The Lost Art of Disagreement

Toward the end of their lives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were estranged. Years of political tensions, ideological disagreements, personal rivalries and perhaps bit of misunderstanding had all but snuffed out one of the great friendships in American political history. But one day, Adams’ physician and fellow Revolutionary, Benjamin Rush, suggested that his aging patient write to Mr. Jefferson, ceasing decades of silence. For reasons still not entirely clear, Adams did write, and the result was the beginning of what historian and Adams biographer David McCullough descibes as “one of the most extraordinary correspondences in American history.”

The Adams-Jefferson letters are remarkable, but not because of their powerful rhetoric or political genius. Rather, the private conversation of the second and third presidents’ reveals a profound respect and affection for one another, even as the two patriots were decidedly in opposition on many issues. These letters did not settle such disputes; they were never intended to. To their dying day (both Adams and Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826) the men argued and debated everything from religion to revolution. But their respect and good faith in each other was rekindled, never to wane again.

Adams and Jefferson exemplified the art of disagreement. We would do well to contemplate their example, for it seems that contemporary American culture is rapidly forfeiting this art.

Consider the recent grandstanding from a gaggle of American governors, who have issued “non-essential travel bans” to North Carolina. The reason? Voters in the Tar Heel state recently moved to preemptively prevent litigation from creating mixed-sex, public restrooms. This is apparently enough to warrant a rhetorical persona non grata from state executives who disagree.

Our sexual politics have become so intensely value-laden that every movement away from legal and cultural orthodoxy triggers ostracism and shaming. The prevailing notion seems to be that transgressions against very novel doctrines of gender ideology and sexual psychology should be subjected, not to debate and persuasion, but to punishment. Our public square is shrinking to exclude all who question majority thought.

The loss of good faith in public dialogue isn’t exclusive to one side of the aisle. Crank conservatism has found a patriarch in the 2016 Republican frontrunner, whose relentless personal attacks on any and all who challenge him are exposing a deep and systematic animus in right-wing politics. You don’t even have to explore what he says about immigrants and minorities to see this; a look at how he treats journalists and even party cohorts is jarring enough.

Politicians often love to mention how “divided” the country is, and how it Just Wasn’t Like This when the party opposite was in power. This may be a reliable talking point for stump speeches, but there’s no small amount of partisan opportunism in it either. “Bringing the country together” is admittedly often a shorthand for eliminating as much as possible the idea that the opposing party was on to something.

Yet as dubious as the motivations behind this rhetoric may be, there’s an important element of truth here. The ritual of honest, principled disagreement between people who respect one another and mutually assume the best intentions has done an astonishing disappearing act in much of our culture. Instead, our religious and political dialogue is either unhinged and bitter, passive aggressive and condescending, or else completely neutered to the point of meaninglessness.

We shouldn’t assume that politicians are the worst offenders. The digital age has fostered such online animus and abuse amongst ordinary Americans that many digital journals and newspapers have responded by disabling on-site commenting, considered just a few years ago a dynamic way of promoting publications and driving conversation. Abusive online behavior is epidemic, as is the “shame culture” of social media.

Trolling is relatively straightforward, but not all evidence for the lost art of civil discourse is so obvious. The inability to disagree well in American culture often takes a more passive aggressive form. Consider the trends now at work across university campuses, what sociologists have dubbed the “coddling of the American mind.” The appearance of expectations of college administrators to protect students from ideas they dislike or literature they find uncomfortable is a less unhinged but not less serious manifestation of an intellectual paralysis when it comes to disagreement. Students now demand “safe spaces” from institutions that were created for the explicit purpose of not providing such things. Whereas the university has traditionally been considered a place where learners are confronted with realities and then expected to make sense of them, contemporaries insist that schools accommodate the expectations and worldview of the students—provided, of course, that the students’ belief systems are congruent with secular forms of progressivism.

Principled, civil disagreement requires a moral imagination able to empathize with an opposing point of view, to understand how it is possible for a person with good intentions can nonetheless arrive at an opposite conclusion. Adams and Jefferson never reconciled many of their political opinions, but they were able to throw aside the cynicism and suspicions of evil intent that had crept into their friendship.

It’s this willingness to accept the possibility of disagreement between two parties that both intend good that seems lost in much of our culture. The effect is double-sided: Many conversations that deserve nuance and good faith never happen, and demagogues who actually merit censure sound more “authentic.”

