but unconstitutional”—or the reverse—is not at all incoherent. It also is why getting hung up on fine constitutional distinctions when confronted with a chief executive and party leader whose performance is explicitly contemptuous of the law is missing the forest for the trees.

Far from “believing in the rule of law,” consider how cavalier Trump has always been about following the rules. This is not just clearly evidenced by his entire career as a liar and a grifter but has been explicitly demonstrated most recently by everything the FBI has compiled about his theft of classified documents, which is just the latest controversy du jour for him. It’s true that cynicism about the fungibility of the law once lawyers get involved is hard to avoid. But that frustration should not be allowed to mask the Nixon-level “when the president does it, it is not illegal” hubris that was on display throughout the Trump administration and that—with Trump’s talk of pardoning insurrectionists and presidential reinstatement—he continues to traffic in. Biden’s claims were, if anything, not emphatic enough in calling out the MAGA Republican core. To actually not think that today, post-January 6, a portion of the Trumpist Republican party has become accepting of a degree of outright criminality, as Representative Liz Cheney and other (not nearly enough) Republicans have warned, defies comprehension. One can take issue with the pathologies that an over-reliance on the law produces and yet not drink so much “own-the-libs” Kool-Aid as to forget that the admittedly bourgeois, procedural ends the law often serves—in this case, the smooth transfer of power—are extremely valuable and worth preserving.

Obviously election laws are key here, which is where “recognizing the will of the people” comes in. Yes, the Electoral College, both in its original design and its subsequent jerry-rigging over the centuries, is a frustrating mess, and certainly not anything that can be said to represent the people’s will, at least not since aristocratic notions of a republican common good, vouchsafed by local state-appointed elites, were surpassed by the democratic appeal of pluralistic party politics in the first decades of the nineteenth century. But nonetheless, given the Electoral College’s current place in America’s electoral system, citizens with any respect for the representative process—something Trump, with his frivolous lawsuits and harassing post-election phone calls to election officials and state governors, purposefully tried to suppress—should be obliged to acknowledge the political checks and balances that have been woven, however imperfectly, into its procedures. In January 2021, 147 Republicans did not, to their shame; that many apparently feel the same today is reason enough for Biden’s speech. 

You don’t need a carefully constructed definition of fascism with an accompanying media campaign to follow the thread of Biden’s accusations against Donald Trump and his most deluded followers. There have always been, and always will be, those who take issue with aspects of America’s still imperfect representative democracy from a variety of ideological directions. But a movement of millions challenging the legitimacy of American elections in such Constitutionally disrespectful, legally dismissive, and democratically destructive ways is something that, thankfully, we have not often had to face. We are facing it now. However stumblingly President Biden sometimes makes his points, he’s not wrong at all.

Friday, September 02, 2022

On Constitutions, Democracy, Fascism, and Biden's Big Plea

"It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire [extreme MAGA] philosophy that underpins [it]….it’s like semi-fascism."

Biden did not say those words in his “Soul of the Nation” speech in Philadelphia last night; contrary to the expectations of some, the word “fascism” made no appearance whatsoever. But he did say them at a fundraiser last week, and you’d have to be a complete pedant to look at a speech where the President of the United States calls out Donald Trump by name, and states that he and his closest MAGA followers “do not respect the Constitution….do not believe in the rule of law….[and] do not recognize the will of the people,” and not see an accusation of the former president and his cult as, at the very least fascist-adjacent. Borrowing from my far more consistently radical friend Matt Stannard, I agreed back in 2020 that Trump was an “incipient fascist figurehead.” In the wake of the many revelations about his equanimity about, if not outright support for, the January 6 attack on the Capitol building, I think he still is, so I am delighted that Biden has more or less said so, whatever the dangers of that rhetoric may be. Words matter, after all, Trump’s most assuredly.

I wouldn’t blog if I wasn’t at least somewhat pedantic at heart myself, though, so let me throw out this: at the heart of Biden’s condemnation of Trump and the MAGA movement as fascist-adjacent is his claim, as I wrote above, of their not respecting the U.S. Constitution, not respecting the rule of law, and not respecting the will of the people, and those three accusations--while obviously, especially as an ordinary matter of practice in the United States of America in 2022, having significant overlap—are not entirely contiguous with each other, either historically or theoretically. So partly as a critique of Biden’s fine-if-not-excellent speech, but mostly as hopefully a support to it, let me say something—one long point, and then two briefer ones—about each of those, for anyone who cares.

As regards the U.S. Constitution, there are plenty of people who believe it’s essentially holy writ—as Thomas Jefferson himself snarkily put it in his famous 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval, there are those who “look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.” Jefferson didn’t agree, and--as I’ve explained in my local Kansas context, where the Republican super-majority in Topeka has lately been rather quick to jump on constitutional explanations for and responses to political developments they don’t like--neither do I. While he firmly opposed “frequent and untried changes in laws,” Jefferson argued that, in the end “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” In other words, as people learn and grow and change, their constitutions necessarily should too.

