Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Beloved Community

I've been rereading Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, in which Robert Bellah et al. write of the challenges posed to America by our culture's elevation of rugged individualism to the highest peak of social value. This book first appeared in 1985, but I'm reading its second edition, from 1996, in which a new introduction refines the authors' argument that we Americans desperately need to be more communitarian — but only if "community" is understood in a "broad and deep enough" way.

Robert N. Bellah
(From here on, I'll refer to the author of the book as simply "Bellah," even though Mr. Bellah has four additional co-authors.)

"Community" is a word which Bellah maintains has, in our cultural and political discourse, been used too narrowly to signify just "face-to-face groups formed by the voluntary efforts of individuals." Examples: volunteering for soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels. That aspect of communitarianism is good, but Bellah says it's not good enough:

... we do not believe that the deep structural problems that we face as a society can be effectively alleviated by an increase in devotion to community in this narrow sense. We would agree that an increase in the voluntary commitments of individuals can over the long haul increase our social capital and thus add to the resources we can bring to bear on our problems. But to get at the roots of our problems these resources sources must be used to overcome institutional difficulties that cannot be directly addressed by voluntary action alone.

(Social capital? It's a term academics use to quantify, in the words of Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson here, "the ability of people to work and play together — to cooperate and connect with others." Bellah hopes Americans can reverse our decades-long decline in social capital, a topic which forms a large part of the subject matter of his book.)

Bellah feels "narrow" communitarianism on a very local scale encourages people to join only homogenous groups of other folks who are just like themselves. Bellah disparages that kind of homogenous, localized communitarianism as insufficient to the needs of the larger society. He's right ... but he's also wrong, I think, to be so negative about something that can bring us out of our solipsistic, overly individualized selves.

The problem is not soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels, or (in my own particular case) volunteering to drive local seniors to supermarkets and medical appointments. The problem is whether or not the people who volunteer bring the right spiritual orientation to their endeavor.

Indeed, Bellah later in his introduction echoes my own thinking when he says, "Any community short of the universal community is not the beloved community." This sentence, which could be seen as a mantra for the entire book, is packed with significance. It comes just when Bellah, urging us to renew our common "civic membership," cites the example of Jesus. In chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked "Who is my neighbor?" — inasmuch as he has just commanded his disciples (Luke 10:27) to "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus responds to this question with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Bellah writes:

... the true neighbor turns out to be a Samaritan, a member of a group despised in Israel. It is not that Jesus didn't think that a person living next door, or an inhabitant of one's own village, or a member of one's own ethnic group could be a neighbor. But when asked directly, he identified the neighbor as a stranger, an alien, a member of a hated ethnic group.

Martin Luther King Jr.
The "right" spiritual orientation, I'd accordingly say, is one which brings all of closer to realizing the "beloved community." This is what Jesus taught, and it's also what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught:

For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. 
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Amen to all that!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

David Brooks on "The Strange Persistence of Guilt"

David Brooks
I've decided to accept New York Times columnist David Brooks as my prime spiritual guru these days (second only, that is, to Pope Francis). Of all the op-ed contributors that I habitually read in The Times and The Washington Post, he's the one who most consistently hits the nail on the head when it comes to relating our current political, economic, and cultural woes to flaws in our moral and spiritual outlooks.

A case in point is his recent column "The Strange Persistence of Guilt." If we live, as we say we do, in a post-religion, post-sin, post-guilt world today, he asks why our behavior betrays the lingering presence of so much guilt in our minds and lives. Brooks writes:

... society has become a free-form demolition derby of moral confrontation: the cold-eyed fanaticism of students at Middlebury College and other campuses nationwide; the rage of the alt-right; holy wars over transgender bathrooms; the furious intensity at every town-hall meeting on every subject.

How can this be, he wonders, if our adverted cultural posture today is this:

With no common criteria by which to judge moral action [we've] all become blandly nonjudgmental — sort of chill, pluralistic versions of Snoop Dogg: You do you and I’ll do me and we’ll all be cool about it. Whatever feels right.

