Sunday, April 28, 2019

Am Too, Are Not

On the whole I'm fond of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite her lapses, for who among us is perfect?  And I realize that she probably had little choice but to slap back at Kellyanne Conway for this attempted slur:

But still, public disputes about who's a good Christian and who isn't discredit everyone involved.  (Which applies also to Pete Buttigieg.)  It's like public squabbling over dick size.  A politician's religious affiliation or lack of it is not a qualification for office. The Constitution (Article 6, par. 3) explicitly rules out religious tests, and while that's not binding on voters, we should be able to balance personal creed with political judgment.  "Should" is the catch, of course; "should" and a transit pass will get you on the bus.

One of the very few matters on which I (an atheist, remember) agree with C. S. Lewis was his refusal in Mere Christianity to define "Christian" in any but a very formal sense, "to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity" (xii).  (It's almost a behaviorist definition.)  He didn't do this because he didn't think that heartfelt faith was important, but because:
It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served. 

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples’, to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ’ than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian [xiv].
This is worth quoting at length because of that dig at unbelievers who will, Lewis believed, "cheerfully" use "Christian" as a compliment, to mean a good person.  I'm one unbeliever who won't. For one thing, I don't think "Christian" has any moral content. (The same applies to "atheist.")  For another, as an atheist, I'm not interested in judging who's a real Christian and who isn't.  If someone "identifies as" a Christian, to use the current buzzword, I'm not going to tell them they aren't.  But many believers and unbelievers still do, and Lewis here shows why they shouldn't.

Someone else had a good take on the proper response to personal attacks, namely C. P. Snow in a postscript to his book The Two Cultures:
However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.
But then, as self-admitted, card-carrying Christians, Ocasio-Cortez and Buttigieg predictably will see their claim to good standing, indeed to goodness (though there is none good but God, as somebody declared), on the line.  In the US, it's only what their fans will expect, since they no less than their opponents put a high premium on religious affiliation and proving their superior spiritual discernment.  That, as Lewis and Snow both said in their different ways, is not on.  It would be nice if Americans paid more attention to matters of more importance, but we're not likely to change overall in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Man of Destiny

So I've been trying to find the context of Pete Buttigieg's remarks, delivered in Nashua, New Hampshire last week, which have been interpreted as a comparison, if not an equation, of Donald Trump voters and Bernie Sanders voters. It's not an entirely unfair reading, but what Buttigieg said appears to be worse than that.

As I say, it's been hard to find the context.  What I first saw was a 20-second video clip that obviously needed filling out.  The most I've found is this New York Post article, drawing on reporting by the Washington Examiner, which quotes Buttigieg at greater length.
“I think the sense of anger and disaffection that comes from seeing that the numbers are fine, like unemployment’s low, like all that, like you said GDP is growing and yet a lot of neighborhoods and families are living like this recovery never even happened. They’re stuck,” Buttigieg told high school students in in Nashua, N.H.

“It just kind of turns you against the system in general and then you’re more likely to want to vote to blow up the system, which could lead you to somebody like Bernie and it could lead you to somebody like Trump. That’s how we got where we are.”
Buttigieg has just about everything wrong here, which is a minor achievement in itself but not a reason to vote for him.

First, while some of his younger and more excitable fans might have mistaken his "Revolution" slogan for a promise to "blow up the system," Bernie Sanders is a thoroughgoing reformist in the mainstream New Deal tradition.  Far from blowing up the system, he has worked for decades within the system, in elected office, and seeks to bring about his goals through legislation, not revolution.  Medicare For All, student debt forgiveness, tuition-free education through college, raising the Federal minimum wage to $15/hr., extending Social Security, raising taxes on the richest, even withdrawing support for the US-Saudi war in Yemen, all are either extensions or returns to established American practices associated with the post-WWII period viewed by many people as the fulfillment of the American dream.  They are also very popular with voters as far as we can tell, and I don't believe Buttigieg is unaware of that.  As with so many centrist hacks, I wonder if he is unaware, in which case he's incompetent, or trying to persuade voters that they don't want what they do want, in which case he's trying to mislead them.  Trump and his fans were more likely by all accounts to really want to blow up the system, which is typical of American conservatives of the Goldwater-Buckley-Reagan stripe.

