Contemporary Feminism Confronts Reality

A number of recent articles, spread out across several publications, have recently tried to stress the degree to which the message of contemporary feminism is having trouble breaking through to the level of popular consciousness. The theme continues to appear every few days as I sift through the news, but two articles in particular have stuck with me. The first was in Politco’s magazine, entitled “It’s Sexism Stupid. Why men are dominating the Democratic 2020 primary.” The article joins the chorus of those lamenting the failure of any woman to catch fire and dominate in the Democratic field the way Hillary Clinton dominated the much smaller 2016 field. The article suggests that, rather than overcrowding in the field or the flawed nature of the female candidates, the problem is “sexism and misogyny—albeit often unconscious, unwitting and the result of implicit bias.” As evidence, the article points to a 2008 study, which found that

gender is a powerful force in inducing voters to defect across party lines. Specifically, when men and women were pitted against each other in head-to-head match-ups for the presidency, a substantial proportion of Democratic voters (12.3 percent) defected to a male Republican, John McCain, rather than vote for a female candidate from their own party, Hillary Clinton.

Similarly, and arguably somewhat less surprisingly, a sizeable proportion of Republican voters (15.5 percent) defected to a male Democrat, John Edwards, rather than vote for a female candidate from their own party, Elizabeth Dole. (This tendency was true for both male and, notably, female voters, and was not balanced out by any comparable pattern of defection toward female presidential hopefuls.)

Another article, which appeared more recently in the Atlantic and struck a little closer to home (literally), was “Even Breadwinning Wives Don’t Get Equality at Home.” The principal complaint in this article is that, while gender equality gets lots of attention and makes most of its progress in the workplace or in politics, gender equality in the home is getting left behind.

Breadwinning wives also don’t get parity in how household chores are divvied up. As wives’ economic dependence on their husbands increases, women tend to take on more housework. But the more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses. In other words, women’s success in the workplace is penalized at home.

In the end, women take on more domestic responsibilities than men in a way that is mostly unrelated to their availability for those responsibilities. They take them on because they are women even when their husbands have no gainful employment to occupy their time.

The problem, as both articles see it, is that implicit biases about women’s nature and roles continues to override the public discourse about gender equality. The problem, as I see it, is that whatever people may believe or espouse in the public sphere, there is a fundamental disconnect between what contemporary feminism asserts and people’s actual experience. Contemporary feminism continues to base its argument for the equality of the sexes on the irrelevance (or perhaps obsolescence) of sex in a way that defies people’s everyday experience.

It is one thing to say that men and women should have equal access to employment and public positions, that compensation and advancement should be based entirely on competence without regard for sex. It is another thing entirely to say that we should not see sex, that sex is not a real or meaningful category through which we approach the world. It is more radical still to imagine that all the consequential beliefs that we attach to sex are in fact gender–sex’s ephemeral cousin, entirely culturally rooted, hopelessly fluid, and utterly untethered from biological sex. Even if all of that is true–and I’m pretty sure I had to sign an oath in blood on the back of my PhD saying it was–it flies in the face of how people operate in their day to day lives. With each step toward the root logic of contemporary feminism, we shift further into the realm of cognitive dissonance, where the (coherentist) theoretical soundness of feminist theory butts up against the realities of lived gender economies.

This, perhaps more than self-ghettoizing, explains women’s complicity in the structures of their oppression in both articles. The story on domestic balance noted that “one possible explanation for this is that by outearning their husbands, wives worry that they are breaking norms on gender expectations.” The argument goes further:

[I]t’s not just men who are keen on enforcing the notion that they should be the family’s earner in chief. Wives play a crucial role in framing husbands as breadwinners too. A lawyer who had been the breadwinner in her marriage told me that after she lost her job, she turned her focus to her husband’s business and how he could grow it, instead of worrying about how she could find another job to ensure that their family remains financially stable. Ironically, her educational credentials and prior work experience mean that she is actually positioned to bring in more money than her husband. Instead of focusing on how the unemployed woman could get her next job, the couples I talked with focused their attention on ensuring that the husband’s career was flourishing.

Just like women who cross party lines to vote in favor of a man, women will torch their own career prospects because they are invested in the idea of male vocation as central not only to male-identity but also to household-identity.

The solution, according to “Breadwinning Wives,” is better public policy that will pave the way for gender equity at home. The solution, according to “Sexism Stupid,” is tough talk with the unconverted public.

People who might be explicitly committed to egalitarianism still have gender biases in certain contexts, including presidential races. And they are unwitting experts at concocting post hoc rationalizations for foregone, irrational conclusions.

The idea that you aren’t voting for a woman not because you don’t want to, but because America just isn’t ready for a female candidate smacks to me of that kind of thinking. Perhaps America isn’t ready because you’re one of the many who prefers male to female candidates, and who unconsciously reaches for excuses to rationalize your preference. This country will never be ready for a woman president, to our detriment, if this continues.

