To Find A Way Out You Have To Know Where You Are: thoughts on systemic racial injustice, riots, and history

Destructive riots turn public attention away from brutal acts of injustice that ignited them, and toward fear for one’s own safety, disgusted at violent disregard of property and possessions. That’s the way it always works. Two thoughts come to mind. The first, and most important: we cannot allow riots to displace issues of injustice that preceded them. Second: in an unpleasant, sometimes deadly way, riot affected white populations are forced to experience a taste of what daily life feels like for some non white populations. Putting an end to it demands a new way of being community, not restoration of the old.

It’s about racial injustice, and the temptation is to attribute it to personal habits of racism, some overtly expressed and some buried deep in the subconscious. It’s what well intentioned white thought and opinion leaders usually do. Personal prejudices exist, but attacking them is the wrong way to go. It’s a highly individualized approach consistent with the myth of American autonomous individualism, and it misses the target. What is the target? The target is the systematized structures of discrimination built into the ways we have organized American society. Systems have moving parts interacting with each other in ways no chart can capture, but we can isolate a few key parts in need of long overdue attention. One part is the history we don’t acknowledge and don’t teach. One part exists in national laws and regulations that impede non discriminatory policies. One part exists in state and local laws, many well intended, that maintain patterns of discrimination established years ago. One part is in our toleration of political forces overtly working to retain white hegemony as the natural and appropriate standard of the American way. No doubt there are more in need of immediate attention, but dithering about what they might be is only an excuse to delay. In the words of W. Edwards Deming, it’s the system, pay attention to the system. The system can’t be fixed by working on individual beliefs and attitudes one person at a time.

I’m tired of conservative refusal to honestly address the systemic issues of racism in our society that have their roots in history still being written. I’m tired of liberal pandering to easy self satisfying answers. I’m tired of phony liberal self flagellation hoping to appease African American, Indian and Hispanic anger. We don’t need another round of anti-racism workshops. They’ve all been lousy wastes of time. The issues are systemic, and until that’s understood by enough people who don’t want to understand it, no workshop will be worth it. Most especially, I’ve had it with national leaders who openly and frequently give supportive passes to right wing white supremacists, purveyors of whacko conspiracies, and peddlers of fear laden falsehood.

I’ve chosen four parts of the system to examine briefly: history; national laws and regulations; state and local laws and regulations; and the American Way defined by white hegemony.


The history most of us learned in school celebrates the highest ideals of the American people. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re worthy ideals of life, liberty, and the equality of all. They’re ideals of opportunity, self reliance, perseverance, and progress. What we’ve left out are the hard truths of slavery, the denial that enslaved Africans were human beings, the accommodation of slave owning interests in the westward expansion of the nation, and the continuation of slave mentality up to and through the civil rights movements of the mid 20th century. We’ve left out the genocidal conquering of natives, denying survivors basic rights or human dignity, and the deliberate failure of the government to meet any of the treaty obligations it wrote, agreed to, and promised would be met. We left out Asian exclusion acts, lynchings, massacres, antisemitism, and most other events that detract from the polished mythology celebrating all that is good and noble about America.

Teaching a more full and honest version of history is not a “mea culpa” confessional begging forgiveness and doing penance. It’s a simple recognition that living into worthy American ideals has been restricted, for the most part, to northern Europeans (except the Irish), and with some reluctance to other Europeans if they could endure a generation or two of social and political hazing. All others were excluded. It certainly doesn’t mean that achieving some measure of the American dream was easy. Many suffered, worked hard and overcame obstacles, but the way was open for all who were willing to try. Knowing a fuller more honest history doesn’t make today’s white Americans guilty. It makes them better informed, and more able to change directions.

National Laws and Regulations

The foundational law of the land is the Constitution. Almighty God did not inscribe it on stone tablets. It was written by late 18th century men, guided by European Enlightenment philosophers, who crafted an entirely new form of national government, a democratic republic of semi-autonomous states. It also accommodated slavery, and reserved full rights of citizenship to white men of property. Quickly amended, they added a Bill of Rights extending only to them, but since extended to almost all. It’s a living document, amended twenty-seven times, interpreted and reinterpreted by the Supreme Court, which can and has erred. With great reluctance, a civil war, and a determined civil rights movement, the constitutional ideal for all persons has been made the law of the land – on paper, not in practice.

Other national laws, in my lifetime, kept blacks from full benefits of the GI Bill, access to VA and FHA mortgages, access to job opportunities, access to quality K-12 education. Whether intended or not, national infrastructure projects including highways, railroads, urban renewal and public housing, divided and isolated neighborhoods by racial and economic status. Regulatory practices promoted clean, neat neighborhoods for upwardly mobile whites. Neighborhoods for blacks and poor whites were allowed to be ravaged by slumlords and industrial pollution. Poor whites could get out if they were up to it. Blacks had nowhere to go.

