Category Archives: News

Rihanna and the Self-Caricature of Progressivism

Twitter is mad this morning. And as increasing irrelevant as I think activism on the platform is becoming, I find today’s outrage particularly outrageous. On Tuesday, Harper’s Bizarre China released photos (set for publication in August) from a recent shoot with pop star Rihanna, in which the Barbadian singer:

[i]n one photo…gazes down, a dainty Chinese fan in one hand and a bright red sash around her waist. In another, she poses in front of a traditional folding screen, the golden ornaments in her hair reminiscent of the royal fashions of ancient China.

The whole purpose of the piece was, by design, to show what happens “when western style icon meets eastern aesthetic.” Unfortunately, the magazine forgot to run that fairly benign vision by the Internet censors in advance. On cue, Twitter cried “cultural appropriation” and let slip the dogs of war.

Cultural appropriation, for the uninitiated, is the use of styles or artifacts of one culture by individuals not of that culture. That’s a broad and inoffensive definition that might make you think of white folks using chopsticks at a Chinese buffet or cooking tacos on Tuesdays (in the proud tradition of Moctezuma). In practice (or, in Twitter practice) the term has become an unevenly but aggressively applied synonym for racism of the career hobbling (but not necessarily ending) blackface sort. It is a kind of polito-cultural slur applied to anyone violating the sacrosanct borders of culture, particularly majority groups who don the visual style or who ape the artistic output of minority cultural groups.

Herein lies part of the most tangled and interesting problem with the accusations against Rihanna. On the one hand Afro-Caribbeans are an almost unrecognizably small minority in mainland China where the consuming audience for the photos lives. Yet, on the other hand, Sino-Caribbeans–the descendants of Chinese laborers brought to the Caribbean–are a significant and clearly visible minority in Rihanna’s cultural home. As an Afro-Caribbean in Chinese garb, is she a member of the mainstream taking on the culture of the weak and marginalized or is she a minority adopting the dominant culture where she happens to be at the moment?

That’s more nuance than Twitter is willing to get into and, quite frankly, it is irrelevant to my larger concerns. The first is the confusion–typical of the overreach of contemporary cultural progressives–between adoption and parody, between (in other words) white people performing hip hop and wearing FUBU and white people appearing in blackface. Blackface (like the yellow- and redface parallels) is a particularly disgusting bit of American history wherein white people made their faces up to look like caricatures of African Americans in order to propagate demeaning stereotypes about a people they were actively oppressing. That’s why blackface was (and still is) terrible–as are all Frito-Bandito style Halloween and Cinco de Mayo get ups.

But we can’t confuse this with white tourists in Tokyo wear yukata on Tanabata, with Monica Geller getting braids to manage her hair in Barbados, or with the very fact of white people drinking margaritas and eating Tex-Mex on Cinco de Mayo. Not only is that silly–raising perfectly legitimate ad absurdum questions about just how much appropriation is appropriate–but it fails to accurately identify what is wrong with blackface. The problem with blackface is not that white people made themselves look like blackpeople, it’s that they did it maliciously and without authentic understanding of (or even superficial desire to understand) the people they were parodying. An attempt to understanding, appreciate, and participate in a culture on its own terms has as little in common with blackface as a surgeon’s scalpel does with a mugger’s switchblade. Knifing people is wrong…depending.

That’s not too much nuance to expect from the general public, or it shouldn’t be. The point has not been entirely lost on Twitter. Rihanna’s defenders are absolutely right to point out that the designers, publishers, and audience are all Chinese:

By going straight to the source and finding a Chinese designer, her supporters said she had honored the culture and people from which the aesthetic was borrowed.

