Rationality and patriotism

Here’s a quote from the late Bill Hicks that often shows up on social media sites:

It goes on:

I do think this rather misses the point.  Certainly it would have been absurd for Hicks to have taken credit for being an American, as it would have been absurd for him to have taken credit for being his parents’ child.  That is not at all the same thing as saying that it would have been absurd for him to have taken pride in his relationship to them and their native land.

Take for example the matter of achievements.  Children want their parents to take pride in their achievements, and parents want their children to take pride in their achievements.  But if parents took credit for their children’s achievements, or vice versa, it would be a betrayal.

Likewise with regard to one’s country.  A person who had done something extraordinary would no doubt be pleased to find that s/he had become a source of pride for his or her countrymen.  Were s/he to find that those countrymen were trying to efface his or her name and to take credit for his or her achievements for themselves, I am sure that s/he would react with dismay and anger.

Taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s countrymen is part of patriotism, just as taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s family members is part of devotion to family.  There are many other parts to each of these things.  Affection to other members of the group, eagerness to defend the group when it is attacked, willingness to sacrifice one’s own individual interests for the sake of the group’s collective interest, all of these belong both to family devotion and to patriotism.

Nor is this the whole story of patriotism as a virtue.  I’ve been developing an interest in Moral Foundations Theory ever since I finally got around to reading Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind a few months ago. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist with an interest in anthropology, concludes in that book that in the ethical systems of the world, people consistently show concern with a few major oppositions.  He and his associates summarize the most readily identifiable of these as Care vs Harm, Fairness vs Cheating, Liberty vs Oppression, Loyalty vs Betrayal, Authority vs Subversion, and Sanctity vs Degradation.

Professor Haidt is not a Perennialist like my hero Irving Babbitt, who held that the wisdom traditions of every culture and age could be distilled into a set of doctrines and that his personal system of ethical and aesthetic and political beliefs was identical to that set of doctrines.  Rather, he argues that these oppositions crop up in the ethical experience of people in culture after culture, and that practical morality in all of the infinite variety of forms it takes among the world’s peoples is usually an attempt to address all of these oppositions all at once.  So, people try to be caring, fair, free, loyal, orderly, and pure, all at the same time.  Professor Haidt criticizes academic philosophy for a tendency to isolate one or the other of these oppositions and focus on it to the exclusion of the rest, and more broadly criticizes the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) cultural elites for their tendency to reduce morality to Care, Fairness, and Liberty, disregarding or actively deprecating the values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  Professor Haidt claims that, among other ills, this disregard leads to political polarization, as the less WEIRD members of Western societies find that they cannot trust the educated elite to attend to matters which they, like most people in the world, consider to be of great moral weight.

If we take our cue from Professor Haidt and his fellows, we might want to develop a concept of patriotism that would draw on all six of the principal moral foundations.  We would need a standard of care that imposes a special obligation to look after one’s countrymen, without denying that others may also have a claim on our kindly ministrations.

As for fairness and cheating, something of that concern enters into our distinction between taking pride in something and taking credit for it.  It would be cheating to take credit for something another person did, but would also be cheating to refuse to take pride in what that person did if they were connected to us in a way that would entitle them to hope that they would make us proud.  A citizen who refuses to take pride in a countryman who discovers a great scientific truth or creates a magnificent work of art or wins a major athletic contest or conducts herself bravely in combat is cheating that countryman, just as a parent who refuses to take pride in a child’s achievements is cheating that child.  Fairness, indeed, demands that we take pride in the great deeds of our countrymen.

Inasmuch as the opposition of Liberty vs Oppression is obviously political, in a world of nation-states efforts to cultivate Liberty as a virtue must be obviously patriotic as well.  Liberty is always liberty as expressed in a given country, by its people, within its customs, under its laws; oppression is always oppression of a given people, in violation of their customs, in contempt of the restraints that law places on the exercise of power.  So liberty is a patriotic virtue.  When Nathan Hale resisted the British in defense of the liberties of Connecticut, he saw himself as his fellow rebels saw him, as a patriot.  Whether or not Hale actually died with the words “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country” on his lips, he certainly does symbolize a conception of patriotism that is very much alive to the opposition Liberty vs Oppression.  Likewise with an organization such as Veterans for Peace, with its slogan “Peace is Patriotic.”  Their focus is consistently on the ways in which militarism and the war economy erode the freedoms for which Americans have long hoped their country would be known.

