Friday, January 27, 2017

Argumentation for a new age: From Michael to Sarah

Source: YouTube
An argument's not the same as contradiction, pleads Michael Palin's character in Monty Python's Flying Circus's classic sketch, "The Argument Clinic." An argument's a collected series of statements to establish a definite proposition. To which John Cleese responds: No, it isn't.

I teach a bit of argumentation in my political theory classes, where I try to drill students in the basic structure of conclusion-premises-evidence, where the conclusion is the point or thesis you're trying to establish, the premises are the steps leading to the conclusion, and the evidence is the set of reasons--including observations, analogies and/or authorities--that the premises and conclusion are to be believed. We practice on articulating arguments from classic and contemporary texts, which I hope promotes respectful attention to the arguments of others, even those with whom we fundamentally disagree. A well-written paper will articulate the argument from the text, then explain specifically where the argument succeeds or fails to convince. You can disagree with someone, see, but still treat them with respect. In fact, such respect makes your counter-argument more powerful as well as making a formula for reaching common ground more likely. A similar logic informs the approach known as Rogerian argument. (Thanks to Jane Nesmith for introducing me to this term.)

Then my students go off into the world, and I'm anxious for them, because I don't know that I haven't prepared them for the world I wish existed instead of the one that really does. Such is the state of contemporary American politics that I feel like I'm training boxers in the Marquess of Queensbury rules when they're headed for street brawls.

I'm certainly no expert on street brawls, and observe contemporary American politics from a safe distance, but here are the approaches to argument that today's winners have in their tool kits. If you insist on traditional methods, you can at least recognize what you're being pummeled by:
  1. Gaslighting. This all-purpose technique involves redirecting the subject to ground that is stronger for your side, whether or not it was part of the original statement--if necessary make up something they didn't say--or even at all relevant. Creative is good, true is optional as long as it can't quickly be refuted. A good example is Mr. Trump responding to Rep. John Lewis questioning his legitimacy by knocking the poor conditions in Lewis's congressional district. (Conditions are not poor there, but who knew that?) However, the president-elect was foolish to call Lewis "all talk and no action," because Lewis's civil rights bona fides are well-known, so we are inevitably led to investigate what Trump was doing in 1965 when Lewis's skull was being cracked by Alabama state troopers.
  2. Alternate Facts. Formerly known as truthiness, this phrase was originated by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway to explain away a bizarre post-inauguration press briefing, and has occasioned sufficient comment that anything I'd add would be superfluous. As the perfect mom in some Disney movie once said, "If you believe it, then it's true." But seriously, what is a "fact," anyway?
  3. Real-Americanism. Rogers Smith (Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History, Yale University Press, 1997) considers "ascriptive Americanism" to be a historic characteristic of American political culture. This is ascriptive Americanism on steroids. Meryl Streep shouldn't comment on American politics because she's a Hollywood actress and therefore does not represent real Americans. Colin Kapernick shouldn't comment, even silently, on American politics, because he's a well-paid professional athlete. I shouldn't comment on American politics because I'm a college professor. One of the most beautiful things about America is that it is made up of an amazing variety of individual experiences, but ignore this! People who agree with you are from the real America; people who disagree are "phony."
  4. Reductionism-ism. Causal Reductionism is attributing things (events, behaviors or other phenomena) to single causes. While simplicity is a virtue in theories, oversimplification can lead to misunderstanding of complex phenomena like poverty, economic growth, crime, or the climate. "Reductionismism" is my term for the belief that phenomena can only have a single cause. For example, if climate change occurred in the 6th century CE, it clearly was not caused by human industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. Therefore, climate change in the 21st century is not caused by human industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and methane.
  5. You're a Towel-ism. I've named this in honor of Towelie, a character on "South Park." This approach simply involves batting every charge back on the accuser. For example, to the words "Donald Trump plays to racist stereotypes of Mexicans," you would respond "You're a racist."
  6. Manly-ism (a.k.a. "Calling Wussy"). Have a stock of all-purpose insults available when nothing else springs immediately to your mind. Who can forget Sarah Palin saying someone "got his panties in a wad," even if they can't remember who it was (Chris Christie, in 2012) or why?
Extra points for putting down someone's manhood! Machismo and belligerence are for some reason extra-attractive these days. An Iowa legislator, Rep. Bobby Kaufman of Wilton, called one of his well-considered initiatives the "Suck It Up, Buttercup" bill.

