Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Losing even when we win

Now that Donald Trump is President, it's inevitable that we never-Trumpers (among which I am proud to identify myself) will be jeeringly asked by Trumpites to comment on every small thing Trump does that is right, or at least not wrong. The Mexico City policy, a pons asinorum of Republican Presidenthood for years, being just one.

That last sentence is all that you will see from me about that particular thing in this post, because my larger point concerns the fixation on "particular things" in policy without seeing the bigger picture.

I never opposed Trump for purely consequential reasons. I opposed him for reasons of principle. I won't endorse or vote for a man who is morally unfit for office, as he was and remains. If he now listens to some good advisers and does some things that support policy positions I also support, that doesn't change his moral unfitness. His fundamental character hasn't changed, as witness his childishly egocentric Twitter obsessions. This should go without saying. He's a disgrace and a loose cannon. As I have said to various friends, the Trump presidency is like having a nasty four-year-old as king. What you hope for, sadly, is that his regents and advisers will have enough control over him to a) prevent him from doing anything really disastrous, policy-wise and b) induce him to do some good things, policy-wise. Even if these hopes are realized, that doesn't change the fact that he's a nasty four-year-old. And absent a miracle of evident repentance and maturing, no, I won't be voting for him in four years. This is a matter of principle and the fitness of the individual for office.

Meanwhile, we are already seeing, again and again, the corruption of good people while attempting to defend his silliness, with Kellyanne Conway being a perfect case.

But here's another--a situation in which goodness loses no matter what happens. Trump went out and shot off his mouth to the effect that he (of course he said "we") has in hand a healthcare plan that will cover everybody and have lower deductibles. This is absolute baloney. There is no plan that will do that, and certainly the Republicans have no such plan.

Once he did that, he created a situation in which something will be lost no matter what happens. On the one hand, if he were to try to stick to what he said, he would refuse to sign Obamacare repeal if it didn't include a replacement that covers everybody and offers lower deductibles, and maybe free ponies too. That would obviously be pretty disastrous, at least if you think Obamacare should be repealed and that there are no free ponies. On the other hand, what looks like it's going to happen instead is that everybody is going to pretend that Trump never shot off his mouth and instead Trump is actually going to cooperate with Congress in repealing Obamacare, which will in fact not mean coverage for everybody or lower deductibles, much less free ponies. 

From a policy perspective, this is the outcome I favor (especially if they do enough deregulation at the same time so as not to collapse the insurance market by merely withdrawing the mandate on consumers while keeping mandates on the insurers), but what has been lost is truth. Representative Tom Price (proposed HHS secretary) and other Republicans are having to keep on talking about wide "access" to healthcare coverage rather than universal coverage. This was a possibility that anyone could have foreseen when Trump made his silly and ignorant remarks about "our plan"--namely, that he was just blathering as usual and that Republicans would then have to pretend that he was saying the same thing they are saying.

But shouldn't those of us who care about truth in discourse be sad about this? I certainly am. And there's something else I'm sad about: People who say that it doesn't matter that Trump said all that nonsense about how "we have a plan" to cover everybody when it was obvious that this was a falsehood. Well, yes, it matters. It matters for two reasons: First, it matters because it created embarrassment (at a minimum) for Congressmen who are trying to do something (from our perspective) good in policy--namely, repeal Obamacare. The President is supposed to work with his own party's Congressmen rather than creating uncertainty and chaos. But second, and perhaps more important, it matters because words have meaning and because Trump lied again, thereby making it difficult for good Congressmen to avoid lying themselves. After all, we don't expect them to tell the media, "Yeah, President Trump is an idiot. Of course we don't have a plan to cover everybody. Neither does he. But we think we have a good plan anyway, and we're virtually certain that he will sign it despite what he said. He's a pain, and of course he wasn't talking about what we're talking about, but we believe our plan will pass." Now, maybe they can get out of actually lying. I'm not saying that Rep. Price actually lied. He was asked about his goals and his policy proposals at the hearing and could answer truthfully about those. But the temptation is undeniably there--at least to make it sound like they and the President are on the same page, rather than his being a loose cannon whom they have to hope to control.

This kind of thing is going to go on for the next four years. It's inevitable with a President this ignorant, uncontrolled, inclined to over-promising, and loudmouthed. And what we who have and who value principle must not say is, "It doesn't matter."

But that's what I'm starting to hear, even from smart people: It's a moot point. It doesn't matter what he says; it only matters what he does.

