Blest Be the Tie that Binds

One year, on a trip north from Los Angeles, we stopped off at the University of California at Santa Cruz campus to visit a married couple, both in graduate school studying computer programing. When I asked about their projects, one of the students said she was working on a component that would become part of another system, but she didn’t know its ultimate purpose. It might be military; it could be household. She said computers would improve lifestyle and livability. For example, she said, when you arrived at the front door of your house, a computer would recognize you, and your door would open automatically. Later, I learned that, having completed his graduate program, her husband got a good programming job, but due to a misunderstanding regarding dress code, he quit his first day at work because he was expected to wear a tie. That same day, he went to another computer programming firm in the area, where ties were not required, and was immediately hired.

About ten years later, this time on a trip north from Portland, in Seattle on business, I visited a friend who was working in the computer industry. He took me on a trip of the home office, which was called a campus. With its various outdoor activity fields, the low profile buildings, the walkways – it looked and felt like a school campus. On our way to an onsite cafeteria for lunch, we passed through a couple of long corridors lined on both sides with solid doors opening into offices the size of telephone booths where single workers sat hunched toward a computer screen. After finding a table in the cafeteria and settling into lunch, I glanced around and gradually noticed I was the only guy in the whole place wearing a tie.

Glancing around today, I notice that one of the few industries still apparently requiring a tie is politics. But I’ve also noticed that news media people on camera also wear ties. They all seem to share similar clothing styles, the men and the women, the politicians on both sides of the aisle, the leaders in industry, the ladies and gentlemen of the world. It’s a wonder they don’t all get along better, and one wonders what today a tie might signify. The tie seems now only a theoretical construct – its purpose and meaning are not directly observable. It no longer binds, but unbinds.

The title of this post is taken from the hymn by John Fawcett:

“Blest Be the Tie that Binds”
by John Fawcett, 1740-1817

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our alms, are one,
Our comforts and our cares.

We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When here our pathways part,
We suffer bitter pain;
Yet, one in Christ and one in heart,
We hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way,
While each in expectation lives
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin we shall be free
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

Hymn #464
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Eph. 4:3
Author: John Fawcett, 1772, alt.
Composer: Lowell Mason, 1832
Tune: “Boylston”

Seven Days in May Not; or, A New Lord’s Prayer

Our Potus who hides us
from sea to lake crisis
hollow is your name.

Thy Kingdom rots
from east evidence storms
to trans west fires.

Feed us our daily diversions.
Forgive us our not tots
as we forgive those
who abandon us.

And lead us not into fees and tolls,
but deliver us our lowly titles
and our vulnerable genders,
our human based prayers.

The Flags of Our Dispositions

Some talk again
about the end
of this world
but yr rapture
might not be
his rapture &
maybe he’ll be
happy as hops
to see you go.

Kneel, stand, or
dodge the show
weekend TV
questions for
the status quo
diversion plays
reductio ad absurdum
the flags of our
dispositions.

More disposed
to please or dis
now a word
from the sponsor
who decides
penultimately
what is ok
& what
unacceptable.

The crickets’
crackles
diminish
lights off but
sounds off
continue
the broadcast
day now
infinite.

Body of Christ and Body Politic: Notes on Luke J. Goble’s “Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith”

In one of the early scenes of H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine,” the Time Traveler discovers a group of Eloi lounging in the sun by a small river, bathing in the shallows. One of them, Weena, cramps and is caught in a rapid, and is in danger of drowning, but her screams are ignored. None of the other Eloi help her. They don’t even seem interested. They don’t seem to care. The Time Traveler saves Weena and learns the Eloi live lives of elite, privileged pleasure. But they pay a price. Each evening, the Eloi are summoned by a kind of futuristic church siren, a pair of giant doors slide open, and one by one the Eloi enter, walking slowly and devoutly into the underground home of the Morlocks, where the chosen Eloi are cooked and eaten. The remaining Eloi, after the siren stops and the doors close, without protest wander back to their pleasure dome to a dinner of luscious fruit and vegetables, never missing their lost ones. The Eloi have no religion and no politics.