Any of us might fail to show respect in situations of emotional stress, but these techniques are increasingly staples of what we can laughingly call contemporary American political discourse. They don't solve problems, and they don't build community, because they treat the other person as an enemy who should be silenced or destroyed. But, hey, at least you're winning.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Akwi Nji on choosing justice over comfort

Our role as Americans is to work for social justice and against mistreatment and hate, however uncomfortable it may be for us or to others who see such work as directed at them, said Akwi Nji, a Cedar Rapids writer and performance artist who was the keynote speaker at St. Paul's United Methodist Church's annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. She drew on the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who she said chose discomfort in the cause of justice, such as when he alienated his own allies by taking a stand against the Vietnam War in 1967.

Nji compared society to a seesaw; the "teeter-totter" was a staple of playgrounds past although maybe not as much anymore. The operation of a seesaw requires two people to work in tandem, each using their own weight to allow the other to go up in turn--a reciprocal process involving roughly "equal weight and equal work." "That is our only option," she argued in applying the metaphor, as no individual can remain always at the top. "If we insist on playing alone we'll always find ourselves at the bottom," no matter how much money we have or how fabulous our house.

Seesaw, from
"Offering the weight that might help others to soar" means working with organizations we believe in, however we can. There is "never a reason to rest" working together for social justice; "it doesn't have to be every day but it should be most days." She referenced an essay recently published on the web platform ExtraNewsfeed, in which she described an encounter with a racist at a restaurant. She realized afterwards, based on the number of people who approached her to offer sympathy, that numerous people at the restaurant "heard [what the racist was saying] and believed it was wrong but did not step in." While others who were not present have told her they would have stood up for her had they been there, she is understandably dubious. "We'd all like to think we would [speak up], but a lot stands in our way." Most of those obstacles are fears--of losing face, of giving offense, maybe of getting hit. King faced fears, too; his house was bombed in 1956 and death threats were constant.

Here is Nji at her most challenging. She began her address by reminding her audience that "This is our America," including all, "whether you were born here or not." She said she "still believes in our country" at the close of the Obama administration, because she trusts most of our fellow citizens and that Dr. King was right when he said "the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice." But she added that justice "won't happen on its own," and asked her listeners two basic questions: What do you stand for? With whom do you stand?

I personally feel challenged by Ms. Nji's questions. Last spring, I explained that I feel a particular calling to critical analysis; I also see my work as a college professor to be a professional explainer of phenomena, of people to each other. But at what point do events make that stance untenable? Here on Holy Mountain, I stand for an inclusive community, as opposed to a collection of atomized individuals or hostile groups, in which every individual has the opportunity to live his or her best life. I stand with those whose opportunities are limited, by circumstance or by the greed and judgment of others. But a blogger like me has the luxury to do careful reasoning and research. That doesn't forestall people calling me a communist or a hater, but it allows me to stand on fairly solid argumentative ground. Many of my blog posts even come with citations! It's altogether different to imagine myself intervening in a conversation in the next booth over, which is irritating but also seemingly private. I mean, in my confrontation with this lout, where would the citations go?

It's enough to make me doubt third places, although the prophet Ray Oldenburg describes a true third place as one where everyone in the place is part of a community that, among other things, enforces social norms (The Great Good Place [DaCapo, 2nd ed, 1999, 75-80). I doubt the lout who harassed Ms. Nji is big on social norms, but surely he was counting on being able to conduct his harassment without being interrupted.

