Saturday, February 11, 2017

On reading Andrew Sullivan's latest blog

It was a sad day for me when Andrew Sullivan decided to shut down his blog, The Dish, about a year ago and retire.  I was a regular reader and I have missed it.  So I’m delighted to find he’s back at it with at least an occasional commentary.  His latest, which appeared the other day in New York magazine, has a short review of Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, Silence, and some thoughts on the tragedy that is Trump.

I have been a fan of Sullivan since reading “A Conservative Case,” a conservative’s argument in favor of same-sex marriage, which he made in 1995.  He was still a Thatcher/Reagan supporter in those years, and he continues to take a conservative perspective on some issues, although he joined the democrats in disillusionment with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the torture at Abu Ghraib to vote for John Kerry. As you might expect from someone with an Oxford, then Harvard, education, he is a superb independent and critical thinker, and he has acquired great skill in putting his thoughts into both speech and writing. Even when I am not persuaded by what he has to say, I find myself thinking I am unlikely to find a better take on any given topic he chooses to address, even when I don’t share his views at all.  His recent comments on Silence, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, are a case in point.

Silence is based on a 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo about two 17th Century Jesuit priests from Portugal who travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor, whose faith, it turns out, has not withstood the Japanese authorities’ use of death and torture to keep this “foreign” thing called Christianity at bay. The film addresses Scorsese’s belief that the road to faith must necessarily involve doubt (Why is God silent?) at some point.

Sullivan is both gay and a traditionalist Roman Catholic.  Whether that’s kind of like being an African-American member of the Ku Klux Klan, or whether that’s a sign of his cognitive flexibility I’ll leave for another time. I understand he’s not alone in finding a way to lay claim to its non-authoritarian authority and the power of its traditions.  How he does that is not the point here.  The point here is that he clearly resonates at some level with Martin Scorsese’s notion of faith. 

Here’s what he has to say about Silence, the movie, and about Scorsese.

(I)ts genius lies in the complexity of its understanding of what faith really is. For some secular liberals, faith is some kind of easy, simple abdication of reason — a liberation from reality. For Scorsese, it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, and often inseparable from crippling, perpetual doubt. You see this in the main protagonist’s evolution: from a certain, absolutist arrogance to a long sacrifice of pride toward a deeper spiritual truth. Faith is a result, in the end, of living, of seeing your previous certainties crumble and be rebuilt, shakily, on new grounds. God is almost always silent, hidden, and sometimes most painfully so in the face of hideous injustice or suffering. A life of faith is therefore not real unless it is riddled with despair.

Moreover, I think Sullivan correctly anticipates the public response to Silence

Those without faith have no patience for a long meditation on it; those with faith in our time are filled too often with a passionate certainty to appreciate it.

I part ways with Scorsese (and thus, I assume, with Andrew Sullivan as well) precisely because of Scorsese’s argument that faith is "not real unless it is riddled with despair." It strikes me that this take on faith doesn’t so much define faith as it reveals Scorsese's own personal belief system - Sullivan, like many believers, appears to be equally drawn to the mystery of belief, the power it has over so many people who can't or won't accept the loneliness of unbelief.

I have always objected to the way religious people lay claim to faith. I see it as analogous to the way so many on the political right, including, not surprisingly, those on the religious right, who maintain they have an exclusive right to define patriotism.

For those in the faith business, those who claim the right to speak in the name of God, or at least in the name of their particular form of organized religion, faith is synonymous with acceptance of one of the doctrines associated with our civilization - Jewish, Christian or Muslim.  It involves acceptance of the claim that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, or that Christ was born of a virgin to redeem inheritors of the sin of Adam, or that Mohammad was the seal of the prophets and there would never be another.  

