In Praise of the Resurgent American Left

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After panning Sanders’ campaign yesterday, I offer this addendum today: the reinvigorated left is a wonderful development for American democracy and for all those who desire a more just society, even those of us who are not leftists.

Liberals who are sympathetic to the need for profound change in American society—though via reform rather than revolution—should be cheering the rise of the left for at least three reasons.

First, a visible and vocal left serves as a check on the invariable liberal impulse to tack to the center—no matter how awful that center is on the merits. With a viable left as an alternative, liberals must worry not only about appeasing the reactionary right. They must also address their left flank by making meaningful change on behalf of working people.

A rough analogy: As awful as Cold War era communism was, its very presence as a potentially attractive alternative was salutary in some democratic societies because it compelled the gains of capitalism to be widely shared. As I said, this is only an analogy—the American left’s desire to be more like Denmark does not portend gulags folks!

Second, a reinvigorated left challenges the American foreign policy consensus that has focused on imposing capitalism rather than prioritizing human rights. This consensus is grossly immoral, and makes the United States less safe besides. It also places an absurd faith in the power of military force to accomplish good in the world. Liberals, for all their supposed grounding in evidence and reason, have pursued this bloodthirsty militarism despite the overwhelming evidence of its futility. The left sees more clearly than do liberals that imperialism is coercive and inimical to human freedom, even in its supposedly benign American guise.

Third, a viable left serves notice to the American political system that liberalism is an ideology! It opens up a broader range of possibilities for Americans to imagine, and a larger field on which the American political debate can play out. It moves liberal shibboleths from the realm of common sense to their appropriate status of contested ideological claims.

There’s still a long way to go in making the left critique more visible and more effectual in American politics. Just this week a New York Times reported piece referred with a straight face to Pete Buttigieg’s “common-sense centrism.” Such nonsense was the norm when a dormant left was all but written out of the American political conversation. Liberals should be glad their claims are no longer common sense.

The polarizing style of the left is admittedly obnoxious, but then, it wouldn’t be a left if it thought liberals were its natural allies. Liberals are very good at explaining why gradualism is the only reasonable path forward. The left is needed to goad us, to remind us that this gradualism is not only a statement of what is possible; it is an ideological and temperamental disposition. The left is here to expand what is possible. May its influence grow.

Some Super Tuesday Thoughts

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Behold! I emerge from my bunker to offer a layperson’s thoughts on yesterday’s primaries.

Here are the numbers that really stood out me. According the exit polls, in the Super Tuesday states Biden won black voters 56-19. Meanwhile Sanders won Latino voters 50-24. What gives? Yes, we can point to the relative youthfulness of the Latino population, but does that entirely account for such a dramatic divergence? It is fascinating to see these two constituencies–one the backbone of the party and the other a rising “sleeping giant”–so out of step with each other.

I’m interested in the alternative timeline where Bernie tried to appeal to regular Democrats while retaining his core principles, rather than running as a factional candidate. Maybe he would have struggled to thread that needle but it must be said that he didn’t even try.

I would have more faith in Bernie’s theory of the case if he had produced some hard evidence of it by now. I really like the sound of historic turnout in November, driven by an unprecedented surge of young voters and people alienated from the political process. But if you can’t produce it in the primaries why should we expect it in the general?

I was struck by the contrasting tone of Bernie and Biden’s speeches last night. Biden made an open and explicit call to anyone within the sound of his voice to join his campaign. There’s a place for you in this campaign, he said. The message was: this campaign is for you. That’s just good politics folks! Without sacrificing any of his principles or policies, Bernie could have offered a similarly welcoming message. At least try to welcome Democrats! But instead, the tone of his speech was factional, as likely to turn off Democrats as woo them. This is just bad politicking!

There may well be more twists and turns ahead in this primary, but Biden appears to have reassumed front-runner status. The main people responsible for this surprising outcome? Ordinary black voters, first in South Carolina, and then across the South yesterday.

I can’t get this quote from one black South Carolinian out of my head: “Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves.” For many black voters, the pursuit of a political revolution may be a luxury they cannot afford. I feel no great enthusiasm for Joe Biden. But my personal experience and historical study have led me to see black political behavior as something of a conscience for the nation. I am not quick to dismiss it.