What do today’s Christians want, and why? And why would what today’s Christians want be any different from what anyone else wants? And what should Christians want, since they don’t all seem to want the same things?

“Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith” (2017) is an even-tempered argument exploring the place and practice of politics as a consequence of religion. Definitions (what is politics, what is justice) are patiently unpacked and assumptions and predispositions brought to light and questioned within an academic shell (researched citations, references, extensive bibliography), but the text is written in an accessible, at times almost conversational, style. Written in the first person throughout, the book is carefully organized to include discussion of multiple opposing, diverse, or varying viewpoints. Each chapter closes with personal reflections and concrete examples of practices of political importance showing politics as a necessary, wanted, and useful element of daily life. The target audience is probably the thinking Christian, but as in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism,” which argues for a citizen of the world, a more diverse, broader audience is implied and addressed. The tone of “Worshiping Politics” is not arrogant or preachy. The occasion is not knocking door to door, evangelical Bible in hand. The book’s claims are challenging and their opposition anticipated, acknowledged, and handled respectfully.

The author of “Worshiping Politics,” Luke J. Goble[1], a Harvard graduate, professor of history, and adoptive parent, does not simply break with the old convention of etiquette that advises one not to talk about politics or religion. He argues that religion is politics. To ignore talking about either is to miss the point in a vapid exercise of politeness. But to talk about politics and religion in a qualified academic argument is not to rant and rave, attack or scare, browbeat or arm-twist, inflict guilt or wish perdition. In any case, that’s not Luke’s style. Militant atheists might be surprised by this book, as might many militant Christians. We should not ignore, or worse, scorn, those in need of help, and, arguably, our politics and religion need help, separately and together. But how do we help a drowning victim if we don’t recognize a call for help when we hear one, or we can’t swim either, or we just don’t want to get wet, or when we do jump in and reach them they are in such a panic they drown us with them?

Common words and terms are carefully qualified: “Based on my emerging definition – that politics means engaging in the process of debating, negotiating, and pursuing the good of a particular community – and by almost any definition of church (other than a building), it should not be difficult to grasp the political nature of church. If church is a kind of community with a common call, goal, or good, then participating in that community is inherently political.” That is what effective argument does – defines, specifies, draws a field of play. Goble references the Bible, but his book is not simply a collection of biblical quotes selected to create a convenient credibility. Whatever else it might be, the Bible is a historical artifact, and Goble uses it for proof and backing of claims in a historian’s voice. For some readers, Christian and non-Christian, this might come as a kind of revelation, that the Bible is not necessarily read literally, that there are insider questions regarding how and when its books were written, and why, and how some writings came to be included and others left out, while at the same time the Bible does provide historical evidence. The Bible is history, or at least a part of history. That the Bible is interpreted in various ways and often used for what might seem cross-purposes should come as no surprise; the US Supreme Court interprets the US constitution – no one questions the historical fact of that constitution, but what any part of it might mean today is backlogged with case reviews.

Early in Goble’s text, five foundational claims are examined: “1. The Bible is political 2. Jesus was political 3. The gospel is political 4. The church is political 5. Christians are called to be political.” But if everything is political, what remains? If “Come follow me” is a political invitation to vote one’s religion, how authentic are the called who only vote, or vote their conscience, as the saying goes? Of what is the conscience made? But Goble isn’t talking about simply voting, or voting at all. He’s talking about living a political life as an outgrowth of the religious life, what he calls a formative life, which, in one sense, means making an existential decision to break from one’s learned, emotional reasoning to reach a more clear understanding of why and how one thinks and behaves and what one wants to do and how to go about doing it. Formation is not an easy process. We are easily and naturally formed, but our formation does not necessarily inform us. We are rather like the Eloi. When the siren goes off, we get in line and follow. We don’t always choose what is good for us or for others. We may not know what is good for ourselves or for others.