My criticism of both of these solutions is that they assume that the problem is not with the feminist vision of equality-qua-irrelevance but with the mass of humans behaving in ways that seem natural to them and that resonate with their experience. Women face real and meaningful problems in our society, but the message doesn’t seem to be getting through in practice. That may because, unlike liberal Twitter, the bulk of Americans continue to see sex as a legitimate, meaningful, useful tool for ordering their personal, professional, and political relationships. As a consequence, they expect–whether with hope or fear–that a woman president would be different from a typical (i.e. male) president. They expect a woman’s loss of employment to affect her and her household differently than a man’s lack of employment. (And they don’t reduce those consequences to the raw economics of who makes more dollars and cents–because this isn’t a murky Marxist dystopia where all people have been unsexed, uncultured, and reduced to engines of revenue production.) In other words, people expect sex to matter.

And that doesn’t automatically preclude gender equality, nor even many of the concrete goals of contemporary feminism. It just requires a different rhetorical platform from which to make your argument. Rather than chastising us for our neanderthal stupidity and ostracizing those who bother to root some aspects of gendered behavior in evolutionary biology rather than culture, maybe it is time to work toward meaningful solutions to significant problems within the context of prevailing beliefs about sex.

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This Postmodern President

I’m trying to re-read David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Inifnite. Or, more accurately, I am re-trying to read it, since I began it as an undergraduate and found it too difficult to ever finish. Every sentence I read that I understood struck me as incomparably profound, but the further I read in the fewer sentences I seemed to understand. It’s been many years (and many degrees) since then, and I’m now ready to give it another shot. Only a few pages in–and still not sure I’m understanding quite everything–I came across this quote:

Perhaps [Milbank] is right; if nothing else, good intentions rarely retard the effects of malign metaphysics, and the ethical strain in postmodern thought is usually its emptiest gesture. Milbank merely echoes (among other things) Dostoyevsky’s prognostications of post-Christian “nihilism’s” ineluctable antinomianism, and if his language regarding the inevitability of fascism may be hyperbolic, he still correctly grasps the inescapable amphiboly of any “postmodern ethics” or “politics”: if being is not also the good, but only “eventual,” then force or tenderness, retreat, conquest, or charity are all equally “true.” And power enjoys a certain greater eminence.

This more than anything has helped me make sense of the current presidency. When I hear media personalities (and primary candidates) complain about the demise of truth, of decency, of morality, I look on those laments with a certain measure of cynicism. There has never really been truth or decency or morality in politics. At the same time, though, I cannot deny a certain measure of nostalgia and morning myself. Because whatever my conscious conviction was about the nature of politics, I always took some unconscious comfort in the civility of American politics.

Hart makes the argument–or at least concurs with John Milbank’s argument–that if civility, morality, and truth have not disappeared from contemporary ethics and politics then they have at least been reordered in a great postmodern democratization of value. Power (or would it be more illuminating to say “potency” or “efficacy”) has at least as much theoretical value and a fair bit more immediate and visceral appeal. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president lies. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president breaks the moral, social, or legal rules. If anything, this merely confirms his potency. He doesn’t need your approval or your legal sanction. He continues to effect himself. He is, in his own words, “winning.” And, however much many of us may hate to admit it, he’s doing so much winning that we are (as predicted) getting tired of it.

The irony, according to Hart, is that most postmodern theorists espoused “some form of emancipatory, ‘left-wing,’ and pluralists politics.” Postmodernism is the cultural and political language of the left. It has taken the hammer of Nietzsche’s philosophy and smashed everything gleefully to bit with it, freeing people from antiquated conventions in favor of unfettered self-actualization. In a postmodern age, however, the best self-actualizer is the tyrant, who’s will is actualized purely for the sake of the self and without consideration for the other. Politics by potency is not a break with the trajectory of American life; it is the culmination of it. Time will tell whether or not the genie can go back into the bottle, but it is safe to say that–contrary to apocalyptic predictions from the left–the current president has not changed American politics forever. The current president is the change in American politics.

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Christians Don’t Go to Church. So What?

A new Pew study finds that most Western Europeans who are subject to church taxes are content to pay those taxes even if they generally don’t actually go to church. The taxes, which are mandatory for Christians in six countries and voluntary in three others, go to keep churches open in spite of generally low levels of attendance and engagement throughout much of Western Europe. In each of the six countries where the tax is obligatory (unless you officially leave the church), a substantial majority of those subject to the fee pay it and an equally substantial majority of those who pay it say they are likely to continue rather than resign membership in churches that they do not attend.


webRNS-Pew-Church-Tax1-043019A news article about the report sees the results of Pew’s study as something of a curiosity.

From the outside, Western Europe is often seen as a highly secularized region where established religion is dying out….