As a non-theist, I am said to be a man without faith.  But I’m not without faith.  I’m simply without religion, and I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice in conflating the two. “Faith-based” has come to be understood as “religion-based,” when it is more precisely defined as “belief-based.” Not all beliefs are religious beliefs.  I believe there is such a thing as good and evil, for example, and that there is truth and there is falsehood and that there is beauty and there is the absence of beauty. These are philosophical principles, of course, which many people, both religious and non-religious, often distinguish from religion.  My life experience (I believe – at least I credit it to experience) has taught me that one has a moral duty to one’s fellow creatures as well as to one’s own well being. I believe that at the heart of a life well lived is a commitment to avoid violence and deceit.  And that to the degree one surrenders to violence and deceit happiness becomes increasingly unattainable.

That faith system – my belief system – requires no descent into misery for it to mature. It requires no periods of doubt to grow, although I find doubt and the debate that derives from questioning things to be extremely useful.  And I am naturally suspicious of affirmations of certainty.  I am much more comfortable with the definition of truth used by modern science – that it is the sum total of all knowledge to date, subject to change with the addition of new and contradictory information.  It is my belief that an openness to the possibility of error in one’s convictions is superior to the claim that certain things must not be questioned.  I don’t believe that it is God “working in mysterious ways” when millions are tortured and killed in war, or die in natural disasters.  The claim of a loving God strikes me as not consistent with children born blind or paralyzed or ridden with diseases which will cause them to live out their lives in pain and agony and then die at a very young age.  I don’t wonder at God’s silence.  I do wonder how people find such a god worthy of worship and praise. How is following such a god not simply following some law of perversity?

Silence may have many things going for it – I don’t know and I’m not attempting to review it here because I have yet to see it – but I will not seek it out for what it has to say about testing one’s faith in God.  And I trust that will not deter others from doing so if they wish.

What Sullivan has to say about the Trump phenomenon is a different story.  This time, he and I seem to be on the same wave length exactly.

Sullivan begins with the truism that “All politicians lie.”  What is different about Trump is that normal liars “pay some deference to the truth.”  They “acknowledge… the need for a common set of facts in order for a liberal democracy to function at all.”  Trump’s lies, he maintains, are goal-directed.  They have a purpose, to enforce his power and to test the loyalty of those he is able to force into submission. It is a characteristic strategy of authoritarians.

Sullivan’s solution to the problem of living with Trump’s deceit is not original, but it is intuitive.  “Rebut every single lie,” he insists.  Insist, if you are in a position to, that every lie be retracted.  Work cooperatively (he’s speaking specifically to journalists here) to back each other with follow up questions.  Never leave a lie alone.   “Press and press and press until (a) lie is conceded.”  Don’t be afraid to call him a liar to his face.

Sullivan is also not the first to suggest that there may be something wrong with Trump’s mental and psychological health.  It’s this, he says, and not his agenda, that is “a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months.”

There is no anchor any more, Sullivan says. “At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”

Most of us, I think, never imagined we’d be using language like this when speaking about American democracy.  But then none of us imagined we’d have to watch the systematic dismantling of efforts to control banking so as to avoid a repeat of the crash of 2008.  Or the removal of efforts to further enrich corporations and the hyperrich at the expense of the less fortunate.  Or to save the environment.  Who among us imagined an administration openly committed to increasing the risk of nuclear disaster, to fostering the education of the few at the expense of education of all? Who thought we’d ever see a complete takeover by the racist, sexist, homophobic right and an open attack on the voting rights and other civil rights of America’s black population?  We have always had politicians who know how to manipulate our fears and our greed.  We just have not had one in our lifetimes who did so openly and so brazenly.

We have listened to those who claimed this liar’s promises were nothing more than some raw meat to a pack of hungry wolves, a strategy for building up a power base, and that once in power he would rise to the dignity of his office.  We have considered claims that he is not a true conservative, that his self-interest would keep the radical right from attempting to break down the wall between church and state, to roll back Roe v. Wade and the rights of LGBT citizens to marry.  And now we are presented with evidence that the opposite is true, and that chaos and uncertainty are the only certainties.  We are in a condition of exteme distress and disease.

I said earlier that I believe in good and evil.  But I don’t believe that good always prevails.  I think if it is to prevail under present-day circumstances, it will take extraordinary efforts.

