Deferred legitimacy: From Paul to Dante

I have a tendency to read the New Testament, and especially Paul, against the later Christian tradition — for instance, in my post yesterday distinguishing between the Protestant Paul and the “real” Paul. My teaching this semester, though, has me thinking more seriously about historical continuities than about betrayals, or at least about the necessary betrayals that are tied up in any long-standing tradition. And due to the vagaries of my syllabus, I’m thinking primarily in terms of Paul’s legacy for Augustine and Dante.

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The just one will live outside the social bond

I’ve got Romans on my mind, specifically 1:17 — “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith'” (NRSV translation; Greek text: δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται). This is the locus classicus of the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith (as opposed to works), an emphasis that has obscured the basic political meaning of the passage, including at the level of translation. Here I’m going to be following the inspiration of Ted Jennings’ reading as found in Outlaw Justice, but I am working through this verse myself.

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Some Schmittian reflections on the election

This post is a thought experiment and a hypothetical. I am not recommending any particular course of action or way of thinking about the disaster that has befallen us. I want to use Schmitt as a lens for a couple reasons. First, even more than the theory of sovereignty or friend/enemy politics, I see Schmitt’s core conviction as a desire to preserve the state as such — an exceedingly rare position in a world where most people think of the state as a terrain or instrument for advancing partisan goals. So to that extent, the particular Schmittian lens I want to use here serves as a potentially interesting limit case for how to look at the election. Second, Schmitt’s personal conduct in the service of saving the state as such can show us that sometimes the attempt to stave off the worst leads us to the very worst.

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In anger and in sorrow

I am going to write some things about my reaction to this disaster. I don’t think they will do any concrete good. I don’t intend for them to convince anyone to do or think anything. It’s just that writing is all I know how to do.

  • I can’t believe this. I’m fearful of the practical consequences, of course, but those would be broadly similar to any Republican. What most gets me is sheer revulsion at Trump. I don’t want his face to be greeting me when I return from abroad. I don’t want him to be the first thing every foreigner wants to ask me about. The thought of having him as president for the next four years leaves me feeling humiliated and ashamed. And it scares me that a lot of the reason this happened is because a critical mass of Americans felt the exact same way when a black man was elected.
  • This is the second Electoral College mismatch in my adult life, the second in as many decades. We all enjoy the Electoral College fan fiction that dominates the months leading up to the election every four years, of course, but I’m increasingly disgusted with how we’ve normalized it. In civics class, we learn that the Founders instituted the Electoral College because they feared direct democracy, and that’s partly true. But from a logistical perspective, it’s also a way of squaring the circle of the Three-Fifths Compromise — how can you give the slave states their disproportionate representation while still allowing for a quasi-nation-wide vote for the presidency? Yet another way that we’re still living in a compromise to keep the slavers on board, even after it spectacularly failed to keep the slavers on board when push came to shove.
  • One thing that’s hard for me to take is the thought that many of my family members contributed to this. The party they supported and taught me to support led to this, and they should have known. The religion that they inculcated in me, evangelical Christianity, has proven itself to be utterly bankrupt theologically, morally, and even strategically — who would want the generation of young people who will be able to stomach the thought of remaining in a church led by men who would shill for an utterly worthless and malign piece of human trash as some kind of savior?
  • The Girlfriend is taking it hard. She asked me why there are so many people who hate her. I’m remaining cold and bottled up, as is my habit, but I know the feeling. Readers know that I’m no great fan of Clinton, but at the end of the day, she was someone I could identify with — educated, meritocratic, sophisticated, worldly. A vote for Trump is also, perhaps even primarily, a vote against that kind of person. A vast plurality of the American public is telling educated professionals and elites and experts: fuck you. And they’re not wrong to do so, even if the specific form that gesture took will probably turn out to be shockingly destructive to them and their interests as well. For decades, the smart people who know have increasingly offered the average person nothing but condescension. Resentment is a hell of a drug.
  • I’ve decided not to cancel class but to offer absence amnesty today. Partly it’s for selfish reasons: I personally need to keep busy today. But in a small way, continuing to engage in the life of the mind by reflecting on one of the greatest products of human creativity, Dante’s Inferno in this case, feels like an act of resistence — or if that seems overblown, then at least defiance. A man who embodies everything I hate is going to be demanding my attention for the next four years. I can choose to redirect that attention toward something of enduring value.

The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?