Both of these trends, the virulent nastiness and passive coddling, might seem to be restricted to a very select portions of American culture. But the popularity of bullish, epithet-laden political campaigns suggests that they signal a much wider cultural malady. Efforts at self-justification that emphasize “honesty” and glow about “telling it like it is” are merely shibboleths. They mask the decay of an important ethic: The willingness to accept one’s own fallibility and live in light of it.

The art of disagreement is crucial not just to our own personal lives but to the health of the public square. If we cultivate suspicion and conspiracy theories instead of good faith, we will eventually crave those attributes in our leaders. On the other hand, if we practice the public virtues of courage, conviction, and kindness, our ideological differences will help us sharpen our own thinking as learn from–and try to convince–one another.

Honest, empathetic disagreement may not make for exciting talk radio or high cable ratings, but it is essential both for civic liberty and Christian mission. Persuasion is, after all, harder and less titillating than bombast, but without it, our heralding of both spiritual and political truth is undermined. We must not stray irretrievably far from the spirit of Adams and Jefferson. To do so would be to lose much more than an election.

The First Fact of Christianity

As this qualification suggests, to preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the Resurrection. Thus people who had heard only fragments of St. Paul’s teaching at Athens got the impression that he was talking about two new gods, Jesus and Anastasis (ie, Resurrection) (Acts 17:18). The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the ‘gospel’ or good news which the Christians brought: what we call the ‘gospels,’ the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted. The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it.

Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection. If they had died without making anyone else believe this ‘gospel’ no gospels would ever have been written.

-C.S Lewis, Miracles.

Happy Easter to you all.

 

Good Friday and the Age of Nostalgia

We call it “Good Friday” now. But no Christian should want to relive that day.

On the day we call Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples were foolish. They volunteered to die with him, demonstrating that they neither understood his mission or their own hearts. Hours after pledging their lives, they fled at the sight of Roman soldiers. The best friends Jesus had, the men who had spent three years by his side, stood back, denying they even knew him, as he was given over to an illegal trial for his life.

Witness after witness told lie after lie, so many lies that the Scriptures tell us that the testimonies didn’t even agree. Jesus was beaten, mocked, and pronounced guilty on the authority of actors, and nobody intervened. Nothing happened to stop the farce and return Jesus his dignity. No one stood up to corruption and injustice. He was alone.

He was alone as Pilate cowered before the crowd and ordered him flogged until his flesh hung off his bones like wet parchment. He was alone as Pilate cowered again and ordered his crucifixion, declining to announce what crime was being punished. He was alone as the weight of a wooden cross smote him into the earth. He was alone as the nails were driven with ruthless efficiency. A man who had raised little girls up from the dead was stripped naked so that federal agents could play dice with his clothing. Nothing happened, no one stopped it.

Why do we call this day “good”? This is the kind of day that we learn about in history textbooks, with black and white photos of burned bodies stacked on top of each other. This is the kind of day where we watch Planned Parenthood surgeons sift through a petri dish of humanity, looking for the most valuable of the remains. This is the kind of day where armed guards open fire on peaceful protesters, or sic dogs on children. There’s nothing remotely sentimental about the cruel injustices of “Good Friday.” So why do we call it good?

We call it good because tradition and nostalgia aren’t synonyms. The past—the realities of the faith once for all delivered to the saints—is our life. Without Calvary there is no church, there is no heaven, and there is no hope. Christians don’t believe in the idea of the atonement—they believe in the history of it. Jesus really did die on a cross, in a real part of the Middle East, surrounded by real people who really did shout for a healer and a teacher to be murdered by a government they proclaimed to hate. This isn’t just theology. It’s history. It’s our history, our tradition, and our hope.

It’s not, however, our nostalgia. Tradition is about receiving from the past; nostalgia is about disfiguring it. Nostalgia is our cultural mood right now because it affords the comfort of the past while letting us Nostalgia is superficial in essence but can be tyrannically earnest; we can try to reinvent our entire lives in the image of that which reminds us that we were once young. But for the age of nostalgia, hope is to be found in the here and now. We must be nostalgic so that we can be comforted by the past without being taught by it.