The laws have changed. Practices have been slow to keep up. Sadly, the current administration is doing what it can to reverse progress. They say it’s to make America great again, but it has all the hallmarks of buttressing white supremacy.

State and Local Laws and Regulations

State and local laws have been more draconian. They’ve denied voting rights, denied equality before the law, permitted violent oppression, and allowed deed restrictions to enforce segregation. It’s not just a southern thing. The house I live in, built in the early 1970s, had an original deed restriction disallowing sale to negroes and Jews. So did houses we owned in Connecticut, and the Minnesota houses I grew up in and owned. Deed restrictions are no longer legal, but real estate agents keep their intent in play. Many northern towns had sundown laws ordering blacks off the streets by sundown. Not uniformly enforced, they didn’t come off the books until the mid 20th century. The Pacific Northwest and California denied Asians the right to own property, vote, or become citizens. Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps during WWII.

Even well meaning local planning has contributed to conditions restricting non-white access to the fullness of community life. Ordinary zoning ordinances include large lot single family housing with parks, row houses and limited recreation were prescribed for other areas, and high density apartments next to mixed use commercial industrial areas filled in. It was all with the best of intentions, but it created segregated fiefdoms making integrated community life all but impossible. Adding deed restrictions into the mix, and blacks, more than others, have been forced into ghettos from which escape is difficult.

The American Way defined by White Hegemony

What it is to be a model American has always been defined by an idealized image of the white middle class, and those striving to enter it. It’s looked different in each era from colonial times to this very day, but it’s always been modeled on the white middle class. Until recently, the American ideal also assumed generic Protestant Christianity as the de facto national religion. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. The ideal values of the white middle class are not wrong. What’s wrong is the ideal of the white middle class, as defined by whites, as the only standard by which being a model American is judged.

Even popular television featuring black families made them look like middle class whites, or striving to become like middle class whites, or looking like comical nouveau riche whites. It’s always white standards of what it is to be American.

What it is to be fully American having fully American values must be defined to include and be defined by African Americans, American Indians, Asians, etc. It will be an abstract mosaic, but it will be beautiful. And white middle class ideals will remain an important part of it. It won’t be easy. When one part of society has had the power and authority to set the rules for over 400 years, they’re not easily surrendered.

Economic Morality & The 2020 Campaign

The last three and a half years have seen hundreds of billions of dollars flow into the hands of the largest corporations and most wealthy persons at the cost of ballooning deficits and skyrocketing national debt. It’s been celebrated by those who’ve benefitted most, and sold to ordinary people as an economic piñata that will eventually produce a flood of goodies for them.

How different from the previous eight years when the same people berated Obama’s frugal economic policies that produced slow, steady growth and a declining deficit, labeling them spendthrift, irresponsible, and debt piled on future generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has blown their cover, but the game is not over. They’ve got two moves left, with one already employed to good effect: convince a large portion of the public that the pandemic is overblown, the response unnecessarily draconian , and reopening business as usual is in everyone’s best interest. It’s a line that been skillfully sold with all the class of late night infomercials for hydroxychloroquine, disinfecting sprays and ultra violet lights. Scenes of crowded beaches and bars are proof that it works. I think of them as giant petri dishes. Let’s wait a few weeks and see what happens.

The second will resurrect the bogeyman of deficits and debt with a demand that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs be cut to stem the hemorrhage. Already toyed with, it ill be employed in force as the presidential campaign heats up. It will be sold as the fiscally responsible thing to do, the very thing needed to restore a booming economy. The old shibboleths of the undeserving poor and welfare leeches will be trotted out. The ancient arguments will again be made that personal accountability and the discipline of self sufficiency are eroded by social welfare programs. A flag waving coda will raise the specter of looming socialism turning America into another Cuba. None of it is true, but the pitch has worked before, and it might again.

It would be cruelly immoral to burden the least able, most vulnerable with the cost of paying for profligate spending to enrich of the most able and wealthiest. That alone should be enough to put a stop to it, but selfishness is a powerful drug, especially if enough people can be convinced that protecting the well being of others means less for themselves. It isn’t easy to understand that undermining the social safety net would not restore the economic fortunes of the many, but would benefit a few speculators and others able to direct government spending to their own industrial interests. It would be a case of socialism for oligarchs and laissez-faire for the rest.

I don’t know how, but sooner or later, the conservative, evangelical and Trump voting public needs to wise up and recognize that they’ve been had. They’ve been had by Trump, by oligarchs manipulating tea party populism, and sadly, by conservative evangelicalism that loves everything about Jesus except what he taught.

Memorial Day Weekend, Mr. Miller & War, what is it good for?