Obviously, this is an argument for a "living" or a "progressive" understanding of the constitutions have emerged, over the past few centuries, as the primary governmental foundations for liberal capitalist societies (and, thanks to globalization and/or Western imperialism, much of the non-liberal, non-capitalism world as well). Making use of the writings of Sheldon Wolin as I have before, I would prefer to call this a "performative" understanding of constitutions, which sees them as (sometimes intentional, more often unintentional) repositories of the democratic tension between, on the one hand, a contractual basis for the ordering of the demos, the people who live in a particular place and have some kind of imagined community with each other, and on the other hand, the practices, rituals, and norms which are seen as appropriately embodying the operational details of that contract. What this means is that our understanding of or expectations for what counts as an acceptable constitutional performance can get legitimately away from the legal specifics of the contract itself. Which is why saying that something is “legal, but unconstitutional” is, in my opinion, not at all incoherent, and why accusations of acting unconstitutionally (plenty of which can be, have been, and should continue to be made against Trump, but which can also, I think, be brought mostly justifiably against pretty much every other President of the United States in my lifetime) shouldn’t be so much an occasion for a total political freak-out as a reminder that constitutions should often be adjusted to reflect the democratic will contained, however imperfectly, within contemporary legislative action. (The TLDR version of the above paragraph: while I agree that parliamentarianism has many problems, I don’t think it has nearly as many as America’s currently quite dysfunctional attempts at constitutional democracy does.)

Of course, neither former President Trump nor, to my knowledge, any of his most active and obvious MAGA cronies have seriously talked about constitutional reforms relevant to anything I’ve just written here, and despite regularly paying my Democratic Socialists of America dues, I have to say I’m still very much on the side of the old leftists who I think cogently argued against many DSA members back in 2020 that there is no democratic upside to whatever constitutional destruction Trump’s incompetence and norm-shattering may “accidentally” achieve. So when it comes to MAGA Republicans “not respecting the Constitution,” while I don’t consider that in itself necessarily a fascist-adjacent horror (I mean, if it was, then strictly speaking Jefferson was arguably fascist-adjacent too), the manner of their disrespect for it is not at all constructive and democratically empowering, but is something to be frightened of instead.

The reasons why that fear is justified, and thus the real reasons why Biden’s accusations are appropriate, comes in the two other accusations he bundles with the one about not respecting the U.S. Constitution: not respecting the rule of law, and not respecting the outcome of elections. That Trump has been, at best, cavalier about adhering to the law, and often downright contemptuous of doing so, is not just clearly evidenced by his entire career as a grifter and a liar, but has been explicitly demonstrated by everything the FBI has compiled about his theft of classified documents, which honestly is just the latest controversy du jour for him. At this point, I really think the only way anyone can coherently not admit that Trump’s presidency was absolutely an incidence of democratically dangerous, Nixon-level “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal” hubris, is to simply admit to themselves that they are an utter Deep State paranoiac and start making plans immediately to move to southwestern Montana, stop paying taxes, get off the grid entirely, and begin drilling with their (probably mostly white supremacist) friends for what they must clearly hope will be a new, violent revolution very soon. I can imagine someone coherently arguing “well, that actually describes every president ever—they’re all power-mad crooks, most especially our current one--so I guess I’ll just tough it out under the boot-heel of tyranny right where I aml”; I think that conclusion is stupid and nigh-impossible to defend, but at least it’s coherent. But to go forward not thinking, post-January 6, that Trump and at least a significant minority of his MAGA followers are accepting of illegality and dishonesty and corruption? To not accept—and, in fact, for ideological reasons be at peace with— the charge that Trump has transformed of much of the Republican party into apologists for criminality, as Representative Liz Cheney and other (though not nearly enough) Republicans have warned? That’s just, once again, really damn dangerous. One can—and I think should—have serious philosophical concerns, whether from a libertarian or a radical democratic or an anarchist perspective (and I definitely am sympathetic to at least the latter two), with the pathologies that an over-reliance on the coerciveness of law produces, and yet not drink so much own-the-libs Kool-Aid as to forget that the admittedly often bourgeois ends which the law, in its clumsy majesty, serves are actually pretty valuable, and worth preserving.

And that, of course, means election laws as well. This is getting to the point that I’m repeating myself, so let me just wrap it up with this: do I think the Electoral College, as a means of determining which individual should be invested with presidential authority under our constitutional system, kind of sucks? Yes, I absolutely do think so. I wish it were entirely scrapped. (But I also wish our country, indeed the whole world, were governed by 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, and if wishes were ponies, we’d all be Belle Warring.) But in any case, given its current place in America’s electoral system, any person with an at-least-grudging respect for the rule of law--and more importantly, I think, any desire to not see mostly mindlessly constitutional-norm-trashing grifters violently stay in power, or at least stay politically relevant, despite what the elections results clearly said—ought to pay more attention to the political process of representative democracy it is woven into, something which back in early 2021, to their shame, 147 Republicans refused to do. Which is why, after a lot of (I think mostly irrelevant and politically questionable) legislative boasting, Biden’s concluding focus on the elections two months from now was absolutely on point:

Our task is to make our nation free and fair, just and strong, noble and whole. And this work is the work of democracy—the work of this generation.  It is the work of our time, for all time. We can’t afford to have…anyone on the sidelines.  We need everyone to do their part.  So speak up.  Speak out.  Get engaged.  Vote, vote, vote!

And if we all do our duty—if we do our duty in 2022 and beyond, then ages still to come [people] will say we—all of us here—we kept the faith.  We preserved democracy. We…heeded not our worst instincts, but our better angels.  And we proved that, for all its imperfections, America is still the beacon to the world, an ideal to be realized, a promise to be kept.
There is nothing more important, nothing more sacred, nothing more American.  That’s our soul.  That’s who we truly are.  And that’s who…we must always be.

Do I love these kinds of constitutional myths about America exceptionalism? Substantively, no. But as a matter of political rhetoric, as a tool to encourage engagement with our flawed democratic processes, and most importantly engagement with our flawed fellow citizens (a description which most assuredly includes myself and anyone who reads this)? Actually, I think I kind of do love them. Because I think they convey necessary truths. Pay attention to our President, everyone. Last night in Philadelphia, he was speaking truth, sometimes clumsily and un-eloquently, to a dangerous power, and it’s not often that the leader of an imperial state can honestly do that. (Thank goodness.)