“When it comes to negotiating power and pursuing the good of a community beyond ourselves (i.e., politics), we are deceived about our capacity to be fair, honest, and objective. So, while most of us tend to represent our political views and activity as what is best for the community (or country) overall, we are not very good judges of what is good for others” (30).

Central to his argument about how we think and behave (what informs decisions such as how we vote or who we help or who we scorn), Goble closely examines Jonathan Haidt’s work on decision making informed by rationalizations and justifications that suit us comfortably, that make us comfortable with our decisions and behaviors. Conscience is a deeply embedded magician performing sleight of hand tricks we come to believe are real.

“We are not as good as we think we are. Our behavior is conditioned by factors like 1) our natural propensity to want to be liked by those around us, 2) our need to protect the group(s) that comprise our core identity, 3) our desire to preserve our current self and path unless otherwise forced, and 4) our need to be ‘ok’ with our existing behavioral patterns and our ability to find ways to do so. In the studies referenced by Haidt, these conditioning factors all take on a negative light. But the same propensities can also make us the kind of human beings that can live well in community – to seek compromise, to build commonality, to operate according to convictions. What they show most of all is that we are creatures whose deep feelings drive our behavior even though we think it is our reason” (42).

Or we don’t think about it at all. We behave first, then we create a reason that seems to give that behavior some kind of sense. We do something similar when judging or trying to explain someone else’s behavior. What were they thinking? Likely they weren’t thinking at all. Their siren went off and they behaved accordingly, according to assumptions and predispositions so deeply rooted they are not thought out at all. This may be particularly true of religious behavior, which presupposes and assumes good. If we behave a certain way for what we or others take to be a religious reason, that behavior must be good.

“Does that mean people of faith operate under an illusion of moral superiority? Does it mean that religious convictions do not have anything significant to contribute to public justice or cultural mores? I would say yes and no. Yes, sometimes people of faith operate under an illusion of moral superiority. Research in moral psychology seems to defy any claim that beliefs or religious identity labels are accurate predictors of behavior. But perhaps convictions that come by way of belief also have something significant to contribute to the ways in which our deep feelings are formed, and subsequently the kinds of actions that emanate from those ways of being formed” (43).

Goble’s book, an argument that religion is politics and politics means caring for others, “opening up to the interests and circumstances of others” (57), takes turns that lead down paths of psychological work; historical precedent and interpretation; practical applications for regular community exercise; works of classic and contemporary philosophy; popular expressions of contemporary life (for example, scenes with dialog from the television series The West Wing); scripture and the history and practice of reading, studying, and passing down scripture, his discussion of Talmudic study compared to contemporary Christian reading of the Bible, for example: “…when we read the Bible, we don’t typically read the most important interpretations or debates alongside” (57); and his own personal reflections from his experience of “living in the world,” of “being in the world.”

How does one be in the world, working outward from nature to self to family to community to state to a world where one feels safe, and why does being in the world often seem so fraught with conflict that all we can think to do is run and hide to the supposed safety of our own affective emotional constructs? Or, as Appiah puts it in “Examined Life”: “There’s a certain kind of philosophical universalism, which is often associated with evangelizing religions, where, yeah, we love everybody but we want them to become like us in order to love them properly. There’s a great German proverb, which says, ‘If you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll bash your skull in’…And that’s the opposite of cosmopolitanism. It’s the universalist who says, ‘Yeah, I want you to be my brother, but on my terms,’ whereas the cosmopolitan says, ‘I want to be your brother figuratively, your fellow citizen, but I don’t make it a condition of that that we come to be the same’” (p. 92 of the text of the film). And “but the Bible says,” regardless of what we might think it might say (i.e. how we interpret and determine what’s most important in the Bible), is an inadequate response.

“Once certain connections between guiding narratives and political dispositions are made explicit, it is easy to see how political biases shape interpretive choices…the tendency to interpret Scripture according to intuitive frameworks of meaning but to see and declare our own interpretations true, absolute, and unchanging. Our intuitions lead us to choose different narratives to emphasize. This approach leads to deadlock and disunity among Christians, not to mention a confusing and compromising witness to those who put little or no authority in Scripture to begin with” (back to “Worshiping Politics,” 56).