Second, if you're going to compare Trump to anyone, Pete Buttigieg himself is a better choice.  He has only slightly more political experience (mayor of a small midwestern city) than Trump, and part of his appeal, like Trump's, is the image of outsiderness.  (The same was true of Barack Obama.)  Buttigieg wants to be the (white) man on a white horse, riding into town from nowhere to fix everything.  Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has worked for decades in political institutions, and he's been fairly consistent in his positions and policies.  The attempt to cast him as a long-shot dark-horse outsider makes more sense about his 2016 run, and indicates that someone is still stuck refighting a lost battle.  Trump also had a long, well-documented history, and his actions as President haven't been very surprising to anyone who knew anything about his career.  For what it's worth, though, the more time Buttigieg spends in the glare of national publicity, the worse he looks.  He's also ready and eager to work within the system that brought us to "where we are", as shown by his participation in a private meeting of Democratic insiders seeking to block Sanders from getting the nomination.  He's not in the elites yet, but that's clearly how he sees himself and what he wants to be.  To paraphrase Huckleberry Finn, we been there before.  Even if Buttigieg were to win the nomination, and against all likelihood the election, we'd be back in 2016, only worse off.

I rather think that Buttigieg is projecting.  He himself has said he favors expanding the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, and over the weekend he endorsed impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.  These may be worthy goals, but they're more of an attack on the system than Medicare for All.

Third, the rhetorical strategy in Buttigieg's remarks is reprehensible.  My first response was to substitute some other terms for "Trump" and "Sanders."  People are upset about racism.  Their anger could lead them to support the White Citizens Councils, or it could lead them to support Martin Luther King.  This is not an unfair analogy, I think, because Martin Luther King was demonized by white self-styled moderates as an extremist from the beginning of his public career, a label he ambivalently embraced in his letter from Birmingham Jail.  Perhaps I'm unfair to the White Citizens Councils, who no doubt presented themselves as the middle road between the extremes of the Klan on one side, and Martin Luther King on the other; if so, I can live with it.  On a strictly literal level, Buttigieg didn't actually say that Trump and Sanders, or their fans, were alike, but he certainly wants to be viewed as a reasonable voice of civility and unity in our troubled times compared to those emotional, misguided souls who want to blow up the system.

Buttigieg isn't alone in working this line; most establishment Democrats have used it against Sanders (and now Elizabeth Warren, who as Doug Henwood says is a liberal but has good ideas and is making the right enemies), and will again in the coming year.  By using it, though, he shows where he stands.  He sees himself as entitled not only to prominence but to the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, despite his lack of qualification and experience.  I hate to be so negative about anyone, but these are perilous times, so I wish a decisive and humiliating defeat for Mayor Pete.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Your Get-Out-of-Hell Free Card

Here's an unremarkable, everyday example of what I mean when I insist that religion is a human invention and should be evaluated in that light.
A great, good, and holy man has passed. Friends know well, he would sign every note, “pray for me.” I ask the same - please pray for the repose of Fr. James Schall, S.J., the best of men, and a good and faithful servant.
I had never heard of James Schall before this morning, but this memorial to him turned up in my Twitter feed this morning.  I don't doubt that he was a great, good, and holy (whatever that means) man, though any Christian ought to remember that their Lord said that no one is good except God.  (On "the best of men," see my recent reflections on that kind of inflation of merit.)  What interests me are the assumptions underlying the request to pray for Schall's "repose."  One is that death is like sleep, and that the person somehow is still there.  Another is that the default of the after-death state is restlessness, whether it's conceived as a hungry ghost craving revenge on the living or torment in some placeless place. Yet another is that the living can help the dead find repose, either by appeasing the vengeful spirit or, as in this case, praying for them to receive an upgrade to first class, where they'll be able to rest.

