I’m worried about the Yellowstone Super Volcano. Just in general. There were some reports recently that we’re overdue for an eruption, which is pretty scary and also inaccurate hyperbolic click-bait according to experts. Still, there’s a 4000 cubic kilometer chamber of magma and gas trapped under Yellowstone National Park. It wouldn’t be that scary if I didn’t have kids, but when you have kids you go a little bit crazy.
Normally I worry about things that directly impact my life, over which I may have some degree of control. But the super volcano looms out there in the distance, in Wyoming, threatening to kill us all at a moment’s notice.
Why worry about it then? Why this generalized worry instead of my normal personalized anxiety?
Because of Trump.
He’s an apocalyptic figure. I’ve maintained this since the beginning of his insane primary campaign. Remember when he stood on stage with 14 or 15 other GOP candidates and told us all that the other guys on stage with him were up for the highest bidder? Well, he wasn’t wrong. He revealed something to us—he said it starkly and without the niceties that makes the poison shilled out by career politicians go down so smooth. If he wasn’t such a disgusting character maybe people could have heard him.
And then of course there are the right wing nationalists, white supremacists, neo-nazis, and KKK hillbillies who feel emboldened by Trump’s insane, nihilistic, macho rhetoric and racist dog whistles. Before Trump, this diseased pus was just under the surface of our culture. Push and prod a bit and you had a sense it was there but it was mostly hidden away and easy to ignore. Trump’s election lanced this blister of extremist stew, and the festering ichor has spilled out into our culture. Where once there was a hiding place now there is an open sore exposed to light and the fresh air. It has been revealed to us, to all of us; it has been uncovered.
That’s what an apocalypse is, an uncovering.
Finally, there’s the #metoo movement. Women in every industry have come forward to give reports of the misogynistic underpinnings of American power. The dam has broken. From Hollywood, through the restaurant industry, right into politics, we are now forced to confront the everyday violence endured by women and the ugly silence we maintain to prop up ugly men. We “knew” that the reality we now confront was true before 2017, but it was concealed, covered up, and we left the cover on. That is until an accused rapist and self-professed perpetrator of sexual assault was elected to the highest office in federal government.
Hillary Clinton as President would have been empowering for women to a degree. Much as I disagree with her neoliberal politics, I’d have been proud in November 2016 to tell my daughter that a woman had been elected to the White House. But Trump has unknowingly galvanized women and men alike to take up their own, individual agency and demand that the truth should be covered up no more. Every woman who publicly says, “Me too,” participates in a revolutionary, revelatory politics that would not have been possible under Hillary Clinton.
Apocalypse also marks the end of the world. Can you feel that the world we lived in has ended? Perhaps it ended on September 11, 2001. The post Wold War II consensus, Cold War, globalizing American capitalist hegemony was wrecked that day along with the towers and thousands of lives.
Francis Fukuyama was right in 1992: the end of the 20th century was the end of history. But the end of history didn’t usher in an eternal utopia for Western democratic capitalism, it introduced an entirely new world, one we cannot grasp with our old ways of being and knowing.
Now with Trump we have a lens that helps us step back and widen the frame, to clearly see the shape of our obsolete schemes and systems, and the space to imagine something new.
It is difficult for Americans to imagine South Dakota as a place. People from east of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers or west of the Rocky Mountains, when meeting someone from South Dakota, express shock that a person would be from such a place. Perhaps only Wyoming rivals North and South Dakota as a blank void in the imagination of America. Yet even Wyoming has her jewel: Yellowstone National Park.
It is no surprise that 210,000 gallons of oil have leaked into the soil of South Dakota, for South Dakota is exactly the kind of place Americans expect oil to be spilled. For viewers in New York and California, the ocean is a less remote and more tragic place for oil to spill than South Dakota, about which they know nothing.
That the oil leaked into ground adjacent to an Indian reservation removes it even more from the imaginative grasp of millions of Americans.
The very rational, pragmatic concerns of Reasonable People are much easier to imagine for the average American, though they are less concrete. Oil powers the global economy, after all, and the American economy. It influences the price of milk. Oil must remain cheap for all to thrive. The safest way to transport crude oil to refineries is by pipeline. Trucks and trains pose too many risks. Surely one wouldn’t argue that a land ought to remain unspoiled in the face of the needs of millions for the lifeblood of the earth which has accrued to humanity. Shouldn’t we strive to strike a balance between environmental concerns and the needs of our human economy?
Never mind that these commenters know nothing about the place they would balance their scales.