At least one reason some citizens may give no authority to Scripture might be found in the history of the Church. One is tempted to take the metaphor to its rhetorical end, its reductio ad absurdum, the body of Christ so infected by the worms of heresy and hypocrisy it is now a skeleton hanging in the closet of a high school biology class, a dried up framework that without muscle supports nothing. Goble recognizes the fickleness of the Church though the centuries: its WASP-ish table settings; its compromises, treaties, or concessions; its contradictions; its inquisitions – in short, how for many of the world’s people, the body of Christ has been either a turned back or an experience of acculturation. That history though is fascinating reading. Goble’s book includes a survey of changing church paradigms over the centuries, including “the early church, the early Roman Church, the medieval church, the Lutheran ‘Two Kingdoms’ model, Puritan Theocracy, Kuyperian Calvinism, Christian Realism, Amish/Anabaptist Sectarianism, Christian Anarchy, Liberation Theology, Yoder’s Middle Axiom Model.” Readers may begin to wonder what held the body of Christ together throughout time and the world, the good news continually subsumed by the bad.

“Not only has theology excluded voices, but like other forms of dominant discourse, it has participated in constructing and maintaining structures of power. A huge blind spot in each of the previous paradigms is in the conception of the social body or society itself. Taking society or ‘the world’ for granted without thinking about the political implications for those who do not wield dominant power, essentially multiple societies or social bodies, is a gap in the paradigms that come after the Middle Ages” (116).

It seems ordinary members of the faithful may have over time held more sway than Church leaders in restoring what health we might find currently in the body of Christ.

“Corresponding with the cultural and national liberation movements that came about after World War Two, new spaces of reception opened up for previously marginalized voices in theology. One of the most important developments out of that milieu has been liberation theology. In short, liberation theology grew out of the struggle for justice by Latin American peasants who had long experienced marginalization in all aspects of society – politically, economically, and spiritually by the (mostly Roman Catholic) church. Many Catholic priests, already living and working in solidarity with the poor also recognized the contradiction that the gospel should be ‘good news’ for the poor, yet the institutionalized church and other forms of power in society that it reinforced were not good news at all” (116).

Who were these Catholic priests (and nuns), where did they come from, and from what were they formed and how were they informed?

“Our political behavior is not thought or even taught but ‘caught’ – meaning it is shaped affectively and, at least to some degree, out of our control” (31).

At the end of Wells’s “The Time Machine,” the Time Traveler, having returned to his present and met with some friends and told his story of the future, decides to return to the future: “I came back through the corridor. The Time Traveler met me in the smoking room. He was coming from the house. He had a small camera under one arm and a knapsack under the other.” Wells did not tell his reader what was in the knapsack. In the 1960 film version of “The Time Machine,” staring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, it’s suggested that the Time Traveler takes with him back to the future two books. In the film, the Morlocks are destroyed in their underground caverns by a giant fire fed by the Time Traveler assisted by the Eloi. The Eloi will now no longer be food for the Morlocks, but they will now have to care for themselves, take care of one another, work, worry. The addition of the question of what books the Time Traveler selects is an interesting Hollywood edit to the Wells text.

The Time Traveler wants to help the Eloi. But then why would he take anything in his knapsack from his own time, his own time having proven to be such a disaster? If there is good in the world, where and what is it? Is what’s good for Christians also good for non-Christians? Goble explores good and justice and explains why we should be careful imposing our own values of what is good or just on others. How do individuals influence the future, their own or that of others? What is the extent of an individual’s influence over religion or politics? How can we be sure our actions in the present are good for the future?

“Belief in the lordship of Christ allows for patience, peacefulness, hope, and sacrifice now. It allows for Christians not to try to force peace through violence, justice by imposition, or well-being through coercion” (129).