When you get to Loyalty vs Betrayal, patriotism starts to have its unpleasant associations.  There’s a very long and extremely familiar history of irresponsible ruling elites branding all opposition to themselves as betrayal of the country, and using that smear to justify oppression.  I do think that remarks like Bill Hicks’ “I hate patriotism!” and similar statements from the political Left are counterproductive in that they make it difficult for others to trust that anyone on the Left will appreciate the value of Loyalty, and that in that distrust they tend to be dissatisfied with any but the crudest conceptions of loyalty.

Authority vs Subversion strikes liberal ears with an even nastier ring than that of Loyalty vs Betrayal.  The essence of modernity is rebellion, the essence of liberalism is rebellion institutionalized as a permanent feature of civic life.  That isn’t to say that modern, liberal people can never accept authority as legitimate, but that they can find legitimacy only in authority that is the byproduct of an adversarial process, such as an election, a market competition, or court trial.  So in a modern, liberal society, we have to develop a patriotism that can be expressed through adversarial processes and notions peculiar to adversarial processes (such as “rights,” for example.)  That is to say, a modern, liberal patriot must value adversarial processes, participate in them, respect other participants, and accept the outcomes of those processes.

Sanctity vs Degradation is largely about keeping symbols intact.  That’s why Bill Hicks’ suggestion that “instead of putting stars and stripes on our flags we should put pictures of our parents fucking” in order to destroy patriotism is apt.  That would certainly degrade both the flag and the parents, pointing to a rejection of both patriotism and devotion to family.  Considered as a dimension of patriotism, then, Sanctity vs Degradation brings to mind the idea of ceremonial regard for patriotic symbols.  It also suggests that the range of things we treat as patriotic symbols should be subject to dramatic expansion.  So the conservation movement that led to the creation of US National Parks in the early twentieth century presented the country itself as a patriotic symbol, and many social welfare proposals have succeeded because the people of the country were seen as patriotic symbols.  That’s one of the reasons why the moral imagination and the religious imagination are so often so deeply intertwined, that they both reject any attempt to confine the symbolic realm to limits set by explicitly rational thought.

It’s more than you did

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I assumed I would join the US military, probably the army.  All of us at my high school who expected that of ourselves were deeply interested in stories about US servicemen who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam.  We read and reread books about their time in captivity, followed the postwar careers of ex-POWs like Admirals Jeremiah Denton and James Stockdale, and even developed our own tap codes to communicate with each other at odd moments around school.

One day my father asked me why we were so hung up on those guys.  “They’re heroes!” I exclaimed.  “What makes them heroes?”  he asked.  “Well, they were, uh, captured, and, uh, they, well, they held up pretty well under torture, some of them.”  My father explained that when he was in the army in the 1940s, they used a working definition of “hero” that included taking enemy troops prisoner, but did not include allowing oneself to be taken prisoner.  The clip from The Simpsons embedded above (in Portuguese) reminded me of that conversation.  Speaking of Timmy O’Toole, whom they believe to be a boy trapped in a well, Homer says “That little Timmy is a real hero.”  “How do you figure?” asks Lisa.  “He fell into a well and now he… can’t get out.”  “How does that make him a hero?”  “It’s more than you did!”

Anyway, in the USA in the post-Vietnam era, conventional military heroism, of the sort that actually involves engaging the enemy and destroying him, was heavily problematized.  It was already that way in the later years of the USA’s war in Vietnam, which may explain why public statements from the Nixon administration about the criteria that a peace deal would have to satisfy focused so heavily on the status of American POWs that critics claimed that an observer whose knowledge of events in Southeast Asia came entirely from those statements would conclude that the war began when North Vietnam attacked the USA and abducted a number of American military personnel.  That focus distracted both from humanitarian objections to the manner in which the USA was waging war in Vietnam, and to broader objections to the fact that the USA was waging war in Vietnam.  By turning attention to the evidence that the North Vietnamese were mistreating American POWs, the administration stirred Americans’ sympathy for their imprisoned countrymen, a sympathy which had the effect, for many Americans, of pushing aside the concern that objectors to the war had expressed for the sufferings that US actions were inflicting on the Vietnamese people.