As for the Indians, their tribal representatives negotiated passage of the pipeline through reservation lands. Who else were the oil companies to negotiate with? That the tribal councils are notoriously corrupt wouldn’t occur to such a Reasonable Person, but before they saw the news of the spill on their Facebook feed they never had a thought about South Dakota or remaining tribal lands.
Anyway, according to environmental officials, though the leak was large, the location is “very rural, which is very positive,” and “the location of this is not in a sensitive area.” Very positive indeed.
Author and Essayist Marilynne Robinson writes, “Wilderness is where things can be done that would be intolerable in a populous landscape.”[^1] In this sense, everything is permissible in South Dakota. The vast, empty, horizon embracing flatness of the place allows us to deceive ourselves. Such a place absorbs any amount of oil along with the silenced thought that such a disaster reveals the fundamental sin of our present age—our failure to imagine our neighbor. In our hurry to balance the scales, we fail to imagine a South Dakotan, an Indian, or the earth as our neighbor.
[^1]: The Death of Adam, 247
He leaned in to dab her forehead with the wrung-out cloth, the cold sweat beading clearly under the fluorescent lights. He gently swiped a damp string of hair to the side of her head and moved in close to kiss her fevered brow. She smelled of antiseptic and heat, now almost indistinguishable from the rest of the hospital's perfumed decay. The bed creaked as he placed the weight of his body on his hands beside her fading frame. He leaned closer, remembering all the times he'd done this before in their own bed at home. He thought of how she had been a late sleeper, though easily awoken with a light touch to her blanketed shoulder. She would not be waking now. Softly, he brushed her skin with his parted lips, whispering a last sweet nothing in the silent room. "What's up, chicken butt."
Ezra was there the day Hosea left. He'd overheard the month's worth of conversations between Hosea and Father leading up to Hosea's exodus. He'd been the one to draft the bill selling Hosea's share of Father's land, making them all poorer—though they were nowhere near poor. Hosea hadn't spoken to Ezra about it. They didn't talk. Not really. Not without arguing.
The day Hosea left, Ezra sat at the long, blackwalnut dining room table surrounded by papers. Three hours of numbers to be typed methodically into Quickbooks, then checked, then bills and reports emailed, printed, faxed, payments made, orders placed. The day Hosea left—just before he left—Father paced the house: dining room, kitchen, sitting room, front room, foyer, sun room, dining room, kitchen. On and on he went.
Surrounded by his work, Ezra watched from the dining room through two doorways to the foyer where Hosea stood with Father in front of the old oak door. The Grandfather Clock ticked out its measure to Ezra's right. Father looked up at Hosea, at his hazel eyes, his shoulder length brown hair poking out of his baseball cap. Evening light spilled through the stained glass transom window and lay on the pair thickly like globs of paint. Maybe the paint would dry and they would freeze there, thought Ezra. He would have to clean them up after he finished working.
They murmured at each other mostly. Then Father gripped Hosea by the shoulders and said loudly, "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, Dad. I am," said Hosea smiling.
"I love you."
"I love you too, Dad."
Hosea hefted his pack onto his thin shoulders, turned to the door and opened it. He turned back and looked at Ezra, then looked down at the table, then back again to his brother. He nodded and Ezra nodded back. Then Hosea stepped outside.
Father closed the door. Pressed his palms against it for several seconds. Ezra went back to the numbers. He heard ice clink into a glass and a few moments later the sound of Father lowering himself into his chair in the sitting room. He would be staring out the big picture window now, Ezra knew, and would fall asleep there.
Hosea had left. Ezra had stayed. He'd stayed through Mother's failing health, her dementia. He'd managed in-home caregivers, woke up all hours of the night to usher her back to bed, like she was an infant, like he was her father. She couldn't remember Ezra's name, though she asked about Hosea often. "He's fine, Mother," Ezra would say not looking at her.
Ezra had stayed through Father's drinking. His worrying. His pacing. He'd found a way to keep everyone on who worked for their family. To keep paying them even without the acres sold for Hosea. He'd found a way to keep the lights on for all of them.
They heard from Hosea at first. Not regularly but often enough. After they'd talked, Father would sit clutching the kitchen phone, the plastic creaking like he was trying to hold on to his son, to embrace him.
He was traveling, he'd said. He was meeting people and seeing things, the world, the real world.
"All these people Ezra, they're incredible, they're beautiful."
"The world is real enough here," Ezra had replied, "Joshua's wife is pregnant."