My historian’s take (which isn’t worth much since we’re famously bad at prediction) is that it has fallen to us to preserve the democracy black activists created in the 1960s. As the GOP turns against the rule of law and tries to hollow out our institutions, we take on the frustrating role of protecting imperfect institutions. We become, literally, the conservatives. That’s the role black South Carolinian’s played last week.

What the Sanders-left seems rarely to understand is how much worse things can become for poor people in a Potemkin democracy. Many black voters bear the memory of it in their bodies.

I’m inspired by what black voters did yesterday, even if I feel very ambivalent about Biden. I think they know what’s at stake. We need to vote in every midterm. We need to take sporadic voters with us. We need to wage a generational fight for decency and democracy. It’s a grind rather than a grand revolution, but it’s noble work worth doing.

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

Well, that’s a wrap for day one of The Historian’s Craft at Temple University.

I’ve tried more ambitious first day’s in the past and perhaps will again in the future, but today I had just two main goals: get students talking to each other and get them oriented to the class.

I admit it: for an ice-breaker I had them travel to the spring of 1889, to a certain town on the Austrian-German border, to a certain house in which resided a couple by the names of Klara and Alois. This couple trustingly asked them to babysit their infant son Adolphus.

What would you do with baby Hitler? (This thought experiment was an unnecessary risk for opening day, potentially offensive on a number of levels, and I don’t recommend it!)

Some students indeed wanted to kill baby Hitler. Some wanted to kidnap him and take him as far from Germany as possible. Some decided to babysit him like any other baby and dutifully return him to his parents. Some wanted to surround him with good art and art instruction.

Seriously, though, some students framed their answers from the get-go in terms of real historical questions of contingency and causation. Some believed killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference, which suggests a certain perspective on the relationship between the individual and larger forces. Those who wanted to expose Hitler to a lot of art seem to have confidence in the pliability of human personality. And so on.

Really, it was just a chance for them to talk to each other. But we could claim some historical thinking took place as well.

The more substantive exercise concerned how they have learned history. What has influenced their view of the past? Here are their responses (lots of these were cited by more than one person):

Independent research

Wikipedia

School

Magic Tree House

Tv

Historical fiction

Museums

Music (Billy Joel – we didn’t start the fire)

Video games (Call of duty)

Family (history phd in the family!)

Oral history

Listening to others

History channel

Weather channel

NPR

Social media

Traveling

Pop culture (comics)

Memes

Word of mouth

Talking with family; family stories

Dad [interesting to note that some people nearly always say Dad but rarely say Mom]

Documentaries

Festivals

High school teacher

American girl doll

Colonial Williamsburg

Museums and monuments

Dance

History textbooks

Historic sites (one room school house)

Landscapes

Quaker meeting houses

Battlefields

Traveling and seeing other country’s point of view

I asked them what we might infer from this list. They said things like:

–History is all around us.

–We learn it in popular forms.

–It’s hard to know where the information is coming from or whether it’s reliable.

Most academic historians are likely to immediately note that nearly all the items on this list are “public history” or not even a direct form of history at all. Not surprisingly, not a single student said that academic monographs were important to how they have learned history. This need not be depressing to us, but it’s definitely important!

My example of how I learned history was church attendance as a child. There I received very powerful (though often implicit) lessons about what history was and what it meant.

My takeaway was that we are all engaging with the past constantly, and often unconsciously. Part of the point of this semester is to become conscious. If we are fated to remember, why not endeavor to do so consciously, and do it well?

On Singing O Holy Night In White Evangelical Churches

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One of my favorite Christmas songs is O Holy Night. The music carries you from quiet meditation to a rousing conclusion, and the lyrics are not the stuff of ordinary Christmas carols. I’m always especially struck by these lines:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

If Wikipedia and the image above are to be believed, the music was created in 1847 by the French composer Adolphe Adam. The lyrics originate from the French poet Placide Cappeau that same year. But his lyrics are not the ones we sing.

In 1855, the American Unitarian and transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight translated and reworked Cappeau’s text into the English form we sing today. Dwight was unorthodox in his theology (Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity) and radical in his politics.

Dwight was an associationist, a radical reformer who sought to construct a form of Christian socialism in the United States. In an 1849 manifesto of principles, Dwight declared, “We are disposed to take the name of socialist for better or for worse, and challenge all the world to prove that there can be a better Christian…than is the genuine socialist who feels and understands his reconciling mission.”

