Back to normal

This summer, a lot has changed in my life. We moved from the apartment and neighborhood where we had lived for seven years, which felt more like home to me even than my hometown did when I was a child. I am in the midst of a job transition as a result of North Central College’s acquisition of Shimer College, and I am also completing a manuscript that marks something of an endpoint of the “devil project” that has been guiding my research since my dissertation. I have taken the opportunity to change a lot of other, more trivial things — switching banks, opting for a Mac for my work computer after years as a hardened PC user, even changing my hairstyle — and deided to spend the last few weeks of summer vacation learning biblical Hebrew, a long-delayed goal that felt right precisely because it is something of a non-sequitur.

Yet in my unguarded moments, I realize that I still expect things to go “back to normal.” When I shared this with The Girlfriend and tried to articulate what that “normal” was, it turned out to be a relatively short window — perhaps my second or third year at Shimer, when the dog was still with us and in good health, before The Girlfriend went to grad school and changed careers. Things felt more open-ended then, like it could stay that way forever. I knew Shimer was fragile, but had no way of anticipating the obstacles we would face, nor of course any glimmer of the possibility that we would join a larger institution. I was not involved in any major projects other than translation and the occasional invited article or talk.

The fact that this situation was actually very unusual and short-lived is not lost on me. Continue reading “Back to normal”

Political polarization in the family

I have written before about my struggle to come to terms with my parents’ decision to vote for Trump, and I have it relatively easy. My family has tended to avoid politics over the years, and few if any of them appear to be pure Fox News zombies. Many other people — such as this black author who has had major conflict with his Trump-supporting white mother — have had it much worse and have reached the point where they need to break off contact.

I don’t claim to know what’s going on in people’s heads in specific cases, but this trend of family strain related to right-wing indoctrination does seem pretty widespread. As we know, systemic effects have systemic causes, and the biggest systemic cause for the last forty years of American life has been the radical reworking of the economy through the bipartisan consensus known as neoliberalism. It is well known that that consensus has favored capital mobility and concentration in a way that has led to a hollowing out of the economic prospects of vast swathes of the country while benefiting a handful of urban areas, which have become basically the only place to find any real opportunity.

What is less noted is the way that this dynamic tends to tear families apart — and to create braindrain as the urban centers basically poach the most talented and creative members of other communities. In a setting like this, going to college, adopting more liberal values, moving to the city, etc., take up a very fraught status. On the one hand, it’s the only way to get ahead in life, and families are often proud of their children who “get out” and make a life for themselves. On the other hand, that means that the parents who have done the “best job” are often punished with the effective loss of their children — not only through less frequent contact, but through a changed lifestyle, values, and expectations. They did everything they were supposed to, and the reward is that their children hardly visit and look down their nose at them when they do. For how many Fox News viewers, I wonder, is the archetypal smug liberal elitist their own child?

The way they react to this pain and loss often isn’t healthy, but I’m less interested in judging individuals than in pointing out the ways that right-wing media have exploited this grief by pushing it toward anger and resentment. Becoming a Fox News zombie of course only exacerbates the problem, as it becomes increasingly impossible to talk about important national events or, more broadly, about values or ideas. Every episode of conflict only hardens the dynamic, until it becomes very unclear for the children what this relationship is even supposed to be about. I suspect parents know what’s happening, but they can’t help but double down — and what are we in the younger generation really offering them? Should they uproot and move to the city, too? Would the problem be solved if they watched “All In With Chris Hayes” religiously instead of O’Reilly or whatever?

We talk about broad-strokes when assessing the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but what if — alongside the racism and toxic nostalgia — there is a more intimate way people are hearing it: make my children love and respect me again, make my community a place where people don’t automatically want to leave and never come back again, make America a place where getting ahead in life isn’t synonymous with dissociating yourself from me. Right-wing media — and here I am thinking of Trump fundamentally as a media phenomenon, which is how our parents experience him — has exploited this situation in a despicable and probably unfixable way, but they didn’t create the underlying dynamic. In other words, ultimately Fox News isn’t what’s tearing families apart, but it’s profiting from the fact that they’re already being torn apart by the geographic concentration of wealth and opportunity.