It’s Memorial Day weekend and time for my annual Harlan Miller column, Mr. Miller, as he was called, was a local farm boy, very shy, extremely bright, mostly self educated, who enlisted at the onset of WWII. Seriously wounded in North Africa, it took years of hospitalization before he could enter what would become normal life for him. Never able to work a regular job again, he lived as an impoverished recluse, the church his only family, his tithes a few coins each Sunday. The congregation was the executor of his will. The veteran’s flag given to the next of kin is in the church’s keeping, a treasured icon.

Memorial Day honors those who died in service to their country. For some, death came instantly, for some it came in installments, terrifying, brutal, dribbled out over a lifetime. Mr. Miller was one of those.

Edwin Starr’s 1970 hit song “War” begins “War, huh, yeah, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Yet we continue glorifying the heroics of battle, praising those who died in a valiant cause when living is what they most wanted. Entertainment empires are built on the glorification of war, on how many enemies can be killed in how many ways, on brave heroics and tragic deaths. It’s an old story. Ancient Greeks measured a man’s worth by his performance in war. To die in battle was the epitome of worthiness. The Western world knows about it because their written record has entered the literary canon, but it’s a theme played out and recorded in every culture, with each age having its own George S. Patton leading the way. We are not unique in the history of tribes and peoples. We may, however, be unique in the realm of living creatures, for we seem to be the only ones who take pride and pleasure in the massive slaughter of our own kind.

During these WWII anniversary years, we’ve attached romantic idealism to the sacrifices made by The Greatest Generation who achieved victory in the “good war” that saved the world. There is substantial truth in it. It’s worth remembering with honor and not to be demeaned in any way.

Anachronistically, we’ve continued to prepare for the next WWII as if wars of conquest engaging massive armies faced off against each other were imminent probabilities. They aren’t – no matter how the Star Wars saga claims otherwise. Nevertheless, we parade our armies, navies and air forces back and forth across the world stage as if they were. Why? Because, unlike the armed conflicts of today, they could be good, winnable and honorable wars. We maintain nuclear missiles to threaten retaliation if another nation fires at us, without giving much thought to the obliteration of civilization it would unleash. Why? Because it can be made to sell well at election time. And what else? Because it creates jobs and profits for powerful defense industries that underwrite the economies of whole regions.

There are real examples of war like violence all over the globe. Millions die. Millions live out Harlan Miller lives – and worse. Defense industries make millions. And what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

National defense is needed, let’s understand that. It’s needed to de-escalate violence, deter violence, and help create conditions where large scale war like violence is no longer tolerated by the global community. It’s possible that some rogue actor will get hold of a nuclear device and set it off to make a bigger bang than Timothy McVey’s or the Saudi led terrorists of 9/11. We need to defend against such things, but hundreds of missiles are not the defense we need. Times change and needs change.

Savvy nations intent on conquest have smarter, less violent ways to go about it. Commanding the ebb and flow of information technologies, directing the distribution of financial resources, and dominating markets in goods and services are far more effective. They can work without doing too much damage to desires for national autonomy and cultural pride. Even savvier nations surrender their lust for conquest in favor of passion for the well being of their own people. Less savvy nations continue to plow ahead in preparation for 1955. Of late we have become among the less savvy.

This Memorial Day we honor those who died in service to our country, both those who were killed at once, and those who died piece by piece. It is our duty, not a sacred one, but our duty nonetheless. We owe it to them whether they earned it or not. Alongside flowers and flags, perhaps we might also move toward a new way of being a nation that doesn’t glorify killing.

Libertarians and the Greater Good of the Commonwealth

Through several recent columns, I’ve struggled finding ways to use the language of conservative values to frame progressive ideas for restoration of the American Dream in a more just and sustainable way. While I believe that remains important, I’ve become more aware of how difficult it will be because we have different starting points. Progressives tend to start with what is needed to build a more just society, the greater good, the commonwealth of all, “a more perfect union,” as the Constitution puts it. Conservatives tend to start with the absolute rights of individuals that can only be eroded by encroachment of demands for the commonwealth’s greater good. Moreover, conservative is a misnomer. What was once classic conservatism is now right wing libertarianism.

An older generation of conservatives was strongly invested in the greater good of the commonwealth in which they lived. Although it was defined by a white middle class that excluded others, the injustice of it was largely ignored as long as possible. They were reluctant to move ahead too quickly with changes that might upset the promise of domestic peace and prosperity when the rest of the world looked politically and economically unstable. It’s a conservatism fondly remembered but dead and buried under the rhetoric of libertarians who assumed the conservative mantle even though they have little in common with the old values.

The libertarian ethos of today arrived in contemporary American politics with Goldwater’s presidential run, and became the standard bearer for conservatism during the Reagan era. But it wasn’t new; it was a product of Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Bentham, and Smith who championed individual rights, utilitarian ethics, and the morality of an unrestricted competitive market. What libertarianism needed was a voice giving it coherence that could accommodate American Protestant evangelicalism in the context of westward expansion and industrialization. Rummaging through an old text, I rediscovered someone I’d forgotten: Francis Wayland (1796-1865), Baptist minister and long time president of Brown.