It's common for infidels like me to explain such beliefs by claiming that those who hold them have been "brainwashed" (people keep using that word) by the Church, by wicked Priests, by fairy tales written by Bronze Age shepherds.  (Those shepherds are evidently immortal, and amazingly powerful.)  I don't think that explains anything.  Why did those wicked people invent the belief, and more important, why is it so durable?  Christian churches have been trying for two thousand years to brainwash believers to do or refrain from doing many things -- calling people good, for an easy example -- but without much success.  In many cases the offenders feel no guilt at all.  I think it's reasonable to suspect that when believers conform, it's less because they were brainwashed than because they are the kind of people who'd invent those beliefs in the first place.  Either they feel strong anxiety about their own lives, or are full of resentment toward others they'd like to see punished.

The belief in a painful afterlife is not only Christian, after all.  It may not be universal, but it's very ancient and widespread.  Even biblical Judaism, which supposedly has no doctrine of the afterlife, imagines the dead in a dark, shadowy place called Sheol; if you want to invoke Bronze Age shepherds, that seems to have been how they thought of it.  I've written before about Korean Buddhist beliefs and practices that were not very different in principle from Roman Catholicism.  I once read a scholar who claimed that in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which revels in fantasies of eternal post-mortem torture, Jesus didn't mean to describe the geography of the afterlife but simply borrowed imagery from Egyptian sources among others.  It's a false distinction anyway, but I would ask why Jesus preferred that imagery.  Why not imagine both Lazarus and Dives comfortable, reconciled, at an eternal and joyful banquet?  Why believe that anything happens to them after their deaths at all?

But not only that: along with belief in Hell (or whatever you want to call it) goes the belief that the living can help the damned to escape from it by what I can only call magical means, by prayer, by Masses for the dead, by baptizing the living on behalf of the dead, and so on.  Christianity, like other religions of salvation, is at its core preventive magic to keep you from being sent to Hell in the first place.  I don't know how accurate the accounts I've read of ancient Egyptian religion are, but the idea that the hearts of the dead will be weighed to decide their posthumous fate can hardly be blamed on Christianity, and the basic principle is the same: to learn the password, the secret handshake, the necessary bribes to get past the gatekeeper to eternal safety.  But the default setting is torture; "punishment" may not be the right word, because the suffering is free-floating, apart from anything the sufferer may have done.

So: why all this?  Death is scary, whether it's our own or the death of other creatures.  Nobody knows why we die, nobody knows if there's any kind of existence after we die.  When I've raised this point with some believers, they often invoke a version of Pascal's Wager: well, we don't know, so we're playing it safe, it does no harm to pray for Father Schall, etc.  Like the original form of the Wager, there are problems, highlighted by the variety of beliefs and practices people have.  What good will it do to light lanterns so the dead can find their way to paradise more quickly, if they're going to Hell anyway because they weren't baptized in the name of Jesus, the only name in which we are saved?  If there is a real danger of posthumous suffering, we need accurate information about how to avoid it, and there is none.  (If we knew that this was the geography of the afterlife, it would be different, but we know nothing about it.)  Yet many (most?) people cling desperately to belief that the danger is real.  Some get very upset at the idea of giving up the belief, of admitting that no one knows and that there's no reason to believe that we go on existing after we die.  Certainly my skepticism about the call to pray for the dead will upset some people.

A common reaction is to demand "respect" for the dead.  I am not sure what that means, but I have as much respect for Father Schall as it's possible to have for someone I've never met and know nothing about.  I don't think he should go to Hell; I don't think anyone should go to Hell.  Demanding "respect" is just flailing around.  My point is that we should be aware of and examine the assumptions that lie behind these beliefs and practices.  Getting rid of "religion" -- whatever that would mean, given that no one knows what religion is, where it ends and not-religion begins -- won't help.  In principle you could have religion without these strange and (I think) malign assumptions about death, but I think there would be powerful resistance to getting rid of them.  Many, probably most people, prefer to think of the universe as a giant booby-trap, laid for us by a Cosmic architect who loves us and wants to see us slip on the banana peels he put in our path, and you can't change that preference simply telling them they're stupid, brainwashed, and superstitious.