We dare not be nostalgic about Easter. Only the foolish would sentimentalize the flogging, the walk to Golgotha, and the naked, shredded flesh. To make the Passion an object of our nostalgia—to see in it only the value of our grandfather’s generation, the benefit of a “Christian nation”—is to spit upon the cross itself. It is said that in the United States are millions of “Easter and Christmas” churchgoers, those who make time in their secular existence for two hours of hymnody a year. Oh, if only these Americans could see in their holidays the blood and the gore and the evil! If only they could see the gospel in its visceral reality, and not in its Thomas Kinkadian counterfeit.

If they could, if we could, we would not look at Good Friday with nostalgia. But we would look at it, and, if God is merciful, we might never look away.

On Religious Liberty, the NFL Fumbles In Their Own Endzone

As a lifelong fan of the NFL in general and the St. Louis Los Angeles Rams in particular, the months of March through July are not my favorite sports cycle. There are still, however, things I look forward to from my favorite sport in its offseason–the drama of the draft, the excitement of free agency, and the revealing of the upcoming season schedule. When it comes to giving its fans fun and entertainment off the field, few organizations do it quite like the National Football League.

But yesterday, Roger Goodell and the league made me wish football had been a bit quieter this spring.

News broke on Sunday that the league has threatened the city of Atlanta with losing its potential bid to host a Super Bowl, if Georgia passes House Bill 757. HB 757 is a religious freedom bill which stipulates that pastors and other religious clergy cannot be sued for refusing to perform services (such as a same-sex wedding) that violate their religious beliefs. The bill also extends this protection to “faith-based organizations,” closely held, IRS-designated religious institutions that would likewise possibly be pressured to lend services to events or products contrary to a confession of faith.

This law is, of course, a response to recent court cases that have found bakers, florists, and other professionals liable in discrimination suits because they would not create for or participate in a same-sex wedding. Similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, HB 757 is designed not to empower discrimination against particular groups but to preemptively protect religious organizations and individuals. There is absolutely nothing in HB 757 that enables public services to deny access for LGBT citizens. Rather, the law would force the government to demonstrate a compelling interest when seeking to punish conscientious Georgians.

The NFL, however, disagrees. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the league publicly implied that passage of HB 757 would disqualify Atlanta from hosting football’s biggest night:

The statement from league spokesman Brian McCarthy reads, “NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard. Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”

As a pundit on Twitter paraphrased it: “Lovely representative democracy you have there, Georgia. Shame if someone manhandled it.”

To be fair to the league, their statement doesn’t explicitly deny that there’d be a Super Bowl in a state where religious liberty is taken seriously. But the NFL’s statement was in fact a reply to a question posed by the Journal-Constitution, and it’s difficult to read it as anything but a veiled threat against the state. It would have been quite easy (and very NFL-like) to not comment publicly on ongoing legislation, or to simply observe that the league doesn’t itself dictate political beliefs to its 32 teams and owners.

And it would have been much better for the NFL to have done that. The league’s moral grandstanding here borders on the ridiculous.

First, it should be noted that the NFL’s appeal to its own policies is hypocritical at best. Current NFL policy, for example, prohibits the use of recreational marijuana. Yet the NFL continues to field teams and host events in states where recreational marijuana is legal, like Colorado (which hosts the newest NFL champion Denver Broncos) and Washington (home to the recent Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks). The NFL has shown no urgency to make sure its internal policies align with state law up until now. I highly doubt this is an earnest change of heart.

Secondly, by implicitly threatening religious liberty, the NFL is turning on many of its most legendary and important people. Pro football has benefited enormously from the platforms of religious athletes, whether old-timers like Reggie White, Herschel Walker and Tony Dungy, or younger players like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. Indeed, the NFL, far more than major league baseball or the NBA, depends on the employment and performance of religious players and coaches throughout its organization. The Atlanta Falcons, like other teams, have featured their chaplains in their organizational literature and PR. There’s no question that the NFL and its member companies have marketed themselves as friendly to the people they now imply may be bigots.

Third, the league is really not in a position to lecture taxpayers about their ethics. Pro football owners are notorious for passing along the costs of exorbitant new stadiums onto cities, while the NFL, which makes sure to get its cut of everything licensed by the “shield,” files with the IRS as a “non-profit” coalition of 32 individual businesses. In other words, the NFL reaps the financial harvest that comes when taxpayers–the same taxpayers who elect representatives, who then sponsor and pass legislation like HB 757–are asked to subsidize pro football, and don’t see any of the enormous profits come back to them via taxes.