So what do you stand for? With whom do you stand? And how do you make that stand?

SEE ALSO: Akwi Nji, "A Night in the Life of a Black Woman," ExtraNewsfeed, 11 January 2017
Soo Oh, "How to Intervene When You See Street Harassment: An Illustrated Guide," Vox, 21 January 2017
Mariah Porter, "Coe Celebrates MLK," The Cosmos (Coe College), 20 January 2017, 1, 3
Makayla Tendall, "MLK Day Celebration Focuses on the Power to Change Community," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 16 January 2017

"Claudia Rankine on Race," 23 January 2016
"Speakers Raise Tough Issues at Coe MLK Celebration," 19 January 2015
"The Race Card Project," 12 February 2014

Rev. Jonathan Heifner of St. Paul's convenes the gathering
Judah Praise from Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church provided music

Imam Hassan Selim of the Islamic Center (right)
accepts the 2017 Percy & Lileah Harris "Who is My Neighbor" Award
Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church Choir provided music and amusement

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The future of religious places (III)

It's mid-January already, way past time to have a good long look at the 2016 International Awards for Religious Art and Architecture announced by the journal Faith and Form. Jurors represent artists, architects and clergy, so there's an interesting mix of considerations in the awards.

A marked trend this year, notes journal editor Michael Crosbie, is the use of natural materials and particularly of natural light. This might represent a long-term trend away from the dark, cozier and more mysterious sanctuaries of the early- to mid-20th century, which of course are the churches in which many people of my generation grew up. (A number of people note that movie theater-style churches are their own, quite different trend.) The Palm Beach (Florida) Synagogue has light coming in all around the worship space, with room for stained glass at the top of the windows:
Chicago's Chapel of St. Ignatius might overdo it, in that it's hard to imagine being comfortable in there on sunny summer days:
James F. White (cited below) wrote a lot about considering what the worship space says about the role of the worshiper. The Chapel of St. Ignatius above has members of the congregation facing each other, with those officiating in their midst, suggesting a more participatory orientation. Many older churches, like the amazing and recently-restored St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, have their services officiated in a space at the front of the church, separated from the congregation. This can put the worshiper in the role of spectator, although that effect surely can be mitigated with hymns and responsive prayers and such.
As I noted last year, the Faith and Form awards focus on the buildings themselves, particularly the interiors, as opposed to how the buildings interact with their surrounding neighborhoods. That interaction matters, however, because it articulates the social role of the worshiper as well as an understanding of society. To what extent does a worship structure relate to the buildings (and people) around it? To what extent does its exterior invite the stranger in? I was rather surprised, in seeing Stefan Haupt's documentary on the spectacular Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, that despite its size and the ongoing construction, to the extent the film showed it, it fit quite well with the streets around it.
Churches of whatever design, surrounded by acres and acres of surface parking, don't do this nearly as well.
Worship spaces matter to our common life because we ask them to provide a number of things--quiet and comfort for individuals (whether members or not), a space to come together in common activity, a base for action in the neighborhood and the world, the familiarity of home for long-time members, a place accessible to potential new members--while they are themselves neighbors as well as important civic buildings. We should celebrate design that can do all this!

Michael J. Crosbie, "2016 International Awards Program for Religious Art & Architecture," Faith and Form 49:4 (December 2016)
Aaron M. Renn, "Why Contemporary Protestant Church Architecture is So Poor," Aaron Renn, 14 August 2014
"Sagrada Familia: The Mystery of Creation" official site (First Run Features, 2012)
James F. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture: Theological and Historical Considerations (Oxford, 1964)

"The Future of Religious Places (II)," 24 January 2016
"The Future of Religious Spaces," 8 January 2015
"Homes, Home Churches and Hometowns," 15 September 2014

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The changing (not so much) electorate

Source; WikiMedia Commons
The eccentricities of our new President aside, American national politics and government in 2017 seem mostly similar to those of the past generation or so. The same policy challenges face us, most notably environmental sustainability, climate change, accommodation of diversity in our communities, security, and the fiscal solvency of government at all levels. All of these raise questions of subsidiarity i.e. the doctrine that public problems should be addressed at the level of government that is as close to the people as practicable. There are serious questions about whether national government involvement in, for example, transportation funding, leads to better outcomes or worse policies (Marohn).