There is in Goble’s book a dichotomy at work that readers may find puzzling or problematic. That isn’t Goble’s fault; it comes with the territory. In one sense, the dichotomy is shown in Augustine’s “two cities,” the City of God and the City of Earth. In another sense, the dichotomy might be seen in the insistence that Christians maintain a distinction from other entities also working toward good and justice. And here not that their ideas of good and justice might be different than secular ones, but that the impetus to work toward them “should flow out of our [Christian] identity and not our ambition” (128). That, because the Christian’s identity presumably includes the idea of a happy ending for the good. Phrases like, “…the last thing, the end event, when the Lordship of Christ is full realized” (129) may sound a bit mystical or esoteric to the general reader. Metaphor is always at work. Words like kingdom and lordship suggest a state and subservience to that state as well as class distinctions, from peasant to knight. These are images that enable views. Goble wants to make sure his reader understands he is “not a biblical scholar” (129). (Had me fooled.) Readers might also feel a dichotomy between the old and new testaments. Thomas Merton said that God is un-seeable, unknowable, almost unthinkable – that we can only approach an understanding of God through our human images or symbols or rituals – but those images are human images. They’re not wrong, but they are human-made and serve only a human purpose. Yet there are times the word God appears in Goble’s text as if God’s a go-to-guy. Goble acknowledges that language translations and cultural contexts add to our confusion. Is God’s love for his people a human love or divine love? Does God love everyone, or only his chosen ones? Another dichotomy. We can add love and God to our list of difficult concepts to unpack: good, justice, love, God. God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only son. What the hell kind of love is that? I have seen many sons sacrificed by their fathers, beginning with Vietnam, some on the battlefield, others at the kitchen table. But I digress. Onward, Christian soldier.

The last chapters of Goble’s book are the most difficult, not to read, but to reflect upon, to perhaps put some new way of being or thinking into practice. The arc of the book is threaded. We see how we are predisposed to think and behave and we learn to self-justify our dispositions. We then see examples of that at work in history, philosophy, popular culture, psychology. We then discover how we might work to change our dispositions, change ourselves from being driven by emotional affective design toward being more intentional about how we think and behave, about who we are. Here is an example of the book’s arc. This is just one thread. Goble talks about how we self-deceive: “We are self-justifying creatures who construct narratives about the world necessary to maintain the views of ourselves that we hold” (41). We might think the more educational experience we gain the less likely we would be to self-deceive and be forced to self-justify, but Goble cites research that shows “IQ and education levels do not markedly improve one’s ability to see an issue more objectively, but they do increase one’s capacity to support and defend one’s initial judgment. In other words, greater intelligence or education can help us defend our ideas better, but they do not necessarily result in better thinking” (39). Those quotes are from Chapter 3: “The Problem of Self-Deception.” In Chapter 10, “The Problem of Practice,” the thread of how we think is picked up again, under the sub-heading “Against Closed-Mindedness”: “Intellectual humility describes perfectly rational, disinterested truth-seeking, involving openness and willingness to accept information because it is true…involves an established sense of one’s self and worth apart from how one’s intellect, accomplishments, or legacy are viewed, and a genuine intrinsic concern for knowledge and truth” (165). Since most of us are probably not intellectually humble, but we might agree such humility might make us more effective working and being with others, the question becomes how do we intentionally change our dispositions. Related threads that form the arc include “self-promotion, tribalism, self-justification, self-deception” that “are [not] easily overcome by the cultivation of counter-virtues through material practices” (166).

Goble’s book concludes with an existential examination of formation. Existentialism suggests that existence precedes essence. That means we are born into a circumstance and predicament not of our choosing, but we do have a choice – to decide for ourselves what the essence of that existence might be. For cradle Christians (those born into a Christian circumstance and predicament), that choice can be profoundly difficult. A Franciscan Friar once told me Catholicism was not a religion for children. I thought, then I might want to stay a child forever. As an existentialist, I might successfully make that choice. But Goble suggests the Christian’s choice is not existential, because “Desire for God is not willed, it is a gift” (172). “How [then] does [intentional] formation happen?” (172).