And his explanation for this conundrum is:

... we’re still driven by an inextinguishable need to feel morally justified. Our thinking is still vestigially shaped by religious categories.

I agree, even if my thinking parts company slightly with Brooks when he writes:

We have words and emotional instincts about what feels right and wrong, but no settled criteria to help us think, argue and decide. ...  we have no clear framework or set of rituals to guide us in our quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.

Not precisely true, I'd maintain. As a Catholic, every time I go to church I am reminded of a "formula for redemption" that many of us humans have believed in for 2,000 years. I don't deny that this formula has been called into doubt over the course of the last several centuries of human history. I do realize that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in the nineteenth century that God is dead. But, as the Wilfred McClay essay "The Strange Persistence of Guilt" in the Hedgehog Review — a paper which David Brooks draws his title and inspiration from — says, "With God dead, all would indeed be permitted." That permissiveness was a welcome thing, in Nietzsche's view.

Yet today, per Brooks, all is not permitted. Instead, we're still seeking moral justifications in our lives and culture. Accordingly:

The only reliable way to feel morally justified in [our] culture is to assume the role of victim. ... this move takes all moral striving and it politicizes it. Instead of seeing moral struggle as something between you and God (the religious version) or as something that happens between the good and evil within yourself (the classical version), moral struggle now happens primarily between groups. 
We see events through the lens of moral Marxism, as a class or ethnic struggle between the evil oppressor and the supposedly innocent oppressed. The moral narrative of colonialism is applied to every situation. The concept of inherited sin is back in common currency, only these days we call it “privilege.”

When the students at Middlebury lashed out against political scientist Charles Murray, they were professing empathy with those of their fellow humans who'd long suffered victimhood, I'd say. Murray is one of the authors of a controversial book, The Bell Curve, that claims that African Americans have lower I.Q.'s than other racial groups. So the Middlebury students, many of them white, were, in the mode of understanding of David Brooks, offloading some of their own (perhaps unacknowledged) cultural guilt.

Students at Middlebury College protested
the appearance of Charles Murray.

While Brooks says we have "no settled criteria" to help us think, argue and decide matters of morality and guilt, I'd say we actually have too many sets of moral criteria rattling around in our culture today. Some come from the various faiths and religious denominations that have historically formed threads of the fabric of our culture. One of these religious threads is my own Roman Catholicism. But many of the threads today come out of the realm of secularism that has been on the ascendant in the West at least since the time of Nietzsche.

These various sets of moral criteria are, not surprisingly, in agreement about any number of things — such as, for example, the immorality of murder. But they disagree, often violently, about the validity of other moral prescriptions — such as, for example, about whether abortion is murder.

Disagreements among religions and even among secularists over moral prescriptions is one reason why, I believe, recent polls show that around 20 percent of American adults are "nones," claiming no identification with any particular religion.

Many of the "nones" self-identify, nonetheless, as "spiritual." Even though I may feel the need to grit my teeth as I say this — since I am a member of an organized religion, the Catholic Church — I'd like to think this is a hopeful sign that a spiritual renaissance is possible in America today. Not only is there, as David Brooks points out, an ongoing presence of a sense of guilt in our lives, there is also an abiding presence of spirit. We need that spiritual presence if we are to stop making a hash of our political, economic, social, cultural, and moral lives today.

Monday, June 05, 2017

David Brooks on "The Four American Narratives"

New York Times op-ed contributor David Brooks — my favorite columnist — recently wrote about "The Four American Narratives." He said that they are one of the main reasons we are so divided politically.

There are four of these stories, Brooks says:

  1. The libertarian narrative.
  2. The narrative of globalized America.
  3. The story of multicultural America.
  4. The narrative of America First.

The libertarian narrative is all about "the dynamism of the free market" and values freedom above all other things. It is, says Brooks, the story that "America is a land of free individuals responsible for their own fate." Yet Brooks cites this from a speech by writer George Packer: "the libertarian idea in its current shape regards Americans as consumers, entrepreneurs, workers, taxpayers — indeed everything except citizens."