Besides attention to church taxes, the report highlights some anomalies about Europeans’ attitudes about religious observance. In Finland, 77% of those surveyed called themselves Christian while only 10% said they attended church regularly. In Germany, the figures were 71% Christians compared with 24% churchgoers.

In several countries, half or more of those who approve of church taxes said they also favored the separation of church and state. In Scandinavia, about three-quarters of respondents who pay church taxes through the state they say should stay out of religion.

In many significant ways, Western Europe has secularized in the last two and a half centuries, but those who look at rates of church attendance to illustrate this trend (as well as those who look at a willingness to finance the church as an anomaly contradicting that trend) fundamentally misunderstand the traditional, historical relationship between Christians and their religion.

Particularly in the US, a nostalgia for the 1950s when weekly church attendance was at its high watermark has skewed our understanding of the historically robust symbiosis of religious identification and truancy. In the medieval period, church was a luxury of the wealthy and the rank and file would often take the sacrament only rarely on high holy days. In the vaunted early days of the Puritan experiment in New England, many cities in Connecticut regularly had attendance rates below 15%. In colonial Virginia in the 1660, only one in five parishes even had resident clergy. (Even the priests weren’t going to church.) When you look at that golden age in the 1950s, the level of attendance was only roughly 50%–even as an overwhelming majority of Americans did (and do) identify as Christians.

Church attendance has never been an adequate measure of religious belief or adherence. We may imagine that in the days before Constantine when most or all Christians were devout believers rather than cultural conformists that Christians gladly gathered every Sunday for fellowship. But there’s no way to substantiate that statistically. What we know from the rest of Christian history is that being a Christian didn’t have much to do with going to church until the pietist/evangelical movements really caught fire in the 18th century and made the connection between personal devotions and religious adherence.

This observation is not, importantly, a justification for skipping church; I am still one of those American Christians who makes an effort to attend services weekly. It is, however, a call to stop being confused by the historically regular (if not normal) state of things. The simplistic equation of religious affiliation with church/mosque/synagogue/temple/shrine attendance misunderstands the role religion has historically played in society. As long as only 16% of the world’s population identifies as secular or non-religious, we can safely say that religion as such is secure no matter how few Europeans or Americans are in pews on Sunday morning.

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An Old Easter Fable


Mykola Pymonenko, “Easter morning” (1891)

Having looked at what Easter is not about last week (during the Catholic/Protestant observation), the following story about rebirth, renewal, and repentance offers a self-critical corrective. It too comes from the 1916 edition of Werner’s Readings and Recitations, the “Easter Celebrations” volume. The story itself is by Annie Hamilton Donnell.

Father’s Easter Sermon

“Today, father?”

“Yes, Plumy, why not? If you don’t feel able to go, I can go alone. Only I should miss my congregation sorely—it’s hard preaching to an empty church!”

The pale little woman smiled bravely. She got to her feet and crossed the room to the-stooping old figure at the desk.

“You shall have your ‘congregation,’ father,” she said. “Is it almost done—the sermon?”

“Yes, almost done, Plumy; I have tried to make it clear and strong.” She got his cane and hat and her own things. Then the old couple went out into the street. It was a beautiful day, with joyous thrill of waking life.

“You ain’t getting tired, are you, Plumy?”

“Tired, father? Why, you talk as if I was old!” smiled Plumy. She had her hand on his faded broadcloth sleeve and tried to lighten its weight. They had walked to church arm in arm for forty years.

In Mrs. Ronald Smythe’s bay window an animated discussion was in progress. Mrs. Ronald Smythe “ran” the little Elmwood church.

“We must have any amount of flowers—mountains and seas of them!” she was saying. “I want this to be a red-letter Easter at our church. It will encourage our new minister. See, there go old Parson Sledd and his little shadow of a wife. VVhat a queer couple they make! Where do you suppose they go together every week?”

“To church,” Mrs. Elsie said. “I’ve seen them going in. The door is always open, you know.”

“Yes, that’s where they go, all right,” chimed in big Mrs. Pingree, “they usually stay an hour or more.”

“These broken-down ministers who’ve lived out their day!” sighed Mrs. Elsie.

“Yes, it’s a problem what’s to be done with them, isn’t it? Somebody—who is it?—asks if they shall be shot!”

The three ladies broke into laughter. Then the talk went back to the Easter preparations and the flowers. Ten years ago Lemuel Sledd had been quietly dropped from his pulpit, to make place for a younger man.

Mrs. Ronald Smythe handled the reins of church government. The following week was a busy one for her. On Friday afternoon she went down to the church with Mrs. Elsie and Mrs. Pingree to plan for the floral display. At the church door they suddenly paused.

“It’s the old parson; shh! He’s preaching,” she whispered. “Don’t either of you make a sound. It will be as good as a play to hear him!” They stood in the shadow of the gallery and listened.