Worthy Opponents

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Jay Rosen has written a summary of the reasons that the traditional model of campaign reporting has broken down. The old approach envisioned the political process as involving “two similar parties with warring philosophies that compete for tactical advantage” — in other words, a struggle between two worthy opponents who recognized each other as such. Now that symmetry has broken down as Republicans increasingly view Democrats, along with the entire traditional field of battle (Constitutional constraints, journalistic balance), as fraudulent and illegitimate. To use Schmittian terminology that Rosen does not, the Republicans shifted from viewing the Democrats as enemies to viewing them as foes. Unfortunately, in Rosen’s view, journalists were too complacent about this process and wound up getting blindsided by Trump, who is the logical outgrowth of this asymmetrical dynamic.

I agree with Rosen’s overall analysis, and I would add that the Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in specific, also seem to be in denial about this dynamic. The Democrats have become the party, not of some specific ideological agenda, but of the traditional system as such. One of Obama’s major goals has been to rehabilitate the Republicans and force them to act as a worthy opponent rather than an implacable foe. This approach was naive and in many ways dangerous, as shown most vividly when Obama tried to “leverage” the Republicans’ unprecedented brinksmanship on the debt ceiling to engineer a “grand bargain” on the deficit, but it fits with the view that the system only works if there are two worthy opponents locked in an eternal struggle with no final victories. We can see something similar in Clinton’s controversial decision to treat Trump as an outlier rather than letting him tar the Republican brand as such. It works to her political disadvantage — showing that her centrist opportunism is weirdly principled in its own way — but from within her worldview, the most important thing is to restore the traditional balance of forces.

The situation we are in shows the intrinsic instability of party democracy. An eternal struggle between worthy opponents is not possible in practice. Eventually, one of the two teams is going to decide that they want to win in the strong sense, to defeat the opponent once and for all. And if that desire cannot be achieved immediately, it will inevitably lead to a long period where the old enemy is treated as a foe — as intrinsically evil and illegitimate. Within the American system, with its baroque structure of constraints and veto points, that will lead to a period where government is barely functional, because the natural tendency will be for the radicalized party to refuse to go along with the system until they have full control over it.

One possible outcome would be for the Democrats to recognize the Republicans as a foe and seek their final defeat, a crushing victory that delegitimizes the party entirely. Given the Republicans’ strangle-hold in many regions of the country, though, such a final defeat is not likely in the near term. Without something like the Republican party to channel these groups’ demands through the political system, the only alternative is an impotent frustration that can easily issue in violence, particularly in a gun-saturated culture like our own. From this perspective, we could see police shootings and mass shootings as the first signs of a fragmentary but intensifying push toward civil war.

What Hillary Clinton is offering us is one more chance to put a lid on it, kick the can on the road, and hope that the Republicans somehow get it out of their system and go back to being a “normal” party. Trump, by contrast, is pushing for a solution that we might characterize as more — final. The latter agenda is sure to be hugely destructive, not least because it is delusional. A final victory in the political sphere is impossible because the eternal struggle between worthy opponents is an attempt to intermediate and render survivable the implacable conflict at the heart of American society — a conflict that already resulted in one of the most destructive civil wars in world history.

The fundamental problems of America are not fixable via the traditional political system, which has only served to deny and yet paradoxically maintain the conflict that provides the subterranean energy necessary to keep the eternal struggle between worthy opponents going. Short of a total revolution and refounding of American society (or some number of societies to replace what we currently know as America), somehow rebooting the eternal struggle is probably the only option to prevent the outbreak of civil war and total collapse. Rarely have we been confronted so starkly with the choice between the katechon and the man of lawlessness in the voting booth.

And rarely has it been so uncertain whether the election of another would-be katechon will lead to the collapse or the intensification of the forces of chaos. In retrospect, it may have taken a once-in-a-generation political talent like Obama simply to manage to kick the can down the road. An uninspiring technocrat who has been the subject of a generation-long demonization campaign — who virtually embodies the image of the Democrats as foe for a critical mass of Republicans — may prove to be too fragile a reed to master the forces that have always been tearing America apart.

Sleepless

I can no longer make it through the nights. This is different from insomnia. I’ve had that, though mine always seemed to be about a certain kind of missing out. As if the fact of sleep meant I wasn’t out drinking or dancing or wasn’t up reading or writing. Staying up all night then kept me up the next night or I would sleep during the day when I should be out writing and reading. The worst of this was during my doctoral work. Something about the demands of a job, the demands of a certain shared sociality of employment, pretty much ended my insomnia. Now, no matter how late I go to sleep, I wake up too early. If I have a particularly bad dream then it might be 3am. If not, then it’s usually no later than 6. I wake up tired. Deeply unhappy. My pillow contorted into a lump that I have aggressively dug my head into. Nothing like the images of sleeping people on TV. Their head and shoulders comfortably lying on the soft down or synthetic petroleum-based something or other. They look so good at sleeping. They look so good. Read the rest of this entry »