Goble’s idea of formation does seem to share with the existentialists the idea of freedom. It might seem paradoxical, but he seems to think that belonging to God differentiates in a way that creates a freedom from the world that continually works its formation of us without our approval or even awareness. Borrowing from Jesus’s prayer for his disciples, Goble says Jesus is saying something like don’t mix up me with “where you live, who you are with, or the trappings of religiosity or culture that you might mistake for me” (190). In other words, we might want to be very careful with the alliances and treaties we make with the powers that be, because we will be formed and reformed by whatever accommodations we might make. It’s not enough to be born again once. If you really want to be a Christian, you must be born again every day. The existentialist also renews the choice of essence, of existence preceding essence, on a daily basis. The Body of Christ must be very careful not to get too cozy and fall into bed with the Body Politic. Goble summarizes this problem: “How can the church faithfully engage the world while still being set apart? Being in the world makes being formed by the world inescapable. Withdrawing from the world makes engagement impossible. Wherein lies the balance?” (193).

That’s an important question, because one wants to maintain one’s freedom. In the last chapter, Goble provides an example, what he calls a “Model for the Moment,” of a possible balance. The example involves Embrace Oregon, a coalition of diverse forces attempting to care for the needs of orphaned, vulnerable children. “Real relational knowing is mutually formative, and only by being formed by significant relationships with those who are ‘other’ in multiple intersectional ways (race, class, gender, socioeconomic, class, education, nationality, language, sexual orientation, religion) can we live out a culture forming faith. There is always a dynamic movement between formation and culture creation” (200).

The text of “The Time Machine” suggests a characteristic of the Eloi not seen in the film version referenced above. In the text, the Eloi are little people. In a sense, they are children, or they are like children in that they are completely vulnerable. Their caretakers, the Morlocks, care for them. It might be said that the Morlocks may even love the Eloi, but the Eloi are not free.

In Goble’s very last “Practice,” he says, “Cultivate and struggle for relationship in the face of rules that remove, economics that exclude, addictions that alienate” (207).

I don’t know if H. G. Wells, in naming the Morlocks, had in mind the biblical Moloch, but it seems likely he did. Goble recognizes the need for Christians to work with the Morlocks to free the Eloi, without themselves becoming coopted by the Morlocks, becoming a new Moloch, or putting the Eloi at risk of a new captivation.

 

 

 

[1] Disclosure: Luke teaches at Warner Pacific College, where I’ve done work as an adjunct instructor.

 

 

Fantasy Democracy: Notes on Capital, Politics, and Voting

fantasy-democracyLouis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.

That study found that

“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).

In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.

Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,

“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).

That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.

An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,

“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).

Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is

r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).

What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that

“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).

And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches

“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).

In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.

Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:

“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”

And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.

“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.

“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).

The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how

“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).

Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).

That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”

Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:

Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”

Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.

English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.

Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.

Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”

Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.

Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.

Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”

Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!

But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?

In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:

“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.

The Political Fray Replay

What does it mean to “vote one’s conscience”? Isn’t the conscience that comfortable place where sleeps one’s presuppositions, unquestioned assumptions, background biases, wishes, wants, and whimsy?

James Joyce was three months old when in May of 1882 two high-level government men associated with British rule were assassinated in what came to be called the Phoenix Park murders. The resulting fallout probably delayed home rule decades, destroyed more lives and families, fed family arguments over politics for decades, was absorbed into history and myth. Charles Stewart Parnell’s career faced new challenges, and Parnell’s early death was a tragedy for Ireland.

In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Joyce’s Stephen recalls his family arguments arising from the topic –

That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other side but his mother and Uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it.

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in Poetry and Rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry.

Joyce’s Stephen, in “Portrait” and again in “Ulysses,” considers himself the servant of two masters, the Church and British rule. Stephen wants nothing to do with either. That Britain has its own church separate from Ireland’s complicates issues:

— Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It’s not right.

— Oh, he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly, the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.

— Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.

— Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!

— They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!

— Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!

Uncle Charles raised his hands mildly and said :

— Come now, come now, come now ! Can we not have our opinions whatever they are without this bad temper and this bad language? It is too bad surely.

