Trump in the East: Revisiting Revolution

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President Trump’s first trip overseas is now in the books. His itinerary took him from Riyadh to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Rome, Vatican City, Brussels, and Taormina and Sigonella, Italy. Photos of him with the likes of King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Netanyahu and placing a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem were downright surreal. The whole thing was just … so … international. I even texted a friend this: “Did you know that Donald Trump was president? Not president of Trump Inc., but president of the United States.” Whether it was a success or not depends on who you ask, I guess. But no one can deny the optics. President Trump stepped out of the television and into his new role as world leader. That he chose the east for this trip was no accident, either. It was an opportunity for the president to reaffirm the country’s leadership along with espousing and promoting a message of solidarity. What I appreciated most was the sense of sincerity.

Regardless of how successful President Trump’s first trip abroad may or may not have been, the outright collision of popular culture, our current American political climate, and the volatile east was impossible for me to ignore. The visuals of our just-inaugurated president in these far-away places, with men in traditional east clothing and in incredibly weighty moments, for me at least, conjured other far-away visuals from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. As fate would have it, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading books from the revolutionary era that dates from the Spanish Civil War early in the Twentieth Century through the Cuban Revolution and the Cold War. I haven’t devoted a great deal of time, any time for that matter, to the Spanish Civil War. But from what I gather, there was essentially an ongoing revolution beginning in 1918 with the first World War through the Spanish Civil War which gave way to World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, and Cuba. Even though we’ve been led to believe that all wars are ultimately about money, this period of history actually seems more motivated by political philosophy than finance and power.

The Spanish Revolution has become the most interesting to me as it relates to our current state. Ultimately between the competing factions of communism and fascism, the Spanish Revolution has its origins in extreme nationalism that emerged as a result of creeping liberalism. As the central government leaned more and more left, the military led by General Franciso Franco attempted a coup with some degree of success. The “some” part of this is what embroiled Spain in its 3-year revolution with Germany and Italy supporting the nationalists and Russia supporting what was left of Spain’s legitimate government.

It’s important to note that the democracies sat this one out. They opted neither to join the nationalists or the progressives. While private citizens (even including Ernest Hemingway) from US. France, and England contributed to the efforts of the Spanish government in its fight against fascism, the states as sovereigns remained neutral. And the choice of these citizens? This is what’s fascinating to me. Just about anyone from any democracy that wanted to join the fight in Spain was likely going to fight on the side of communism against the more natural enemy of democracy, extreme nationalism in the form of fascism. In this context — and others such as Germany in the 1930s – nationalism came in way short on the “healthy nation” scale. Certainly not condemning national pride, history has shown us that nationalism in its extremity, dare I say radicalism, can lead down some dark paths.

As I’ve immersed myself in this revolutionary stretch of the Twentieth Century I can’t help but wonder if we’re on the edge of another such season, though surely not as violent in its swings. The American electorate surprised many of us with its reaction to encroaching liberalism. We saw some of the same tendencies in France’s national election and even now surprises from Great Britain. And here we are almost exactly 100 years later with a president elected on the high tides of nationalism. I wouldn’t suggest there’s anything magic about 100 years, but I would suggest that we as humans have short memories. I’ve read that every 5th generation is tainted by a tragic brush of forgetfulness. (My summary.) That is, say, the Baby Boomers studied under the World War II generation but failed to steep their children in a helpful historical or cultural context. The children of the Boomers then would have little to pass on to the fourth generation about what was learned in the 1940s. In this very human, somewhat twisted drama, the fifth generation is vulnerable to the same destructive conclusions and reactions as those that embroiled us in the era of turmoil that stained most of the Twentieth Century. Historian Joseph Ellis in his book American Creation, referring to the framers of the Constitution, notes how our Founding Fathers put into place a means for fueling a perpetual revolution yet, with its various checks and balances, might manage to avoid sudden and destructive turns. I’ve always appreciated that sentiment from Ellis and such foresight of the Framers. I’m just not sure I’m as confident in the populace.

Does history repeat itself? Although it may appear so, to say that history repeats itself personifies “history” to an unreasonable level. History is neutral and abject. What we mistake for a cyclical history is humanity simply falling into the same mistakes. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think the two things are different. My point is that the problem is not with historicity but the human condition. Can we change it? I guess we’ll see. But maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe the right question is this: Where will we put our adoration? Based on what I see run through my feeds every day we are, collectively, in a perpetual process of deciding what or who we will worship and more and more it’s landing, in some form or fashion, with our government. In what or who we will put our trust and hope. This question gets to matters of our heart, energy, and trust. An interesting “revolution” would emerge if we opted to pursue the original vision for America that exhorted the individual to become greater than governments had allowed to that point in history as opposed to our relatively recent obsession with simply being on the right political side. So many of the posts I see on social media remind of CS Lewis’ conclusion: We are far too easily pleased. Dare to be more than liberal or republican, than democrat or conservative, than progressive or pragmatic. This is a revolution of spirit.