"Great! That's great," Hosea replied. He sounded pleased.
One more person to keep the lights on for, thought Ezra, as he stared out Father's picture window.
Then they'd heard from him less. And still less. Then it said his number was disconnected. Ezra had checked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for clues. He checked couch surfing websites that hadn't been updated since they were created in the 1990s. There was no sign. No sure sign. Maybe he'd died, Ezra thought, ashamed of himself. It had been years.
Ezra was gray now; well gray-er. And balder. And fatter. Joshua's daughter was 10. Mother was dead. Father was... old, older than the years that had passed, older than the good, oak barrel aged bourbon melting the ice in his glass.
And now here was Hosea on a Sunday morning. Ezra was sitting down at the dining room table and the oak door swung open and there stood Hosea in the frame, looking at him.
The leather of Father's chair creaked and Ezra heard footsteps pad toward the tall, shaggy man. Father appeared in the foyer in his dark blue robe and his red slippers and grasped at Hosea like he was trying to draw fog or mist to himself. He plucked at Hosea's ratty clothes, green, brown, tan, and gray, at his scraggly beard, at his matted hair. Father gripped Hosea's shoulders and Ezra could hear the plastic of the kitchen phone creak in his mind.
“What the fuck," Ezra whispered. Ezra noticed himself breathing faster, like he was ready to run, like he was ready to fight. Then his father turned to him. Father's face was radiant, thought Ezra, alive, on fire.
"Call everyone," Father's croaked. Then more clearly, "Call everyone here, Ezra. Invite everyone. Invite Joshua's family, invite everyone's family! Call the caterer or, or order something, order, I don’t know, chicken, whatever." The words tumbled out of Father's mouth as Ezra stared, motionless.
"What are you doing, Ezra?" Father asked.
Ezra scratched his forehead and looked down at the ever-present spread of papers on the dining room table. Ezra hadn’t noticed he had stood up. He adjusted his glasses, sitting back down and began signing checks.
Hosea’s smell proceeded him into the room. He smelled like a pig, Ezra thought, except pigs were clean. Hosea sat down across from Ezra at the table and looked at him, his eyes brimming with tears. “What can I do, Ezra?” he asked shaking his head just a little.
Ezra set his jaw and stared at his brother. Hating him. Loving him. “Nothing,” he replied.
And then to himself, “Nothing.”
A post detailing the 12 Reasons Millennials are Over Church has been making the rounds on my social feedz this week and is widely praised by youngsters and sympathetic oldsters alike. The church has failed to adapt to Millennials' needs or include the voices of younger people, says the author.
Missing from the conversation is the fact that Boomers are experiencing a severe loss of cultural capital as Millennials come of age. On one hand we have (until recently) the largest, most powerful generation in American history. No generation in 241 years has inherited a greater horde of wealth, power, and unprecedented economic growth than the Boomers. On the other hand we have... their kids, another huge generation with enormous cultural capital and an unprecedented ability to connect across geography and create culture unbounded from traditional gatekeepers. In fact, Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the country’s largest age group, according to Census data.
This is a power struggle. Boomers know how to wield power and Millennials are just learning what it means to have some. We see this across every institution: the church, education, even in the CIA.
Usually people don't just give up power. Many of the institutions Millennials are rejecting or seeking to change (Boomers taught us to disrespect institutional authority, by the way) were built from nothing by Boomers. It's no wonder they feel a little threatened when Millennials question the way those institutions function, or point out they're no longer relevant.
People usually don't just give up power, except Christians are to be a people who specifically live out a sacrificial love which inherently forfeits power for the good of others. We must forgive Boomers and Millennials alike for lacking spiritual formation the church rarely has sought to offer.
One day the money was gone. It had been gone for some time. I did not know that, but one day I found out. The sinking feeling was above my childhood intelligence, a drone hovering just above my ken striking with precision and grayed-out calculation.
I welcomed anger after a time, anger at those who pulled from underneath us the threadbare rug we were told could cover our world's floor. We were safe. Then we were not safe. I let this anger live in me and I cherished it, fed it kindling and praised its warmth.
One day, a decade later, the hope of money was gone. I had reconciled the anger long enough to choose a way forward. There was a plan, until Financial Sector Greed swept through my life (and many lives) as a typhoon sweeps upon the beach. I did not know what to do. I still don't. I welcomed despair, let it live in me and wrapped it in swaddling clothes. I cooed to it and let it whisper back to me.