“It’s an Easter sermon!” tittered Mrs. Elsie. Out in the great dim church sat “father’s” little “congregation,” listening breathlessly. A single lily reared its slender stalk from an old-fashioned vase on the pulpit. The quivery old voice steadied and grew strong. It filled the empty church. The bent figure straightened, and “father’s” face was beautiful in the afternoon light.

It was a wonderful sermon preached in the empty church that spring afternoon. The three women in the shadow of the gallery heard it with sobered, wondering faces. The earnestness in it appealed to them where the thoughtfulness penetrated beyond their shallower depths. They sank into seats and sat with folded hands, listening.

After the sermon “father” prayed. “Gracious Lord, Thou risen One, have mercy on Thy servant. Give him of the patience that kept Thee patient. Let him be willing to stand aside while Thy younger servants serve Thee. It is hard, gracious Lord, it is hard to grow old! Thy servant would have liked to die in the harness, his soul longs for one more chance to preach Thee to Thy people in this Thy house. Give him Thy patience, Lord!”

Then the two old voices quivered into song together. “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Then, in a hush broken only by the distant call of a robin to her mate, “father” pronounced the benediction. “Be and abide with you all. Amen.” The three women under the gallery shrank back out of sight as the two old people went out.

Mrs. Ronald Smythe suddenly said, “I want to see the new minister about something.”

“Oh, well, tell him to do his best!” cried Mrs. Elsie. “No common sermon will do—now.”

“No,” Mrs. Pingree murmured, “not now.”

The young minister rose from his desk as Mrs. Smythe was ushered in. “Sit down and write it for me,’Mrs. Smythe,” he laughed boyishly.

“We won’t either of us write IL’: she smiled; “it was that came for. There is a minister—our old rninister—I want you to invite him to preach our Easter sermon to us. I have heard it; it will be a beautiful sermon.”

The old minister preached the Easter sermon in the Elmwood church. There were Easter flowers all about him. His white head seemed uplifted above a sea of them. There was Easter song in his ears as he sat in the pulpit with folded hands. Among the listening faces that filled the great room, row on row, was one that shone like a face transfigured. It was the face of “father’s congregation.”

“Dear Lord, dear Lord, I thank Thee for this day!” prayed Plumy, silently. “It’s the best day of all! Dear Lord, it’s most as if father and I had risen from the dead to-day with Thy dear Son.”

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Not All Suffering is Cruciform

Sandwiched here between the two Easter commemorations this week, we’ve been granted a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the sufferings of Jesus. This opportunity comes from an unlikely source: Rep. Steve King.

King spoke at a town hall this week and fielded a question about the fear that Christians were being persecuted in the United States. (You have my symathies.) King took the question a step further, looking away from the hardships of American Christians and tuning instead to his own personal tribulations:

When I have to step down to the floor of the House of Representatives, and look up at those 400-and-some accusers — you know we just passed through Easter and Christ’s passion — and I have better insight into what He went through for us, partly because of that experience.

King no doubt has suffered. He is reviled by Democrats and held at arm’s length by Republicans, has been stripped of his committee assignments, and was the implicit subject of a censorious resolution on the House floor. But not all suffering is cruciform.

Throughout the New Testament, Christians are warned that they may face sufferings. Jesus warned of it before he ever arrived at the cross and, in the aftermath, Christians suffered more than enough to make it a common refrain in the epistles. For our purposes, the most instructive passage comes from 1 Peter 3:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

For Christ also suffered[a] once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous…

We are encouraged in our suffering precisely because Christ has suffere, and we are exhorted to be fearless as long as our suffering is in the mold of Christ’s. What is cruciform suffering? There are two criteria (mentioned in this passage): suffering for doing good rather than doing evil and suffering on behalf of others. When we face trials under these conditions they are to our credit–to our ultimate credit even.

But Steve King isn’t suffering for doing what’s right. In the most generous reading of events, he is suffering for doing what’s impolitick. He made some less than condemnatory comments about white nationalism and white supremacy…on the record…to the New York Times. (And it’s not the first time he’s tipped his cards either.) Suffering for being racially insensitive, for being bad at your job, or for being an out-and-out racist is not the same as suffering for doing right.

As we think about the suffering of Jesus in this Easter season, it’s worth putting our day to day trials (even those things we think of as persecutions) into perspective.


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Be Brave This Easter

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek reminder to stay focused on the important part of Easter, the risen savior. This poem comes from the 1916 edition of Werner’s Readings and Recitations, the “Easter Celebrations” volume.