At the heart of all of these issues is the one I think the biggest of all: economic opportunity. It is difficult to sell affordable housing, or immigration, or environmental regulations, or even sidewalks, if people feel their economic prospects are fragile, while those below them on the economic ladder are likely to be idle and dangerous. The 2010s have seen improved economic conditions, including a record 75 consecutive months of job growth, but an NBC/Wall Street Journal in October found nearly half of respondents still "worried or uncertain" about the country's economic future (Source:; see also Casselman, Porter). On a variety of policies, it's hard to take the long view if you're worried about the short term. And it's hard to come together on policy solutions without the social trust that I'm sure would be facilitated by broader economic opportunity.

Now comes, to this familiar menu of problems, the 45th President and the 115th Congress. We only have exit polling data so far, but as far as we can tell from that, the demographic groups that elected them followed patterns similar to other elections dating back to the 1980s. It was during the Reagan years that the New Deal's primarily economic-based party alignment (with a side order of Civil War nostalgia) became crosscut with cultural issues. Demographic group behavior in 2016 looked a lot like 1988 and all the elections in between.

The widely varying electoral outcomes of the past thirty years or so reflect differences in turnout between the party's bases. Increasing polarization in the electorate means mobilizing the base is as much or more important than appealing to the middle (Theriault, Abramowitz). Voting turnout is up among strong partisans and down among independents, and "ideological sorting" means those strong partisans are also strongly ideological. Moreover, geographical sorting means voters live in more politically homogeneous neighborhoods and counties (Bishop); this far more than gerrymandering accounts for the shrinking number of swing states and districts. (The two presidential candidates in the close election of 2016 were within five percentage points of each other in only 11 states, albeit that number is up from five in 2012. Trump won six of the 11, including the big prizes of Florida [29 votes by 1.2 points], Pennsylvania [20 by 0.7] and Michigan [16 by 0.3].)

In the 2016 exit polls produced by the National Election Pool and reported by The New York Times and Cable News Network (CNN) we see typical patterns of partisan support from categories of sex, race and religion. The Times report includes changes from 2012, and there are some interesting ones--Asian Americans voted 11 percentage points higher for Trump than they did for Romney--but they don't come with a ready explanation and are subject to question given the nature of exit polls.

Socio-economic status is a different story. For a long time, Republican support has increased with income level, though the effect is less strong in the post-Reagan era. Education, meanwhile, has for three decades typically shown a strange pattern, with Republican support increasing with education level up to bachelor's degree, then shifting sharply Democratic for those with education beyond a bachelor's degree. The 2016 exit polls sort of continue these patterns, but the groups are extremely compressed. The highest income level is only seven percentage points more Republican than the lowest income level, which is probably neither statistically nor substantively significant. Education groups are all similar, except for "postgraduate" which remained decidedly Democratic. Broken out by race, we see why: Trump won heavily among whites without a college degree, while the candidates split more highly-educated whites and Clinton retained the traditional Democratic advantage among nonwhites regardless of education level.

What's going on here? Political scientists who've studied public partisanship, like Alan Abramowitz, note that it is pronounced among the engaged public. "This group," says Abramowitz, "is made up of citizens who care about government and politics, pay attention to what political leaders are saying and doing, and participate actively in the political process" (p. 4). Engagement has been found to increase with socio-economic status. But maybe that changed this year? It seems on this superficial examination of exit polls that lower-status groups have now polarized along partisan-ideological lines, which worked, at least this year, to Trump's advantage.