Enjoy your prohibition! On Mike Pence’s weird rules

I have taken particular joy in the jokes surrounding Mike Pence’s refusal to eat dinner with a woman other than his wife. This is because I grew up in an evangelical Christian culture where such rules were very much in force — to the extent that they didn’t even need to be talked about. In fact, it is only the Pence controversy that made me consciously aware of how pervasive they were, and the experience has been like recognizing a pun for the first time in a phrase you’ve been repeating for decades.

The rule is that every male-female relationship tends toward possession — marriage being the logical endpoint, though dating is supposed to operate by the same logic. (By the way, to the women I dated while I was still processing all this: apologies for the weird possessiveness.) There is a felt pressure to stake a claim (one must “officially” be on record as being attracted to some member of the opposite sex at all times) and any interaction between your possession and another potential rival is a challenge. There is a certain egalitarianism in this, insofar as women are supposed to be just as possessive and suspicious. The ideal order of operations is to get married and then express the ultimate possession through having sex, but if the latter occurs first in an irreversible way (i.e., pregnancy), the order can and must be reversed.

My dad shared with me a tendency to prefer the company of women, and in retrospect I realize that this caused a degree of uncomfortable joking. Everyone realized that he wasn’t a threat, hence joking rather than hostility — but potential friendships were definitely thwarted. People, including family members, even joked around about his relationship with my aunt, i.e., his own wife’s younger sister whom he had known since she was a very young high schooler.

What is the purpose behind such norms and prohibitions? In retrospect, I believe it was actually to incite heterosexual desire. By making hetero-eroticism omnipresent, dangerous, and perpetually endangered, it aimed to introduce a certain drama and intensity to the ostensibly “natural” course of things. The difficulty, of course, is that a form of desire sustained by the danger of transgression is not going to be very functional once the prohibition is lifted — hence the proverbial decline in sex drive among married couples. The network of prohibitions remind you that your possession is never fully secure and hence that your claim must be perpetually renewed, but more importantly, the implication that you will attempt to have sex with everyone you take to Panera Bread after work reminds you that you are supposed to have these dangerous desires and must channel them in the appropriate directions. Without the prohibition to lust after another man’s wife, they would forget to lust after their own.

The home front

My parents are good people. They are honest, they work hard, they are generous. My dad makes friends everywhere he goes. My mom went to college late in life to become a teacher specifically so that she could help underprivileged black students. And both of them voted for Trump.

I had a hard conversation with my mom about this yesterday. It started because of a conversation with my sister, where I got the mistaken impression that my dad had become a belligerent Trump supporter and was constantly bugging my mom about it. In retrospect, that would be an unrealistically big change — but who knows? Trump seems to have brought out the worst in a lot of people, and even though my dad is a good man I don’t think he’s utterly invulnerable to that kind of appeal. The fact that it wasn’t true was a net gain on my dad’s side, but a loss on my mom’s, because I had assumed she would at least abstain (a vote for Hillary was too much to ask). But it wasn’t true: they both voted for Trump, as a lesser evil.

What was disturbing to me was her inability to even hear why I would find Trump especially problematic. It was as though it was just another election. She had an answer for everything. I said that part of why I was worried was that The Girlfriend had been sobbing on Wednesday morning; she said some people may well have been crying if Hillary won. I said Trump was a creepy sexual predator; she said Hillary was pathetic for putting up with her creepy sexual predator husband. I said I didn’t want to ask The Girlfriend to come into an environment where people might be gloating about a Trump win; she was well aware of how Democrats felt about this and knew to keep her mouth shut. Is there any greater intrinsic justification for how Democrats feel? Is their fear and shame more significant than her frustration with her Democratic colleagues who made her feel shut down in political debate? The answer to both questions seemed to be no. Everyone has their opinion and has a right to it.

It’s a familiar sophistry that deflects every objection, leaving nothing but an arbitrary choice of the side that makes you feel most comfortable. It was like I was trying to convince someone on moral and intellectual grounds why they should be a White Sox fan rather than a Cubs fan. What was most disturbing, though, was the dawning realization that the sophistry was partly designed to let her cope with me and my potentially abhorrent views.

If I decided to cut them off, or even skip Christmas this year while the wound was fresh, it would not be a teachable moment, any more than the time that my dad’s favorite talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, casually slandered me to a national audience. My dad offered to call in, assuming that he could explain that my comment was all just a joke and Rush of all people should be sympathetic with someone getting in trouble for an ill-considered joke. And anyway, harrassment campaigns happen on the left, too.