There is also in today's Republican mix President Trump's America First insistence, about which Brooks quotes Packer: “America First is the conviction that the country has lost its traditional identity because of contamination and weakness — the contamination of others, foreigners, immigrants, Muslims; the weakness of elites who have no allegiance to the country because they’ve been globalized.”

We liberals and progressives prefer globalized America and multicultural America. The former, per Packer, "comes with an exhilarating ideology of flattening hierarchies, disrupting systems, discarding old elites and empowering individuals." Yet, per Brooks, "when you disrupt old structures you end up concentrating power in fewer hands." The idea of concentrating power in fewer and fewer hands is, or should be, offensive to us liberals and progressives. And this puts us on the left in a serious bind, since we progressives are generally on the side of globalism, trade associations, and internationalism.

In multicultural America, we see (says Packer) "Americans as members of groups, whose status is largely determined by the sins of the past and present. ... During the Obama years it became a largely unexamined dogma among cultural elites." Hence this narrative specifically alienates many non-elite voters who helped put Trump over the top in 2016. Thus it is not likely to be a narrative that puts Democrats back in power.

So none of these four narratives can unify us as a nation. The libertarian outlook devalues the obligations that citizens have to each other and to the republic. America First devalues the obligations America has to the rest of the world, e.g., by snuffing out rather than fostering pacts that address climate change. The globalism narrative saps individuals' control over their own lives and destinies by putting power in the hands of a shrinking few. Multiculturalism tends to pit America's social groups against one another.


Brooks proposes that we instead look to "Michael Lind’s fascinating essay 'The New Class War'" for guidance. We ought now to consider the following two "models":

  • The mercantilist model.
  • The model of "the talented community."

The first of these, the mercantilist model, Brooks suggests, is wholly inadequate and inappropriate. It

... sees America not as the culmination of history but as one major power in competition with rival powers, like China, Russia, Europe and so on. In this, to be American is to be a member of the tribe, and the ideal American is the burly protector of his tribe. America’s government and corporations should work closely together to “protect our jobs” and beat back rival powers. Immigration and trade should be closely controlled and foreign entanglements reduced. 

Sound familiar? Hello, Donald Trump! The "talented community" model, Brooks believes, is the right way to go:

This story sees America as history’s greatest laboratory for the cultivation of human abilities. This model welcomes diversity, meritocracy, immigration and open trade for all the dynamism these things unleash. But this model also invests massively in human capital, especially the young and those who suffer from the downsides of creative destruction. In this community, the poor boy and girl are enmeshed in care and cultivation. Everything is designed to arouse energy and propel social mobility.

I'm inclined to agree. Yet I see our current cultural problems — and, therefore, our political and economic ones — as running far deeper than those things which can be addressed just by adopting policies designed to facilitate this "talented community" of ours. Yes, diversity, meritocracy, immigration and open trade are all good things. Investing massively in human capital is both necessary and good. But we need to address something more fundamental: our increasing tendency toward selfishness.


David Brooks talks about the bitter fruits of President Trump's own personal selfishness in his column "Donald Trump Poisons the World." Referring to the notion "that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs," he calls it "the epitome of the Trump project." Trump's own "core worldview," says Brooks, is that "life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance."

Put another way, the idea that epitomizes Trump is that life is a vast zero-sum game. The only way we can win is for our adversaries to lose. This is true in sports, contests of strength, war, and Texas Hold'em poker. It is not, however, generally true. Rather, life on earth and human civilizations have advanced by playing positive-nonzero-sum games in which win-win scenarios can be, and are, brought to fruition. (See the book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright.)

The selfishness that goes with playing zero-sum, winners-vs.-losers games pervades our popular culture, though. We see it in such phenomena as our addiction to the dystopian Hunger Games novels and films. Most of our thinking about economic matters is suffused in such a jealous, if-they-win-I-lose belief system. And this kind of selfish thinking even pervades our romantic lives today — witness, say, the growth of "revenge porn."