He continued, “Our watchword is the peaceful transformation of the subversive, false societies of competition into the co-operative society of unity and harmony under God’s perfect code of love.” In the emerging tenets of Christian socialism, Dwight foresaw “a science which shall reconcile all interests, all parties, do away all terrors, and effect a peaceful transition out of these ages of industrial competition, with its attendant train of poverty, ignorance, crime, war, slavery, and disease, into an age of universal co-operation, union, competence, refinement, peace, and Perfect Liberty with Perfect Order.”

Grand ambitions indeed. When the Civil War came, Dwight was a staunch supporter of the Union cause. He hated slavery. During the war he wrote a song for the soldiers of his alma mater that included these lines of anti-slavery patriotism:

As the war transformed from a limited conflict to restore the union to a revolutionary attack on slavery, the United States had become, in Dwight’s eyes, “now a Country grand enough to die for!”

What had been prophesied in the Christmas song nearly 20 years before was now coming to pass: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother.”

Dwight’s words in their context of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s were irrevocably radical, unavoidably political. They were words to cause offense and inspire hope, words to cut and wound, words to which one could not help but have a strong reaction. They were words of heresy or of utopianism.

Some 170 years later, I stood in the sanctuary of a white evangelical church on a Sunday morning in December. As Ferguson smoldered, the quiet opening strains of O Holy Night washed over the worshipers. As the song built to its emotional center, people around me raised their hands and closed their eyes in praise. We sang:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Anger welled up in my spirit and I thought of the words of the prophets: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I didn’t know who had written O Holy Night, or when, but I knew something was wrong with us singing it.

When we sang these lines without knowing the context of their creation, the messy politics of the lyrics became little more than spiritual allegory. When Dwight wrote these words, they were earthy and practical, carrying in them a hard to miss call to repentance. The unavoidable implication was that thousands of white evangelicals in the south were oppressors. God was going to strike them down.

But in our mouths the lines took on the uncomfortable aspect of bystanders. Our privileged and removed position rendered the perspective of the songwriter in a new light. Now it was not in solidarity that we sang; it was as spectators. The people singing are not enslaved or oppressed; they stand off at a distance, claiming to be brother to the oppressed.

When we sang it that December morning in the shadow of Ferguson, I knew all too well that many of us could sing those words precisely because they meant so little. I knew that oppression was of little concern to some of those around me. I knew at first hand how cold and hard of heart some of these worshipers were toward the descendants of the enslaved.

O Holy Night was sung in churches all over the country this morning, the brother slave an allegory signifying almost nothing. If we sung a Christmas song this morning that was true to Dwight’s ethos, how many worshipers would have walked out?

“Chains shall he break, for the immigrant is our brother.”

“Chains shall he break, for the gay man is our brother.”

“Chains shall be break, for black lives matter activists are our brothers.”

O Holy Night is a wonderful song. But do you really want to sing it?

Thoughts for Sunday: The Radical Politics of Christmas

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Growing up, I was taught to read the Bible literally and take the plain meaning of a text at face value if possible. But I don’t believe this is the approach we took to Mary’s Song:

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1.46-55

A White Evangelical Trump Supporter Responds to Christianity Today

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In the wake of Christianity Today calling for Trump’s removal from office, how will white evangelical Trump supporters respond? I’d like to share one telling anecdote from a white evangelical Trump supporter in my social circle.

But first, some context. Some news outlets yesterday seemed to report this story naively, as though the house organ of the 81% has turned on Trump. Of course, that’s not what CT is and that’s not what happened.

Since its founding in 1956, CT‘s moderation (in tone as much as anything) always made it an awkward mouthpiece for a white evangelical movement whose mainstream was populist and reactionary. CT spoke not for the masses of ordinary white evangelicals but for a relatively highbrow audience of the educated evangelical elite.

Indeed, as a historian and researcher, I’ve come to take it as axiomatic that whenever I open the pages of Christianity Today, I must assume I am entering into an elite conversation rather than opening a window to the white evangelical id. This is true whether I’m reading about civil rights in the 60s, feminism in the 70s, or homosexuality in the 80s.