They ought to go a step further and point out the basically colonial attitude involved in being outraged on behalf of the Chinese for the appropriation of their culture. The anxiety over “cultural appropriation” is a peculiarly affluent western phenomenon, one that is overwhelmingly white. To the extent that white people feel the need to explain what minority cultures will find offensive in our behavior they perpetuate the kind of paternalisms they purport to resist. Outside of the paradoxically closed discourse of Western cultural progressives, the world is a much less insecure place. When I took kyūdō lessons in Japan, I was required to remove my western clothing and done the tradition kyūdōgi because failing to do so would have been inappropriate. It was a source of confusion when I had to struggle to explain to our teacher why I did not want pictures of me from the class shared on social media because I did not want to have to explain my non-western garb to any overzealous undergrads. Audiences in China, meanwhile, appear as likely to be befuddled by American outrage:

[T]here is a contrast between audiences in mainland China, who have largely complimented the shoot, and audiences overseas, who seem more conflicted.
On the Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo, the majority of comments about Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared positive. “No wonder she is the Queen of Shandong (province),” one user wrote, using a nickname Chinese fans have given Rihanna. “She is a foreigner that is most suitable to the Chinese style.”

“It looks so good! Slay! The Chinese style compliments her so well,” another user wrote, while other Weibo comment threads are filled with heart emojis and exclamations of “wow” and “beautiful!”

For those in China who appreciate and consume American musical culture, seeing a pop music icon appreciating, even celebrating, Chinese culture is a tribute rather than an insult.

The almost willful lack of nuance with which angry progressives distribute accusations of cultural appropriation dulls the force of their argument about genuinely hurtful acts of performative racial violence like blackface. Beyond replicating old paternalisms in new but no less patronizing forms, it transforms banal acts of cultural fluidity into mortal sins to the end of confusing and alienating anyone who doesn’t understand the demarcating line of transgression between eating sushi and wearing a red sash while using a paper fan. “If I can’t get it right, I might as well stop worrying about getting it wrong. So why is blackface racist again?”

Just as importantly, bemoaning cultural appropriation undercuts their larger multicultural objective by treating culture as a bounded reality that is fixed and inherited like race. In that respect, they replicate a more specific form of colonialism. In the interest of giving that adequate space, I’ll address it more fully in a subsequent post.

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The Usual Policy

I have made several attempts over the course of the last year to attack the discourse of novelty that surrounds the actions of the current administration. It seems that my voice (through great personal effort) is finally reaching the masses. Chris Rock posted an image yesterday to social media reminding outraged Americans that the United States was founded on a policy of family separation. The greater message–mine, not necessarily Chris Rock’s–is that something is wrong because it is wrong, not because it is without precedent or because it is inconsistent with “American” values. The precedents are there and the values are only as good, as real, as meaningful as the actions they have, do, and will provoke.

There’s my happy belated birthday to the US.

U.S. Navy Flag at Ballgame

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Bad History is Still Good Politics

Biden_P6YI6TBVLLUBBBGXLAELast September, I wrote a bit about the frustrating rhetoric of novelty that surrounds this presidency. There are frequent claims–sometimes from the president but especially from his critics–that he is a norm-shattering figure, untethered from the historical rules and codes of conduct of the American presidency. The cry since the 2016 election of the “resistance” has been never to normalize this administration. But it is normal, at least with regard to its positioning in the grand flow of American presidential history. For every horrible (or, if you’re so inclined, laudable) thing he has done, there is a clear precedent or analogue in administrations past. He is not the corruption (or, again if you’d prefer, metamorphosis) of the US presidency, he is “its culmination–historically and morally the distillation of everything it stands for and has always stood for.”

Nevertheless, the rhetoric persists, and it appears to be born from a delusion that American global authority is rooted in virtue rather than force, exceptionalism rather than triumphalism. Neurotic though it may be, this collective self-deception has been an effective political tool for both parties for at least a century (as far back as Woodrow Wilson’s “moral diplomacy”) and probably longer. The fact that this president has thrown open the curtain–or, to recycle my metaphor from last fall, wiped the lipstick off the pig–may leave us uncomfortable with what we see, but it doesn’t change what we’ve always had. The “wizard” was always a con-artist; the pig was always a pig.

