Saturday, November 5, 2016

The God of the Line-Cutters

When This American Life aired an episode this past weekend about the woes of the "moderate" Republican, the "conventional" Republican (and just how conventional were they ever, really?) in the face of the white nationalist eruption that now controls the GOP, you might have thought you had already heard that story done from every possible angle. But no. Instead of yet another news item about Trumpism at the national level, the figure of the Donald faded pretty far into the background of this one, if he was mentioned at all. Instead, the focus was on what might be called the substructure of Trumpism -- the years of organizing that has taken place at the state and local level of terrifying groups like "Act for America," which have now gone on to furnish the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim shock troops of the alt-right movement in this country. Evidently, Islamophobia has what every campaign is being tiresomely urged to acquire this election season: "ground game."

Listening to the TAL story, one realizes what an insignificant cipher Trump himself has actually been in all this -- what a convenient medium, and nothing more. The real story of this election is to be found in those lines one heard in my home states of Texas and Florida at the height of the Tea Party craze, each one of which, uttered in isolation, didn't "sound racist." "Why aren't they assimilating, like immigrants used to?" was one. "Is it true what I heard, about Sharia law in Oklahoma? And hey I'm just asking, right?" was another. "What's wrong with saying All Lives Matter?" They were thoughts that might have passed in the minds of many not particularly extreme-minded people, but which were selected out and stretched and pulled and mined for all they were worth by Breitbart news and Glenn Beck and co., until they have formed the marching orders of what has become effectively a nationwide hate movement-- one with enough power behind it, evidently, to have persuaded multiple state governments to pull out of the federal refugee program, or to pass executive orders calling for the special exclusion of Syrian people from the state -- a Syrian Exclusion Act, if you will -- including the state government of Texas, where I was born, and that of Indiana, headed by our lovely GOP VP nominee whom everyone thinks is so "nice" and "presidential."

I had seen only glimpses of this process and had never even heard of "Act for America," I confess, prior to the TAL story -- thus completing my sad transformation into a kind of liberal I used to hold in contempt-- the one who is liberal without having to struggle for it, who keeps to his little New England soap bubble and only learns of the existence of a nationwide anti-Muslim hate movement because he heard about it on public radio. 

I wasn't always that person, though, and plenty of the things they tell the reporter in the TAL story sounded very familiar to me, from my former life as the Village Democrat down South, listening to the kinds of things people would say on the other end of the political spectrum. One was the refrain that seems to begin every meeting of one of these anti-Muslim and/or anti-immigrant groups (and by the way, Muslims, Syrians, Mexicans, Central Americans, refugees, undocumented immigrants and others have all been knitted together quite seamlessly in this ideology -- a single garment of destiny) -- the refrain that goes like this: "I'm not a racist, but..." "This isn't a race thing, but..." 

Even when they're calling for the exclusion of whole groups from their town, state, or country, simply because of where they come from and what they look like, it's "not a race thing." Even when TAL records them warning against the dangers of intermarriage with Muslims, or ranting about the supposed "learned" violent behavior of Somali five-year-olds, it's "not racist." (This last one came from a group with the deliciously Orwellian name "Peace in St. Cloud." The Somali toddler in question is accused by the speaker of hitting her granddaughter, whom she makes of point of describing as "a blue-eyed blonde." But, of course, it's "not a race thing.")

So, what exactly would be racist, one has to ask, in the minds of people who participate in these groups? "Racist" has been rendered a most nebulous thing indeed if nothing described in this post so far could fall under its heading. All we know is that racism is something bad, and that these people, these ordinary folks, these concerned citizens, don't see themselves as bad people, so how could they be racist? It's basically unthinkable. They, as their good selves, exist in a category that could not possibly overlap with racism, so they don't appear to ever be troubled by doubts that something they say or do could be racist. The only time the word enters the conversation at all is when it is injected as an accusation by outsiders, and when that happens it is not only met as an affront, but as a patent absurdity. People laugh and choke and chortle at the suggestion that something they or their party has done could actually be racist

I would hear it all the time in the Tea Party days. Indeed, the states won Shelby v. Holder, in which key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were overturned, largely on the strength of this laughter alone. To think! The notion that any southern states still needed pre-clearance before passing new voting laws! The idea that any southern state would still try to pass voter suppression measures, in this enlightened age, if it had the power to do so! It evidently seemed ridiculous to the majority of the Supreme Court justices too. Efforts to suppress minority voting were surely a thing of the impossibly benighted and ancient past. And so what if within months, days, or hours of the Shelby decision, states were suddenly rushing out voter ID laws that specifically targeted methods of voting favored by blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans? The laughter didn't stop even then. To say that any of that was about race was ridiculous too. It's never about race, you see. Even when it's explicitly about race, nationality, or religion, it's still "not racist." Because we're not bad people, and only conspiratorially-minded self-righteous liberals would accuse us of being such.


