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.

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


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.

Thoughts out of season: On Santa Claus

What if the purpose of Santa Claus is to get children used to the idea of complicity with a lie? Children who discover Santa Claus’s non-existence are normally exhorted to keep that truth from younger children. If they obey, they gain the satisfaction of joining the adult world in some small way. If they disobey, they will risk the guilt of depriving someone of enjoyment — truth hurts. Either way, the gap between the “official position” and private opinions opens up, and a whole lot of ideological effort is expended to remind us how important it is to make sure the “official position” can still function. Indeed, many Christmas movies even model a kind of “second naïveté” about the Santa Claus myth, when they’re not presenting it as openly true (and hence implicitly calling into question the origins and motivations of the debunking stance). Why embrace the truth? Isn’t it more magical and special to hang on to the implausible lie? Shouldn’t we admire and imitate the naive trust of children, instead of being so caught up with what’s “true” or “real”?

In short, Santa Claus is not merely ideology at its very purest — it’s about ideology at its very purest. Its purpose is to induct children into the very order of ideology.

The dilemma of Christmas

The Girlfriend and I are not planning on having children, ever. Indeed, as you may be able to tell from her internet moniker, we are not married and do not plan to do that unless it becomes necessary for some urgent practical reason. We are very happy with our vaguely non-traditional lifestyle 99.5% of the time, but when the holiday season comes around, it becomes problematic. This is because Christmas is for kids and people who have kids.

Now, to be fair, no one harrasses us about when the grandchildren will come along, etc., but the gap is nonetheless there. It marks everything with ambiguity. When you have kids, it’s obvious why you would keep up with your parents and extended family — but how are we to understand the relationship between parents and childless adult children? Neither of us have some unspeakable trauma in our past that would justify cutting off our parents altogether, so opting out of holiday obligations seems gratuitous and ungenerous. But every year, the question lingers: why are we doing precisely this? Does it make any of us happy? Does it bring us closer? Does it remind us of why our relationship is so valuable?

For me, it’s a no straight across the board. Yet I don’t know what else to do. If I pushed for major changes in the holidy routine, that would mean investing more deeply in the holidays, which I clearly don’t want to do. If I just refused to participate, it would send an excessive and cruel message that I don’t want to send. Is there a way out of this vortex? Do I just have to devote a couple days of my life each year to an empty gesture? (I’m famous for being in favor of empty gestures, of course, but this particular one seems excessively lengthy.)

I realize I complain about this situation in some form or another basically every year. This time around it felt particularly bad because we had such a nice Thanksgiving to ourselves and because Christmas came right in the midst of our preparations for The Girlfriend’s big move to Minneapolis — so we vividly remembered that a better holidy was possible and felt the loss of these couple days particularly acutely. But it’s every year. It fills me with dread every year.

Surely someone has found a better solution. Please share it.

All I want for Christmas is for everything to just stop

Every year, the arrival of Christmas music season is equally jarring and unwelcome for me. While I’ve heard the songs over and over for decades at this point, I am somehow unable to allow them to fall into the background. Instead, every word and every note functions somewhere along the spectrum ranging from “object of bemused overanalysis” to “personal insult.” This is especially the case for the newer Christmas songs, which are not only much more inane on average but also grow increasingly insistent on a rather puzzling Christmas theme: romance.

If we look back at the Christmas story, there does not seem to be much room for romantic love. Certainly there is a family theme to be discerned, but the entire point of Mary and Joseph’s relationship is that they are not romantically involved. And the most successful Christian contemporary songs of recent decades — Mark Lowry’s “Mary Did You Know” and Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven” — actually have the virtue of highlighting the strangeness of Mary’s situation.

By contrast, new secular hits — above all Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but also the various also-rans that can be represented by “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” or whatever it’s called — completely ignore that aspect and go straight for the jugular. Indeed, there is one canonical Christmas song that actually renders Christmas a site of transgressive sexuality for the mother figure, namely “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” (The song is particularly poignant in the Jackson Five’s rendition, which has Michael plaintively testifying to sexual misconduct as the rest of his family mocks and dismisses him.) And let’s not even talk about the abomination that is “Santa Baby” — much less the creepy scenario of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

What is going on here? Is this an attempt to shore up the ideology of family by guilting people for being single? Did romantic love simply get drawn into the general miasma of cloying sentimentality that surrounds the holiday? Is a significant other the ultimate Black Friday deal?