People like to mince words with the Gospel, tsk tsk to you that the love of money is evil, not money itself. But they are made lesser for money's existence and cannot see what parts of themselves have been cut away by a world-sized scalpel. Money is evil; there is no doubt. Systems built upon it are corrupt at their foundations, as the human holding the precious dollar can never mean as much as the dollar itself. If they ever did, the system could not hold.
I do not welcome anger at this opening of the eyes, nor despair at the sights I have learned to see. I have wept what I will weep. The only path to walk is the one pointed toward the end of capital. It is a long walk. There will be no extra energy available for hatred or despair. Only a setting of the jaw and a resolution to step one step before another will do. You can call that love. That's what the death of money will look like. Me, loving you, loving me.
My inability to change frustrates me. Recently, I’ve tried to avoid looking at Twitter or news feeds immediately upon waking. I used to tell myself that there was some good reason for doing so. Maybe I’d awaken to see that some national tragedy had befallen us while I slept; maybe the world was on fire; maybe aliens were at the door and I should get dressed.
But more often, I see what I’ve always seen, which is what you’ve always seen: maddening politics, inane entertainment news, and some sports talk. The sports talk is fine. This morning, predictably, my eyes adjusted in the middle of reading a New York Times article detailing the North Carolina legislature’s newest bullshit. Having lost the governorship to a Democrat after a protracted post-election battle, they decided it’d be swell to strip the governor’s office of several key powers, including the ability to oversee state colleges and their trustee appointments.
If irony wasn’t dead, I’d say how ironic it was that in the midst of this season of Advent, in which we look to the nebulous future, a time-not-yet shaped by our ability to be patient and hopeful and tense and a bit sorrowful about what we cannot see but hope we shall soon see, our societal life is filled with those for whom there is no future.
Immediacy is king in politics. Moves like the one in North Carolina mirror so many other political actions and conversations that they begin to run together. Surely our memory is not so short as to have forgotten the debate over the “nuclear option,” in which Senate Democrats were faced with option to neuter the filibuster so as to fast track certain decisions with a simple majority. A primary element of that argument was that such an action might be appealing now, but could (and most certainly would) be used by the GOP when it arose to power once more. We should, said some, think of ourselves as the future minority party and consider what powers we’d want in that situation. Such caution only kept Senate Dems from amending some filibuster rules, not all (though the changes that did pass will almost certainly come back to haunt them now).
Still, that kind of cautious thinking requires an acknowledgment of the future, which we collectively appear to have set on fire.
While conservatives tend to make the headlines for this kind of news, liberals are far from blameless, lest you think shortsightedness prefers red or blue. Resting assured that you have someone's support because you've historically had it—even though you've done little to nothing to see that support as an agreement from a human who has real human struggles and needs real human things from you—is as warped as anything I can think of. Couple that inflated ego with a decade-long unwillingness to stop the erosion of your influence and effectiveness on a local level despite believing in your moral superiority, and you've got a medically-diagnosable lack of imagination.
But imagination requires an acknowledgment of the future, which we threw out the window after we set it on fire.
Flaming acknowledgments aside, our current political reality couldn’t be much more opposed to our religious season if it tried. If Christians are to be people of hope, we must be those who consider a future, for hope is predicated on the to-be-but-not-yet. That’s future talk. Advent is a time of hope set against sorrow, a time when we feel both and seek resolution and reconciliation in the coming of Christ. Christ is born into our brokenness; that’s what Emmanuel, “God with us,” is all about. Not “God watching over us,” or “God up ahead from us,” but with us in all our present maladies.
One of those maladies is clearly our political climate, which isn’t some separate realm from our daily life. Politics is a complicated way to frame the simple idea that people live together and have to figure that out. Throwing out the notion of a future, then, becomes a disastrous way to handle our togetherness. For those of us passionate about our planet and the health of its natural environment, this inability to couple current tension with the possibility of future resolution (good or bad) has been our long-running source of high blood pressure. “How can you not look toward the not-yet and see the potential? The flourishing or the reckoning?” we cry.
But politics work in much the same way currently. Folks who feel no good future awaits them begin to see the lack of potential as no future at all; their decisions then become those defined by no possibility. And if there’s no possibility, why not burn it all down and see what happens? Why not operate as if today’s victory is ultimate?
It’s hard to be an Advent person right now, with the world seemingly antagonistic to the long view. But our faith is of the not-yet, of the to-be, of the possible but not inevitable. Which makes it all the more important to put our hands to the plow right now. Waiting is not stagnant, after all. Waiting is the sprinter hiked on the starting blocks. True patience is a tense state, one fraught with preparation and more activity than can be seen. Waiting with an eye on the almost-but-not-quite is combative and upending. Let us be ready. Let us be against those with no future in mind. Let us be Advent people.