Such is what we might expect to hear from conservatives. However, it does not help that this narrative is often encouraged, rather surprisingly, by a distinct sub-genre of progressive literature -- that which seeks to "understand" the Tea Party/Trumpist neighbor -- to find out "where they're coming from." The latest exemplar of this school appears to be Arlie Hochschild, whose book, Strangers in Their Own Land, I confess I have not read -- I've just listened to the interviews (thank you again, public radio!) From what I've gleaned of the book and its analysis, let me add, it sounds like large parts of it are quite beautifully done, and I don't mean to be too cynical about any sincere effort to deepen the liberal reading public's empathy for people who hold different views, which must surely be a laudable endeavor. (What's that you say? Liberals, being too self-righteous and complacent with their current outlook? Impossible!) But the trouble with the whole "Love Thy Trumpist/Brexiteer/Tea Party Neighbor" literature is that it accepts largely unchallenged the most questionable assumptions of the "it's not a race thing" worldview. 

I take it that the chief tenets of the "Peace in St. Cloud" ideology go something like this: 1) Racism is bad. 2) I'm not a bad person. 3) Ergo, I cannot be a racist. 4) Ergo, the things I believe cannot be racist. 5) I believe that Muslims and immigrants and Syrians are scary and I don't want them to live in my community or even my country. 6) Ergo, to believe those things about Muslims and immigrants and Syrians must not be racist. It must just be "common sense."

You may have noticed that there are a few unjustified leaps in that syllogistic chain, but the "Love Thy Trumpist Neighbor" sub-category of progressives (whom I have elsewhere dubbed, borrowing a phrase from Robert Lowell, Team "Pity the Monsters") vault each one of these logical chasms as swiftly as do the "I'm-not-a-racist-but..." people. They too have noticed that middle-income folks living in middle America who are voting for Trump are not necessarily bad people, tout court. They are actually good people, in many cases. They are your embarrassing uncle at the family reunion. And yet... racism is bad. So, if they, these good people, are saying something that is, to all appearances, racist, it poses a great mystery to the Team. It must call forth from us East Coast liberals a special effort of "understanding," so that we can peer into their ideology and find out what it is really about. For Team Pity the Monsters, as for the Breitbartians themselves, "it's not a race thing."

The combined force of these two teams has led to a virtual epidemic of "Who, me?" around this country. As in: Who are you calling a racist? Who, me? haven't done anyone any harm. I'm just telling it like it is. Who-me-ism, not Trumpism, is the ideology that has truly carried the day this election season. 


But why does this Who-me-ism catch on so easily in this country, on both the right and the left? Why do we all find the appearance of racism and xenophobia in the United States to be so strange and perplexing that we must specially exert ourselves in order to "understand" what it is "really" about? What, after all, is so hard to understand about racism? It has -- you may have noticed -- been with us for quite some time in this country. It shouldn't be too astonishing to find that a nation that tried for centuries to suppress the civic participation of minority groups and exclude various groups of immigrants (Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, Southern Europeans, Irish, and on and on) is trying to do the same again today. And why should whatever something is "really" about not be, well, racism? 

I confess that I was greatly puzzled by this, until a friend -- the original co-editor of this blog -- pointed out that the answer to the mystery was already to be found in a previous post. We are seeing in this collective Who-me-ism yet another manifestation of our American "innocence" -- that most guilty of our national qualities. Because we so deeply believe, in our Transcendentalist hearts, that people are naturally good, we are profoundly puzzled by what to make of people who do bad things. We are left with two options. Either it must turn out that they are not really doing anything bad, at least not intentionally, or else they must be monstrous anomalies, unnatural humans, or perhaps not human at all. 