The victory of the courts against the inhuman and profoundly stupid and self-defeating travel ban is a positive sign and some of us are celebrating that victory and hoping it signals the start of a more effective resistance to the new Trump way of doing things.

My concern lies less with Trump, more with his enablers.  I fear that unless Republicans of integrity find a way to get us off this path, we may find that gerrymandering only gets worse, that even more blacks and other minority people will lose their power to vote, that ever more judgeships, more school board positions will go to self-serving right winger candidates.

I also differ with those who claim this is the worst thing to happen to America since the Civil War. Even with the threat coming from an apparent powerlessness to fight deceit in high places, I think we’ve been worse off.  The Civil War time was worse.  Life under slavery and in segregated America was worse.  McCarthy and the Red Scare, the internment of Japanese-Americans, Nixon’s shenanigans – American democracy has been bombarded before.

Our only hope is that we still have a critical mass of people committed to democracy and to decency, to the rule of law and to evidence-based justification for political action. I don’t think they are likely to let all this slip through their fingers.

“One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all,” Sullivan writes.  We’ve had it easy.  We’ve been able to ride the waves.  We’ve been able to turn off the news, and “exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene.”

Not any more.  We are beginning to realize those times are over.  We now get to have a close look at just how fragile democracy really is. We may have to live with fear and with burnout from an endless display of outrage, day after day. Some of us will go under, especially if our health care suffers and if white supremacists continue to come out of the woodwork.

Everybody’s looking for ways to resist.  Let me suggest one that I have not heard seriously suggested before.

I witnessed a terrible injustice the other day when a provocateur came to speak at the UC Berkeley Campus at the invitation of the young Republicans.  Protesters assembled and outside forces, identified as “anarchists” (they dressed in black and wore masks), came in, set fires and smashed windows on and near the campus.  The news media then did what I think was a terrible thing.  They reported that “some of the protesters turned violent.”

But that was bad reporting.  The protesters didn’t turn violent.  This is Berkeley, the home of free speech.  Protesters protest here all the time and the tradition of peaceful protest is well established.  It was a separate group of outside agitators who took over, as they now commonly do when there are public protests, and brought about the violence.

The Berkeley police held back because in previous riots in the Occupy movement they had moved in too soon and only escalated the rage of the group.  The pendulum swung too far and this time they calculated that allowing the negative energy to burn itself out was the lesser evil. Getting that right is an art.  They need community help in doing this.

Here’s my suggestion.  We need to recognize that protests are now going to be a regular part of the resistance to the new Trumpocracy.  Because it is based on deceit and the power of a small minority to abuse the institutions of power to which they have been given access, we have no alternative.  As the recent 600 women’s marches around the country and the world demonstrated, protest, along with other institutions like the police and the courts dedicated to the rule of law, are going to be our way around this corrupt regime.  Let me suggest that protesters take another look at the police and shed the outdated view that they are the enemy.  Protesters need to work with the police against the anarchists.  If you see somebody wearing a mask set a building on fire, rip off that mask.  Take their pictures and pursue them relentlessly up until the time when they are prosecuted.  Call them out by name if you know them. Call attention to them.  Shut down this threat to peaceful protest.  It’s our new lifeline they are endangering.

I realize this isn’t easy.  Many still think of cops as “pigs.”  As racists and bullies.  Some are, as the Black Lives Matter movement makes plain.  But some is a long way from all. We need to commit to a ruthlessly honest look at the prejudice in ourselves and at our own inclination to profile.  Recognize that there are crooked cops, but also that the majority of police are committed to law and order.  Making cops the enemy is a self-destructive strategy in this day and age.  What we need now is to join forces with the police and help them do their job to look out for the weak and the vulnerable.

We need to know who our friends are and not make enemies of the very people we need to fight this battle of resistence to the man who promised to drain the swamp but now demonstrates on a daily basis that he’s all about doing the exact opposite. 

We need to get smart.


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