With the election of Donald John Trump to the office of the President of the United States, liberals are rightly concerned about the future of the Republic. Trump’s inflammatory campaign largely played on the basest aspects of human nature: misogyny, racism, jingoism, xenophobia, islamophobia. Many of his policies and promises are not very different than any Republican who ran in the primary leading up to the general election. But the tone and rhetoric Trump used throughout his campaign strayed into demagoguery and flirted with fascism.
For this reason among others, a movement has arisen among liberals to convince members of the Electoral College pledged to vote for Donald Trump to become “faithless electors,” to cast their vote for someone else or to abstain, and thus to block his victory. The argument goes that this is exactly what the Electoral College was designed for, to block the popular will of the people, whipped into a democratic fervor, from casting a figure into the executive branch who is a threat to the stability and functioning of the federal government. We are told that Electoral College voters should throw themselves between the people of the United States and fascism.
The problem I see with this is that, as I understand it, the Electoral College played the role people say it was designed to play—where electors weighed their conscience against the will of the people—for less than a decade after it was established. This is a historical fact. For practically the entire history of the republic, Electoral College voters have cast their vote based on the popular vote total in their state. The fact the term “faithless elector” even exists tells us how rare it is for someone to break their pledge. For 37 members of the Electoral College to subvert the will of the people they represent would not only be a coup, it would break with two centuries of tradition.
This is important. A nation is not merely made up of enumerated laws and established structures, it is also made up of mores and folkways, culture and tradition, silent and spoken agreements. In fact, a nation like the United Kingdom has no constitution. Their entire system of government is one big tacit agreement. It is a tradition of government rather than a system of government. The United States does have a constitution of course, but it too consists of traditions of governance, one of which is the functioning of the Electoral College. Liberals can talk until they're blue in the face about what the Electoral College was "designed" to do. But that does not describe what it is nor what it has been.
Okay, but if Donald Trump is the threat to the nation liberals claim, perhaps this break with tradition is warranted. Except arguing for the Electoral College to function in this way is equally threatening. This change would open up an entirely new and untested arena of American political gamesmanship. We already have practically unending Presidential campaigns. Are we willing to extend the campaign beyond the point where the people have cast their votes? Imagine the Electoral College opened up to lobbying, to political favors, to private and corporate donations. Does no one see how ripe for corruption an Electoral College would be that is not restrained either by law or the bounds of tradition? Liberals, Democrats, should be the first to see the potential subversion of democracy this represents.
A change in the way members of the Electoral College cast their vote is necessary. Votes should be tied to the democratic will of the entire nation, not based on the will of the people in each state. But then let us build the power and make the argument toward that change, not subvert our institutions for short-term political gain and open them up to the possibility of tremendous abuse in the future.
Six years ago today my dad died. It’s an event in my calendar like a birthday. I guess when it doesn’t seem important to remember I’ll remove it. A couple of hours after I found out he died I went to class. I ran into my Kierkegaard professor outside of the room. He asked how I was, not knowing my news.
I told him, “I just found out my dad died.”
He said, “I’m so sorry. Want to skip class?”
I said, “Nah.”
He said, “Okay, well let’s go in.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and sort of steered me into the room and treated me like a normal student during the period. He nodded to me as I left the room when class was over.
A few days later my news somehow made its way to someone in the administration and then that person emailed the entire school about it. Not great. What I found out is that you don’t want several hundred pastors in training to find out something painful happened. This is what I would describe as a worst case scenario.
Couple days after the email went out a friend who was not studying to be a pastor saw me and simply gave me a big hug and kept walking. This hug and the interaction with my professor were more healing and human than the contrived “pastoral care” BS that many other students tried out on me.
Whatever field you go into, don’t let them train the humanity out of you. Resist jargon at all costs. Listen or speak, ask questions or share your own story, be a silent presence or a busy distraction.
Whatever you do, be human.
Every vote counts. Decisions are made by those who show up. Refusing to vote is not a protest, it’s a surrender. Don’t boo, vote.
When our circle of reality is threatened, common sense aphorisms will be invoked in its defense. Pay attention to these today, of all days. An election is always threatening to the circle of reality because it's a liminal moment, a transition from one narrative arc to another. What we know to be true is called into question behind the veil of the voting booth, so we work extra hard to reaffirm our basic assumptions about the way the world works.