That is why our debate over what to make of Trumpism has been reduced -- on the Left, at any rate -- to such a dull and familiar feud. We have those on the one side who hold middle America in smug contempt, the self-righteous "liberal elites" (and they really do exist, and I am one of them, many days of the week); and those on the other who wish us to see that *actually* Trumpism is, let us say, a "sigh of the oppressed creature," an inarticulate protest against industrial decay and stagnating incomes, that is misdirected in its anger, to be sure, but that is not really about race. 

What our Transcendentalist starting assumptions about the innate goodness of human nature exclude from view are the rather obvious third options. We could, for instance, refuse to leap some of the logical abysses that are found in the "Peace in St. Cloud" ideology. We might agree with the tenets that "racism is bad" and agree that the individual members of "Peace in St. Cloud" are not "bad people," while still acknowledging that what they are doing is racist. How could we manage to hold these three extraordinary ideas in our mind at the same time? Well, we could acknowledge that people do a variety of things in their lives, some better than others, and that most of us can't really be categorized as purely good or wholly bad. (I certainly don't know which one I would be.) Or we could even entertain the thought, more radically still, that if the "Peace in St. Cloud" people are bad tout court, because of their racism, then so are most of the rest of us.

I know that I, for one, am too intimately acquainted with my own stupidity, ignorance, and racism ever to be astonished at finding those qualities in others. Nor do I think that these three hydra heads -- stupidity, ignorance, and racism -- can be disaggregated from one another as neatly as we would like. Racism has often greased the wheels of my ignorance. One -- especially if one is white -- often makes determinations about what is worth paying attention to and learning more about within a framework that is colored by racism. When I ask myself, for instance, why I care now, say, about the 25 undocumented people who were recently arrested by ICE in a raid on a restaurant in Buffalo, and who may be imprisoned and then deported away from their families simply for being in this country without papers, but I didn't care particularly about all the hundreds of thousands of people who endured a similar fate earlier in Obama's presidency, I could plead that I "didn't know better," that I was ignorant. But perhaps the reason I kept myself ignorant for so long -- despite being surrounded by an immigrant rights movement that was unfolding in the UU world around me at the same time, and that furnished me with no end of opportunities to learn more -- was my racism. Perhaps it just didn't seem all that shocking to me, that worth inquiring into, that non-white Spanish-speaking parents are sometimes torn away from their families, placed onto airplanes, and sent across the border.

Thus, saying that a worldview is not really racist, "just ignorant," is a bit of a non-sequitur. And if you will follow me on a brief detour, I promise that it will return us to this point.


One of the most interesting portions of Arlie Hochschild's argument -- one that has been widely quoted since she first made it -- is her discussion of what she calls the "Deep Story" that each of us carries inside us, and that informs most of our moral and political judgments, whether we are aware of it or not. Her account of the "Deep Story" that is entertained by most of the people with whom she speaks runs something as follows. She describes her Tea Partier interview subjects  -- nowadays, they would be Trumpists -- standing in a line on a hill, over the crest of which is the American Dream. They have been waiting a very long while in that line, over many generations, and over all that time they have been gradually moving forward, step by step. But now, suddenly, just when the other side is almost in view, the line suddenly stops moving. Then, they see liberal elites appear at the top of the hill, who are not only pointing down and laughing at them as they wait there, but who are also waving line-cutters in ahead of everyone who's been more patient -- refugees, undocumented immigrants, criminals, people who rely on welfare and other social programs, recipients of health insurance subsidies, and all the rest. 

There are more than a few profound insights in this, and Hochschild is especially to be applauded, in my book, for bypassing the common left-wing mistake of assuming that Trumpism is a phenomenon of the poor and working class -- (a "sigh of the oppressed creature/opiate of the masses" Tom Frank kind of thing) -- or else that it is a monster of the moneyed elite who, from somewhere, must always be pulling the strings (also an opiate of the masses, Tom Frank kind of thing). 

Rather, Hochschild's Trumpism is what most of the American far right has been, since the days of McCarthy and Goldwater on, if some of its classic interpreters are to be trusted -- a movement of people who are somewhere in the insecure middle of the spectra of socio-economic and socio-political power. They are often people who have been following the rules, as they understood them, and seemed to be getting ahead by them for quite some time, only to discover now that someone else seems to be trying to change the rules on them, just when they were finally going to arrive. It is this sense of the agreed-upon terms of the struggle shifting beneath them that leads to the impression that there must be a hidden alliance between the top and the bottom, arrayed against them -- between those who don't have anything to lose, and to whom any change of the existing order can only be a change for the better, and those who have so much, and always have, that they can't imagine viewing their privilege as something that might be threatened, or that would need to be fought for -- they are the "Bright Young Things," Lawrence's "Latter-Day Sinners," the Gatsby generation.

