The real question is whether a religion or culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than “happiness.” Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence.
This passage appears in Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952), in a chapter where he meditates on the problem of Americans’ exceptional moral self-regard, which depends on confusing the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of prosperity and consequently measuring the virtue of our nation on its achievements in the latter. His conclusion — which ought not to surprise any Christian — is that material prosperity is not a measure of virtue, whether collective or individual.
In the context of the early Cold War, the danger Niebuhr senses is that, like the communists, Americans believe that their political philosophy is uniquely virtuous, but the proof of our superiority lay in our capacity both to generate more wealth collectively, as a society, and to distribute it more effectively (if less equally) to individuals than our ideological rivals. Niebuhr acknowledges the fact of the U.S.A.’s prosperity, but cautions his American readers against adopting it as a measure of moral self-worth. Doing so would mean creating an ideological illusion of perfect consistency in ideal and practice, one that leads inevitably to bellicosity and self-deception.
The more that Americans consider our individual rights to pursue happiness to be coterminous with our good fortune in creating and maintaining a high standard living, the more we confuse accidents of history with historical destiny. Thus delusions of historical destiny enable us to paper over our own failures, mistakes, and peculiar moral blindnesses. And the root of it is a simple categorical error, which is that happiness is material comfort. All manner of political evil derives from this error, and Niebuhr takes great pains to illustrate that both communists and apologists for capitalism are guilty of it. Striving for material gain is not a moral virtue, but Niebuhr views it as both the means and end of modern politics. That’s why, he argues, we need a religious perspective on this endless–and endlessly unfulfilling–pursuit of worldly happiness.
Over these exertions we discern by faith the ironical laughter of the divine source and end of all things… The scripture assures us that God’s laughter is derisive, having the sting of judgment upon our vanities in it. But if the laughter is truly ironic it must symbolize mercy as well as judgment. For whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of an humble acceptance of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace find a lodging place.
Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept hem and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963), Modern Library , pp. 7-8
Thinking about the kind of cyborgs we become with traffic lights is certainly odd… we think about traffic lights as part of the road, not as part of us. But whether as driver or as pedestrians, traffic lights are cybernetic systems that control or influence how we behave. The car-human-traffic light system is a cyborg system, one that intersects with the human-traffic light system we encounter on foot in ways that are not always helpful. […]
As pedestrians, the same cyber-impetuousness happens when we face a long walk to reach a designated crossing but could easily (sometimes not so easily…) dash across the road in a break in the traffic. Again, we don’t want our journey to be impeded and we are willing to shoulder a risk in safety, to ourselves and others, in order to satisfy our impatience. In the case of the pedestrian’s situation (although we rarely think about it consciously) the problem is exacerbated since city planners have almost universally favoured the car-human cyborg over the human on foot. In the United Kingdom, pedestrian crossings are not always or often in the places where ‘foot traffic’ flows naturally; in much of the US, travelling on foot in the majority of places is impossible. On foot, there are a great many places where you are simply less important than when you are a car-human cyborg. […]
I find it fascinating that we treat traffic lights as necessary: it shows that we think cars are necessary. And that in turn suggests that we can’t imagine a world without cars. Even as the urban infrastructure problems become insurmountable, we’re not willing to consider giving up or changing this most problematic of cyborgs.
–Chris Bateman, Traffic Lights, #15 of A Hundred Cyborgs
Initially, Mr. Burns included skeptics on the show. But, he said, “we found that they had nothing to say, other than, ‘There’s no proof, there’s no proof.’ If we were going to do a show about the birth of Jesus, would we have people who say, ‘This is ridiculous?’ No.”
The invocation of religion is deliberate. In Mr. Burns’s view, “Ancient Aliens” succeeds because it explores spirituality and the mystery of life in an increasingly secular, data-driven culture. Like religion, it offers seekers an origin story.
“It’s not about little green men in outer space. That’s the three-headed snake lady that gets you into the tent,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s really a show about looking for God. Science would have you believe we are the result of nothing more than a chance assemblage of matter. The real truth is we don’t know.”
The questions posed by the ancient astronaut theorists, however far-fetched, serve a rare purpose, according to Mr. Burns: “It allows the audience to wonder. And very few things on television do that.”