Wayland was an early convert to Laissez-Faire economics who wrote two books reconciling it with Protestant evangelical ideals of personal responsibility: “The Elements of Moral Society,” and “The Elements of Political Economy.” I’ve read neither, only about them, and what follows is taken mostly from Donald Frey’s “America’s Economic Moralists: a history of rival ethics and economics.”

Wayland declared that society, as it should exist, consists of autonomous individuals acting in their own self interest. Although self interest can lead to sin, there are innocent self interests that don’t. An innocent act of self interest doesn’t actively infringe on someone else’s autonomous rights. Since many choices are equally innocent, those of greatest self interest are morally acceptable. Left on their own, innocent acts of self interest lead to a Panglossian best of all possible societies. Individuals acting in their innocent self interest have no moral obligation to proactively contribute to the benefit of others, nor to the greater good of the community. Individuals are not without social moral obligation. There are two of them: honor the autonomous rights of others; and defend one’s own rights when threatened. Minimal government is necessary, but must be prevented from interfering with one’s autonomy. The most important autonomous right is property and the unrestrained right to use it as one pleases. Those who are better off have no obligation to the poor, although voluntary church based charity for the deserving poor is a worthy endeavor. Poverty is, after all, a choice. Any non-lazy American (man) can certainly earn enough to support a family.

Wayland wasn’t the only voice on politics and economics. Some agreed and many didn’t. Nevertheless, his two books were college classroom fixtures until the end of the 19th century. What he wrote in the 1830s established a uniquely American libertarian manifesto that hasn’t changed in 190 years. None of my libertarian acquaintances have heard of Wayland, but they’ve internalized his curious evangelically endorsed philosophy of autonomous self interest having no moral obligation to the commonwealth’s greater good, and believes poverty is a choice.

Libertarians who put a high priority on individual rights of autonomous individuals, and progressives who put a high priority on a commonwealth providing equal and equitable opportunity to all persons, have little common ground to work with. And I’m undecided about whether any is needed. Wayland’s libertarianism now expressed by the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, and the guy down the street, is immoral and unacceptable.

Individual rights are important and to be protected because they’re integral to the life of the commonwealth in whose prosperity lies the prosperity of each. Government has a significant role in making that happen. It’s not the enemy, it’s the agency of the people to guarantee the rights of the individual within the context of a free and just society. Of necessity it will restrain the avarice of some who would exercise their rights to the degradation of the rights of others. That’s not eroding rights, that’s protecting them.

Libertarianism, given its way, ends in undemocratic oligarchy antithetical to everything American democracy stands for. It creates de facto state control of the means of production that old line conservatives and gullible libertarians most fear.

Thoughts About Transitions in History on the Eve of the Feast of the Ascension

Transitions between historical eras are denoted mostly by the wars that separated them. I suppose it makes sense. Wars are relatively easy to remember: they’re big, loud, violent, and feature colorful heroes and villains. It’s the way history is taught and written about, and least in American schools. The same is not true for marking the transitions in humanity’s relationship with God from one era to the next. They’re not marked by wars, but if not, by what?

Holy scripture and the church year mark transitions from one era to another by significant moments in which conditions defining God’s relationship with humanity are changed dramatically, leaving God’s people confused and wondering what will come next. A time of confused wondering is hardly a memorable moment. We experience too many of them in ordinary life, but when they involve a new revelation from God that redefines humanity’s relationships with each other, creation, and God, they become historical markers of significance.

The story told in Hebrew scriptures unfolds from one transition to another as God is progressively revealed. In each, those to whom God has made ‘himself’ known in new ways are left in states of doubt, misunderstanding, and wonder as they try to figure out what’s going on, and what they’re expected to do. They are the stories of the patriarchs and Moses, judges, and prophets.

Hebrew scriptures have the luxury of wondering as they wander over two thousand years of revelation progressing from one era to the next. Christian scriptures compress it into a few decades on which hinge all of history and every era past, present and yet to come. No wonder the disciples were often in a state of confusion and doubt. Jesus brought an explosion of dramatic change into the world from the moment of his conception, through his death and resurrection, to his departure, which we remember tomorrow, Thursday, May 21, on the Feast of the Ascension.

A popular Anglican prayer instructs us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the story. His followers had no time to take it all in, much less inwardly digest it. Remember, it was only forty days ago that Jesus was crucified and buried. His resurrection was a surprise, hard to understand and easily disbelieved. It was more than disorienting to discover he was, and always had been, God incarnate, not just the young but uncommonly wise miracle working carpenter from Nazareth. Forty days is not long enough to get used to the idea, and suddenly, poof, he ascended out of sight. Never to be seen again? And now what? We call them disciples, but who did they think they were? What did they think they were supposed to do? And what, for crying out loud, was going to happen next?