I’m joking in part, but when I was a young adult, the flood of messages mandating romantic attachments for the holidays was actually very difficult to deal with in a season that already made me feel isolated and depressed. Being called upon to summon up “spontaneous” emotions of gratitude and familial warmth was difficult enough, and the implicit requirement to have a romantic partner just felt exhorbitant. Perhaps this is my own personal neurosis, but I doubt I’m the only one who has felt that way during the holidays.

What about you, readers? Did you see mommy kissing Santa Claus?

The inside is the outside: Family paranoia in America

The white middle class family in America has grown ever more paranoid over the course of my lifetime. Children once roamed free after school, but now it’s virtually a crime to leave a child unattended in public. It’s not clear to me that there has been an epidemic of child abduction or molestation by strangers. In reality, the person most likely to molest a child is that child’s own father, followed by trusted adults such as uncles or priests. The people most likely to abduct a child are their own mother and father, in the midst of a contentious divorce.

Perhaps not unrelatedly, leaving children any unstructured free time is a sure way to thwart their chances of moving up the meritocratic ladder and build a life for themselves. Strangely, though, the meritocratic lifestyle seems to be a perfect way to keep the child from growing up at all, thwarting their life chances in an entirely different way.

In both cases, an outside threat is hallucinated in order to cover up the fact that, in the precise area where the nuclear family is supposed to be protecting the children, the nuclear family itself is the true danger. How can we account for this strange phenomenon?

By the late 1960s, it was already clear to many observers that the nuclear family thing wasn’t working. Feminism was producing major changes in its practical economic structure, young people were making different demands on potential partners, and queer communities were beginning to resist their marginalization. In response to these attacks on the nuclear family, we suddenly learned that the outside world was an incomprehensibly scary place, full of men in vans and transition lenses and competitors with much better college applications, and many came to view the nuclear family as a kind of nuclear bunker. In reality, though, it remains what the Baby Boomers, for all their many faults and failings, initially perceived it to be: a prison.

The inertia of the suburbs

The Girlfriend and I have been watching The Wonder Years lately, and it’s striking how generic the setting is — if not for references to news events in the late 1960s, it could be any time period from 1965 to the late 1990s (and I only posit that cut-off point because of the advent of the internet). The suburban model that was built out starting in the immediate postwar era has proven to be remarkably resilient, and even now it has a kind of self-evidence as the “mainstream” American approach to family and community life.

In the immediate postwar years, it seems as though there was a level of “buy-in” across the population, as the prospect of one’s own house, a car, etc., seemed like wonderful luxuries. By now, however, the suburban model has shown itself to be costly, environmentally destructive, and in many cases isolating and community-destroying. Further, the concentration of good schools in the suburbs perpetuates an ongoing vicious cycle of “white flight” that reinforces the systemic racism of our society. And as the financial crisis revealed, the aspiration to suburban middle class status increasingly carries the risk of financial ruin.

More and more people are realizing all of this and don’t want to buy into the suburban model — yet except for the very wealthy, there seems to be no real choice for middle class people if you want to have children. And the reason for this surprising persistence of a model that no one really wants anymore is the power of state planning. Even if the population could be initially convinced to want suburban-style development, the decisive factor was a concentrated effort on all levels of government to create all the necessary conditions for that lifestyle, through physical and legal infrastructure and often through explicit subsidies (such as the mortgage interest tax deducation, which seems to be invulnerable). All of the stuff they created in that heroic era of American urban planning is still in place. The roads and schools have been built, and the legal structures for expanding suburban development if needed are already in place and ready to go. All the incentives for middle-class families still point outward into the suburbs.

While reading about the ongoing disaster of education “reform,” I once thought: “What if cities stopped trying to attract tourists and started trying to gain permanent residents by creating awesome schools?” As I thought about what that would entail, however, it became clear that no one city has the resources to fully reverse the trend — to really work, it would have to entail a complete reshaping of the school funding structures, a build-out of public transportation infrastructure to support the expanded population, etc., etc. In other words, it would take forceful state planning on the model of what created the suburbs in the first place.

Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. only had one relatively brief window for such forceful state planning, extending from FDR to Nixon (only 40 years out of the 200+ of the Republic’s existence) — and it wasted it on the suburbs. Barring a new FDR, we’re probably stuck with it. The bright side, I guess, is that The Wonder Years will remain legible and relatable for generations to come.