That didn’t stop the narrative from reappearing in this past week’s Democratic primary debates, where once again historical blindness came into service of political rhetoric. Former Vice President Joe Biden–who by all accounts had a rough night and who will almost certainly not suffer for it–doubled-down on the rhetoric of norm-shattering novelty in his closing remarks. See if you can catch the bogus history in the following:

I’m ready to lead this country because I think it’s important we restore the soul of this nation. This president has ripped it out. It’s the only president in our history who has equated racists and white supremacists with ordinary and decent people. He’s the only president who has, in fact, engaged and embraced dictators and thumbed their nose at our allies. I’m, secondly, running for president because I think we have to restore the backbone of America, the poor and hardworking middle class people.

If you guessed “all of it,” then you’re right. The appeal to America’s exceptional virtue is clear and utterly nonsensical. The “soul” (now lost) of the US is, for Biden, it’s racial inclusivity and its repudiation of authoritarian governments. On a night when Biden got raked over the coals for his insensitivity toward the lingering pain of America’s racial history, it is telling to me that no one has called him out on the first of these claims. Every American president at least through (and including) Abraham Lincoln would have equated southern slave owners with “ordinary and decent people.” Say what you will about a brief and radical period of Reconstruction, but most presidents since would also have embraced what the contemporary left considers “racists and white supremacists” as perfectly regular folks. When we have had eighteen American presidents who owned slaves–eight of whom owned slaves while in office–it’s pretty ridiculous to say that this president is the first to consider racism ordinary.

But pointing that out does a disservice to the narrative that this president (rather than America itself) has a pretty consistent and universal race problem.

The idea that the US had a clear and steadfast policy of opposing authoritarian governments prior to 2016 is equally absurd, as any even remotely honest reading of the Cold War in Latin America will reveal. Support for Cuban authoritarian Fulgencio Batista (a support which helped provoke Castro’s communist revolution) and the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala (Arbenz) and Chile (Allende) in favor of brutal military dictators are just the beginning. From the détente with Papa Doc to Operation Ajax and the installation of the shah in Iran, the US has a long and proud history of engaging and embracing dictators. In fact, the rise of modern dictatorships coincides–not entirely coincidentally–with the end of isolationism as a viable US foreign policy. If this president has decided to do his cozying up to dictators in public rather than through covert agencies, that is again a change in window dressing not substance.

Biden knows what he is saying is ridiculous. Or someone on his staff does. I don’t believe that no one in the whole machine of the current Democratic field is smart enough to see the patent historical absurdity of the claims being made. The problem is that bad history has always been good politics. Because “that’s not how we do things” has more resonance than “that’s not how we do things lately,” and “that’s not who we are” is more comforting than “that’s not who we pretend to be.”

 

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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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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-Tax2-043019

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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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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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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OCU’s Difficult Precedent

Oklahoma Christian University has made the choice to respond to student concern about the racial history of one of their building’s namesakes (N. B. Hardeman) by renaming it. The story has made national religion news. In some respects, this choice is heartening. The objections of Hardeman’s grandson notwithstanding, all evidence suggests that Hardeman was a casual, open racist typical of his time–though not for this excusable. Coming to grips with its deep history of racism is an overdue chore for many churches, and the Churches of Christ particularly so, as they have by no means moved beyond their segregationist tendencies. So kudos to OCU for tackling the problem head on, as other churches and congregations have tried to do, however symbolically.

At the same time, OCU sets for itself and other institutions affiliated with the Churches of Christ a very difficult precedent. As a movement born of and maturing in among the most overtly racist periods in US history, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement has little but deeply imperfect leaders in its history when it comes to race. When some quote (and there are ample) from David Lipscomb or James Harding emerges, will whole universities need to change their name? Freed-Hardeman shows no sign of following OCU’s lead and dropping the “Hardeman” from its name (even if most of us just call it “Freed” for convenience anyway). If OCU’s approach to the problem is really the most constructive, than there is a great purge coming.

If so, it’s not a big deal; names on universities or university buildings shouldn’t demand more loyalty than racial justice. I still can’t help but wonder if this isn’t tokenism plain and simple. There are still real issues of racial divide and injustice in the country, in the churches, and probably at OCU. If you put a blue uniform on Jefferson Davis, he doesn’t become Abraham Lincoln. Scrubbing bad names off of buildings doesn’t change what’s inside.

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