The idea that the USA was fighting in Vietnam to rescue the Americans who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam while the USA was fighting in Vietnam, unintelligible though it may seem now, was still pretty strong in the popular culture of the 1980s.  So in those years Hollywood released a whole slew of hit movies about fictional missions to extract American POWs from Vietnam, movies with titles like Rambo: First Blood Part Two and  Missing in Action.  Those particular movies traded on the idea that the Hanoi regime so intensely craved the presence of American POWs that it kept a bunch of them around after the war was over.  This may be another idea that is unintelligible to people who did not spend the years from 1970 to 1990 in the USA, but I assure you it was everywhere in this country in those years.  The “MIA flag,” symbolizing this belief, is still prominently displayed in many parts of the USA.

This is an actual picture of the MIA flag over the White House taken in September of 2011

All of this is to explain that Americans in general tend to have strong feelings about those of their countrymen who were held as prisoners of war in Vietnam, and that these feelings are precisely contrary to those which would be prescribed by the usual code of warriors throughout the ages, who have regarded it as their duty to fight to the death rather than offer their surrender to the enemy.  I teach Latin and Greek in a university deep in the interior of the USA; I used to assign my students Horace‘s Ode 3.5, in which the Roman general Regulus, captured by the Carthaginians, advises the Senate to refuse to make any deal to secure his return or that of his men, saying that it would be a disgrace to give up any of the gains Roman arms had won to ransom men who had forever lost their manliness by allowing themselves to be taken prisoner.  My students were shocked by Horace’s disdain for prisoners of war, and by the fact that with this disdain he was expressing the standard Roman view of the matter.  They often exclaimed that prisoners of war are heroes.  “How do you figure?” I would ask, and an interesting, unpredictable conversation would always follow their attempts to answer.

What brings all this to mind are some recent remarks by New York real estate heir turned presidential candidate Don-John “Donald” Trump.*  Mr Trump said that John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war does not in fact qualify him as a war hero.

This statement has attracted a great deal of criticism.  One difficulty Mr Trump would face, were he to try to retract it, is that he might then have to explain why being captured makes a warrior a hero.  Another difficulty is that Mr McCain’s record is not in all respects comparable to that of a hardcore resister like Jeremiah Denton or James Stockdale.  Some of the less appealing sides of Mr McCain’s record can be found delineated here, here, and here.  I don’t want to dwell on these matters, because I know myself well enough to find it impossible to be sure that I would have acted any better than Mr McCain did were I subjected to the same pressures, but I do think that, on the one hand, respect for those personnel whose conduct did in fact meet a higher standard and, on the other hand, a habit of the accurate use of language prohibits calling Mr McCain a “war hero.”

*In fact, Mr Trump’s legal name is and always has been “Donald John Trump,” but his campaign is a means by which he has been enjoying himself hugely while being grossly unfair to other people.  So I choose to enjoy myself slightly by being mildly unfair to him.  “Don-John” it is!

Solar System Mnemonics

Adding Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris- but where’s Sedna? Should be “Expelliamus, sucka!”

With Pluto so much in the news lately, I’ve been thinking about the old mnemonic device for memorizing a Solar System made up of the nine planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto: “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas.”  When the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to non-planet status in 2006 (those bastards!,) you started hearing “My very educated mother just served us nachos.”

But of course the Solar System isn’t just the planets.  It’s the Sun and everything that orbits the Sun, which can be subdivided into the six categories Sun, Rocky Inner Planets, Asteroids, Gas Giants, Kuiper Belt Objects, and Oort Cloud.  So, to remember S R A G K O, I propose the mnemonic device “Some randy astronomers give kinky orgies.”  It may not be quite as family-friendly as “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas,” but the whole point of a mnemonic device is to be memorable, and it certainly is memorable.

Also, the topic of the outer Solar System reminds me of a grudge I have against one point of astronomical nomenclature.  Not the decision nine years ago to reclassify Pluto as something other than a planet- that’s been discussed enough- but the name “Hills Cloud” for the inner part of the Oort Cloud.  Since the real boundary of the Solar System is the Hill Sphere, the boundary beyond which objects in freefall do not tend to go into orbit around the Sun, I urge astronomers to find some other way to honor Professor Jack G. Hills than by naming a part of the outer Solar System after him.