I think that resentment is a major factor in that resistance.  If Donald Trump or Ilhan Omar isn't going to be punished horribly, if the bully who took your lunch money in third grade or the stuck-up girl who didn't invite you to her birthday party is just going to get away with it, then what is the point?  Again, this resentment can't be wished away; I feel it myself.  The trouble is institutionalizing it in our moral systems, as all the systems that postulate punishment after death do.  Nor will you find it only among fundamentalists: think of the liberal Christians who fantasized violence against Paul Ryan for his views on poverty.  Think of this biblical scholar, showing his superiority to an antigay Christian who spoke against Pete Buttigieg in Iowa.  Such resentment is a cause of (certain aspects of) religion, not an effect.  It's easy for me to see why it's so tenacious.  Making the world better (by ending poverty, for example, which you recall Jesus had no interest in doing) is hard, perhaps impossible.  Making it worse, by throat-punching a bigot with the binding of your Scripture, or punching Paul Ryan in the face, or - better -- fantasizing about it, is so much easier. If you hang on to an unsupportable belief so doggedly, it's because you like it: you want to see the world that way.  A lifestyle choice, if you will.

To try (perhaps vainly) to make myself clear, I'm not saying that people who encourage us to pray for the dead are wicked.  I'm asking that we, and they themselves, pay attention to the assumptions that lead them to encourage it. They are not benign assumptions. They express some weirdly negative attitudes towards life and the living that I imagine these people would repudiate. But they hold them nonetheless.  Those of us who reject religion need to be aware of those attitudes, in the conventionally religious and in ourselves, if only to understand them in hopes of correcting them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Nickname Stylists; or, Which of These Two Is Not Like the Other?

What a relief!  I was kicking myself for not having made screengrabs of these tweets, because I thought I'd been blocked.  But so far, no.  Anyway, here's the Progressive Mind at work:
The first tweet is okay, though he's really describing Obama, not Clinton: swift and self-serving political climb, meticulous public image, padded experience like a CEO resume.  (Unless he maybe meant Bill, not Hillary?)  And it's a fair complaint, except that it should have been fairly obvious from Buttigieg's first entrance into the national spotlight, and "dread" doesn't feel like the right word.  But whatever.

It's the second one that got me going.  "[A]nyone making fun of his name will be called a homophobe, like anyone calling attention to Clinton's atrocious record was called a sexist."  So, let's see what's on the slab. The first clause is exactly what one hears from bigots who've been called out for their expressed bigotry: Just because I called him 'Martin Luther Coon,' that doesn't make me a racist!  You're taking it out of context!  Your Politically Correct purity tests are destroying civil discourse!

In fact, you're not likely to be called a homophobe for mocking Buttigieg's name if you work from the similarity in sound to "Buddha."  Call him "Buddha-judge," say, and you will probably not be accused of homophobia.  Or you can do something with his first name, like this one, which I approve.  But if you work with "Butt," as so many do ... well, you may just be betraying the straight-boy panic/obsession with buttsex that is endemic in this kind of discourse, and symptomatic of homophobia.  It's been entertaining to see so many people protesting that straight people do anal sex too, so it's totally not homophobic to bring it into a discussion of a gay politician.

What's downright hilarious is Yusuf's equation of making fun of Buttigieg's name with criticizing Hillary Clinton's policies. Jon Schwarz has claimed that conservatives, as against liberals and progressives, can't do good analogies; I say that liberals and conservatives can't do them either, and Yusuf's tweet is evidence for my position.  I noticed, and disparaged, the Clintonite habit of accusing critics of Her policies of sexism, just as Obama cultists accused critics of his policies of racism, whether or not sexism and racism were actually evident.  But a name is not a policy.  If you have objections to Pete Buttigieg's policies -- and many people do -- then state them, and be prepared to defend them.  If you can't do so without referring to him as Buttchug, Buttface, etc., then you are not in control of your own discourse.  If homophobic epithets just naturally burst to the surface when you're talking about politics, then it's probably accurate to say that you have some unresolved issues about gay men.