However, an election is also the highest liturgical moment in the circle of reality. Reality requires a “should-be” condition in relation to the present “is.” Sound like anything going on right now? Reality, as we experience it, is part of a meaning-making story told by those who depend on it for power. Those who cannot tell this story are the most vulnerable in our society. They also tend to be our scapegoats. That is, the vulnerable among us, who cannot tell our story, are blamed for impeding the “should-be” from being actualized in the present.
Questioning the value of our political apparatus is met variously with criticism of patriotism or privilege depending on their source on the right or the left. Each "side" strives to meet every threat and re-establish the circle of meaning that maintains reality. This is especially ironic with an eye on the left, because demanding the liturgy of reality be carried out according to plan ensures the vulnerable among us continue to function as a scapegoat—they are structurally necessary. Liberal social justice ultimately cannot address the condition of the vulnerable because social problems are necessary to the continued existence of our circle of reality.
I end up taking an existential view. Can society be a bit more humane for my friends living on the street? Can we show a little more mercy to those who need it? Are the policies we enact in this circle of reality hospitable to everyone? And that's how I vote. But I'm not confused about the limits of human imagination.
Our Gracious Source Code, who art in Amazon S3 Cloud Services, hallowed be thy file extension;
thy debugger come, thy executable be done;
on desktop as it is on smartphone.
Give us this day our daily download.
Forgive us our botnets as we forgive those who malware against us.
And lead us not to the Darknet, but deliver us from torrents.
For thine is the Internet, and the surge protector, and the Ghz forever. Amen
I don’t know why I feel the need to say anything about tonight’s debate. Or anything at all. I’m experiencing an unusually vicious onslaught of cynicism (which is significant, as I’ve got a high resting cynic rate), so I’m not sure what to say about the state of politics, or the social fabric, or my own ability to figure out how I feel about all things.
I have vacillated between what it means for a person on the far left (me, in this case) to vote in this election. I have been scolded for my privilege when I consider not casting a vote for Hillary. I have been called childish, foolish, idealistic, unsympathetic to the lives of women and minorities, and all other manner of accusatory names by those who consider a vote for Clinton and the Democrats to be the only option for someone calling themselves progressive in these excessively weird and troubling times.
I have tried to tell friends and acquaintances that my being further left makes it hard to stomach the Democrats' move to the center right. I have tried to explain to them that Hillary’s domestic policies and foreign decisions have made voting for her feel unconscionable to me. I am told that my critique of “warmonger” isn’t enough to justify my “protest vote.” I am told I’m making a protest vote.
I am told that my moral agency is nothing compared to my civic responsibility. I’ve been chastised for how they do or don’t line up in the eyes of those upset with me. But this is the new reality, the magnanimous duopoly. We are a people of A or B, of black and white, of love or hate. The middle ground is for no one.
I agree with this. The middle ground has proved itself inept. Really, that’s where we’ve been living for as long as neoliberalism has made our two major American political parties laughable mirrors of each other. However, admitting that the middle ground is useless doesn’t mean dualism is inevitable. Nondualism, theologically, politically, and socially offers us a three-dimensional way of being. Like the ship in space, we are not limited to forward or backward. We can also float up or down, shirking the bonds of earthly gravity in favor of choices not previously open to us.
You might say that I seem to have made up my mind about the worth of voting for Clinton rather than a minor party option who might offer what I believe to be more responsible and live-giving options on a range of issues. I mostly have, but I have my days. As Adam Kotsko recently pointed out, it’s giving this bourgeois, capitalist system I disdain a lot of credit when I so desperately seek a good candidate. If the system is as ethically bankrupt as I believe it to be, why not ride out the cynicism and vote for a candidate who I acknowledge is better in several key ways than her opponent?
It’s a logical point, albeit a relativist one I struggle to adopt. Holding my nose and marking a ballot for someone I believe to be directly responsible for military policies that left a lot of brown folks across the ocean—women, children, and men alike—dead is still a moral choice. And as I’ve never been one to prefer Mill to Kant, it’s one I’m not sure I can make. But I’ll admit to being unsure how to move as flawlessly as possible despite my being quite the flawed person in a tragically flawed system given power by an overwhelmingly flawed culture.
Nothing is easy here, at least not for me. I don’t begrudge you if it’s easy for you. I don’t give a shit if you’re mad at me because it is easy for you and hard for me.