The New Inquisitors

Here’s a series of tweets Alastair Roberts recently posted:

To which I replied:

I realize my response may seem a bit flip; given the fact that I support gender neutral marriage and Mr Roberts opposes it, it may seem natural to take it that way.  But in fact I’m quite sincere.

I first became aware of Mr Roberts’ through his 2012 blog posts (five of them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, but especially 4) on the peculiar social conditions necessary to permit people to engage in “heterotopic discourse,” discussions in which stark disagreements are received, not as personal affronts, but as a part of a process that can move towards truth.  This is something like the distinction between a fistfight and a dance.  People have to feel safe with one another if, when they do not want a fistfight, they are to engage in footwork of a sort that could be useful in a fistfight.  And they have to see that there is some value in that particular form of footwork, that it adds up to something, if they are to cultivate it to the level where it becomes a substantial pursuit in its own right.  Likewise with debate.  People have to be confident that those with whom they are reasoning are not going to trick them or to insult them if they are to engage in debate, and they have to see a way that the debate can lead to a fresh truth if they are to give that debate the time and attention it needs to get there.

I value this sort of thing very highly, and am continually disappointed when issues that have the potential to make outstanding thought experiments in philosophy get bogged down in emotionalism and political point-scoring.  I suppose emotionalism and political point-scoring are the main things the higher functions of the brain evolved to do, while philosophy is a fairly marginal pursuit in the grand scheme of things, but I still think it’s a terrible shame.

Anyway, Mr Roberts replied to my tweet with a remark about how different forms of intelligence represent different levels of danger in different sorts of bullies, with which I agreed.  But it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.  Mr Roberts is a theologian, soon to be known as Dr Roberts, and I was thinking of members of his profession who have over the years, in the midst of their academic pursuits, taken active part in efforts to uphold the orthodoxies of their faiths.  Some of these efforts have been pretty gruesome, by our standards, but I’d still rather read a first-rate treatise by someone who did something ghastly than have to deal with the sort of person Mr Roberts has in mind as the enforcers of the nascent orthodoxies of niceness.  So I wrote:

Occupations in which people are somewhat more likely than average to wear bowties

Filling what was, in retrospect, an obvious gap, I’ve started a tumblelog called “Occupations in which people are somewhat more likely than average to wear bow ties.”

Meaning of Life?

The other day, I noticed a tweet in which Cliff Pickover linked to a 2010 article by Sean Carroll called “Free Energy and the Meaning of Life.”

The article, which I had not seen before, included this paragraph:

Because the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy increases, the history of the universe is the story of dissipation of free energy. Energy wants to be converted from useful forms to useless forms. But it might not happen automatically; sometimes a configuration with excess free energy can last a long time before something comes along to nudge it into a higher-entropy form. Gasoline and oxygen are a combustible mixture, but you still need a spark to set the fire.

and this one:

Here is the bold hypothesis: life is Nature’s way of opening up a chemical channel to release all of that free energy bottled up in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the young Earth. My own understanding gets a little fuzzy at this point, but the basic idea seems intelligible. While there is no simple reaction that takes CO2 directly to hydrocarbons, there are complicated series of reactions that do so. Some sort of membrane (e.g. a cell wall) helps to segregate out the relevant chemicals; various inorganic compounds act as enzymes to speed the reactions along. The reason for the complexity of life, which is low entropy considered all by itself, is that it helps the bigger picture increase in entropy.

I tweeted the link, adding these comments:

You may recognize the reference to Stewart Brand’s famous remark, “On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.  The right information in the right place just changes your life.  On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.  So you have these two fighting each other.”

Of course, it was just Professor Carroll’s use of the collocation “Energy wants” that reminded me of Mr Brand’s quote and led me to parody it.  Energy doesn’t at all want to be useful, and biochemical processes don’t at all fight entropy.  Life, like all physical processes, continually increases entropy.

Anyway, I do want to put in a partial defense of something which Professor Carroll explicitly rejects.  Here’s his opening paragraph:

When we think about the “meaning of life,” we tend to conjure ideas such as love, or self-actualization, or justice, or human progress. It’s an anthropocentric view; try to convince blue-green algae that self-actualization is some sort of virtue. Let’s ask instead why “life,” as a biological concept, actually exists. That is to say: we know that entropy increases as the universe evolves. But why, on the road from the simple and low-entropy early universe to the simple and high-entropy late universe, do we pass through our present era of marvelous complexity and organization, culminating in the intricate chemical reactions we know as life?