If the NFL wants to criticize Georgia’s politics, it should first profusely thank Georgia and several other states for essentially sponsoring pro-football at taxpayers’ expense and the owners’ (and commissioner’s) profit. As it stands, if the NFL wants such a one-sided relationship with cities, it should probably abstain from farcical moral grandstanding on representative politics.

Lastly, pro football is not really in any position to wax ethical about…well, anything. This is the league, after all, that is facing a tumultuous legal and cultural battle over concussions, and recently settled with former players over accusations that the league withheld information about the effects of concussions on mental health. This is the league, after all, that until 2 years ago repeatedly turned a blind and apathetic eye towards domestic abuse, changing their tune only when media pressure was applied in the Ray Rice case. The NFL is good at entertaining and competitive sports, but it’s lousy at giving lectures on morality and decency.

As a football fan, I enjoy the league, even while I have criticized its flaws and hypocrisy. If the NFL wants to learn from its past failures, I am happy to hear it. What I am not happy to hear are lectures from an organization that profits from people with a conscience and taxpayers who let it skate. If the league wants to make leftist culture warring its newest offseason activity, count me out.

It’s Not the Years, Honey. It’s the Mileage

With apologies to Dylan Thomas and Michael Caine: Sometimes you really do just need to go gently into that good night.

Disney announced this week that it has officially started production on a fifth Indiana Jones film, directed yet again by Steven Spielberg and starring yet again (almost unbelievably) Harrison Ford, who by now could probably pass for an ancient relic himself. Indeed, the internet is already working overtime on irreverent titles for this ecstatically unnecessary movie (“Indiana Jones and the Lost AARP”).

The problem is not, of course, Harrison Ford’s age. Ford has more talent and charisma onscreen right now than many actors would accumulate if given an extra decade in their 30s. No, the problem is not in the gray hairs, but in the gray matter. The idea of another Indiana Jones film is not one that offers expectations of delight, merely of nostalgia. This was proved definitively by jaw-droppingly awful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a movie so deeply flawed in basic concept that Disney felt obliged to mention in this week’s announcement that its writer, George Lucas, will have nothing to do with #5.

But removing Disney’s second largest shareholder from the project isn’t really a solution. Indeed, it was probably already inevitable that the new film will be better than Crystal Skull. Even so, it will still be a mistake.

For a little while now I’ve been critical of Hollywood’s creative stagnation. The sequel, the reboot, and the franchise dominate the box office every year, and the result is an industry that simply doesn’t seem able to produce new worlds, new stories, new characters. Audiences want to see what they’ve already seen 2 or 3 times, 20 or 30 years ago. If familiarity had been this profitable back when George Lucas was trying to get the original Star Wars financed, it’s almost certain the world would never have seen his movie.

That kind of critique makes lots of sense to me, but it doesn’t make much sense to a lot of my friends. When I posted some tomato-throwing thoughts about the Indy film on Facebook, I predicted, accurately, that certain folks would dismiss me as a snob and a crank. It seems that most people understand the idea that reboots and sequels really are an enormous proportion of the film industry right now; they’re just OK with that. I don’t know how to convince people to not be ok with that without sounding somewhat condescending, and risking what would ultimately be a lecture of “culturedness.” A lot of my friends simply have no category for a reasonable person who would think there was some sort of objective problem with more Star Wars, more Marvel, and more Indiana Jones.

The reality is that this kind of thinking requires a sort of inherent distance from entertainment. It requires seeing films as more than diversion but less than cultic ciphers of fandom. And I think, for a lot of my friends and a lot of Americans, the space between those two extremes just doesn’t exist. Movies are either meaningless or they are spiritual experiences. Star Wars is either a silly, inconsequential (if entertaining) celluloid or a deeply emotional piece of personal psyche that triggers a sense of identity and ownership. You either don’t care or wear the t-shirt.

This is what A.O. Scott meant when he talked about the “ascendency of the fan.” Fandom creates a “Critics Not Allowed” space. You can talk about a film’s flaws with audiences, and they will either agree or disagree. But try discussing those blemishes with a fan, and you’ll be labeled either ignorant or, worse, an enemy from a rival franchise.