Twitter is the home of quick, relatively thought-free writing.  Donald Trump's fondness for abusive schoolyard-style nicknames has often been deplored and mocked by his opponents.  It's okay when they do it, of course, because Trump Is Worse; letting him be the benchmark is the very emblem of liberal/progressive moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  If you're working in a longer-form medium and you can't edit out these little blorts of revelatory anxiety, then get someone to do it for you.  If nothing else, you're putting in a distraction that will allow your opponents to discredit you without answering your well-considered policy criticisms -- and you don't want to do that, do you?  (Or do you?)

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Thousand Milliseconds of Peace

I'm actually kind of glad that Pete Buttigieg is running for President, because it gives me an answer to a question I didn't really expect to see answered.

A number of black friends have complained since 2008 that I just don't understand how much it means to them to have a black President, and that my lack of enthusiasm for Barack Obama is at least partly because I'm white.  During the 2016 campaign, a number of women I knew had the same complaint: because I'm male, I just didn't understand how important Hillary's candidacy was to them.  In both cases they regarded the candidates' policies and record as minor distractions compared to the historic significance of a black or female president: they found it irritating, even upsetting, to be pressured to think about them. 

I still think they were wrong, and that I did understand very well what it meant.  I just thought that their candidates' policies were more important than his race or her sex, and that the boost to the self-esteem of their fans was, while not completely unimportant, much less important than the lives of the many people (including women and people of color) their policies would materially harm.

Just in the past few days, a woman argued angrily on Twitter that white male contenders (Sanders, Biden, O'Rourke, Buttigieg) were once again getting all the attention, and that it was time women of color had a chance to show what they could do.  I didn't think this was entirely unfair until I remembered that similar claims were made for Obama and Clinton.  Obama did not, as far as I can tell, govern differently than a white male of his class.  Clinton was not elected, but her record of warmongering and her glee over other people's deaths does not inspire confidence in me that she'd have brought woman-wisdom and Earth-based grandmother-compassion to the Oval Office.  (See her gloating over the death of Qadafy in the clip linked here, for example.)  That doesn't mean that we shouldn't elect another black man or a woman of any color to the presidency, only that sex and race are not qualifications for the office.  I think that the examples of Obama and Clinton confirm this.

Still, I admit to some qualms about my position.  If an openly gay person became a viable candidate, would I cut him or her more slack than I have to Obama or Clinton?  Would the world-historical significance of a homosexual presidential candidate, and what that would mean to young gay kids in America and around the world, sweep away my concerns about such a person's policies and record?  I couldn't deny that until it happened, I wouldn't know for sure, and I didn't really expect to see it happen in my lifetime.  So it's mildly gratifying, for selfish reasons, to find that my faculties remain intact in the face of Pete Buttigieg's campaign.  And what I saw during the Obama and Clinton campaigns is happening again: Buttigieg's fans don't care about his policies, they care about irrelevancies (often charming ones, but irrelevancies nonetheless) and their fantasies about him.

Jacob Bacharach wrote an entertaining essay on the gayness of Mayor Pete, and while it's not his best work, nor is it as good as Nathan J. Robinson's close reading of Buttigieg's autobiography, it's worth reading.  It reminds me of Sarah Schulman's discussion of American commodification of homosexuality in her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (Duke), which was brilliant then and feels prescient now.  I may return to that some other time, but for now I want to mention one other thing about Buttigieg that concerns me.

One of his selling points, one he stresses in public statements and that is echoed by many of his fans, is that people are tired of divisiveness, and that he can bring us together.  That's how Barack Obama marketed himself, and it's how many of his fans see him to this day.  And if that's what Pete Buttigieg wants to be, he should not be president, because while he wants to play nice, his Republican opponents do not.  Obama and his crew claimed to be, and maybe were, taken totally by surprise at how mean the Republicans were: You guyzzzzz!!!  This is so unfair!  Why won't you work with me instead of against me?  Obama threw staff they targeted to the wolves, rather than fight for them.  If the Republicans can't keep Pete Buttigieg out of office, they'll set out to block him from the get-go, as they did with Obama.  It'll be comforting to blame the Rethugs for the next Democratic President's failures, but it's a comfort we can't afford.  We need a president who can fight back, and it doesn't appear that Buttigieg has had to deal with that kind of total war yet, so there's no way to know how he'll cope if he's elected in 2020.  Of course, he'll also need good advisors and a Supreme Court and Democratic-controlled Congress that will work with him.  Playing board games, having a husband who's followed on Twitter by Lin-Manuel Miranda, liking Joyce's Ulysses, performing with Ben Folds -- all these are cute, but if we get a third Obama term, we are truly doomed.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Best!