Such was the underlying narrative that fed psychic grist to McCarthyism, in the telling, at least, of Richard Hofstadter. In his classic essays on the phenomenon of "Pseudo-Conservatism," he interpreted the rise of the notorious Wisconsin Senator as essentially a revolt by people who had arrived only recently in their family history to the status of a "white," "American," and "middle class" identity. The struggle they waged was against all those they perceived as spurning such aspirations, at the very moment they had finally attained to them. Thus, the McCarthyites targeted out-groups on both the upper and lower ends of the power spectrum. Their victims included Jewish screenwriters and foreign scientists -- who were so marginalized they could not hope to be "100% American," even if they had wanted to be (which many didn't) -- as well as their apparent opposites -- the WASP elite, the Ivy Leaguers, the Boston Brahmins and the Unitarians on Beacon Hill -- in short, the people who had been "white Americans" so long they didn't realize that there were some people who had to try hard to be those things, and who therefore didn't attach much value to the status -- perhaps not even realizing, in most cases, that they had it. These were the "egg-heads," the "professors," who were "born with a silver spoon in their mouths," in the Senator's favored terminology and more cherished set of images. 

Similarly, the Trump and Tea Party phenomena of recent years, in their many guises, have always gone primarily after people whom they see as refusing to pursue the "white middle-class American" ideal. Hence the constant harangues against people who are "lazy," who are "living off the system," or against those immigrants who won't "assimilate." Why do they speak their languages of origin among themselves? Don't they want to one day be "100% Americans"? We spent generations trying to get to that point, and here they are acting like it wasn't even important, wasn't even worth trying to obtain! And then there are the privileged, pampered, selective college-attending elite who have been "white middle class American" their whole lives, so easily, so painlessly, that they actually make fun of those aspirations. They talk as if "American" is something to be ashamed of, they lecture about how America has done all these bad things in the world! They talk about "whiteness" as if it's shameful. They have been white so long that maybe they can afford to have white guilt, but what about us? It took us so long to be white, and now you're acting like white isn't good anymore.

It should be plain, after laying out such a worldview, that it is understandable. One can see how a person who is not a bad person, tout court, could hold it. But it is also an ignorant and racist worldview, for all that, with an ignorance that cannot excuse its racism, because its racism is the oil of its ignorance. 

It is ignorant to believe that undocumented people forced to work in the informal economy in this country without labor protections, and with the constant threat of future deportation and separation from their children hanging over them, somehow have it better -- or somehow have jumped in front of -- a modestly well-heeled white family living in a small town with a package of racial grievances. It is ignorant to believe that a Central American asylum seeker, who may have just seen a family member killed by a gang and who was perhaps stalked, beaten, or sexually assaulted at home or in transit and who has just been incarcerated in ICE detention and has just been released with an ankle monitor and no work permit and who may well end up homeless while they await their deportation hearing, is somehow a "line-cutter" who enjoys no end of advantages under a Democratic president. These ideas are the products of ignorance. They are also the products of racism, because the reason your average Trumpist doesn't bother to rectify this ignorance, doesn't stoop to inquire whether these views of things are correct or not, is that they "make sense." It "makes sense" to believe that non-white people are just trying to "live off the system." It makes sense under the rubric of racism, which guides so much of our thinking. 

And thus, any effort to call these beliefs into question is just preposterous elitist preening, a plain denial of the dictates of "common sense."

In fact, of course, your average Trump voter has never met an asylum seeker; he may not even know an undocumented immigrant (it has been remarked that there is no correlation between supporting Trump and actually living in areas that have seen a large influx of immigrants). They probably don't know any Muslims or Syrians or refugees either. So how could they have any "common sense" impression about the matter one way or the other? This is the great distinction that William Hazlitt once drew between "common sense," which is often correct, and what he called "vulgar prejudice," which is quite another thing altogether, though it is often mistaken for falling under the former. He writes:
Common sense is only a judge of things that fall under common observation, or immediately come home to the business and bosoms of men. [...] It rests upon the simple process of feeling,—it anchors in experience. [...] But half the opinions and prejudices of mankind, those which they hold in the most unqualified approbation and which have been instilled into them under the strongest sanctions, are of this latter kind, that is, opinions not which they have ever thought, known, or felt one tittle about, but which they have taken up on trust from others, which have been palmed on their understandings by fraud or force, and which they continue to hold at the peril of life, limb, property, and character, with as little warrant from common sense in the first instance as appeal to reason in the last.
A Trumpist has not really "thought, known, or felt one tittle about," refugees, immigrants, or any of the other out-groups they stigmatize. Which of any of them could have foreseen, a year and a half ago, that "Syrian refugees," of all innocuous phrases, would somehow be turned into their movement's ultimate scare words. Common sense is not ignorant; it is a form of knowledge. But Trumpism deals in "vulgar opinions," which it "palms" off on voters in just the manner Hazlitt describes. 