So, back to "The Four American Narratives." In it, David Brooks talks of our erstwhile "unifying national story" as:

... an Exodus story. It was the story of leaving the oppressions of the Old World, venturing into a wilderness and creating a new promised land. In this story, America was the fulfillment of human history, the last best hope of earth. That story rested upon an amazing level of national self-confidence. It was an explicitly Judeo-Christian story, built on a certain view of God’s providential plan.
Brooks is here summarizing (and to an extent giving up on) an earlier column, "The Unifying American Story." Giving up? I'm afraid so, inasmuch as Brooks writes:

... that civic mythology no longer unifies. American confidence is in tatters and we live in a secular culture. As a result, we’re suffering through a national identity crisis. Different groups see themselves living out different national stories and often feel they are living in different nations.

The immigrant groups that built America, Brooks's earlier column says, "could endure every hardship because they were serving in a spiritual drama and not just a financial one."

Financial dramas are often win-win. As Michael Douglas's character Gordon Gekko says in the movie Wall Street:

... greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.

However, spiritual dramas are characterized by positive-nonzero-sum outcomes. The term "religion" comes from a Latin root that means "obligation, bond, reverence." In spiritual dramas, we are bound together in a mutual all-for-one-and-one-for-all philosophy. The rise of civilization has involved (see Robert Wright's book) manifesting just such an all-encompassing philosophy.

Hence, if we continue to lose our spirituality, we are in grave danger of losing our civilization.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Senate Democrats Should Not Block the Gorsuch Nomination!

President Donald Trump has nominated federal judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court spot vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia last year.

Trump shakes hands with Gorsuch

Progressive op-ed writers E.J. Dionne Jr. ("It’s time to make Republicans pay for their supreme hypocrisy") and Eugene Robinson ("Fighting Gorsuch is hopeless. Democrats should do it anyway") say Senate Democrats should block the Gorsuch nomination, just as Senate Republicans blocked President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the same seat.

To block the Gorsuch nomination, Senate Democrats would have to mount a filibuster when the nomination came to the full Senate for a vote. They don't have a majority in the Senate, the way the Republicans did when they blocked Garland by declining to hold a committee hearing on him, so simply refusing to hold a committee hearing on Gorsuch is not an option for them.

If the Democrats filibustered, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) could exercise the "nuclear option" to terminate requiring 60 votes in the full Senate to approve any Supreme Court nomination. Then the 52 Republicans in that body could vote Gorsuch in over the votes of the 48 senators who caucus with the Democrats.

I think it would be hypocritical for Democrats who object to the Republicans' blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination to turn right around and do the same thing to Gorsuch. Both sides ought to seek to renew our customary norms political life, not add fuel to the fire that has been consuming it lately.

Mr. Dionne says, "The Garland case was only a particularly egregious example of what we have to fear even more of in the months to come. The road to the outrages we are seeing from Trump was paved by his party’s violation of long-standing norms." I say two wrongs don't make a right. If Democrats turn around and violate long-standing norms just because Republicans did so last year, it just adds one more nail to those august norms' coffin. We Democrats don't need to turn our political struggles into playground brawls. Especially when so doing will not (despite what Mr. Robinson seems to think) help us sway voters in red states, which is what we need to focus on now.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Post-Women's March Activism In Store

Millions marched in the Women's March on Washington in January, along with sister marches in various cities and towns, to advocate for various progressive causes and to rebuke newly-sworn-in President Donald Trump.

Will all that energy funnel into something significant in our political life? According to "United by post-inauguration marches, Democratic women plan to step up activism" in the February 2nd Washington Post, yes. A new poll finds that:

... 40 percent of Democratic women say they will become more involved in political causes this year, compared with 25 percent of Americans more broadly and 27 percent of Democratic men. Nearly half of liberal Democrats also say they will become more politically active, as do 43 percent of Democrats younger than 50.

