How will we know it’s over?

The Trump budget proposal is a nightmare — petty and vindictive, short-sighted and cruel. Inexpensive programs that literally save lives are being cut, apparently out of sheer spite. Surely, we are in the terminal phases of what I once called the society of go fuck yourself. Why do we need a travel ban? Why do we need to turn away refugees? The official reason is that they may pose a threat, but surely the real reason is that they are not our problem, so they can go fuck themselves. Similarly, why do we need to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans? Supposedly they’re stealing our jobs, leeching off our public services, and committing crimes. But come on: the real reason is that we don’t owe them anything and they can go fuck themselves.

All of these programs will thwart human potential at best and kill people at worst. Any idiot can draw those consequences, and my personal experience “interacting” with them has taught me that the license for cruelty is part of the libidinal charge of Trumpism for the most hardened followers. They will follow him to their death if he lets them hurt the people they hate along the way. The amount of pent up resentment and ugliness he has brought out into the open has already been more corrosive to our frayed social fabric than we can fully grasp.

But I still find myself holding out a small sliver of hope. Namely, I hope they don’t start publicly saying that the poor, elderly, and disabled should just die if they can’t fend for themselves. That is the logical implication of everything they’re doing. The most charitable spin is that they don’t want those people to die, but don’t actually care if they do. That’s where we objectively are as a nation, under the leadership of a cruel and vindictive man who has never let anyone trick him into doing anything kind or beneficial in his entire sick parody of a human life.

If they say it, though, that’s the end. Yes, people will recoil in outrage. Republicans who are only 95% right wing instead of 300% will distance themselves. Elzabeth Warren will get some good tweets out of it. But it’s a funny thing: once it appears on the CNN scroll, it’s a part of the public debate. It’s one position among others for the talking heads to debate. A society in which “the poor should just die” is one position among others — even if it’s an unpopular position that people argue passionately against! — is no longer a society. It’s a death camp waiting to happen.

On the coming apocalypse

2017-03-14 07.59.23

Pictured above is the courtyard of my building. I cannot describe how relieved I am to see snow. Chicago has not had any significant snow through all of January and February — the first time this has happened in recorded history — and some days in February were warm enough that you could go without a coat. I grew up in Michigan and have spent most of my adult life in the Chicago area, so winter has been a constant part of the rhythm of my life. I remember walking to school as a child in the winter, and I pride myself on my skill in walking on snow and ice without slipping. Every year, I find that first blast of harsh unbearable cold weirdly refreshing. It gives me a gut-level sense of humanity’s place in this world: nature is under no obligation to us. Continue reading “On the coming apocalypse”

The Electoral College will kill us all

I remember back the last time the Electoral College delivered us an incompetent overreaching fool — one of our watchwords in those years was that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. And so, on November 9, Obama should have said, “We all know the Electoral College is nonsense, and so I am going to begin the transition process with President-Elect Clinton.” I’d rather the bit about the Electoral College be a dead letter than the emoluments clause, for example.

Is it a dangerous precedent? Not as dangerous as the precedent that the person who loses the election takes office and we all act like it’s God’s fucking will.

Varieties of atheistic experience

There are three varieties of atheism. Only one of them is actually interesting.

  1. “Matter of course” atheism — this is the position that belief in God is clearly superfluous, both for explaining the natural world and for developing a coherent moral code. It’s not a matter of deep conviction, hence not very interesting in itself.
  2. “Smarter than you” atheism — this is the worst kind, represented by the New Atheists. It goes beyond “matter of course” atheism by supposing that atheism can be a positive doctrine that must combat benighted religious doctrines. It always threatens to veer toward racism, because when they notice societies where atheism has failed to make major inroads, they start to wonder if there’s something… intrinsically wrong with them, you know, as a group.
  3. Protest atheism — this is the only kind worth discussing, because it calls the God of monotheism to account for the injustice and suffering in the world. Interestingly, from my perspective, it continues along the path laid out by monotheism itself, which is grounded in a demand for a divine principle of justice. Protest atheism holds onto that demand while pointing out how monotheism itself failed to deliver on its own promise.

“Smarter than you” atheism sometimes incorporates elements of protest atheism in the form of a moral or political critique of the effects of religion. But that aspect is grounded in the basic assumption that religious beliefs are false and therefore holding them makes you stupid — meaning, as a corollary, that you do stupid and destructive things. By contrast, the smart atheist, free of the blinders of religion, has arrived at the best and truest way of life: secular liberal capitalism. So the end result of being really smart, unlike those religious freaks, is conformism, leaving us to wonder whether all the harsh rhetoric and college dormroom “gotchas” were worth it in the end.

Protest atheism, for its part, always threatens to collapse into “smarter than you” atheism when suffering and injustice become steps in a disproof of theistic beliefs rather than representing a genuine and heartfelt outrage. Even so, protest atheism at least preserves the sense that the world is not as it should be — and unlike the impoverished social critique of “smarter than you” atheism, it does not scapegoat some particular group or belief system (“If only we could get rid of those idiot religious people, we could have our utopia of reason!”). This scapegoating instinct is another element in the elective affinity between “smarter than you” atheism and racism.

An open letter to Olivet Nazarene University

To President Bowling, Members of the Board of Trustees, and the Administrative Staff of Olivet Nazarene University:

It has come to my attention that Olivet Nazarene University will be sending its marching band to perform in the inauguration of President-Elect Trump. Many of my fellow alumni have expressed concern about this de facto endorsement of Trump and all the hateful things he stands for. Indeed, as of this writing nearly one thousand of them have signed an online petition asking you to withdraw Olivet’s participation in the event.