That “Let’s ask instead” makes it clear that the phrase “the meaning of life” appears in this article rather jocularly. Professor Carroll and his friends are reinterpreting the question “What is the meaning of life?” to mean, not “What meaning has the transcendent order of the universe inscribed on life?,” but “What is there about life that might make it interesting to a physicist whose primary concern is with cosmology on a large scale?”  That is, in itself, a fine question, and in an age when the idea of the physical universe as a place nested in a larger order that inscribes it and its parts with true and eternal meanings is not in all quarters regarded as a self-evident truth, it might seem like a natural way of repurposing a chunk of language that might otherwise have fallen into disuse.

Still, I do think that a question like “What is the meaning of life?” can still be asked coherently in something like its old sense.  Moral Foundations Theory, pioneered by people like Jonathan Haidt, shows that social scientists are capable of describing the concerns that lead people to decide that some things are sacred in a way that puts them above judgment, some are distasteful in a way that puts them beneath notice, and some are subject to evaluation.  For an example of something that is above judgment, imagine a pious monotheist hearing that some or other story about God makes God look bad.  To such a person, making that observation shows only that the observer is looking at the story from the wrong angle and missing its point.  For an example of something distasteful in a way that puts it beneath judgment (what Edith Wyschogrod, following Heidegger, called “bare life,”) imagine a discussion among philosophers about the ethical implications of particular methods of trimming one’s toenails.  The average person would burst out laughing if s/he overheard such a thing.

The tripartite moral reasoning that isolates the realm of judgment from, on the one hand, a super-moral realm of the sacred, and on the other from an infra-moral realm of bare life hinges on the concept of meaning.  The infra-moral is not only distasteful, but meaningless.  The other two realms each have their own particular forms of meaning.  The meanings of actions that are subject to judgment are intelligible to reason and open to rational challenge.  The meaning which sets the sacred realm apart is one which is ultimately mysterious, that is to say, beyond the capacity of language to express or of the rational mind to comprehend.  The moral reasoning that carries us through the realm of judgment does involve continual attempts to identify the boundaries of that realm.  So we again and again look for fragments of the sacred in our rational surroundings, and for fugitive significances in the realm of bare life. The three realms thus interpenetrate each other.

Indeed, the examples of “anthropocentric” answers that Professor Carroll gives to the question would suggest a world that has already drifted far from the views of the Stoic and theistic thinkers who used to ponder questions of transcendent meaning.  If by “love” we mean, not the set of social connections and moral obligations that word would have brought to the minds of people in the days when Stoicism and theism were the default world-views, but an emotional state characterized by extreme attachment between individuals and those individuals’ fervent desire to enjoy life together, then it’s difficult to see what “meaning” has to do with it.  “Meaning” is a word we borrow from descriptions of communicative behavior, and the part of that emotional state which we tend to call “love” in our day and age is precisely the part that has the least to do with the pair’s efforts to send or receive or preserve messages outside itself.  That intensely private, intensely intimate relation is a brute fact, not inscribed with any particular meaning intelligible to anyone outside the pair.  Even the members of the pair, as their feelings evolve, cannot entirely comprehend the particular emotional state they inhabited in earlier phases.

That’s as much a state of matter as or “self-actualization” in its in this article after starting with a brisk dismissal of “anthropocentric” ideas that invoke it.  I made an almost-serious suggestion here a little while ago about something that we might want to think about when we think about life as something capable of carrying meaning.  Like Professor Carroll, I do think that if we are to find anything useful about such an expression it ought to apply to more than human life.  On the other hand, it ought to be about humans.  The proper question to ask is, what is it about life that makes it possible for humans to find meaning, not just in their own individual lives or in each other’s lives, but in the fact that they are living beings like other living beings.

An impossible balance?

Yesterday, I posted this on tumblr:

I don’t exactly agree with what I said there, that we must not remember the twerp or his cause.  It’s really more that we have to strike a balance, and that balance is nearly impossible to achieve.