We know that in ten days we will celebrate Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We know that within thirty years the Christian faith would spread throughout the Roman Empire. They didn’t know that! How could they? All they could do was trust in God, whom they now knew in Christ Jesus.

We live in our own time of uncertainty, marked by too many wars to count, and now a pandemic that’s upset the economic fortunes of the entire world. It’s upsetting. It raises our anxieties. It’s important, no doubt about that. But as we were reminded last Sunday, it is in God that we live and move and have our being. God’s ways may not be our ways but in following Jesus we can be confident we are walking in God’s ways no matter what else is going on around us. Confused and wondering as we might be, let us follow the example of Mary, Peter and the others, and surrender our anxieties to God, even when we don’t know what will come next.

The 45th is a Psalm 45 President: We need a Psalm 72 President.

There are two psalms that speak to the politics of our day, as they have to the politics of ages past: Psalms 45 and 72. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Trump is the 45th president, but it’s a coincidence worth pondering.

Psalm 45 is a song of praise not to God, but to the king as if he were a god. Psalm 72 is a prayer of blessing over the king, asking that God guide him in ways of justice with special concern for the most vulnerable.

The sycophantic writer of Psalm 45 can hardly contain himself as he heaps praise on the king, whom he declares to be the most handsome, graceful and blessed of all men. He assures the king that his enemies will be defeated by the king’s skill and power because he has been anointed by God. Although the king is surrounded by adoring women, including his queen, an unnamed girl is urged to forget her family and let the king have his way with her. Why? Because it’s a great honor to be had by the king. Then follows a parade of young women filled with joy at being in the king’s presence. With a final fanfare, the psalmist proclaims the king’s name will be praised forever.

It’s the kind of thing one reads about in the histories of caesars, sultans, and kings who claimed to rule by divine right. It’s not the kind of thing one expects to find among modern democratic leaders of the world’s largest and most powerful nations. Even corrupt dictatorships maintain a certain distance from flagrant shows of obsequious support. But not our current president. He is a living enactment of the scene in Psalm 45 – a man who cannot be praised enough, who needs reassurance from bevies of attractive people proclaiming his greatness, a man who cannot be held accountable, and who, as chosen by God, is indisputable. He is the living replica of a Mel Brooks sketch.

Psalm 72 is also about the king, but this time it’s a prayer beseeching God to make the king just, so he can serve the people righteously, especially the poor. It asks for prosperity for the people during his reign, and strength for the king to defend the poor. It asks for the king’s long life, his dominion over large areas, peace for his people, and honor given him by surrounding kings, and why? Because he delivers the needy when they call, the poor who have no helper. He redeems those who are oppressed or abused, and holds their blood to be precious in his sight. And what is the source of all this goodness? The Lord, who alone does wondrous things.

It’s a prayer that acknowledges our human desire for honor, even fame. It recognizes that we organize societies to give tremendous power to certain leaders, entrusting them with the authority to rule. At the same time, it boldly proclaims the standards God expects rulers to live up to. The purpose of ruling authority is to establish godly justice for all, with an emphasis on the most vulnerable. It is not a question of being liberal or conservative. For us it is what God expects, and what we are required to pursue to the best of our ability.

Americans long ago rejected monarchal rule. We did not reject the need for rulers, but created a new form that divided and limited ruling authority with the clear understanding that it was to “…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” (From the preamble to the Constitution).

Limited executive power for a limited term is vested in an elected president who is not a ruler, but a presider over one branch of government. His or her only honorific is Mr. or Ms. President. Customs of respect have developed over the years, but not obeisance. Presidents have come and gone. Some were dedicated to the welfare of the nation, some to their own welfare, some honest as Abe, some corrupt as Harding. None were perfectly wise, all had faults, and each was a reflection of the social and moral values of their time. For each of them, Christians have been encouraged to offer prayers for national leadership like those of Psalm 72.

Things have changed. Our 45th is a Psalm 45 president, and more than a few well known religious leaders chant it to him. His only acknowledgment of God has been to claim God anointed him with the right to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He believes Article II and God have made him the nation’s ruler. There is no evidence he has the slightest knowledge of, or concern about, the poor, needy, and oppressed. He believes justice is about clearing the way for those who are able to make as much money as possible at the expense of others, never mind the cost. He offers lavish promises and outlandish entertainments to the masses, many of whom, at least for the moment, seem to be satisfied with it, even as he fails to deliver. Though United States was held in high esteem by the rest of the world before his election, he said it needed to be made great again, and only he could do it. Now he says he needs to be reelected to keep it great. By every measure, he’s squandered the esteem with which it was held, making it an object of ridicule. World leaders snicker behind his back. He greatly enriched the already rich while convincing the working poor it was all for them. In the name of freedom, he relieved business and industry of regulations protecting the environment, working conditions, and public safety. He has not only continued his lifelong pattern of corporate and personal relationships lacking integrity, but has boasted about it as the way winners win and losers lose.