Lately I saw a little surge of talk about meritocracy on Twitter -- a surge in my little neighborhood, anyway.  I've had a lot to say on that subject here before, but this morning, as I was riding my bicycle to the library, I had a thought I don't think I've had before.

I suspect that there's a connection between faith/belief (they're not quite the same thing) in meritocracy and overrating the things or people to which we assign merit.  If you believe, as Chris Hayes for example does, that meritocracy means hiring the best, putting the best in charge of things, then you will probably feel an impulse to overrate the merit of those you nominate.  It may not be a simple cause-and-effect tendency.  You may want to give the person the job, the slot at your elite school, your money for their CD, because you think they're the best, rather than the other way around.  But they may not be the best, and it doesn't entirely matter.

For example, some years ago I saw that Bob Dylan had been ranked high in a Playboy readers' poll as a harmonica player.  Now, I like Dylan -- his early work anyway, up to 1970 or so -- but I never thought he was the best harmonica player around, or the best guitarist, or pianist, or singer.  He was good enough for what he wanted to do, and he violated norms for "good" singers in a good way: you don't have to be trained or have a pretty voice to be an expressive singer, and for some purposes having an ugly voice may be preferable.  But that doesn't mean you're the best singer, nor does it matter.

Now compare what Chris Hayes wrote on this subject in The Twilight of the Elites:
The same goes in a whole host of domains: the best opera soprano can, with the advent of MP3s and the Internet, sell to anyone in the world with an iPod, which spells trouble for the fifth best soprano. If you can buy the best, why settle? [143]
As I pointed out before, "best" is not the right word here.  Among seven billion people, there are going to be many thousands of operatic sopranos at such a level of excellence that it's really meaningless to call any of them the best.  The differences between them will be so tiny that most people can't detect them.  (This also applies to world-class athletes: the difference between the fastest runner and the tenth-fastest runner in the world is likely to be some tenths of a second, and some of that will be accidental, due to luck rather than "merit.")  To say that this "spells trouble for the fifth best soprano" is false; it doesn't spell trouble for the five hundredth best soprano.  As the example of Bob Dylan shows, you don't have to be the best singer or guitarist or harmonica player to make music that many people will want to buy -- more, most likely, than will buy the music of the best soprano.  Even in the domain Hayes elected to cite, his point is invalid, laughably so.  We often love things or people who are not the "best," and it would be ridiculous to claim that they are.  But they don't have to be.  We don't love them because they're the best.  We think they're the best because we love them.

This impulse emerges early in life, I think.  My mommy is the best mommy, the most beautiful mommy in the world.  I'm the best, handsomest, smartest little boy in the world.  These are conventions for expressing the intensity and sincerity of our love for someone.  But they're not literally true, and most of the time we know it.  It's believers in meritocracy who mistake metaphors for literal truth.

Is it even necessary to the concept of meritocracy that the best person should occupy a position?  Again, outside of a narrow range of fields, you cannot quantify qualifications for most jobs.  The fastest miler, for example, can be found.  (Next year, or the year after that, he won't be the fastest anymore, which is also important.)  The best CEO, the best accountant, the best IT manager, cannot. The best students for admission to elite colleges, or for that matter to community colleges.  One bit of evidence for what I'm suggesting here is the inflation of requirements for many positions: the applicant is expected to detail how and why denying insurance claims of the terminally ill is her passion, the goal on which she has focused, laser-like, since infancy.  Why he is very excited at the prospect of working the drive-through window at McDonald's.  (I've been allergic for decades now to the term "excited" in announcements; bullshit almost always follows that word.  But by now it too is a convention: if you didn't say you were excited to announce that this Friday will, once again, be Casual Friday, many people would feel that something important was missing.)  I've helped numerous friends fill out extremely long and detailed online applications, complete with a hundred personality-assay questions, to wash dishes in chain restaurants.  Something is wrong there, even leaving aside the invasion of privacy involved.