Having excoriated the racism inherent in the Trumpist attacks on the "line-cutters," however, I do recognize some small element of truth in the complaints that they are directing against people like me -- the "liberal elites" at the top of the hill. It occurs to me that I am the inheritor of what is perhaps the ultimate line-cutting theology -- namely, Universal Salvation -- a kind of cosmic line-cutting. And the reason why I have always gravitated so easily and naturally toward ideologies and theologies -- Universalism, socialism, etc. -- that seek to abolish the "line," or that reject concepts of scarcity that assume there is a line, or a gate at the end of it by which we can only enter single-file, is in part that I have encountered so little real scarcity in my life that I have not felt especially defensive or protective of my abundance.

Once one has been exposed to this "line-cutting" image, moreover, so much else about the perplexing qualities of right-wing American ideology begins to come clear. I always did wonder about the origins, for instance, of the American obsession with the national debt, the evils of the deficit, the shibboleth of the "balanced budget." Why has this arcane subject always called forth such apocalyptic imagery in the right-wing mind in this country, when it is a matter of such indifference or quiet speculative thought elsewhere? Why does it seem to be such a noxious notion to them, and meanwhile such a pleasant one to me, to think that one in fact does not need to trade economic growth and social spending against one another -- that they could be mutually reinforcing? Perhaps it is because Keynesianism is an economic philosophy of abundance. It does, in a sense, ask "something for nothing" -- you spend into the deficit each year and get more back in revenues (or not, but even that is not so bad.).  Keynesianism is economic line-cutting. This is what has rendered it so anathema to the Right. As Ross Perot once put it -- that great channeler of the American political subconscious, "that would be suicide in your business or your bank account!" It is what Hofstadter identified as the emotional core that fired the indignation of the Goldwaterites on this subject. 

Ellen Willis once rather arrestingly described the psychological roots of America's "War on Drugs" as a similar protest against line-cutting -- emotional line-cutting in this case. "Easily available chemical highs are the moral equivalent of welfare," she writes. "[T]hey undercut the official culture's control of who gets rewarded for what." Perhaps it is a similar "Deep Story," about people unfair jumping in line ahead of others, that is informing Rodrigo Duterte's bloody campaign of extrajudicial killings against drug users in the Philippines, which has resulted in thousands of deaths. (This alone should signal to us, if the Trump example did not convey it sufficiently already, that just because a Deep Story is comprehensible, it doesn't mean it is not extremely dangerous.)

Even the classic debates in theology begin to make sense in this context. One begins to understand why liberal theologies and a liberal regime of public spending have gone together so often in history. The universalist with respect to the afterlife tends also to be egalitarian -- and maybe a bit antinomian and bohemian -- with respect to this one as well. Lord Byron, I notice -- himself a "liberal elite" of the 19th century if ever there was one, an aristocrat who was permitted to get away with pretty much anything and could therefore afford to be forgiving of others -- a privileged partisan of the "line-cutters" further down the social hierarchy -- could not even bring himself to damn his hated monarch George III to an eternity of outer darkness. He too shares my bafflement that such credit to God's magnanimity is considered impious. He writes, in "The Vision of Judgment":

"God save the king!" It is a large economy
   In God to save the like; but if he will
Be saving, all the better; for not one am I
   Of those who think damnation better still: 
I hardly know too if not quite alone am I
   In this small hope of bettering future ill
By circumscribing, with some slight restriction,
The eternity of Hell's hot jurisdiction.

I know this is unpopular; I know 
   'Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damned
For hoping no one else may e'er be so; [...]"