Wore Last Year's Hat

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What the News Doesn’t Understand about George Washington

394px-Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_WashingtonPolitico Magazine recently ran an article about what the president doesn’t understand about George Washington. Even without details about the presidential excursion to Mount Vernon, it is safe to say that what the latest president doesn’t know about the first president is roughly coequal with everything that has been written in the many volumes about Washington. Even so, the Politico article cannot help but reveal its own bind spots. The deceptive categorization “History Dept.” on top of headline doesn’t stop Peter Cannellos from making some pretty egregious historical errors throughout the piece. It starts immediately when Cannellos compares Washington with Caesar, Napoleon, and “every past conqueror.” Washington was a rebel, maybe even a revolutionary, but it’s beyond generous to call him a conqueror.

But I’m not here for semantic quibbles. There is a much more egregious error made by Cannellos–and, if we’re being fair, so many more in the general public–about Washington: when faced with the possibility of tremendous and permanent power, he gave it all up to retire to his life of quiet recluse, preferring principled democratic service to dictatorial authority. It is the Cincinnatus myth, named after the famous Roman general who was twice given total authority by the Roman Senate and twice gave it up voluntarily when his assigned task was completed. The myth has such a deep and enduring hold on the American national consciousness that we have a major city named after Cincinnatus (and, indirectly, after Washington and the Society of the Cincinnati over which he presided as the first president).

Cannellos sums it up like this:

[Washington] gave up power. This wasn’t expected of him; most Americans hoped he would remain president—for life, if possible. He chose instead to return to his farm at Mount Vernon. He yearned for home but also to establish enduring precedents for the nation whose independence he had helped painfully win: No man is bigger than the country. The office is more important than any president. Power is a privilege to be wielded and then handed to another.

It’s an attractive story; I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a country founded by such a man? This rendering is even true in some of its more technical specifics. The problem is that it’s founded on a deep misunderstanding of what it is that leaders like Cincinnatus and Washington gave up.

Let’s talk briefly about Cincinnatus, who in the fifth century took on dictatorial powers to stop an invading army and later to thwart a revolution. In both cases the general relinquished his powers in accordance with the law once his assignment was done. In some ways, Cincinnatus’ power was substantial could make laws or ignore existing laws, execute people by fiat, lead the Roman army without the advice or consent of the Senate,320px-Cincinato_abandona_el_arado_para_dictar_leyes_a_Roma,_c_1806_de_Juan_Antonio_Ribera and spend the treasury as needed. The problem was that, in the fifth century, the Roman army was not that big, the Roman treasury not that rich. Still centuries away from a Roman empire the mastery of which would be any great prize. The Romans themselves understood this; that’s why as they grew, the stopped appointing dictators. When crises in the first century BCE forced them back to dictators in desperation, there are no men of the “high moral character” of Cincinnatus left to be found. Except, what’s changed is not the morality of Romans but the degree of temptation. What separates Julius Caesar (who makes an appearance in Cannellos’s article) and Cincinnatus (whose presence is only implied) is time not character.

The lesson from ancient history is instructive when thinking about Washington. It is easy to see his refusal to become a king and his voluntary resignation after two terms as great sacrifices when viewed through the lens of the modern imperial presidency–or even the presidency of people like Abraham Lincoln. The government tha Washington stood at the head of was a second try experiment with highly limited and still untested powers. His branch of that government was certainly not the strongest and would only get weaker (temporarily) after he left it and the Supreme Court began to assert itself. Washington–correctly–understood the Constitution and the theories of government behind it to grant primary power to the legislative branch, and he deferred to them in almost everything except that which was specifically and narrowly within his purview.

In fact, it is best to remember that Washington almost certainly exercised more power in almost ever other role in his later life than he did as president. As a general, his control of the substantial continental military was nearer to absolute and substantially more consequential than anything he wielded as president. His influence as a tycoon of Virginia real estate granted him more tangible powers as well. As president in the late eighteenth century he was a second-tier bureaucrat and statesman.

If that seems hyperbolic, the reality of the current presidency is more so. The reason modern politicians are so desperate to cling to power is precisely because they have it. They vie for control of arguably the most powerful nation in the world. The current president wields greater power and authority not only than did Washington but also significantly more than George III did in England. When patriots called for Washington to be made a king like those of Europe, it was not an invitation to power but to impotence. (Just think about the impending fate of the French king.) When they called on him to be president, the country he presided over was supposed to be one with a government only as strong as absolutely necessary with an executive whose very existence was a concession to the failure of the previous system.

So when the current president quipped, in his inimitable style, that “If [Washington] was smart, he would’ve put his name on [Mount Vernon]…You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.” The most appropriate response–the one given by the actual historian present–was to point out that Washington managed to get his name on plenty of stuff, like the capital city in which the president resides. The worst response, however, is to lapse into elegy about the man who had all the power in the world and surrendered it out of duty and love of country. Washington, like his predecessor Cincinnatus, simply quit his job because he had a better one waiting back home.

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What to say about 2020?