Mrs Dedalus spoke to Dante in a low voice but Dante said loudly:

— I will not say nothing. I will defend my church and my religion when it is insulted and spit on by renegade catholics.

Mr Casey pushed his plate rudely into the middle of the table and, resting his elbows before him, said in a hoarse voice to his host:

— Tell me, did I tell you that story about a very famous spit?

The young Steve tries to understand the arguments, the claims and evidence and reasoning. He does not name the fallacies, not yet:

Stephen looked with affection at Mr Casey’s face which stared across the table over his joined hands. He liked to sit near him at the fire, looking up at his dark fierce face. But his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to. But why was he then against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun … Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was a protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to play with protestants and the protestants used to make fun of the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory, they used to say, House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? Who was right then ? And he remembered the evening in the infirmary in Clongowes, the dark waters, the light at the pierhead and the moan of sorrow from the people when they had heard.

Stephen tries to understand the allegiances:

He was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God save the Queen at the end.

But all the young Steven can really understand and what seems to stick with him over the years are the tears:

At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage :

— Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!

The door slammed behind her.

Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.

— Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king! He sobbed loudly and bitterly.

Stephen, raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.

The older Stephen decides not to join the political argument, but will devote himself to his art, his writing:

 A tide began to surge beneath the calm surface of Stephen ‘s friendliness.

— This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.

— Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In your heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.

— My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?

— For our freedom, said Davin.

— No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.

— They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet, believe me.

Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.

— The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.

 

Poetics and Politics: Notes on “Poets for Corbyn,” a Berfrois e-Chapbook

This MachineIs poetry a sturdy platform for political action? Aren’t poets the ones following rabbits down holes? Jumping into ponds to hug moons? Talking blather and twittering sentiments to one another across an inky night? Politicians often twist tongues, glossolalia filling their cheeks, but what they speak is not usually considered poetry.

Poets for Corbyn,” another e-chapbook from Berfrois, features 21 poems by 20 poets, edited by Russell Bennetts. The poems are unified by their support for Jeremy Corbyn (1949), a member of the UK parliament and of the Labour Party, and currently standing to be Labour’s Leader. US readers might be accurate in aligning Corbyn with their own Bernie Sanders.

Mixing poetics and politics reminds me of the note Woody Guthrie taped to his guitar in 1943: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” If music and culture critic Greil Marcus is right, and the guitar is not a machine and it does not kill fascists, then poetry is not a fit medium for political activism. But why does Marcus take Woody’s note so literally? Guthrie knew the difference between figurative and literal language, but he also knew that even the white lettered on red background STOP sign is an argument, even if only occasionally a driver passes through it with some disagreement.

Maybe one of the most politically effective signifying messages in “Poets for Corbyn” is Nick Telfer’s “For the Love of God.” A concrete poem, it evokes a rally chant where we hear the single slogan “No Blair” shouted repeatedly, 21 times in a black and white grid: noblair; no noblesse – shares of rights and duties are equal.

That Woody labeled his guitar a machine is more than a nod to labor and unions. Woody was a machinist, manufacturing messages in song – in song because song is what people (as in The People) hear and respond to and remember. And song is poetry. Poetry stirs pathos, and it’s pathos that gets politicians elected, pathos that goes to war, pathos that sacrifices, pathos that bangs the drum slowly and paddles the boat and joins the march and walks down the line.

How do the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” sound? What forms are employed? What characteristics of poetry are in evidence? Are the poems difficult to understand (i.e. modern or postmodern and such)? Are the poems all polemical?

Some of the poems might be considered polemical. From Michael Rosen’s “For Jeremy Corbyn”:

“celebrating an economic system
that was developed and finessed
with the use of child labour around 1810
…they tell us that socialism is outdated.”

Some of the poems sound traditional, employing stanzas with rhyme, as in Michael Schmidt’s “Until I Built the Wall,” a kind of ballad narrative:

“Until I built the wall they did not find me
Sweet anarchy! tending quietly
To wild birds or picking the blackberry.”