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The Bizarre Files

Those that know me know that I don’t throw around the word “bizarre” lightly. Not only do I limit my usage of the word to just a handful of times per year, but also keep a watchful ear on my friends to make sure they don’t abuse such a treasure. “Bizarre” is a sacred possession of the English language and is one of the few plug words—words that hold a place for a thought, circumstance, or scenario that defies explanation—that I allow myself. Although close to “surreal,” it nonetheless holds a place higher in the vernacular and lexiconial hierarchy.

That being said, the most recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine includes a picture, and the story behind the image, of then President Richard Nixon in a White House “summit” with then King of Rock of Roll Elvis Presley is bizarre. Agonistes considers himself a person with an ability to make observations and draw conclusions about the culture around us. This moment of our history, however, remains a statistical outlier and renders any effort at social commentary pointless—in fact, arrogant.

Our graphic artist and I also chose to use this photo in one of our resources for similar reasons: when worlds collide. I think this photograph suggests that a picture’s worth only begins at a thousand words. And you’ve got to read the short article that describes the events, decisions, and circumstances that lead up to this moment: a bizarre moment of Americana. Click here to read it—it’s not your typically long Smithsonian piece.

A Jacksonian Response To Current Affairs

Round about the time the calendar was being turned from 1829 to 1830, the issue of interior improvements broke out in Congress for the first—although not the only—time. The matter for the most part addressed the use of public funds, dollars generated through taxation, for internal improvements. At the heart of the rhetoric was the sale of public land in the west and how that money would be spent. The issue itself was big enough, but the debate in Congress took on a much broader level to include slavery, states’ rights, partisanship, and presidential power. I’ve read that one of the Founder Fathers’ greatest gifts to us was a perpetual revolution (American Creation, Joseph Ellis). That is, that our nation could continually re-invent itself—evolve as the times required, without moving too far into extremist territory. The system of checks and balances along with the bicameral legislature was enough to keep the perpetual revolution slow enough as to avoid all-out calamity. The debate of 1830 was a proper demonstration of said revolution.

But that’s more than anyone wanted to know I’m sure. I include all of this in order to setup the quote of the day. This I found in Jon Meacham’s American Lion and is attributed to President Andrew Jackson. As the debate over the use of public land continued, Jackson called upon the people to reason—and he believed they would. And I believe that the alarms that are sounding today from both the right and the left will ultimately be silenced with similar sentiment:

There is too much at stake to allow pride or passion to influence your decision. Never for a moment believe that the great body of the citizens of any State or States can deliverately intend to do wrong. They may, under the influence of temporary excitement or misguided opinions, commit mistakes; they may be misled for a time by the suggestions of self-interest; but in a community so enlightened and patriotic as the people of the United States argument will soon make them sensible of their errors, and when convinced they will be ready to repair them.”

I read this recently and thought to myself, “Yeah. That’s what I think.” (So grateful for these guys that can create my words for me.) For some crazy reason I believe in America. I believe in the American Experiment. I believe we still possess the mettle that drove prior generations to carve this nation out of the trees and the dirt. And like Jackson said, we are susceptible to being misled by the suggestions of self-interest and also vulnerable to our misguided opinions—for a time. For a generation or two. But only for a time.

Obama-Care and the American Experiment

tall-stack-of-cash.-thumb905141I’ve got some thoughts on the issue of government sponsored healthcare. I’m also aware that I’m far from alone in having an opinion in the matter. But maybe the parts of this conversation that I would choose to dispute aren’t the ones that we hear as much about. Maybe. To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve got zero statistics, I’ve done minimum research into the matter, and I’m a long ways from being a  journalist. Just some scattered thoughts.

My feeling all along is that the current administration would use this whole thing only as a platform for election; that the Democrats would rally around it for a period time; and then once it came time for the rubber to meet the road the collective reaction would be, “Wow there’s no way we can pay for this.” This is yet to be seen even though it does appear that many are losing stomach over it and President Obama’s approval ratings continue to go down, primarily, because of this single issue.

Hopefully we can agree that there is a basis for helping people—a biblical basis. Jeremiah 22:16 and John 21:16 both identify meeting the needs of people as something to be commended, if not expected, in God’s eyes: “He made sure justice and help were given to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. Isn’t that what it means to know me?” Through Jeremiah God is telling His people through the prophet why He favored King Josiah.

Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.” “Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said. John 21:16

In the passage from John above Jesus is essentially directing the church to do likewise: “take care of the people.” The point here is that we should be helping people. We the people have an obligation to our fellow men. So this isn’t the issue. The issue is pretty simple: is this a place where our government should intercede.