It’s never too early to start talking about the next election. That’s the golden rule of the 24 hours news network. As little as it matters in reality the small ups and downs of candidates, the vast majority of whom will never make it to the presidential contest, they drive interest in the news. Elections mean change, and almost everyone wants some change all the time. And so, ink continues to be spilled daily over each new candidates every new thought. My own political views notwithstanding, I can hardly help but consume all of it, or at least as much as I can cram down my mind-gullet on any given day.

Here are what I consider the most memorable quotes from the best articles about the 2020 hopefuls so far. I offer it here in part as a primer for those not yet familiar with the current cast of recurring characters. Mostly, though, I offer it to myself as an archive–a way of recording what people thought about these candidates in the white hot heat of the moment when everything was still possibility and nothing had been settled yet. Because, in the end, most of these names will in fact be resigned to history–the kind of history only historians and grad students do, not the history you learn in school.

No one is getting more coverage right now than undeclared, front-running Joe Biden, whose “tactile” style of personal interaction has proven less than ideal in a post-#metoo political landscape. Politico has by far the best article, “What Should We Make of Joe Biden?,”taking more seriously than most the true, legitimate diversity of opinions on Uncle Joe within contemporary feminism.

All the op-eds about “creepy” Uncle Joe make me want to call up my now-long-dead rhetoric professor. “What do you call the trope in which a part of a thing stands in for the whole?” I’d ask. “Synecdoche,” he’d say. “And isn’t there a synecdochal fallacy?” Well done, he’d say (or I hope he’d say). The false inference from the property to the essence.

It’s a sly feint, that false inferring. It’s how you glide from Biden’s old-school-pol’s touchy-feeliness to his unsuitability for office, without anyone quite noticing.

The last thing Joe Biden needs, at this moment when millennial and GenX candidates are sucking all of the oxygen in the Democratic primary, is to look like somebody’s grandpa. Yet that’s the impression he gives in that rambling two-minute video, where he unbuttons his shirt collar, turns the folksy-meter to 11, and declares his sudden realization that “the boundaries of respecting personal space have been reset.” It’s one of those excuses that might possibly be worse than the crime. No, Joe, the boundaries haven’t changed; what’s changed is that people at last feel empowered to tell you that you’ve been crossing them for decades.

The precise opposite of Biden, as far as coverage goes right now, is the enigmatic media darling, Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke is continuing to thrive in his wheel-house of “not winning, but doing better than he has any right to,” but the consistent lack of specificity leaves everyone with an eerie sense that there is something more theatrical than substantial to Beto. The Washington Post unpacks some of the problems with this in “Beto O’Rourke is a Walking, Talking Generation X Cliche.”

It’s hard to distrust the state, even performatively, and then actively try to participate in it.

Kamala Harris is–despite her checklist of diversity credentials–a more traditional candidate. A coastal liberal of a less iconoclastic sort with an impressive list of public service credentials and a dynamic personal presence. She’s also, unsurprisingly, drawing from at least some traditional Democratic sources of funding: Hollywood elites. Only time will tell whether or not this is to her benefit. Says Variety’s “Kamala Harris, Other 2020 Candidates Make Push to Showbiz Donors as First Deadline Nears:”

Harris likely will lead other candidates in the money primary when it comes to the amount she has raised from showbiz sources. She has been the most prolific in courting high-dollar donors at traditional fundraising receptions. Her first big Los Angeles one was at the home of Universal’s Jeff Shell and his wife Laura; she earlier this month headlined an event at the home of J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath.

The crowd of second tier candidates have the hardest time attracting attention, and often how they attract attention is not the most productive. Enter John Hickenlooper, the folksy, riches to super riches Westerner is the long shot of long shots, for a good reason. As a Politico profile notes, “John Hickenlooper Is Running for President As Himself. Uh-oh.

He probably won’t be the president of the United States. Maybe it’s because he’s too weird. Then again, maybe it’s because he’s too normal. Maybe it’s because he’s too much like us—flawed, offbeat, human.

With Pete Buttigieg, it’s been an embarrassment of riches for the media. Once they got past the incessant joking about his names (and we’re not really past that yet), what do they focus on? He’s young. He’s gay. He’s a Rhodes Scholar. He’s a veteran. And on and on. As it so happens, it the gay thing that is the fixation, but not in the “can we elect a gay man president” way that you’d expect. Instead, it’s more of a “is this gay couple just to precious to stand; they had to be cooked up in a Hollywood lab” way. See Politico’s “Chasten Buttigieg Is Winning the 2020 Spouse Primary.”

That’s the ultimate purpose of the presidential spouse: to sell the entire package, letting us imagine the family in the White House as a symbol of success, a national ideal. As a potential first husband, Chasten would be historic but also a comforting throwback, someone who took his husband’s last name and unwaveringly supports his ambitions without wondering how they have affected his own.