Some of the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are clear and concise, but with irony spreading like tattoos, as in Helen Ivory’s “Doll Hospital at the Top of the Hill”:

“Take her to the doll hospital;
restring the limbs with slipknots
fill the skull with lint
clean out the craze lines on her face
and paint on a 1940s smile.”

Some of the poems are painfully forthright. Reminding me of the ruined hopes of George McGovern’s 1972 US Presidential campaign, is Andy Jackson’s “Unelectable”:

“I represent the things you want but cannot say,
the ideology of why the hell not; socialism redux,
neither new nor old, not clean or compromised
but human to its heart, and that could be enough.”

Of course, in 1972, the human heart was not enough. Will it ever be enough? A heart needs a voice, as illustrated in Nicholas Murray’s “J. C.”:

“Corbyn’s no knight in shining vest,
or bright Messiah from the West
(he’d say)
but someone who has found a way to voice
a fractured country’s need for choice,
to say we’ll make another kind of noise:
No way!

That “No way!” is a call for solidarity, expanded upon in Erik Kennedy’s (long-titled) “Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators”:

“and if in your entire life
you’ve had
no-one to identify with
who wasn’t first and last
a danger to the good
through well-meaning compromise,

if you can agree to this,
resignedly but definitely,
you might be a socialist.”

The austerity buzzword is taken down by Becky Cherriman’s “Austerity”:

“Hear it scutter
along the guttering of offices
in the bins behind Waitrose,
the thorned bushes at the playground’s edge –
a language devised by the high-born
to parch the lips of those with less.”

In place of austerity, Josephine Corcoran suggests a “Coat” of hope:

“A woman filled with the gladness of living
refused to be suspicious of hope….
Deep inside the coat,
the woman held on to the goodness of people.”

And of opposing viewpoints, the kind that lead to divorce? From Erin Belieu’s “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in An Election Year”:

“And that’s what you call the realpolitik in action
when it comes to divorce, wherein the rubber hits
the ‘blended’ family’s road. But since I’m not…
…and I’m thinking
maybe I got it right this time…
…the obstinate and beautiful mystery
that every soul ends up being to every other.”

The poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are unified by their call for solidarity in support of a purposeful cause. For that call to be successful, the politics must not be subsumed by the poetics. There is tension here, no doubt. Woody’s machined message was made to defy backstabbing political machinations. At the same time, real machines made real weapons used in a real war, and a military industrial complex prevailed. But Woody knew that, even as Marcus does. “What did you learn in school today?” Tom Paxton sang.

Over at Berfrois, readers may download for free an electronic copy of “Poets for Corbyn.” There are several covers readers may choose from; I liked the one with the blue bicycle.

“Poets for Corbyn”, edited by Russell Bennetts, Pendant Publishing, London, UK, 2015. ISBN 978-09928034-5-2. V2.0. 34 pages, with poems by Tom Pickard, Michael Rosen, Pascale Petit, Ian Birchall, Michael Schmidt, Marion McCready, Nick Telfer, Rory Waterman, Helen Ivory, Iain Galbraith, Andy Jackson, Nicholas Murray, Alec Finlay, Erik Kennedy, Ian Pindar, Becky Cherriman, Josephine Corcoran, Natalie Chin, Ernest Schonfield, and Erin Belieu. Covers by Evan Johnston @evn_johnston.

“Politics and the English Language”

In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell advises “never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Perhaps Orwell didn’t go far enough; a total abstinence from metaphor might be more effective. Orwell recommended checking against the rule when one might be “in doubt” regarding the effect of a word or a phrase. Orwell offered six “rules” writers might consult when “instinct fails.” The rule regarding metaphor is the first; the second suggests “never use a long word where a short one will do.” But rule number three cuts even deeper: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Rule four is tricky, requiring grammar notes: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Don’t have grammar notes? Don’t worry; Orwell himself breaks the passive rule occasionally. Rule number five reminds us to stick to the English we know: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Finally, the clean up rule makes all the others serve a common goal: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Orwell refused to give up on either politics or the English language. He remained positive about both, and believed that improvements in the use of language would lead to improvements in politics: “…the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”