For many positions, what is needed is not the best, but someone who is simply good enough.  Often people grow into jobs; certainly we hope that students will grow into their educations.  All too often, despite the competition, the personality tests, the interviews, the trial-by-ordeal, the winning candidate isn't even good enough.  There are probably many things that need to be done to correct that, if it can be corrected; but one beginning might be to stop pressuring people to prove what can't in most cases be proven - that they're the best.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Buttigieg, Buttigieg, Buttigieg!

I didn't pay much attention to Pete Buttigieg until recently, but when I did I wondered how an openly gay man managed to be elected and re-elected mayor of a midwestern city.  I later learned that he didn't come out until he was already in office, but he still won re-election to a second term.  South Bend is a strongly Catholic city, but Buttigieg didn't take the Church-submissive line that he would abstain from sodomy; indeed, he got married to another man.  I still don't know how that happened without him being ejected from office, but it did, and that's one reason I was prepared to like him - until I learned more about his policies.

Then Nathan J. Robinson wrote a long critique of Buttigieg's memoir, explaining in careful detail why Buttigieg is not someone who should be in the White House, or in office at all probably.  He did an excellent job of it, and it has been interesting to see the responses he got from Buttigieg fans and other centrist Democrats.  There was the predictable passive-aggressive stuff, like why he was so divisive in a time when we must be united against Trump; the accusations of bias; the complaints that the piece was so long.  Several people declared that Robinson should have talked to Buttigieg's fans in South Bend, as though attending to and analyzing Buttigieg's own words was somehow unfair, as though Buttigieg's book was unrepresentative of him and of no interest.  There was a lot of proudly flaunted anti-intellectualism, which sometimes went hand in hand with a celebration of Mayor Pete's great intellectual gifts.

The complaints about divisiveness were amusing, and Robinson addressed them seriously in a follow-up article.  But they'd have come up no matter which candidate he criticized.  The strange thing to me is that there are a lot of Democrats with hats in the ring, and we have almost a year before the primaries begin.  What is any voter supposed to do in the meantime, just sit back and worship them all?  For that matter, what rational person imagines that the candidates won't criticize each other as they go for the gold?  I'm surely not the only voter old enough to remember Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's attacks on each other in 2008, or Clinton and her fans' attacks on Bernie Sanders in 2016.  These people are just parroting talking points.

After the frantic anti-Trump homophobia of liberal Democrats, I wasn't exactly surprised to see some of the same directed at Buttigieg, and not (apparently) by Republicans. Try this one, from a grad student with "a focus on Marxism and the Middle East, a self-styled "E girl communist" whatever that is.

I'm not quite sure what it's supposed to mean, but it's extremely stupid and bigoted.  It's the kind of rhetoric I'd expect from a Trump supporter rather than an E girl communist if I didn't know better.

Then there was this one, even more blatant, from another self-identified Marxist.

Ah yes, that's how you show solidarity with gay and transpeople: with ferociously homophobic rhetoric right out of a locker room.  There are plenty of good reasons to distrust and oppose Pete Buttigieg, and plenty of good ways to express distrust and opposition, even on Twitter; this sort of frothing isn't one of them.

These are all I've seen so far, but I think it's safe to say there'll be more.  I have not yet seen any homophobic diatribes against Buttigieg by the Right, though they must be out there.  Just because a few right-wing standard bearers like Jennifer Rubin and David Brooks approve of him, that doesn't mean that the real conservatives, the people of the land, aren't seething over a sodomite presiding over the city of Notre Dame. But it doesn't excuse self-proclaimed leftists or LBGTQ allies when they fall back on the same vicious rhetoric as those they profess to hate.  Already it's impossible to say which is which.