Elizabeth Warren was supposed to be part of the top tier; she has, after all, the firebrand flare and New England intellectual heft of Bernie Sanders, minus the socialism and the imminent expiration date. For whatever reason though–and the ancestry debacle probably has something to do with it–she can’t seem to live up to her own name. Part of the problem may be that she just can’t seem to dissolve her brilliance and her spunk into the same tasty cocktail that Bernie has manged. This is basically the judgment of an unflattering Bloomberg op-ed, “Warren Steals a Page from Trump.”

Elizabeth Warren’s latest position paper, on agricultural policy, is a disappointment on two fronts: too wonky to be considered a purely political document, but not nearly wonky enough to be defensible in terms of substance.

Then of course there is that vast pack of candidates who don’t rise to the level of serious consideration. These are the Tulsi Gabbards, who can be mentioned just long enough to say they don’t merit mention. A surprising contender to slip down into this category is Amy Klobuchar, whose rising status has largely become a backdrop against which to view her slow death by a thousand cuts. Though an “an able member of the Senate” (talk about damning with faint praise), Klobuchar has seemed to struggle to run with the pack, even the second tier pack. Consider her unfavorable ranking in Politico’s “Latino Outreach or Google Translate? 2020 Dems Bungle Spanish Websites.”

Klobuchar’s Spanish website has perhaps the most egregious mistakes, leaving readers to wonder whether the text was copied and pasted straight from Google Translate.

There are, of course, others. The vegan candidate. The anti-circumcision candidate. The teen trolls’ candidate. Oh, and Bernie Sanders, about whom undoubtedly more has been written in the last three years than any politician save the president. But the goal is not to be exhaustive. This is already too much to say about an election that is more than a year away and a caucus that is still almost that far off.

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McConnell’s Message from Bizarro World

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has become unmoored from reality–if indeed anyone in contemporary politics can still be said to have any grounding in reality. In an op-ed this morning for Politico, McConnell bemoaned (evidently without irony) the obstructionist tendencies of Senate Democrats.

Since January 2017, for the first time in memory, a minority has exploited procedure to systematically obstruct a president from staffing up his administration. This new, across-the-board obstruction is unfair to the president and, more importantly, to the American people. Left unchecked, it is guaranteed to create an unsustainable precedent that would see every future presidency of either party obstructed in the same mindless way.

McConnell’s points about obstructionism in politics are fair; his righteous idignation is not. If Republicans wanted a credible messenger for the gospel of functioning government, they could hardly have picked a more ridiculous messenger. (Was Ted Cruz unavailable?)

Let’s get serious. For the first time in memory, Mitch? Something tells me Merrick Garland can remember a time when the Senate refused to confirm judicial nominees in a completely candid and wildly successful attempt to obstruct a president’s staffing agenda. Says CNN:

You’ll remember that Garland was then-President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy on the court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016….But, Senate Republicans — led by McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley — had previously insisted they would neither meet with Garland nor conduct confirmation hearings for him. The reason? They believed that Obama was too close to leaving office to be permitted to make a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

Then, when Republicans had completed their judicial sleight of hand, McConnell completed his masterpiece:

And then McConnell changed the Senate rules — which had been previously changed by Democratic Leader Harry Reid in 2013 — to allow a simple majority vote to break a filibuster on a Supreme Court nominee. Bada bing, bada boom — Gorsuch is on the court.

In the end, politics is always rooted in the violence of the powerful. We can perhaps be relieved to know that ours is a government of procedural violence rather than martial law–although, I’m not. What is galling this morning is only the sheer tone-deafness, the unabashed hypocrisy of it all. Then again, that’s the melody driving politics right now; why shouldn’t McConnell harmonize?

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Exposing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (and Ourselves)

Personality BrokersI hate personality testing. And I hate the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Not as much as some other personality systems, to be sure, but enough that the last time my wife brought it up, I regaled everyone within earshot at IKEA about the deeply theoretical flaws in personality systems that rely on binaries—even the complex four part binaries of the MBTI. So when I flipped through the first few pages of Merve Emre’s Personality Brokers—a “strange history” of the MBTI—I thought I had hit the jackpot: a reputable history of the MBTI’s origins written by the professed skeptic. In her opening passage, Emre even went so far as to characterize the study as an investigation, the kind that produces “a kind of low-level paranoia. Files disappear. Tapes are erased. People begin to watch you.” The following lines hinted at an exposé of the dangerous cult of personality (double entendre intended) surrounding Isabel Myers and her test. Hooked, I settled in with every expectation of gleefully hate learning about the history of the test in every revealing and embarrassing detail.

What Emre actually delivers is something more measured and less titillating, facts which I can forgive in part because I am embarrassed by the maniacal joy with which I approached the book and in part because the sincerity of her approach humanizes the history of the MBTI without dulling any of the relevant criticisms.