Thus the concept of the importance of truth is further degraded, as is the dignity of the presidential office. The President becomes a policy puppet who lies over and over again and whose lies we brush off or laugh at as long as he doesn't actually prevent decent policy and/or even signs decent policy.

Yet it is in this context that we never-Trumpers are being jeeringly asked to admit that we were wrong.

No, we weren't wrong. We were right. Especially, we were right about the corruption of the right. We've seen it again and again in the campaign, most notably of course concerning Trump's wicked treatment of women and the excuses made and still being made. But we're still seeing it now. Every time he says some nonsense and a conservative says, "It doesn't really matter," that's another instance. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Come unto me, and I will give you rest

I've often thought that there is a bit of a puzzle in Jesus' promise of rest to those who come to him:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matt. 11:28-30

But in numerous other places Jesus tells his followers that they will have tribulations and troubles in this world, that they will suffer, that they will be persecuted. (John 16:33; John 16:2; Matt. 5:11-12) And a central Christian teaching is that if we suffer with Christ we shall reign with Christ. (2 Tim. 2:12)

We have all known people who never seem to get much rest, people who are grievously wearied by the chances and changes of this mortal life. Perhaps a mother has a child with an illness that requires constant monitoring. Perhaps a husband has a wife with dementia who needs constant care. Perhaps a person suffers from a painful illness and gets little sleep.

And we all have our own times in life when we don't feel at all rested, when we feel bone-tired and don't see the end of some tunnel or other. It might be a tunnel of overwork, of some grief that seems to have no end in sight, of an uncongenial work situation, of a physical ailment. Even if we tell ourselves that things could be a lot worse, we still may wonder where the rest is.

It's easy enough to say that Jesus was promising his followers spiritual rest, but what exactly does that mean? Is it, perhaps, a promise only for the afterlife, or does it have an application in this life?

Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I don't have answers to all of these questions. I do have, however, a thought that came to me today when part of the "come unto me" verse was read at the "comfortable words" in the liturgy: I often find that the thought of good people, specific good people, is a kind of mental resting place and refreshment. There are such people in the world. Think of someone you know who is a light for others--someone loving, honest, loyal, and just plain good.

As Christians we are committed to the view that all of that goodness comes from God. We give thanks to God for his great glory, but it's sometimes a little hard to grasp that glory, for the Father dwells in light unapproachable. Hence the Son came, incarnate, to reveal the Father. So to begin with, the very thought of Jesus is a rest for the soul, a rest for the mind. Here is a sinless One who will never fail us, never turn out to be wicked, who has shown his love for us in giving his life. Here at last is someone we can count on.

But even Our Lord is somewhat removed from our daily life, if only because we never knew him personally. And say what one will, a theanthropic, sinless person never seems quite as graspable as a sinful, but good, non-theanthropic person. I believe the current jargon term is "relatable." But here, too, God caters to our weakness, for He gives us the Communion of Saints, which takes us back to those people whom you know and justifiably trust. Those people are prisms reflecting the immortal light of God. Resting in the thought of a lovable man of good character or a crusty saint who has fought the good fight, you are in fact thanking God (indirectly) for His great glory.

So while I don't know all the things that Jesus had in mind when he said, "Come unto me, and I will give you rest," I do know that there is one thing that can give the Christian spiritual rest: Contemplating the goodness of God as reflected in the saints, and not only the officially canonized ones, either. If you are a Christian, you are part of their company, the "blessed company of all faithful people," and you can humbly enjoy the thought that there is goodness in this world, amidst all the sadness, pain, restlessness, fatigue, faithlessness, and evil. Remembering that gives one a small, temporary window into the God's-eye view. For God knows, and we can know, too, that the game is worth the candle, and that all the evil in the world will ultimately be entirely swamped by the goodness and joy of the redeemed.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A few random comments about vegetarianism

I actually don't think vegetarianism is important. In fact, I think so-called factory farming is more important for human well-being than vegetarianism is for human ethics. I realize that this may be a surprising position to some. Also, I can have respect for Christians who believe that animals are always or routinely, much less legally, treated unethically in so-called "factory farming" (though I'm pretty certain they are wrong about that given the heavy regulation of the food-farming industry) if those Christians place a much higher priority on the truly civilization-urgent issues of our time, such as abortion and the homosexual-transgender agenda. What I have really no patience for are "millennial ethics priorities" that leave the marriage and/or abortion issues largely untouched and un-thought-through while spending oodles of time agonizing over and evangelizing for vegetarianism. (In passing, I've been influenced quite a bit by the work of Wesley J. Smith on these issues, but his blog posts are now difficult to search, so I'll just link this book, which I don't happen to own, that has a chapter or two on the subject.)