I’ll probably watch the debates, if for no other reason than to be able to better articulate my own thoughts by engaging in (mostly) silent argument with the person speaking at the moment. I doubt they’ll put anything into focus for me except for, perhaps, my contempt for both candidates and my longing for a better political system that could and should produce a better servant leader. It won’t move me to the middle where most people say they live but so few actually do. Who can survive there anyway? Who’d want to? Not I. Give me the up, the down, the upside down any day. Duopoly and myself in the eyes of those who like the left, right, and middle be damned.
I guess I’m not patriotic. That’s what I assume, at least, when I find myself on my usual side of a controversy like the one that erupted recently when a school note involving the pledge of allegiance went viral.
The note was a waiver, sent home to be signed in case the parent/guardian wanted to opt their child out of reciting the pledge. On the paper, a disgruntled mother expressed her disgruntledness, while her brother-in-law, the child’s uncle, snapped a pic and shared it. The rest is news feed history.
The actions of the adults, and the thousands of comments found under internet shares of this story, point to a visceral anger that something is wrong with this country when nationalist traditions like the pledge are questioned. Those who don’t feel this way are deemed “unpatriotic.”
I am one of those who feel completely baffled and out of step with the vitriol. But I’m used to feeling out of step with current American sympathies. I’m a socialist. You know, the devil.
Any time I question our national obsession with capitalism, or our quickness to war, our sense of lofty superiority and international supremacy, or our constant failure of memory and imagination when it comes to our social ills, I’m immediately aware of who disagrees with me. Definitely those on the political right (Republicans, libertarians, alt-right, etc.), and often Democrats don’t like what certain folks on the far left have to say regarding the policies of our country (as well as the morality and ideology behind them). So I’m not surprised when something comes along that upsets large parts of the public but doesn’t bother me (and vice versa).
Still, this pledge thing bothers me; not because kids can opt out, but because it’s still being said at all. From a civics perspective, the pledge strikes me as both socially irresponsible given our global reality and naively jingoistic.
The problem with our culture's tendency to separate every issue into easy dualism (writ large as the two party political system) is that we're often quick to do away with nuance in favor of the snappiest soundbite. In this case, when someone says they don't like the pledge, it's the natural step for an opponent to say "well then you must not like America."
Which in my case is and isn't true. I guess we need some nuance.
The Pledge as Bad Policy
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Though the pledge has gone through several iterations since its first, mostly permanent revision in 1892, this is the current one, last updated in 1954 to capitalize "Nation" and add "under God."
When it comes to the pledge, what we're talking about is a fealty oath, a demand by the State fulfilled by its subjects. The pledge requires loyalty, and unquestioning relationship to the flag and the specific form of government that it represents. The pledge doesn't beg our allegiance for "the best possible version of our Republic" or to "the basic precepts at the foundation of our Republic" but to the Republic itself. This, whether intentionally or not, makes the pledge a nationalist tool for keeping subjects in line whether the Republic is what it should be or not. The Republic is as it stands, and you're to pledge allegiance to it.
Hopefully it's obvious why such unquestioning nationalism is seriously problematic. When such beliefs have historically emerged as governmental structures, they haven't had the best track records. We don't often speak kindly of fascists, after all (except to cheekily note that they're good at getting trains to places on time).
This jingoistic turn is what separates the practices of saying the pledge from being or feeling patriotic. Patriotism, in its ideal sense, allows for careful and heavy criticism. You can love a place, feel a sense of ownership to it and pride in what it can be, and still be completely honest and aware of its failings. As noted above, the pledge doesn't allow for the kind of free thought, debate, or imagination that a healthy patriotism necessitates. Therefore, equating the pledge and patriotism just doesn't play.
The problem only grows larger when we consider how the conflation of the two has resulted in a terribly rigid sense of what it means to be an American citizen. The inflexibility, combined with the misunderstanding (or even willful ignorance), is what makes the dedication to the pledge dangerous to actual individual and social freedoms.
Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the 1943 Supreme Court majority decision to overturn a previous ruling which allowed students to be compelled to say the pledge in school, railed against the ideological orthodoxy which would force any American into a prescribed behavior at the expense of other more important, though less tangential, ideals. He wrote,
"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."
Prescribed orthodoxy is what makes the pledge a terrible idea in the first place. No formulaic, performative act can distinguish one citizen of a free republic from another—which is why the willingness to say the Pledge is a terrible assessment for political belonging. More than that, this is why it's antithetically American to support the pledge as that which defines loyalty. And if the pledge can't and shouldn't define loyalty, why have it?