It would be easy to claim that he is the nation’s problem, but he’s only a symbol of what we have allowed ourselves to become. He emerged from seed long sown in fertile soil. Too many have been deluded into thinking government is the problem, that individualism by itself is the solution, that taxation is theft, and that extending rights to those long denied them means taking rights from “us.” We’ve come to believe a playing field tilted toward the rich is right, and to level it would be to “redistribute wealth” from those who’ve earned it to those who haven’t. Frighteningly, many have convinced themselves that suppressing the vote and accepting authoritarian rule will protect their rights and freedoms. A neighbor recently passed on a “survey” from Hillsdale College that inveighed against socialism in favor of American democracy without explaining what socialism is, while promoting a sanitized version of America’s glorious history of freedom for all. Socialism, apparently, is anything right wing libertarians don’t like. It’s part and parcel of the soil within which the seed of a Trump could grow.

We have a lot of work to do if we’re to implant the godly ways of Psalm 72 into he toxic soil that has given rise to a Psalm 45 president.

How Will the Pandemic End? Not with a bang, but a whimper.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic end? It won’t. Those who understand these things say it is here to stay, a full time resident of our daily lives we will have to learn to live and die with. There will be a vaccine in due time. History suggests that, rushed as its development is, it will have a rocky start with a few failures, unexpected side effects, and inequitable distribution. There will also be more effective treatments in due time. History suggests they too are likely to first go to the most privileged and least vulnerable. In the meantime, COVID-19 is something we’ll need to get used to.

T.S. Eliot’s poem “Hollow Men” ends with the familiar refrain about how the world will end, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” In a sense, that’s how the pandemic will end. Not with the bang of vaccines and treatment, but with whimpering resignation that we might as well get on with as much life as we can. There are signs of it now. The deadly virus against whom we have no current defense has been here for several months. We’re getting used to it. Infection, recovery and death rates seem to be settling into predictable patterns, including the predictably greater impact on the urban poor, blacks and hispanics.

Unpredictability creates uncertainty which creates fear. Predictability creates an uneasy contentment with the way things are, even when they are deadly or unjust. People will get sick, people will die, that’s the way it is. Get used to it. It’s what societies tend to do, albeit in a variety of ways.

The giddy, hedonistic reveling of bar patrons in Wisconsin and diner patrons in Colorado is one way to whimper toward an end. It’s no different than similar behavior during the waves of “Black Death” that spread across Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages. Others angrily protest about government imposed limitations on their “rights” to do whatever they want to do without regard for the welfare of others. That too is an old, old response. They’re the ones who make the front pages and evening news broadcasts. More common are gaggles of children playing together where and when they can, neighbors and friends visiting each other with a little less caution, commerce flowing quietly under restriction’s radar, and professional services cautiously seeing clients. There’s nothing dramatic about it, no sudden moves, no angry protests or concupiscent behavior. It’s just ordinary people doing what they can to return to ordinary ways of living.

There will be a cost. More will get sick and more will die than otherwise would. There may be benefits. Perhaps, at least for a time, we will become a more humane society, a bit kinder to one another, a bit less ready to objectify the other as an enemy, a bit more willing to address entrenched issues of injustice. I have some hope that right wing, anti government forces will at long last be exposed for the frauds they are, and held accountable at the ballot box for the harm they’ve done to the nation.

When the day come that we have one or more effective vaccines and treatments, I hope they will be distributed broadly from the bottom up at a cost to be equitably shared among us all through general taxation. It could happen. As one who lives closer to the top of the economic pyramid than the bottom, it will be hard to wait my turn, and I’ll no doubt complain about it.

Libertarian Ideologues, Heartland Values & the Urban-Rural Divide

Much has been made about the urban-rural divide contributing to social, economic and political polarization. It appears to me that libertarian ideologues helped create the public image of the divide, and have effectively used it to manipulate public opinion and voting patterns. Popularized in the media and books, urban America is characterized as the home of liberal coastal elites. Rural America, the heartland, is the home of conservative heartlanders. Urban America is said to be out of touch with heartlanders and their deeply rooted values that are the foundation of the real America. Examining how that came about might point to constructive moves toward political, social and economic reconciliation. I’ve looked over some of the work devoted to it from the perspective of one who lives in a small city of the rural West, and offer these observations.