I am not among those alumni. I am writing this letter to make clear my reasons for abstaining. It is not because I support Trump — far from it! I am utterly revolted by the man and view him as the enemy of everything that is important to me. I am abstaining because protesting this decision would imply that I view Olivet Nazarene University as less than fully, irredeemably corrupt. The institution has proven to me time and time again that it is beyond hope — willing to cast aside its values, instrumentalize its most vulnerable students, and throw its most dedicated faculty members to the wolves in the pursuit of the illusory power promised by the religious right.

Participating in Trump’s inauguration is the logical endpoint of everything I know of Olivet. And so, in the words of Holy Scripture, I exhort you: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy” (Revelation 22:11).

Yours sincerely,

Adam Kotsko, Class of 2002

Three ways of looking at an arc of history


Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” We can take this to be the standard liberal-progressive way of looking at the arc of history.

There are two other possible variations:

  • that of the reactionary right: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward vengeance.”
  • that of the revolutionary left: “The arc of history is long and it’s going to keep getting longer unless we put a stop to it.”

Deferred legitimacy: From Paul to Dante

I have a tendency to read the New Testament, and especially Paul, against the later Christian tradition — for instance, in my post yesterday distinguishing between the Protestant Paul and the “real” Paul. My teaching this semester, though, has me thinking more seriously about historical continuities than about betrayals, or at least about the necessary betrayals that are tied up in any long-standing tradition. And due to the vagaries of my syllabus, I’m thinking primarily in terms of Paul’s legacy for Augustine and Dante.

Continue reading “Deferred legitimacy: From Paul to Dante”

The just one will live outside the social bond

I’ve got Romans on my mind, specifically 1:17 — “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith'” (NRSV translation; Greek text: δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται). This is the locus classicus of the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith (as opposed to works), an emphasis that has obscured the basic political meaning of the passage, including at the level of translation. Here I’m going to be following the inspiration of Ted Jennings’ reading as found in Outlaw Justice, but I am working through this verse myself.

Continue reading “The just one will live outside the social bond”

Some Schmittian reflections on the election

This post is a thought experiment and a hypothetical. I am not recommending any particular course of action or way of thinking about the disaster that has befallen us. I want to use Schmitt as a lens for a couple reasons. First, even more than the theory of sovereignty or friend/enemy politics, I see Schmitt’s core conviction as a desire to preserve the state as such — an exceedingly rare position in a world where most people think of the state as a terrain or instrument for advancing partisan goals. So to that extent, the particular Schmittian lens I want to use here serves as a potentially interesting limit case for how to look at the election. Second, Schmitt’s personal conduct in the service of saving the state as such can show us that sometimes the attempt to stave off the worst leads us to the very worst.

Continue reading “Some Schmittian reflections on the election”

In anger and in sorrow

I am going to write some things about my reaction to this disaster. I don’t think they will do any concrete good. I don’t intend for them to convince anyone to do or think anything. It’s just that writing is all I know how to do.

  • I can’t believe this. I’m fearful of the practical consequences, of course, but those would be broadly similar to any Republican. What most gets me is sheer revulsion at Trump. I don’t want his face to be greeting me when I return from abroad. I don’t want him to be the first thing every foreigner wants to ask me about. The thought of having him as president for the next four years leaves me feeling humiliated and ashamed. And it scares me that a lot of the reason this happened is because a critical mass of Americans felt the exact same way when a black man was elected.
  • This is the second Electoral College mismatch in my adult life, the second in as many decades. We all enjoy the Electoral College fan fiction that dominates the months leading up to the election every four years, of course, but I’m increasingly disgusted with how we’ve normalized it. In civics class, we learn that the Founders instituted the Electoral College because they feared direct democracy, and that’s partly true. But from a logistical perspective, it’s also a way of squaring the circle of the Three-Fifths Compromise — how can you give the slave states their disproportionate representation while still allowing for a quasi-nation-wide vote for the presidency? Yet another way that we’re still living in a compromise to keep the slavers on board, even after it spectacularly failed to keep the slavers on board when push came to shove.
  • One thing that’s hard for me to take is the thought that many of my family members contributed to this. The party they supported and taught me to support led to this, and they should have known. The religion that they inculcated in me, evangelical Christianity, has proven itself to be utterly bankrupt theologically, morally, and even strategically — who would want the generation of young people who will be able to stomach the thought of remaining in a church led by men who would shill for an utterly worthless and malign piece of human trash as some kind of savior?
  • The Girlfriend is taking it hard. She asked me why there are so many people who hate her. I’m remaining cold and bottled up, as is my habit, but I know the feeling. Readers know that I’m no great fan of Clinton, but at the end of the day, she was someone I could identify with — educated, meritocratic, sophisticated, worldly. A vote for Trump is also, perhaps even primarily, a vote against that kind of person. A vast plurality of the American public is telling educated professionals and elites and experts: fuck you. And they’re not wrong to do so, even if the specific form that gesture took will probably turn out to be shockingly destructive to them and their interests as well. For decades, the smart people who know have increasingly offered the average person nothing but condescension. Resentment is a hell of a drug.
  • I’ve decided not to cancel class but to offer absence amnesty today. Partly it’s for selfish reasons: I personally need to keep busy today. But in a small way, continuing to engage in the life of the mind by reflecting on one of the greatest products of human creativity, Dante’s Inferno in this case, feels like an act of resistence — or if that seems overblown, then at least defiance. A man who embodies everything I hate is going to be demanding my attention for the next four years. I can choose to redirect that attention toward something of enduring value.