This is good news!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Women's March and the Resistance

The Women's March on Washington (Facebook page here) that took place the day after Donald J. ("The Audacity of Grope") Trump's inauguration as president will be the beginning of the end for Trumpism. 500,000 marchers on the National Mall were augmented by sister demonstrations in cities and towns all over America and around the world. The total number of demonstrators in the U.S. came to at least 2,000,000. Around the world, up to 4.5 million.

New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks is wrong in his January 24 column, "After the Women’s March." He says the movement that the Women's March embodied will come to nothing because it lacks "the discipline of party politics." Movements, he says, sometimes lead to social change. The civil rights movement did so. But most movements "devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism."

He's wrong about that. That isn't going to happen this time, simply because Trump is so odious. He represents such a threat to the marchers, their loved ones, and their various causes that they will organize anti-Trump resistance over the long haul and from the ground up. They will use social media and leverage their online presence, but they will also keep up the personal, face-to-face contacts that began at the marches and demonstrations. If they don't, the alternative is just too dire.

The reason David Brooks is wrong is that he is viewing all this from the point of view of the old paradigm, the one in which party politics was the royal road to change. That used to be so, but this is a new paradigm. The new paradigm began with Trump's campaign and election. Trump sidestepped the old paradigm entirely. He won, not the popular vote but the electoral vote. He's now living in the White House.

Meanwhile, there's real doubt about the future of the Democratic Party. Unless the spirit and symbolism of the Women's March can infuse itself into the Democrats, the party is doomed. I think that spirit will infuse itself into the party, as motivated marchers get involved in local and state politics. This is like what happened with the Tea Party and the Republicans early in the Obama administration — only it's much, much bigger.

Monday, January 23, 2017

"Pussy Power"

January 20, 2017: The new president, Donald Trump, gets sworn in at the National Mall. The crowd is sparse (about 160.000) compared with that for President Obama (about 1.8 million) in 2009:

Comparing Two Inauguration

January 21, 2017: The Women's March on Washington draws a much bigger crowd — at least 500,000 — to the National Mall:

The Turnout at the Women's March
on Washington

Most of the marchers are women and girls, but there are also men and boys. There are satellite women's marches in other U.S. cities and towns, and all around the world. The total number of marchers overall is in excess of 2 million. Many of the marchers wear knitted pink "pussyhats":

"Pussyhats" for "Pussy Power"

Symbolizing "pussy power," the hats are in response to candidate Trump's having bragged about groping women's genitals.


According to the Washington Post:

The size of the gathering proved challenging. The audio from sound system did not reach everyone in the massive crowd, and far more portable toilets were needed.

When the toilets behind the stage broke down, security instructed women to use cups and ushered them into a box truck for privacy.

“I’m afraid to shake anyone’s hand,” one woman joked.

Thus did a march for "pussy power" morph into a march for "potty power" as well.


Handshaking was key at the Women's March. Women from all over the country were meeting one another for the first time. They were organizing themselves into a permanent force in support of women's rights, LGBT rights, immigrants' rights, and more — and against the presidency of Donald Trump.

New York Times writer David Brooks' column of January 20 tells why the march's importance exceeded even that ambitious agenda:

Some on the left worry that we are seeing the rise of fascism, a new authoritarian age. That gets things exactly backward. The real fear in the Trump era should be that everything will become disorganized, chaotic, degenerate, clownish and incompetent.

The real fear should be that Trump is Captain Chaos, the ignorant dauphin of disorder. All the standard practices, norms, ways of speaking and interacting will be degraded and shredded. The political system and the economy will grind to a battered crawl. ...

If Trump’s opponents behave as clownishly as he does ... the whole government will get further delegitimized. But if people redouble their commitment to constitutional norms and practices, to substance and dignity, this thing is survivable.

Already you see the political system uniting to contain Trump.

The Women's March was an example of the political system organizing from the ground up to "build a wall" — specifically, a wall around Trump.