Personality Brokers is not so much a history of the test as it is a double biography of its two founders, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, and there is clear effort to rehabilitate these women without conceding meaningful ground to the product of their labors. Emre makes clear that, even as a skeptic, she cannot escape frustration with the fact that one of the key criticisms leveled against the MBTI is that people then and now scoff at the lay origins of what is ostensibly a Jungian psychological tool. Disbelief that the originators were women is a recurring theme in Emre’s narrative, and, while time has muted or masked those objections, the idea that untrained hobbyists would perfect the science of personality continues to be an easy ad hominem to challenge the validity of the test.

In contrast, Emre depicts the women as tireless and rigorous autodidacts, whose work made every effort to conform to both the prevailing theories of psychology and the dominant modes of testing and verification. These were not bored housewives with nothing better to do than devise addictive personality tests—notwithstanding the remarkable fact that the first iteration of the MBTI was basically a Cosmo quiz, appearing in 1926 in the New Republic as “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box.” They were college-educated, careful students of Jung, who tried to apply sophisticated and cutting edge psychological theories to the problems in their immediate orbit. Sometimes these were stereotypical problems of marital bliss and effective childrearing; sometimes they were the loftier goals about predicting and preventing postpartum depression and selecting effective spies that couldn’t be cracked by the Soviets.

These were incredible women doing incredible work in an age when this was particularly difficult for women to accomplish. Yet Emre rightly diagnoses their push for broad applicability, the mass value of the MBTI, as the key to its failure as a scientific instrument. The more the women needed Jung’s theories to apply to everyday life, the more they had to be abstracted from anything with verifiable clinical value. All the old objections remain and find occasional reiteration in Emre’s narrative: people’s type shows high variability (from test to test in as short a span as a week), the test has biases along gender, racial, and economic lines, the self-reported nature puts results at a remove from reality, and the vagueness of the type categories creates a broad enough umbrella to find assent regardless of what kind of person you actually are. (This, it turns out, was done purposefully to increase marketability once the test let Myers’ hands.) More than all of this, however, Emre cites the need for the test to work—for everybody and in every situation—as the original sin of the MBTI.

For all this, Emre concludes that the MBTI’s greatest failing is also its core strength. The ability of the test to quantify an individual, to put them into a marketable category of type, allows for a ease of self-discovery that has a way of removing the shame from who we are. If you can’t get along with your spouse, perhaps you are contrasting types. If you fight often with your parents, it may be a clash of types. If your child is struggling in school, perhaps the teacher just doesn’t understand how a child of your type learns. By teaching us who we are, the MBTI also tells us why our lives are unfolding the way they do. It can be liberating to understand oneself, especially if that understanding comes dressed up in the trappings of psychological jargon and authority.

This new-ageyness of the MBTI had never been part of my criticism of the test—which had always been more purely theoretical (perhaps reflecting my type…)—and I am indebted to Emre for introducing me to this line of critique. In the end, the act of self-classification and the classification of others is about the absolution of responsibility. Cloaking a problem in type excuses the student from learning, the couple from trying, the child from submitting to its parents. Advocates of the MBTI would argue that the indicator tells you how to navigate those problems rather than how to avoid them, but even anecdotal experience with personality typing (of any system) shows that its explanatory power is dismissive

Katherine Briggs used it this way against her son-in-law; Isabel Myers used it the same way; and sitting around the dinner table with my in-laws the great tradition continues. “You do that because you’re…” or “You say that because you’re…” Left brained. Type A. INTP. Emre sums it up best when she points out the vast gulf that exists between the old MBTI slogan “You’re not one in 16. You’re one in a million” and the actual use of the test in hiring and firing, college admissions, career planning, relationship counseling, and social media. The moment you consent to—even invite—categorization, you cease to be an individual and become a type.

That’s the whole point, the usefulness of the MBTI and other personality type systems after all. With that loss of individuality comes a necessary loss of culpability for the way that your life unfolds. You become the Marxian individual, making your own history but not within parameters of your own choosing. Within the limits of your innate type, you cannot be held responsible for your action. A slightly less renowned philosopher put the same sentiment this way: “Oh there ain’t no other way. Baby I was born this way.” What Gaga, Marx, and Myers-Briggs all seem to have in common is the idea that the surrender of the self to the destiny of birth is somehow liberating. That’s not a liberation that I want any part in.

On the whole, I recommend Personality Brokers enthusiastically. It is a thought-provoking and accessible bit of biography of the unwitting crafters of one the great cultural phenomena of our times. Though far from a quick read, Emre writes in an engaging style mixing insight and measured criticism with humanity and candid self-reflection. Though most consumer reviews have been superficially parsed into negative “true believers” and positive critics, Emre’s text is evenhanded enough to have something to offer everyone. Like the MBTI training group that provides the substance of her conclusion, Emre provides space for advocates to ask questions and seek answers without necessarily abandoning the self-actualization that MBTI offers, for better or worse.

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