There’s nothing wrong with some healthy doses of fan culture, but when it controls the market with the kind of ruthless monopoly that we’re seeing right now, you end up with things like Kingdom of Crystal Skull and Fuller House. You also end up, incidentally, with presidential candidates who can’t articulate coherent policy but win primaries by promising to, well, win. Once the fan experience is created, it is invulnerable, even to the most offensive sound bytes and the most poorly written screenplays. Fans aren’t objective; they wouldn’t be fans if they were.

So yes, I think 5 Indiana Jones films and 9 Star Wars movies and roughly 18492785 manifestations of Marvel characters are overall a disappointing thing for our culture. Ben-Hur doesn’t need to be remade, it just needs to be rewatched. A compulsive need to watch classic stories with contemporary upgrades is nothing more than what Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.

The Politics of Porn

“A man with an addiction,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is a man with very little sales-resistance.” That means that porn is political.

Here’s how it works. When a generation’s sexual consciousness has been thoroughly pornified, it will start to define satisfaction and happiness in terms of fantasy. The deepest appeal of pornography is not that you get to see what you otherwise wouldn’t see. If it were, millions of men would not spend GDP-like money on digital liaisons when cheaper, and in some cases legal, prostitution is readily available. No, the draw of porn is that it turns insecure, afraid men into irresistible, all-worthy champions of sexual conquest. Every single pixel of pornography is completely enamored with its user. You deserve it, she knows it, she can’t help herself.

This fantasy isn’t just an illusion which evaporates once the session has ended. Modern research is detailing the effect of porn on the user, and the results are terrifying. Porn’s power to recalibrate the brain’s relationship between reality and (chemical) reward has implications far beyond the sexual. Indeed, we are only beginning to discover just how differently brains hooked on pornography see the world.

Here’s how Carl Trueman puts it:

Pornography is not simply changing our tastes through its representation of sex as a self-directed and recreational activity; it is literally changing the way our brains think. That makes the task of defending traditional morality in the public square much more difficult.

…[T]he principle of consent assumes at a minimum that individuals have sovereign rights over the range of purposes and uses to which their own bodies can be put. Yet the evidence of the impact of pornography on the brain indicates that the individual is not consciously in control of determining the nature of that range. Pornography alters the sexual desires and transforms the understanding of the body’s purpose not by ethical or even aesthetic persuasion. Rather it does so by altering the physiology of the brain itself, a process beyond the conscious control of the consumer of pornography, and which thus subverts the assumptions of the principle of consent.

In other words, sociopolitical concepts like consent (a concept which is the difference between lovemaking and rape in most developed countries) are corroded by pornography’s affect on psychology. Porn reengineers the brain to see “Yes” where actually is “No,” and, even more dangerously, does so at a subconscious level. Pornography attacks feelings of compassion and empathy and replaces them with hyper-inflated senses of opportunity and invitation. Love is out, power is in.

This means that porn is, quite ironically, authoritarian.

Is it then any surprise that our nation’s most famous political authoritarian at the moment is a man deeply indebted to the pornification of culture? Should we register shock that a man who trades wives and mistresses like NASDAQ stock, whose businesses build strip clubs, and who appeared on the cover of Playboy believes that the military should be willing to commit crimes against humanity if he so orders? Could there be a connection between this man’s sexual Caesarism and his open disregard for religious freedom and freedom of the press? Most importantly: Could it be that his supporters buy what he sells because they’ve breathed the same adulterous air?

If pornography kills love and worships (fantastical) power, then it’s time to start asking whether a culture drowning in its mire is being primed for the politics of ruthless authoritarianism. If the age of Tinder chases out love and chastity, marriage and faithfulness, might it also chase out things like liberty, dignity, and sacrifice?

Remember that pornography never delivers the satisfaction it promises. It only leaves the user feeling more starved and dependent than before, eager to find a more intense dose that will make finally good on its innuendo. Political authoritarians function much the same way. Emotional and spiritual vacuums, fostered by the decadence of a culture without transcendence, tend to get filled with whatever promises to make life great again. The more intense and outrageous the promise, the better it all sounds.

It very well could be that in 2016, we are staring down the politics of porn. I have to believe that in this moment, Jesus would tell us something like, “If your own political party causes you to stumble, pluck it out.”