The heartland’s location remains a metaphorical mystery never to be solved. It certainly exists in places far removed from commuting distance to large metropolitan areas, but it also exists in the imaginations of people, no matter where they live, who identify with the values and beliefs associated with it. Heartlanders have a sense of ownership in them, fairly certain they define the hearts of true Americans, and are suspicious that non-heartlanders do not, and probably cannot, appreciate them. Conservative in their defense of their core values and beliefs, they are otherwise innovative risk takers willing to try new things.

Libertarian ideologues have done an admirable job of convincing life long conservative heartlanders that libertarian ideology is what true conservatism has always been about. They’ve played expertly on the myth of western individualism embodied in heartland conservatism to equate it with libertarian ideology. Heartlanders are not inherently comfortable with ideologies. They’ve generally found a place of comfort in the way things are in the context of the communities in which they live. They’re reluctant to see rapid changes in them, and are fond of remembering the best of former times. For classical conservatives, it’s government’s job to establish and maintain those conditions, and they trust it to perform.

Libertarians, on the other hand, view all rights and privileges as individually possessed and surrendered only under duress to permit minimal government to organize community in minimal ways. For them, government is, in Reagan’s words, never the solution, always the problem. Libertarian ideology has proven to be an ideal vehicle for white supremacy and isolationist nationalism that reserves rights and liberties for some while excluding them from others. For the last century or more, libertarian ideologues have generated public fear that socialism can lead only to dictatorial communism, and anything not libertarian is socialism. Oddly, libertarians are content making common cause with autocratic plutocrats, many of whom are generous underwriters of the cause. They’re like seals making common cause with orcas, never recognizing the one with whom they’re allied is their predator. But I digress.

The onset of today’s version of libertarianism gained public visibility with the momentary popularity of the John Birch Society and the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Sown seed may not have germinated, but it didn’t go away. Reagan’s presidency, spanning the 1980s, provided the ground and fertilizer for it to take root as an authentic expression of Republican conservatism. Obama’s term during the first decade of the 21st century, and the long recovery from the Great Recession, was all it needed to redefine conservatism in its own image. Along the way, it captured the mantle of standing for hard working heartland people, wherever they live, as the guardian and advocate of core heartland values and beliefs that are alien to coastal elites.

What are they, these heartland values and beliefs? Listening to talk about them, they’re relatively few and deeply held, if not lived into. They have little to do with politics, and much to do with family and community. With a few exceptions, I think they’re broadly shared by urbanites and coastal elites too, the very people they’ve been led to believe are alien. In other words, there is common ground on which to combat libertarian ideologue manipulation. Consider the following:

• Lasting and passionate love that can endure hard times, and deep unconsolable heartbreak when it fails. It’s about love won and lost that goes to the core of being itself.

• A love of home and family, especially elders, that gives rootedness and meaning to existence that can be found nowhere else.

• A real man, or woman, is self sufficient, but can rely on family and friends to be there for them.

• Everlasting absolute truth is found in simple, down home, unpretentious Protestant religion.

• Real value in life is found in hard work on the farm or in the factory.

There are more, of course, but these exemplify them. The point is, they are revered in the mythology of real independent minded heartlanders. Progressives have generally failed to recognize or honor them for the worthiness they deserve, even though they share much the same.

That failure left it open for right wing libertarian operatives to use them as fodder for skillfully employed propaganda. Using every trope rural America has to offer has been one of their most successful weapons. It produced tea party successes in Congress, emboldened McConnell to reformat the federal government in favor of autocratic plutocracy, and gave us Trump.

It’s not too late. Progressives and liberals can and must construct their political messaging to honor heartlanders through more honest appeals to their values and beliefs. The menu is right there to be read.

Trump & Trumpism: Idol and Idolatry

Avid, unwavering support for Trump by millions remains something of a mystery. I’ve read opinion pieces from pundits, scholarly articles based on solid research, and have offered my own casual observations to explain some of it. But something has been missing in each of them. A few have commented on the religious like fervor his supporters have expressed, and that may be the clue.

Trump has become a religious idol for his followers. Idols have one thing in common, they promise to guarantee relief from the uncertainties of life. They promise that, through them, and only them, anxiety can be exchanged for the security of all that is good and desirable. Trump ran on that ticket quite convincingly for millions of voters.

As a people we’re quite fond of idols, even many who claim to be Christian prefer idols to following Jesus. It’s not like we worship statues and totems. We prefer our idols in the form of things or events that promise fulfillment of our desires: the right vacation, car, career, wealth, body, romantic love, perfect boss, the list is endless, but the advertising industry has done a good job of indexing as many as they can. None of them ever produce what they promise, but we keep at it just the same. If they can be dressed in Christianish style, so much the better – it helps absolve one of the sin of idolatry if Jesus can be mentioned frequently.