On the one hand, terrorists kill because they want to become famous and to gain publicity for their cause.  Therefore we should ignore them.  On the other hand, terrorists kill because they want to blind us to the humanity of their victims and to isolate the group of people to which the victims were targeted for belonging.  Therefore we ought to raise our voices and cry out about the violence, to remember what was done, why it was done, and face the facts which make it likely to be repeated.

So, we have to simultaneously ignore El Twerpo and examine him deeply, simultaneously dismiss his loathsome beliefs and search for their roots in our social order and their echoes in our own minds, simultaneously equate him with all that is weak and contemptible and recognize the bleak power that broods behind him.  How can we strike this balance?  The hell if I know.  But I am sure it must be done.

The Declaration of Independence as a Calvinist Tract

It would be quite an anachronism if the authors of the Declaration of Independence had not thought in terms inherited from Christianity

As part of a seminar the website Crooked Timber is conducting on Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality Sam Goldman put up this post discussing Professor Allen’s interpretation of the theistic language in that 1776 document.  While Professor Allen concedes that a theistic reading of the Declaration is plausible, she argues that it is not necessary to arrive at agreement with the document’s central claims.

Mr Goldman is unconvinced of this, arguing that, while “Nature’s God” as described in the Declaration is not necessarily the Christian God, “the Declaration loses much of its original meaning if you leave God out.”  He spends several paragraphs discussing the sort of God the Declaration requires, showing that, for example, Spinoza’s pantheistic view might suffice to make sense of the bare language of the document, but that other evidence suggests that it would have repelled its authors, and that it would also defeat some aspects of Professor Allen’s interpretation.

I responded to Mr Goldman’s post.  I did not assert that the Declaration is necessarily a specifically Christian document, but that whatever God its authors had in mind was one who interacted with humans in much the same way as did the God Jean Calvin described in his theology.  Indeed, the reception of the Declaration in the civic life of the USA shows the influence of Calvinism on the American religious imagination.  I wrote:

“The Declaration’s God both reflects and reinforces hope that their rights were not reducible to their power or chance of immediate success.” And also their idea that justice is reducible to rights, while rights themselves are not functions of specific social institutions, but are given to us by God for no particular reason that history can discern, are received by us without our doing anything to claim them, and are retained by us throughout all time no matter how many centuries may pass without our exercising them, defending them, or knowing that they exist.

The Declaration may not mention the resurrection or Jesus “or other specifically Christian doctrines,” but in these three aspects it is, I think, obvious that the God of the Declaration relates to humanity in just the way that the God of Calvin does. Unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the persistence of the saints are three of the five petals of the Calvinist TULIP, and the Declaration’s view of rights as our history-free endowment implies a barely secularized version of all three.

The other two petals of the acronym, total depravity and limited atonement, are not far to find either. Both the king, in the comprehensive corruption that the list of grievances reveals, and the “merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” show what humans are like when the Nature’s God does not so enlighten their understanding that the extraordinary claims of the opening paragraph become “self-evident.”

Even the very strange fact that the Declaration, which is a press release, became the occasion for the USA’s chief patriotic holiday shows the Calvinist influence. Not only do Calvinists tend to have rather a high respect for the market, so that an event in the marketing of the Revolution could become the paramount symbol of the Revolution, but also Calvinism’s emphasis on Biblical exegesis and the liturgy of the word prepared the Calvinist mind to look for the climactic moment of the Revolution, not in a battle or a treaty or in any other event where people gather and physical objects move between them, but in a presentation of abstract ideas to which people listen in silence.

This last point, that a particular configuration of the religious imagination is required to make a press release a fit object for national veneration, was in fact my initial response to the piece, as memorialized on Twitter:

“Saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

A century or so ago, G. K. Chesterton said “Journalism consists largely of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”  Social media has made that sort of journalism a pastime in which all of us may share.