But his Lordship's and my shared perplexity in the face of this opposition to universalism is quickly dispelled, once we have read Hoschchild's account of the Deep Story. It is not, after all, a theology that is likely to appeal to those who see life -- and the next life -- as a business of waiting in line. What is the point of my having waited so long, and gone through so much, to be saved, if everybody will be saved in the end as well? What was the meaning of my standing in this line to see St. Peter, if they are just going to let in everybody once we get there? This is essentially the line of questioning that led Ludwig Wittgenstein to reject Lord Byron's (and my denomination's) doctrine. As recorded in Ray Monk's biography, Wittgenstein once received a letter from a friend that urged him to admire Origen's universalist teaching that all beings -- even Satan -- would one day be reconciled to God, to which the philosopher replied: "Of course [Origen's teaching] was rejected [by orthodoxy...'] It would make nonsense of everything else. If what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with." (Monk,  The Duty of Genius, p. 540)

I suppose my favored theologies and ideologies haven't shown a lot of deference to this concern. Isn't it always better to be more generous? More forgiving? More compassionate? Shouldn't one show mercy, even to the one who didn't "follow the rules"? How could any reasonable person think otherwise? It's easy to forget the ways in which such a view can seem unfair, in the way it portions out advantages. After all, I grew up on the other side of Hochschild's big hill, where no one ever doubted whether I was "white," or "male," or "American," or "middle class," so I suppose I felt I could wear those traits rather indifferently. Why would anyone have to clutch at them? It is a kind of snobbish magnanimity -- half-contemptuous and half-generous -- such as that displayed by Nabokov in that rather thrillingly chivalrous line from Strong Opinions: "[I]n my opulent childhood I was taught to regard with amused contempt any too earnest attachment to material wealth, which is why I felt no regret and no bitterness when the Revolution abolished that wealth."


True as all that may be as to my motives, however -- it nonetheless seems to me that being a partisan of the line-cutters is a harder thing for the compassionate person to escape than the Deep Story anticipates. For one thing, I would suggest that most of Christianity -- a belief system to which most Trumpists and Tea Partiers  and Goldwaterites ostensibly subscribe -- is a line-cutter's religion, if ever there was one, even in its less explicitly universalist forms. (I owe the insight to a conversation with my friend Seanan, in which we were doing a schtick in which I was a Southern preacher and he was my Trumpist congregant). What else is Jesus's statement "The first shall be last; and the last shall be first," but the ultimate line-cutting slogan? What else is salvation by faith rather than by the law -- which, whether the historical Jesus taught anything of the kind or not, has certainly figured pretty prominently in the strands of Christianity to which most Trumpists subscribe -- but the total subversion of the prescribed moral order, which doles out punishments and rewards in proportion to each one's merits; the ultimate upending of the line-waiters sense of what's "fair"? It is a strain in the Christian tradition that has proven especially recondite and perplexing to members of the churches in every age who incline toward moral self-congratulation (as, I don't need to tell you, many a Christian has), which is perhaps why so many pastors of centuries past preferred to write it off as a "mystery." George Eliot portrays one busy-body's rather scoffing view of the doctrine in Felix Holt: "[A]nd as for being saved without works," this character says, "there's a many, I dare say, can't do without that doctrine; but I thank the Lord I never needed to put my self on a level with the thief on the cross. I've done my duty, and more, if anybody comes to that[.]" One strongly suspects this nineteenth century villager would be a Tea Partier or Trumpist today.

Yet salvation without regard to works -- in spite, perhaps, of works -- is one of the most salient features of the Christian tradition, and one that was carried to its furthest logical endpoint in the history of my own denomination, universalism. As William Blake put it, "There is not one Moral Virtue that Jesus Inculcated but Plato & Cicero did Inculcate before him[;] what then did Christ Inculcate[?] Forgiveness of Sins. This alone is the Gospel[.]" This is not a doctrine that can appeal to the line-waiters. It is not one that promises that those who have been good and patient will have their reward, while the jealous and indolent will be punished. Forgiveness is a form of line-cutting. It bypasses that business of each getting one's "just deserts." The Pharisees were line-waiters, and Jesus preferred the company of the  line cutters -- the tax collectors and the prostitutes. 