What Trump lacks in intelligence and formal learning, he makes up for in the street smarts of a practiced con man. It’s no accident that the anxieties and uncertainties of life he promised to fix, and he alone could do it, focused on people who identified themselves as white working class, or near cousins, who expressed anxiety about:

• changing demographics challenging their majority

• stagnant wages and diminished opportunities for economic security

• changing social standards redefining what is and isn’t acceptable

• threats to ill defined but deeply held beliefs in certain rights and freedoms

• government sold to them as the enemy, something alien, not really American

• feelings that others looked down on them with distaste and disgust

• highly visible differences between the affluent few and struggling many

• etc.

They handed him an agenda about which he could make fantastical promises with no plan or intention to deliver.

Some of it was the result of the Great Recession with its slow, steady recovery that didn’t produce results fast enough. Some of it was due to real dislocations caused by globalization. Some of it was caused by corporate policies treating them as consumable inventory, mere commodities in the machinery of production and sales. A great deal of it was caused by Reagan style condemnation of government as the enemy behind it all, and oligarch backed tea party libertarianism engineering right wing populism as the way to fight back.

The point is, anxieties about the uncertainty of life were real, and Trump knew how to take advantage of it. He alone could fix it. He alone would return America to an industrial golden age. He alone would take the government off their backs by neutering bureaucracies and voiding regulations. He alone would make America the supreme authority among nations. He alone would “make America great again.” Millions bought into it and made him their idol in every religious sense of the word.

Like every idol, he couldn’t deliver. Not one of his promises has been fulfilled, although he’s done well making some look promising. Disastrous tariff wars were touted as victories. Debt spiraling relief to agriculture was proclaimed as saving America’s heartland. Betrayal and belittling allies was hailed as restoring respect. Pandering to dictators as opening new avenues of diplomacy. Revelation of pervasive corruption bordering on treason as machinations of a rogue deep state. Disambiguation through well crafted propaganda, crude truth twisting and floods of outright lies veiled reality while absorbing airtime to the exclusion of much else. Few can even remember the promises of new steel mills, new factories, and the return of coal. The fog of war had nothing on the fog of Trump’s non stop bluster.

How could such miserable performance not undermine the religious faith of those who adopted him as their idol? Part, I suppose, has to do with the old phenomenon of unfulfilled promises generating renewed faith that, if not now, soon. Another has to do with creating the illusion that some have been fulfilled, even if it’s obvious to disinterested observers that they haven’t. Las Vegas magicians know how to do that, and so does Trump. But there’s something else at play. All his promises, and all his deceptions and illusions, are related to things in the economy that can be controlled by ordinary human actions, or if not controlled, at least strongly influenced. He has been able to credibly claim success where there is none, or cast blame on others who got in his way, and it’s not his fault. What human agents can create and control can be managed, one way or another, even if by deception.

Then came the novel corona virus, COVID-19, a product of nature, not of human origin. It spread, for whatever reason, rapidly and without concern for national boundaries or treaties. It has no interest in what governments say, think or do. It can’t be bullied from a podium in front of t.v. cameras. Being novel (new), no one had immunity. The entire world was vulnerable, and it was fatal to many. Most important to the idolatry of Trumpism, it didn’t care and wasn’t influenced by anything he had to say about it. It hasn’t gone away. It’s still here with no intention of leaving.

The idol who promised I alone can fix it has been revealed as utterly powerless, and, in his ignorance, as worse than useless. He’s dangerously floundering about unnecessarily risking millions of lives in the process. It’s not that he has had many options. Like other governments around the world, the U.S. has joined with them applying the crude tools at their disposal, almost entirely limited to physical distancing. It’s crippled the world economy, not just our own. As crude as the tools are, the virus would have crippled it even more had it been allowed to run its course. None of that has stopped Trump from ducking, weaving and boasting to proclaim victory that isn’t there and cast blame wherever he can.

Trump, the idol, can do little but bluster as others race to find medical treatments and vaccines that work. He alone is a stumbling block, but they’re doing their best to work around him. Having spent three years aggregating power and authority creating a make believe dictatorship, he’s claimed no responsibility, forcing governors to work out things on their own, as cooperatively as they can.

Will the COVID-19 era do anything to weaken Trumpism as an idolatrous religion? I have my doubts. His true believers will likely offer sacrifices demanded by Trump as the cost of restoring order, and he will claim only he can restore order. Order, disciplined order establishing hard lines of white hegemony, that’s what they believe will resolve their uncertainties and anxieties. Order requires opening the economy. Sure more people will die, but they‘ll be old, black and brown. Who cares? There will be more for the rest. Trump will again claim only he can get the economy going again, quickly and better than ever. He will be aided by untrustworthy interests who see their dream of plutocratic autocracy dissolving in the aftermath. They will do what they can to revive tea party populism laying all the blame at the feet of the true enemy, government. It might work. It worked before, and not only in our time and our country.

Idolatrous religion is a powerful drug. Don’t underestimate it.