No, if I chose to break contact over this, I fear it would be evidence that I was totally lost. Even that most extreme gesture would not be able to cut through the armor of misinformation and innuendo and false equivalency that they have built up. And while this is my personal problem, it’s not only my personal problem.

Trump family values

I have never been very close with my family as an adult, but I am increasingly afraid to call home. Within the last couple weeks, my mother and grandmother both, despite having serious misgivings about Trump, have suggested that the alternative might be worse. In fact, both, though they seem to agree on little lately, used the exact same word: she’s “scary.”

Continue reading “Trump family values”

How serious should we be about Trump?

Trump hugging flag

If Trump is a fascist, if he’s a potential American Hitler, how do we respond when family members support him? For instance, I’ve learned that a relative of mine, one I was close to when I was growing up, is a Trump supporter. I’ve also learned that another, one I’ve kept closer to over the years, doesn’t like Trump but would vote for him over Hillary Clinton.

Would it be appropriate to tell these relatives of mine that their moral judgment is so hideously impaired that I never wish to have any further contact with them? If not now, what about after he gets the nomination? Am I obligated to threaten that if they affirmatively vote for Trump, and they’re not ashamed enough to lie to me about it, I will never speak to them again?

Is this the point when quietly tolerating the conservative uncle crosses over into refusing to come to Thanksgiving if the now Trump-supporting uncle is invited?

And what if I had kids? Would I be within my rights to say that Trump supporters in my family will never see my children again, because I don’t want my children to be around such people, to be influenced by someone who can be seduced by such ugliness?

These measures seem harsh, but if Trump really is a sui generis evil, then unprecedented and difficult measures are called for. If we’re not willing to make and carry through with such threats, does that mean that we don’t really view him as a sui generis evil? That this is just the latest thing we’re willing to humor for the sake of family peace and avoiding social awkwardness?

Of course evangelicals support Trump

worship_times

There’s a lot that’s interesting about Randall Balmer’s recent lamentation over evangelical support for Trump, but I think his argument is hamstrung by his equivocation on the term “evangelical.” The bad evangelicals we know today are contrasted with the better, more authentically pious evangelicals of the past, who had not yet sold out to power and wealth.

In my opinion, it is more accurate to view American “evangelicalism” as something new, something that came into existence in and as the “religious right.” This is not to say, of course, that our evangelicals have no genealogical roots in the more pietistic and fundamentalist strands of American Christianity. But the idea that “evangelicals” were once all about proper theology and have since turned to politics is wrong. Evangelicalism in the contemporary American sense of the term has always and only been a political movement — a form of identity politics that has always tied together Jesus, America, and whiteness.

And it has always been utterly theologically vacuous. It is not an attempt to build on past traditions, but to erase them and replace them with a generic “non-denominational” vision of Christianity that is taken as self-evident (despite coming from God knows where). I had a front row seat as generic evangelicalism cannibalized the Church of the Nazarene, and the signature gesture was always to downplay or even belittle whatever was distinctive in Nazarene doctrine and practice in favor of one-size-fits-all, “seeker-sensitive,” wannabe megachurch pablum. All that’s left over from pietism and revivalism is the shallow emotionalism of tearing up while you belt out a chorus for twentieth time.

Generic evangelicalism claims to be all about biblical innerancy. Yet it doesn’t have the courage of its conviction when it comes to biblical literalsm, as the kind of classical fundamentalist apologetics explaining away apparent inconsistencies is absent. Evangelicalism has never produced anything to match the rigor of a document of the heroic era of fundamentalism such as the Scofield Reference Bible. Generic evangelicalism effectively has no biblical hermeneutic whatsoever, aside from the sheer opportunism that makes the Bible out to be a divinely inspired cross between the Wall Street Journal editorial page and a management self-help book.

There’s nothing inconsistent about evangelicals buying into Trump’s posturing and nihilism, because evangelicalism is itself nothing but posturing and nihilism. To paraphrase Karl Barth, evangelicalism was always “the invention of the anti-Christ,” an attempt to develop an American natural theology that turns whites into a chosen nation. They’re not “falling for” Trump, and if we view them as being somehow deceived, it’s only because they bought into a bigger lie long ago.