–Steven Kurutz, “Suspicious Minds” (NYT)
After submitting my last post, I almost immediately happened upon a rant by Hamilton Nolan over at the Gizmodo blog, Splinter:
This is all going to get more extreme. And it should. We are living in extreme times. The harm that is being done to all of us by the people in the American government is extreme. To imagine that Mexican immigrants should happily cook for and serve meals to people who enable a man who is determined to demonize and persecute them as subhuman criminals is far more outrageous than the idea that those enablers should not be served in restaurants. I do not believe that Trump administration officials should be able to live their lives in peace and affluence while they inflict serious harms on large portions of the American population. Not being able to go to restaurants and attend parties and be celebrated is just the minimum baseline here. These people, who are pushing America merrily down the road to fascism and white nationalism, are delusional if they do not think that the backlash is going to get much worse. Wait until the recession comes. Wait until Trump starts a war. Wait until the racism this administration is stoking begins to explode into violence more frequently. Read a fucking history book. Read a recent history book. The U.S. had thousands of domestic bombings per year in the early 1970s. This is what happens when citizens decide en masse that their political system is corrupt, racist, and unresponsive. The people out of power have only just begun to flex their dissatisfaction. The day will come, sooner that you all think, when Trump administration officials will look back fondly on the time when all they had to worry about was getting hollered at at a Mexican restaurant. When you aggressively fuck with people’s lives, you should not be surprised when they decide to fuck with yours.
Stop working for this man. Stop enabling him. Stop assisting him. Start fighting him. The people who are responsible for what is happening are not going to get out of this with their happy wealthy respectable lives unscathed.
To reiterate, Nolan just uncritically placed domestic terror bombings into a rhetorical context that advocates for radical militancy. As we all know, political terrorism is well-known for targeting only those who really deserve to be harmed.
So let’s follow the progression: Two weeks after Trump was elected, Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway and got a respectful talking to from the stage. There was a long pause on this sort of direct action until, last Tuesday, Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled as she ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Three days later, Sarah Huckabee Sanders went to dinner at a restaurant called the Red Hen and the owner asked her to leave. And on Sunday, Maxine Waters upped the ante by suggesting that rather than just ask Trump staffers to leave, citizens ought to mob them and shame them, Cersei Lannister-style, whenever they are seen in public.
This is a disgusting and appalling lack of civility and a departure from the norms of American political discourse and I cannot fathom where liberals got the idea for it and, by the by, here is a list of some things the current president of the United States of America said while campaigning for his office:
“I’d like to punch him in the face.”
“Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
“Part of the problem . . . is no one wants to hurt each other anymore.”
“I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.”
“The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.”
“If you do [hurt him], I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
“Knock the crap out of him, would you? I promise you, I will pay your legal fees.”
It’s a mystery, isn’t it? Where in the world did Maxine Waters and the Red Hen and the people in that Mexican restaurant come up with such terrible, norm-shattering ideas about civility?
–Jonathan V. Last, This Business Will Get Out of Control
Two quotes from Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent Atlantic article:
The best distillation of the Trump Doctrine I heard, though, came from a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking. I was talking to this person several weeks ago, and I said, by way of introduction, that I thought it might perhaps be too early to discern a definitive Trump Doctrine.
“No,” the official said. “There’s definitely a Trump Doctrine.”
“What is it?” I asked. Here is the answer I received:
“The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”
It struck me almost immediately that this was the most acute, and attitudinally honest, description of the manner in which members of Trump’s team, and Trump himself, understand their role in the world.
I asked this official to explain the idea. “Obama apologized to everyone for everything. He felt bad about everything.” President Trump, this official said, “doesn’t feel like he has to apologize for anything America does.”
“People criticize [Trump] for being opposed to everything Obama did, but we’re justified in canceling out his policies,” one friend of Trump’s told me. This friend described the Trump Doctrine in the simplest way possible. “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine,” he said. “We’re the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine.”
Just a friendly reminder: No, you’re not dreaming. This is all real. These are the people who are responsible for negotiating international treaties and keeping World War III from erupting.