This begs a number of questions which, thanks to this not being a natural science using laboratory experiments, are impossible to answer with any certainty, but I'll ask them anyway. What if the 2016 Democratic candidate had been a more ideological candidate capable of channeling public outrage (think Bernie Sanders)? What if the 2016 Democratic candidate had been from the mainstream of the party but without Clinton family baggage (think Joe Biden)? What if the Republican candidate had been from the mainstream of the party without the weaknesses exposed in the 2016 field (think a non-92-year-old Bob Dole)? What if the election was decided by popular vote not the Electoral College?

We move, then, from fruitless but fascinating speculation back to the issues that started this post, and which generally fuel this blog's discussion. I am not hopeful. Trump, despite his blunderbuss of a personality and erratic policy statements, has apparently not been disruptive enough to break the familiar patterns of American national politics. The Republican Party has parlayed a marginal advantage in nationwide vote distribution into unified control of the national government as well as many states, but has shown less interest in solving these issues than in denying their existence. Experience in states like Kansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin show the policies we're likely to get from unified Republican control are those that payback their constituencies, some ideological (limit abortions, support Israeli settlement in the occupied territories) but mostly economic (lower taxes and less regulation for health and safety).

Even for those who want to take a principled approach to our most troublesome issues, there is a notable lack of readily available policy solutions, particularly as there is neither a pile of money nor the political will to pay for them. (Is it me, or has every nation policy advocated since the rise of supply-side economics in 1980 been required to be "free" i.e. paid for either by somebody else [the 1 percent, smokers, Mexico, e.g.] or by magical thinking about future economic growth? I mean, I love free stuff, too, but these are serious problems worthy of serious collective thinking!)

Hence the attractiveness in 2016 of expressive politics. The 2016 election makes sense if voting for Trump (or Clinton, or Sanders) is seen as a gesture rather than a constructive choice among alternative policy futures. Trump's odd collection of statements and policy reversals, which would have done in many an earlier candidate, don't matter because the election wasn't about policy, or problems, or even empirical reality. It was about making a statement about who is "us" and who is "them." In that case, the president-elect's insults and taunts in the run-up to his inauguration are far more important to his electoral appeal than his health care policy.

Thursday's New York Times carried two columns about health care on their Op-Ed page. One, by Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation, warned based on focus groups that Trump voters "will not be happy if they are asked to pay even more for their health care" as appears highly possible given naming of Rep. Tom Price as his Health and Human Services secretary. Really? Unhappy enough for health care to be a voting issue? Directly below Altman's column, and next to the other health care one, radio news director Robert Leonard approvingly quotes former Republican Representative J.C. Watts on the cultural differences between the parties: We become good by being reborn--born again. Democrats believe that we are born good. that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong--not us. If Leonard's right that that's what conservatives think about liberals, and if liberals think something equivalently condescending about conservatives, we're a long way from serious thought about fixing the health care system or anything else.

Expressive politics can be fun, I'm sure, but not constructive. Their ongoing prominence shows how far we are as a country from the level of social trust needed to have conversations about solving our problems and build stronger communities.

Alan I. Abramowitz, The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy (Yale University Press, 2010)
Bill Bishop, The Great Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
Ben Casselman, “Inequality Is Killing The American Dream,” FiveThirtyEight, 8 December 2016
Charles Marohn, "A Big Pot of Money," Strong Towns, 6 January 2017
Eduardo Porter, “America’s Inequality Problem: Real Income Gains Are Brief and Hard to Find," The New York Times, 13 September 2016
Sean M. Theriault, Party Polarization in Congress (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

PLUS: I just ran across this citation... haven't read it, might be worth a look...
Leonie Huddy, Lilliana Mason and Lene Aaroe, "Expressive Partisanship: Campaign Involvement, Political Emotion, and Partisan Identity,” American Political Science Review 109:1 (2015), 1-17.

"The Election and Our Common Life," 18 November 2016
"Deliberation and the Shutdown," 3 October 2013
"Climate Change and the Dysfunctional Congress," 27 June 2013
"What's the Matter with Congress," 30 May 2013

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess i...