On 12 June, the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a part-time college instructor named Rachel Dolezal, a person whose name, up to that point, may perhaps have been known to as many as 200 people outside the Spokane area, was revealed to be a white person passing for African American.  Suddenly, Ms Dolezal became the most discussed person on Twitter and Facebook.  Melissa Harris-Perry conducted a not-unsympathetic interview with Ms Dolezal, setting off a secondary social media firestorm from people upset with her for granting Ms Dolezal a platform.   Countless right-wing voices equated Ms Dolezal’s “transracialism” with the lives of transfolk; some right of center pundits showed themselves surprisingly perceptive in critiquing this equation.   Lefties objected that Ms Dolezal’s behavior trivialized the oppression that African Americans suffer.  Some expressed that objection in a gentle way (see Keith Knight’s cartoon on the subject,) some in an angry way (see Tak Toyoshima’s cartoon,) and some with frank mystification (see Andrew Stewart’s essay.)  Left, right, or center, gentle, angry, or confused, no one seemed to be able to keep quiet about this person who had been so obscure so short a time before that some commentators who had already said a great deal about her had the sudden, uncomfortable realization that they’d never actually heard her name spoken aloud.

One of the reasons so many rightists were eager to make a connection between Ms Dolezal’s racial passing and transgenderism was that the same US media that suddenly filled with Ms Dolezal’s story last week had, the previous week, been dominated by coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she no longer wished to be known as Bruce.  Most of this coverage had been quite celebratory of Ms Jenner as an individual and ostentatiously supportive of transgenderism in general.  Many social conservatives were upset that something which they regard as so unwholesome was receiving so much favorable publicity.  What struck me as strange was the fact that the long-retired athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner was receiving so much publicity.  After all, the last newsworthy thing she did was win a track and field competition in 1976.  I suspect that if you had asked a thousand Americans, a couple of months ago, what Bruce Jenner was up to, the most common reply would have been “Who’s Bruce Jenner?”  Certainly everyone under 40 would answer that way, unless their parents were antique dealers specializing in old Wheaties boxes.  The second commonest reply would probably have been “Didn’t he die years ago?”   All I can figure is that someone decided it was time to have a major transgender celebrity, and if the best they could come up with was a minor celebrity from decades ago, they would build that person up with all the force they could muster.

Day before yesterday Ted Rall wrote an essay on this general topic of “celebritization.”  It begins: “Even if you’re a news junkie, you probably never heard of Dave Goldberg or Beau Biden before they died. Yet both are at the center of a national mournathon.”  That’s a bit of an exaggeration; as a military lawyer, Beau Biden was deployed to Iraq in October 2008, while his father was running for vice president, and that was very big news at the time.  Granted, that was almost seven years ago, but I think most people who were paying attention to that campaign would remember it.  Certainly it would be at least as fresh in the public memory as the 1976 Summer Olympics!  And Dave Goldberg’s firm SurveyMonkey, which Mr Rall calls “a relatively obscure Silicon Valley startup,” has been a significant part of life in the Acilius household for several years, since Mrs Acilius is a sociologist who uses SurveyMonkey all the time.  Still, it’s true that not a particularly large percentage of the US population were in a position to have experienced the deaths of either Beau Biden or Dave Goldberg as a personal loss.

Mr Rall goes on:

What’s weird – and make no mistake, it really is strange – is to see the deaths of unknown people elevated to national events simply due to their relationship with the rich and famous. If Biden died, I’d expect a state funeral. Sandberg merits an eighth of a page obit. Biden’s son and Sandberg’s husband? Not so much.

Until 2014, high profile deaths followed high-profile lives. Now, you don’t have to accomplish anything, at least anything that makes a public impact, to be grieved by the public.

[snip]

If you want to be sad about someone you never knew about, much less knew, that’s your business. But I’ve got a question for you: when the celebrities go on and on and on about how fabulous the dead man or woman in question was, how on earth do you know if any of it is true?

I’d put the sudden celebration of the, until then, long-forgotten Ms Jenner and the outrage over the, until then, totally obscure Ms Dolezal in the same category as the mourning over Messrs Goldberg and Biden.  I’m inclined to be happy that so many people responded to Caitlyn Jenner’s introduction of herself to the world with warm expressions of support for transfolk, but how can we take those expressions seriously when they are bound up with the patently false idea that Bruce Jenner was still famous as late as this year?  I’m inclined to share the concerns that left of center commentators have expressed about Ms Dolezal’s performance of race, but how seriously can we hope that public understanding of those concerns will deepen when they are attached to a figure whose prominence is so obviously ephemeral?

Tom Baker saying “the United States of America”

Some time ago I came upon this video clip of a decades-old interview with actor Tom Baker, and have been trying ever since to imitate him when I say “the United States of America”:

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