And it’s true in 2019, when CT calls for Trump’s removal from office. It is an important moment, but we should not assume it will make a significant impression on ordinary white evangelicals, who may never read anything CT writes anyway. But what of the white evangelical Trump supporters who do have some sense of the legacy of Christianity Today?

Here’s where my friend comes in. This is their response to CT’s editorial:

Christianity Today is no longer considered a reasonable voice for conservative Christians, regardless of it’s founder. Since the writer cites some of the founding principles put forth by Billy Graham, it should be very interesting to see Franklin Graham’s response. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long.

I suggest that this is likely to be a fairly representative response. I’d like to probe a little more about how and when CT lost its status in this writer’s mind as a “reasonable voice for conservative Christians.” It may have been yesterday!

The real tell here is the way the writer positions Billy Graham and Franklin Graham, suggesting that Franklin’s forthcoming attack on Christianity Today will tell us what we need to know about the magazine’s faithfulness to the legacy of its founder and to evangelicalism. Networks of relationships and identity, the authority of the Graham family name, substitute for any substantive claim of errors in CT’s commentary.

And, importantly, this authority is imagined. Franklin does not faithfully represent Billy’s views, but my friend seems to think that he does. In reality, Billy spoke openly of his entanglement with Nixon as a moral failure and one of the great regrets of his ministry. Franklin has been aggressively working against that aspect of his father’s legacy. He has tied himself resolutely to Trump, defended him at every turn, repeatedly made false statements, and continues to encourage white evangelicals to be partisan culture-warriors.

Of course, all of this is exactly why Franklin’s opinion counts. If Franklin were trying to carry on his father’s moderate post-Nixon approach to politics, my friend would simply add the Graham family to the growing list of people and sources “no longer considered a reasonable voice for conservative Christians.” Franklin’s opinion matters more than CT’s precisely and only because Franklin is belligerent and willing to take the fight to the libs.

In this framework, what counts as authentically Christian is a moving target. It’s constantly shifting with the political winds and the markers of orthodoxy laid down by conservative politics sites and Fox News hosts. CT is definitionally out of bounds for conservative Christians not because it has transgressed Christian ethics in any obvious way, but because it is insufficiently reactionary in its tone and politics.

In the white evangelical mainstream, advocating traditional Christian ethics is more controversial than supporting Trump. CT has taken a noble stand. Just how much this stance will reach into the nerve centers of the reactionary and populist mainstream remains to be seen. Let us pray CT’s influence grows.

Impeachment Is Obviously Right. How Do We Live With That Knowledge?

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On a historic day like this, it is all too easy for us to take refuge in moral sanctimony (“Can you believe how awful the other side is?”) or moral relativism (“Whose to say what is right on something as messy and partisan as impeachment? Let’s just agree to disagree”).

In reality, impeachment is a moral question, and defending Trump is an immoral answer to it. (Yes, I hear myself. I know I’m socially located and all the rest of it, but this is not a close call. Sorry!)

But we must not suppose that the lesson to take from this is one of Republican perfidy and Democratic virtue. On the contrary, the sobering truth is that we rarely do the right thing simply because it is right.

We are experts in aligning our perception of what is moral with our self-interest. When the two of them come into unavoidable conflict, it is self-interest that wins the day most of the time. Some people do escape this trap. We tend to remember them as saints and sages.

It is self-serving and unrealistic to suppose that the moral clarity of the event tells us a great deal about the moral stature of its participants. Republicans face the difficult choice of doing the right thing or protecting their self-interest. In choosing self-interest, they are merely doing what most of us do in most such situations. Democrats are in the much more enviable (and unusual) position of alignment between truth and partisan interest. We should not be sanguine about how they would behave if the shoe were on the other foot.

So today, I don’t want to deaden my conscience with the pretense that both sides in the impeachment struggle have equal moral claims. That’s an absurd proposition. It’s alluring because it allows us to better get along with others and think well of them. But it’s a cheap shortcut. The real challenge is to be openhearted and generous and kind without searing our conscience in the process. Trying to downplay the evils of Trump’s hatred against women, his cruelty and racism, might make some of your social circles more peaceful. But at what cost?

Neither do I want to reach for the self-righteous escape hatch. I recognize Republicans’ hypocrisy and self-interest precisely because I’m so experienced in my practice of these character flaws. Rather than assuming the moral clarity of this moment tells me something profound about the moral fiber of Trump supporters, I want to implicate myself in their unjust behavior.