But -- how can such a worldview be right? How can it be just? Indeed, it wouldn't be right or just, if we really were all in such a single line, if we really could array ourselves in such a simple moral hierarchy, if there really was a single set of rules that some follow and others do not. But I think the insight at the heart of the Christian doctrine of the forgiveness of sins is that this is not the world we live in. In truth, in following some of the "rules," we often break others. In doing "good," we are activated by mean motives. In making mistakes, we humble ourselves. We can't do much right without doing a little bit of wrong in the process, and vice versa. That may be a Niebuhrian sense of things -- so be it. I may have to announce myself as the first Universalist Niebuhrian, which I don't think he'd mind. (I'm also an atheist, who does not mean any of the salvation language in this post to be taken too literally, but as far as I can tell that wouldn't have caused Niebuhr any trouble either.)

The consequence of all this is that we are all likely to need a bit of forgiveness, a bit of "line-cutting," at some point, whether we recognize it yet or not. Those who have broken the law of the land may need it. But so too will those whose sin is the opposite -- that of moral pride and self-righteousness. So too will the line-waiters whose sin has been to collaborate in crafting laws and following rules that are rigged against other people, who are never permitted a place in line. 

Such line-waiters too need forgiving. And this is the point I have been trying to make, in contrast to our "American Innocence," in contrast to our national belief in the goodness of all people. I want to hold up the imperfection of all people -- and that quality we all possess of standing in need of forgiveness (as well as of being worthy of it-- and that is where my American Transcendentalism, my native optimism and "innocence," does finally show its face.) 

In sum, it may seem unfair to those who have waited so patiently that "the last shall be first." But we realize the soundness of the doctrine when we realize that those patient line waiters too are "the last" -- that every one of us is "the last," from the moral perspective. The Trumpists are last for their racism and cold-heartedness and cruelty and callousness. The liberal elites are last for their self-righteousness and smugness and their indifferent complicity of the gradual despoliation of middle American industry and community. Each and all are the last. As a character says to the broken-down eponymous heroine of Strindberg's Miss Julie in the final scene, when she fears that because of her great wealth, she will be denied God's grace, "wait [....] Now I know! -- You're no longer among the first! -- You're among -- the last!" (Robinson trans.) So is each of us, when our true motives are well and truly inspected. Thus, for all our sakes, we had better hope that "the last" shall be forgiven, that the Kingdom of Heaven -- whether real or metaphorical -- is promised even to them.


With that in mind, and as we turn to face the prospect this Tuesday of finally casting a vote in this long -- too long -- so long -- anticipated election, the words of Vachel Lindsay are strangely appropriate, in one of my all-time favorite poems. I offer them here as a closing benediction. Here they are, the final lines of "Why I Voted the Socialist [read here -- "line-cutting"] Ticket."

Come, let us vote against our human nature,
  Crying to God in all the polling places        
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
  And make us sages with transfigured faces.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent as usual, and thanks for the shout-out! However, after reading your post I also think there's another wrinkle to the "I'm not racist" line of thought. We can get at it by asking what the Trumpist would actually say to your rhetorical question about what racism/bigotry could possibly be if Trumpism isn't racist/bigoted.

    I think the Trumpist answer would be something like "consciously believing that some people are worth less than others/morally worse because of their race, religion, nationality, etc." The "consciously" is doing most of the work because it rules out all of the forms of racism/bigotry you attribute to Trumpists (e.g., tendency to view the objectively less-serious problems of members of your group as worse than the objectively more-serious problems of members of out-groups, seeing information about the latter's problems as less important/newsworthy, treating an appeal to the prevalence of a bad character trait among an out-group as a valid form of explanation). All of these seem to be unified by the fact that they're less than fully conscious.

    This suggests to me that, in addition to our Romantic inheritance, another shared assumption which gives rise to the cul-de-sac you discuss is the assumption that morally upright conduct (like all other good things in life) is something we can attain through conscious, deliberate individual choice alone (or perhaps that's another aspect of the inheritance). Someone who holds this view will be inclined to either think that Trumpists aren't racist (since they don't consciously dislike other groups) or view them as consciously hating minorities and so beneath contempt. However, those who thinks that people's choices can have moral weight even when heavily structured by external factors (whether that's class, socioeconomic structure, and the history of oppression for the socialist left, original sin and moral decay in the culture for the Christian traditionalist right, or a COMBINATION of FACTORS from SEVERAL SCHOOLS of THOUGHT for me) will be able to correctly classify less-than-fully deliberate racism as a moral fault. (I don't understand such views as denying free will; I think we would both agree [and I take it to be intuitive] that a choice can be free yet externally-conditioned in various ways.)