The pledge is a false litmus for "true Americanism." This makes it problematic for all citizens over which it holds sway (which is to say all of us).
Unfortunately, the problems with the pledge continue, deeper and deeper down for religious persons. The show of parroted patriotism that is the pledge is one of special import to Christians. Because not only is a pledge of allegiance politically troublesome, it’s idolatrous.
The Pledge as Idolatry
When God sent Moses down from the mountain with a list of commandments, the first two are, roughly, "I am God" and "thusly, no worshipping some other god." For those keeping with the Judeo-Christian heritage, it still stands as an instruction not to worship that which is not God.
Unfortunately for nationalism, this provides a distraction from the necessary worship of the nation. It also doesn't make capitalism too happy, as capitalism demands the primacy of currency, with people and their innate createdness being secondary to their role as money-makers then money-spenders.
Benjamin E. Zeller used the recent Colin Kaepernick controversy to discuss Émile Durkheim's model of religion with the totem as the center. Our Americanism, our sense of civic religion, then, is centered on the flag, the "symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship." This symbol is given explicit power via the pledge. The flag is the symbol of the national god to be worshipped, the pledge its scripture, the national anthem its hymn.
Christianity gains its power from being a witness to the truth that Christ stands against the death dealt by national power in favor of the life offered by God. Peace and community are the eternal way, truth, and life. Rome will always only be the cross and the sealed tomb.
The Christian, therefore, cannot both accept the primacy of Christ and that of the state. The pledge is an acknowledgment of servitude above and beyond all else. Reciting it is, then, idolatry to the Christ follower.
This isn't a new concept, as the first Supreme Court challenge to the mandatory recitation of the pledge stemmed from Jehovah's Witnesses children refusing to say the pledge in school in 1935. Yet despite its age, the controversy is still fresh. It's so fresh that stories of people sitting during national anthems, or refusing to say the pledge, or politicians advocating fierce returns to Americanism continue to be front-page news.
The worship of the flag and the Republic for which it stands is at a fever pitch. There is no sector of American life untouched by the call to worship the Americanness of all things. Entreaties to "make America great again," to say the pledge without question, and to sing the national anthem with sacred reverence all require modern Christians to declare dual allegiances, using frighteningly similar religious and civic liturgies to do so.
The pledge is such liturgy. It simultaneously claims to be a marker of truth and of identity couched within truth. It demands that the flag be both witnessed and the cause of witness. This demand places the flag, for those who pledge allegiance to it, at the right hand of the empire which flies it. All of which makes unflinching nationalistic dedication hard to square when you also claim to worship a carpenter who said caring for the poor and sick, who said loving for God and neighbor, matters more than a flag and the Republic for which it stands ever will.
: It should be noted that this ruling is what makes it ridiculous that a school or teacher need to send home a note to give permission for a child to opt out and not say the pledge. While it's helpful that the note gives parents and children an awareness of their rights, it's unfortunate that it's needed. They don't have to say it now, no opting out necessary. Thanks to a later ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, children under its jursidiction (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) don't have to stand for it either. (According to Snopes, the school in question sent the notice home in compliance with Florida law, which requires children know their right to refrain from saying the pledge and requires parents know they can excuse their child from saying it. Even though a teacher can't compel them to say it in the first place.)
: Not only is this in keeping with the right to dissent protected by the First Amendment, it's pedagogically sound when teaching children anything as belief-based and intellectually complex as allegiance. Young children aren't fully capable of understanding what allegiances are, and we shouldn't be asking them to swear to anything based on the assumption that they'll support a specific brand of nationalist ideology in the future (which keeps with the sound method to "never teach a child anything you'll have to unteach them later"). To do so is to support indoctrination, something easily accomplished with young, impressionable minds. The Hitler Youth program was successful for a reason.
: I absolutely do not mean to imply that "religious persons" and "Christians" are to be conflated here or in any context, nor do I intend to imply that the pledge is only religiously problematic for Christians. It's just that my context is Christian, and I can't speak for my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. brothers and sisters. But I'd like to think that any of those who feel the divine life trumps the life of empire would agree with what follows.
: That this controversy has emerged from the world of American sport adds a layer, as the idolatry of the American state has intertwined with the idolatry by Americans of professional sport, particularly American football. The worship of both ride waves of liturgy, each with their own means of consecrating that which is most holy: the flag, the game. In recent years, the worship of these two pillars of Americanism have merged into codependent parts. Tom Suttle notes exactly this in his excellent recent piece.