So here we go. This is the editorial part. The sliver of this conversation that continues to bother me is the sentiment that we “deserve quality healthcare.” Really? Admittedly, making this idea a part of the collective vernacular is a masterstroke. Who wants to say that people don’t deserve something. These days that’s just un-American. I’ve caught myself repeating “we all deserve quality healthcare”, only recently stopping to think about what it was I was really saying. Do I really “deserve” quality healthcare? Does anybody? And what do we mean by “quality”? Is this something the US government owes me as a citizen?

And then there’s the escalating costs. Really, healthcare costs are through the roof. I pay into this big pot … and then continue to pay. And it goes up every year—for everybody! A lot. But is it really because of a lack of competition within the industry? I understand the argument about competition and, granted, what we’ve got is not without flaw. And I don’t disagree. I pay the high costs like anyone else. But I just can’t get on board with the thinking that the government can or should tackle it—that it can make it better. The effectiveness and ineffectiveness of this measure is one thing, but you want to talk about out-of-control costs. In that regard government healthcare has disaster written all over it.

However if you don’t think that our healthcare system is already socialized, think again. My insurance dictates what the doctor receives as compensation for the care I receive. Insurance premiums are high in part of because so many of us do whatever we want to do, don’t do the things we need to do, eat everything under the sun, and then get a prescription that corrects all their problems. But we all pay for it. Personal accountability, or lack of it, is a significant contributor to the high costs we all pay. More affordable healthcare options could possibly only enable this cultural trend.

Regardless, there’s merit to the “many” taking care of the “few” approach to healthcare. But that’s just it, isn’t it. This responsibility is not the government’s responsibility. Or at least it wouldn’t seem like it to me. But if “we” are not going to contribute of our own volition; rather, continue to feed ourselves more than we need, practice our consumeristic tendencies, and withdraw more and more into ourselves—if we abdicate the responsibility—then maybe it is the government’s responsibility. That’s a point of tension for me since the government has never had incentive to be efficient (but  in their defense it wasn’t created to run this sort of thing, either). Despite the fact that we have what is probably the greatest form of governing ever, government-run health insurance is not why it was formed. Essentially, this move would be contrary to the Spirit of ’76 and what we intended in the word “American.”

More Real Than Reality

Wyeth

As we continue to move into the new age of liberalism in a American and traditional values come under greater and greater scrutiny, images from one of the great artists of the middle Twentieth Century haunt the corridors of our national consciousness. I don’t think the political shift is totally and outright tragic and, at least in the short run, these policies may even be effective—or at least not tragic. After all, extremities either way have their detriments and dangers. But the paralysis that is present in “Christina’s World” above has a chilling potential. What if we drift too far? Is it really possible? Although within sight, for Christina home is forever beyond her reach, conjuring the fate of Tantalus.

Andrew Wyeth, the painter responsible for this and many others, passed away earlier this year. In his art there is both strength and warning in equal parts. Perhaps better than anyone he was able to capture the tensions of self-government and what it means to be American. Pregnant with the potential for unimaginable feats of strength, beauty, and love, yet so fragile at the same time, human life is such a fascinating paradigm. I think America has been forged from the same material. Andrew Wyeth captures the “both/and” about as good as anybody can. I found this in one of the obits last January:

Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses, desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New Englanders. A virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part of the last century, Wyeth split public opinion as vigorously as, and probably even more so than, any other American painter including the other modern Andy, Warhol, whose milieu was as urban as Wyeth’s was rural.

Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Wyeth came to represent middle-class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject, so that arguments about his work extended beyond painting to societal splits along class, geographical and educational lines. One art historian, in response to a 1977 survey in Art News magazine about the most underrated and overrated artists of the century, nominated Wyeth for both categories.

Pixar’s Wall-E and the Self-Government Experiment

iwo_jimaCirca 1832 William Henry Seward, prior to joining the Administration of our Sixteenth President, wrote these words upon returning from a trip to Europe:

It is not until one visits old, oppressed, suffering Europe, that he can appreciate his own government, that he realizes the fearful responsibility of the American people to the nations of the whole earth, to carry successfully through the experiment … that men are capable of self-government.

I found this in the Lincoln biography A Team of Rivals. In the margin—yes, I’m an obsessive margin scribbler—I wrote, “Have we lived up to this responsibility to the world?” What Seward is really describing is hope. He is describing the hope we carry for people with the imaginative spirit to envision living life with a heart both fully alive and fully free. The “American Experiment” is about a nation of free men and women deciding on their own how they will be governed. I’m reminded in this sense of what Tennyson called “one equal temper of heroic hearts” in his Ulysses. The writers of our Constitution couched the power of the government within the “consent of the governed.” That is, we decide. The ideal in this case is that the government remove obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not ensure it. It’s up to the individual to carve out his or her living and prosperity taking advantage of God-given uniqueness, strength of character, and ambition. Seward is absolutely correct, as I see it, in his appraisal of the burden of responsibility we carry as a nation.