Thoughts for Sunday

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Under pine trees in the snow,

the chickadees around my head,

I wept for the will of God,

this hungry woman fed.

All the shadows shifted

while my back was turned.

Once and always on my finger

one soft and small gray bird.

Not a twisting

due to prayer,

but all its own,

and mine together.

And so I bear the gift,

carry it through time–

this deepest darkness,

astonishing grace.

Magnificat, by Mary F.C. Pratt

Raising My White Son In A Racist Age

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The Republicans’ nearly unanimous opposition today to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act hit me hard. It called to mind a more idealistic time in my own life and in that of the nation, and reminded me of how far we have descended in the 9 short years of my oldest son’s life. Let me explain.

My son was born early in 2010. In the years before my son’s birth, galvanized by my relationship with my new wife and new experiences living on the west side of Chicago, I had experienced a racial awakening. As a good evangelical Christian, I had long ago had a conversion experience. But this was a second conversion, in many respects more thoroughgoing than the first. I began to face my racism and reorder my commitments.

I read John Lewis’s autobiography during that awakening. I remember crying. I didn’t approach it as a historian or a critic. Any subtleties or faults of this frail human being were lost on me. I felt as though I was encountering a modern-day saint. Here was a man who nearly gave his life for the right to vote. Here was a man who never wavered in his principles, who returned love for hatred, and bore in his body the evidence of his commitment.

When our first-born son arrived, we could think of nothing better to do than name him John Lewis. It was a fit of youthful presumption and idealism, I now admit. But I don’t regret it at all. It was true to who we were at that time. And it seemed to me to match the tenor of the moment. I found President Obama to be an inspirational and steady leader, and I looked forward to positive changes ahead.

I hoped that my son would grow up to be a man of courage and love in the cause of his own time, as Lewis was in his. I didn’t expect voting rights to be a cause of my son’s time too! But when my son was 3, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It quickly became apparent that the Republican Party that had reauthorized the Act as recently as 2006 no longer existed. The ensuing years have given us a wave of new voting restrictions, suppression, and gerrymandering as the GOP turned to overt racism as a tool to gain power.

My son lived his early years at an inflection point in American life. The post-civil rights era, a time too ambiguous to have a proper name, was ending. A new era of racism and anti-racist activism was beginning. When my son was 2, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and protests and vigils spread across the country. We were living in Akron, Ohio, at the time. One Saturday morning I buckled John Lewis into his car seat and headed down to the courthouse. I felt I needed to be there, and in some sort of cosmic way beyond memory, I felt it was important for my boy to be there too.

The ensuing years saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded to national attention during the summer of my son’s 4th year. “Where are you going, daddy?” I stop at the door. “I’m going to a protest, son.” He ponders. “What’s a protest?” How do I explain it? How do I teach him to live in a racist society when I don’t even know myself?

We bought the March books. He liked them but found them confusing. We sent him off to school where, year after year, he is the lone white face in his grade. Does it matter? Does it accomplish anything beyond making me feel that I am doing something?

Some of you might think this all sounds like a lot of pressure for a little boy. White parents with unresolved racial guilt using their son as a guinea pig. Ok.

But there’s another pressure out there, greater because invisible: growing up as a normal white kid in a normal white neighborhood. How are those kids going to resist the evil of our age?

My son will set his own course in life. We rarely talk about where his name came from anymore. But the ambitions behind it linger. A long time ago, Dr. King said that white people are sick. It’s still true. And what parent doesn’t want their children to grow up to be healthy? He will have to be loving and courageous to escape the sickness permeating our time.

During his short life, the racism of the Republican Party has become so much worse and more entrenched. We don’t know where the bottom is, but we know it’s going to affect his life, and even more so the lives of his friends and classmates in our working class black neighborhood.

But there’s no need for despair. As John Lewis puts it, “We must continue to speak up & stand up, to find a way to get in the way to build the Beloved Community.” Whatever path my son takes, I think he’s going to find a way to make some #goodtrouble.

Thoughts for Sunday

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The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see…

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.

Surely I will be called naive, unrealistic, and sentimental, and I will be accused of ignoring the “real” problems, the structural evils that underlies much of human misery. But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns…

For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness…

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son