A few other thoughts I've written to various people lately that I thought I might as well throw into a blog post, which will be rather disorganized. This next comment is addressed to what strikes me as the incredibly silly, shallow argument that likens animal-product consumption to eating the brains of puppies deliberately bred in a horribly painful way to make them tasty. (Yes, there really is such an "argument" out there.) Or, in general, the "argument" that implies that we eat meat and/or animal products only out of lazy hedonism.
I want also to say quite openly that I would actually oppose even the voluntary cessation of all that is called "factory farming," because I consider the efficient production of large quantities of meat, dairy, eggs, etc., to be quite important to human nutrition given the population of both the developed world and the world as a whole. Animal products are not a luxury eaten by hedonistic, morally oblivious gluttons. They are an important part of a natural, omnivorous human diet that efficiently delivers necessary nutrients in a form likely actually to be eaten by large numbers of human beings. It is therefore important for them to be produced in such a quantity that these products are readily available and affordable.
A few more words about that: The idea that there is something low and unworthy about eating food that tastes good has a certain almost unhealthy asceticism about it, as though morally perfect beings would get all their nutrition in some tasteless, unenjoyable fashion or would eat only out of duty. The good taste of animal products, and their high concentrations of important nutrients such as protein, iron, and the essential B12 (which, no, is not found in seaweed!) come together to make it relatively easy for an omnivore to eat a diet containing enough of these nutrients. That's actually important to human flourishing. If you have to get absolutely essential nutrients by taking supplements (and vegans, especially, do have to obtain supplements or specially fortified food for their B12), then your diet is insufficiently nutritious and varied. You can do that if you choose, but there is no moral requirement for people in general to do that, and indeed it is unlikely that mankind as a whole is going to get the diet it needs in that way.

Another point: It really is difficult to have passion for everything at once, and especially for issues at different ends of the political spectrum. I don't want to say it's impossible, and I know a few exceptions, but by and large, the "millennial ethics" I discussed above are a natural result of the deliberate intention to focus on some issues (poverty, vegetarianism) as some kind of "corrective" to the "religious right." There are only so many hours in a day, and you only have so much capital to spend trying to convince your friends of things and intensely discussing things. If you're spending that capital evangelizing for vegetarianism or writing about it, I'm just going to say that it's plausible that you are spending a lot less time doing other things in the broadly political realm. So to some extent, yes, there is a zero-sum game going on, and there's a reason why one too often finds that the most passionate vegetarian Christians are wishy-washy (at least) on, say, the wrongness of homosexuality and the evil of homosexual "marriage." There was a great blog post by someone-or-other several years ago about this kind of thing: The blogger was told that it's possible to be "pro-life and" and then decided that practically speaking on the progressive Christian side it wasn't working out that way. If I ever find the link again I'll post it.

There is something quasi-religious about vegetarianism and even more about veganism. The old monks would fast for a fast day and feast for a feast day. Human beings find it satisfying to order their lives in an intentional way that feels significant on the intimate level of eating, sleeping, etc. Christianity, however, does not give detailed rules for these things, so we tend to invent them for ourselves as a practical matter. There's nothing wrong with that, but in my opinion it would be a more healthy Christianity to refrain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of Christ's crucifixion or to fast and pray than to refrain from eating meat on all days in honor of animals. It would be better to satisfy one's desire for detailed, religious order by praying the canonical hours than to examine the food one eats at every meal to try to assure oneself that the animals that produced it had a happy life (by anthropomorphic standards of "happy") and died a peaceful death.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

I Can't Even Walk

I just learned of this gospel music standard. I love it. It's a new fave. So much so that I'm going to embed about four or five versions.

Never, ever, ever feel ashamed of telling God that you need him. Never feel that that is selfish, that seeking a relationship with God out of need for Him is insufficiently "pure" in motive. What do we have to give to God but our need of Him, our emptiness, our littleness?

Here is Gordon Mote with a version that has a lot of soul.

Here is a nice version (if you don't mind Jessy Dixon's riffs) in which he's joined by the incomparable Guy Penrod. And Bill Gaither gets everyone singing.

This is another Gaither group one (allegedly), that has no video, though it sounds live. Nice, soft sound. I love the soloist's southern accent (black southern?) you can cut with a knife, but I don't know who he is.

But I think my favorite I've found so far is this short cut with Gordon Mote, not quite so soulful as in the first link, joined by Alabama. Understated and lovely.