Yet, at least on the domestic front, “responsibility” wouldn’t seem to be something we have collectively embraced. When FDR took office amidst a crisis similar to our present circumstance less than a hundred years ago the government accounted for 7% of our GNP. Today this percentage of government spending relative to our gross national product has ballooned to 20%. This means that our government is responsible for about 1/5 of who we are. Or it could be translated as “redistribution”—something I’m not against, necessarily, because people generally want to give and should give; but this process is not a responsibility of the federal or state governments. Furthermore, this change translates into a growing dependency on the public to take care of us—all of us.

In a recent poll asking if the government was doing enough in industries such as financial, energy, and healthcare, more than 70% of those polled said “No.” Could it be that, despite American history being studied and taught in our schools, that we’ve lost our way? Could it be that we’ve forgotten who we are, why we fought and died, and why we forged this nation out of a bunch of trees in the first place?

If you’ve seen the movie Wall-E then you know where I’m going here. Frankly, I’m already tired of Pixar animation. They perfected their craft with Finding Nemo and probably could have quit after that. (Of course I’m a fan of classic Disney animation so what would you expect). But when in a Filmspotting podcast three out of four Chicago film critics—and you know how they are, referring to “film” instead of “movies”—put Wall-E in their top 3 I figured there was something else going on. And there is. Check it out. It’s great social commentary of where we are today and perhaps as good a score card as any other barometer on how we’re doing in the experiment of self-government. The bottom line is that regardless of what the US government decides to do in the next few weeks, we need to take this burden on our own shoulders, step into a new age of responsibility, and live up to the standards of a great age. Actually, our current crisis is actually an opportunity for another great generation for another great age.

Lisa Miller, Gay Marriage, and the Church

apologetics_03Before it got off the radar I wanted to respond to Lisa Miller’s article in the 12/15 issue of Newsweek. Her article, “Mutual Joy,” was published as the feature article associated with Newsweek’s The Religious Case for Gay Marriage cover story. I’ve subscribed off and on to Newsweek for several  years and love their willingness to address controversial issues. Their approach is usually well developed, handled with sensitivity, and adheres to normal standards for journalism.

First, I don’t know why this article was written. Don’t get me wrong, in the wake of last fall’s election results and how the vote went in California, I do understand why the issue of gay marriage would be of interest to a magazine wishing to sell issues. But what I don’t understand is why Newsweek would not only endorse gay marriage , but actually suggest that Miller’s argument and her position has legitimate application to churches.

  • Her first claim is that the Bible is not the place to which we should turn for any working definition for “traditional family.” Chiefly citing polygamy, she also calls attention to David’s relationship with Bathsheba and several of Abraham’s faults. But where the Bible’s position here is concerned, these accounts serve as documentation for our sake; so that we will know and understand and see firsthand the consequences of these actions that God has instructed against. The Bible is comprised of real people and a real God very willing to call them out—but not always punitively, but always to provide for opportunities to grow and become better, to be more.
  • Miller does not neglect the New Testament either, saying that “Ozzie and Harriet” are nowhere to be found there. Examining the lives and ministries of both Jesus and Paul Miller concludes that marriage is discouraged when this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The reality is that marriage was not an option for these men and the convictions they felt and accepted for their lives. Paul accepted the call to be on the missionary journey for the remainder of his life. Jesus was called to forfeit His life. Neither circumstance leaves room for family.
  • And of course nothing written on this subject would fail to include David’s friendship with Jonathan. To describe this relationship as anything other than a high expression of redemptive friendship is a perversion. Through various forms of media our society has elevated romantic love to an unreasonable level. Redemptive community and friendship such as what existed between Jonathan and David is perhaps a higher expression of humanity—we’re neither accustomed nor comfortable with such an expression.
  • At one point Lisa Miller writes, “The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours.” Really? Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Love thy neighbor as you love yourself. Honor your father and your mother. Don’t lie. Don’t lust. It would seem to me that the people in the world for whom the Bible was written are very much like the people in the world we have today.

But my biggest problem with this issue of Newsweek is that it appears to be written simply to incite. There is no objectivity. There are no leading conservative voices present which by itself points to an unwillingness to address positions that differ from the author’s own. In short, it doesn’t appear to me to be serious. In fact, it’s whiny. And it’s whiny probably because Miller and like-minded advocates have realized that mainstream America does not share their values. That the magazine would choose to take this direction for a cover story and feature article is, simply put, a mistake.