Edward Shils

November 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Fabio linked to this recent tribute to Edward Shils by critic Joseph Epstein in Commentary. Shils was a brilliant man, a polymath. As Epstein says, “His writing . . . often aimed at a high level of generality in the German social-scientific tradition of Max Weber and George Simmel.” He was on the faculty at the University of Chicago, in both the Sociology Department and the Committee on Social Thought.

Two passages in Epstein’s piece caught my attention. In one, Epstein writes approvingly of Shils’s willingness to use the autocratic power of the university administration to stifle dissent.

When graduate students occupied the university’s administration building during the 1960s student protests, Levi [the president of the university], on Edward’s advice, told them to evacuate the building or be removed from the university. Those who chose to remain were summarily expelled, their principles intact but (in many cases) their academic careers ruined.

(One of the characterological hazards of being a conservative is smugness. Instead of  comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, conservatives often find pleasure in the afflicting of the afflicted. The final clause in that passage is a good example. Ah, those ruined careers. Serves ’em right. Epstein, in case it wasn’t clear, is a long-time conservative who regularly writes for conservative publications like Commentary and the Wall Street Journal.)

In another passage, Epstein speaks of Shils’s forthrightness (“he was a person who knew his mind and spoke it without looking over his shoulder”). For example,

He told me that at a dinner party he once queried a married woman who spoke admiringly of Philip Roth about what must be her concomitant admiration for adultery, since that was one of the specialties in Roth’s fiction

This is an incredibly stupid remark. It’s like saying that readers who admire Agatha Christie must also admire actual murder. (And by the way, since few of Roth’s protagonists are married, there isn’t all that much adultery in his novels. Deception is the most notable exception.) Yet here is Shils bragging to Epstein about insulting this woman as though his remark were a gem of Oscar Wilde-like wit. So yeah, Shils was brilliant, but not all the time.

Even dumber is that Epstein, in this remembrance of his “dear friend” chooses to include Shils’s bon mot. Much of Epstein’s writing over the years has been about literature (other topics as well, but mainly literature), and he himself has written many short stories. Surely he must appreciate the difference between fiction and reality.  Yet he repeats without comment Shils’s conflation of the two.

I was tempted to give this post the title “When Smart People Say Stupid Things.” Nil nisi bonum and all that, but Shils died 24 years ago, and Epstein is still alive and writing.

Proclaiming an Idealized History

November 6, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“These people don’t have mothers and fathers. They have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.”

I read Roger Brown’s excellent textbook Social Psychology at least four decades ago, but I still remember that sentence. It’s from the chapter on the authoritarian personality.  Most people when asked about their parents give more or less objective assessments. But those who score high on measures of authoritarianism paint a highly idealized portrait.

That preference for seeing only the ideal may apply not just to the home but to the homeland.

The sentence came to mind when I was reading a WaPo story today about the Presidential Proclamation making November the National American History and Founders Month. In case you hadn’t heard, President Trump issued that proclamation last week. NAH&FM is a new one, sharing November with, among others, National Family Caregivers Month and Heart Month, which Trump also proclaimed as did his predecessors. But those presidents, since Bush 41 have also proclaimed November as National Native American Heritage Month.  Last week, that proclamation did not appear.

Some people jumped to the conclusion that Trump was substituting the Founding Fathers for Native Americans. Not true. The Native American Heritage Month proclamation did appear on the White House website, though not till  yesterday and backdated to Oct. 31. But the larger point remains: Trump and his hardcore conservative supporters refuse to acknowledge any flawed motives in anything that the US — or Trump — has ever done. That includes the heritage of Native Americans, which on its face certainly raises questions about the motives and behavior of White men in America.

National Native American Heritage Month is a tacit acknowledgment of past sins, as if to say, “Yes, we may have stolen your land and slaughtered your people by the tens of thousands in the process, but we’ll give you a piece of November each year to make up for it.”  Trump’s proclamation does not, of course, mention any of that. Instead, in typical Trump fashion — “this isn’t about you, it’s about me” — it advertises all the wonderful things “my Administration” (the phrase appears five times in five short paragraphs) is doing for Native Americans.

Why add National American History and Founders Month? The proclamation explains. “To continue to advance liberty and prosperity, we must ensure the next generation of leaders is steeped in the proud history of our country.” That sounds nice, but immediately the critics chimed in. “Some historians slammed the statement for an oversimplified and glorified portrayal of a national history that is far more complex.” Well, what do they expect — complexity? From a Presidential Proclamation? From Donald Trump?

Still, the criticism speaks to an idealized version of America promoted by conservatives, and not just in proclamations at WhiteHouse.gov. Red staters who protest the removal of statues of Confederate heroes, for example, and who continue to display the Confederate flag prefer a history where secession had no trace of tainted motives — motives like racism. In a similar way, conservatives find no impure intent in what White people did in the the westward expansion. Or if they do allow that some bad things happened, they see these in a “balanced” way, much like Trump’s view of the White nationalist rally in Charlottesville (“good people on both sides”).

Here for example is the conclusion to a long article in the right-wing magazine Commentary:

In the end, the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash.

That was written in 2004, more than a decade before Trump echoed the “well-meaning people in both camps” idea. It is yet another example of belief that even if the US winds up doing terrible things, we should be judged by our intentions. Even if we did kill all those Indians and take their land, our hearts and our homeland are always pure. A happy November to all.

How to Lie About Statistics — “Steady” vs. “Strong”

November 5, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Evangelicals support Trump so strongly not because he promotes Christian values or beliefs and certainly not because he embodies or practices those values. They support him because he symbolizes the position of dominance that White Protestants enjoy in the US. That was the gist of the previous post.

Just to make sure that this was about group identity and not Evangelical religious principles, I checked the Internet for information on Trump support among Black Evangelicals. If Trump’s appeal is tied to religious values, then Blacks should support Trump as strongly as do Whites. Sure enough, I found this headline in an article the appeared last March in the Washington Examiner. The article is reporting the results of a Pew survey.

It certainly sounds as though Trump is popular among Black Protestants. But the Examiner leans heavily to the right, so it’s best to look at the graphs of the Pew data.

Only 12% of Blacks approved of Trump, and that percent was unchanged from a year earlier. So the Black Protestant support for Trump was “steady.” You could even say it was “firm.” It’s not a lie; it’s just misleading.

The headline could just as accurately been, “Decline in White Evangelical Support for Trump.”

Evangelicals for Trump — It’s Not About Religion

November 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Evangelicals remain unwavering in their support for Trump, much to the puzzlement and consternation of those on the left. On Friday, Josh Marshall tweeted, “this is basically the most profound insult to christianity i have ever heard.” The insult was delivered by Robert Jeffress, an Evangelical megachurch pastor and frequent guest on Fox.

We’re going to talk about lobbying for those values that the President embraces. . . .Never in the history of America have we had a president who was a stronger warrior for the Judaeo-Christian principles upon which this nation was foundedthan in Donald J. Trump. . . The effort to impeach President Trump is really an effort to impeach our own deeply held faith values. [The tweet and a video of the quote are here. ]

The Fox host, as far as I know, did not ask which Judaeo-Christian principles the pastor had in mind. There’s abortion of course. But what principles apply to Trump’s other achievements — tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, or anyone else for that matter; barring immigrants; reducing regulations on business, or raising tariffs? 

Evangelical support for Trump isn’t about policies, and it isn’t about religion or principles. It’s about “status politics” or what we now call “identity politics.” In status politics, the question is not which policies will prevail. Those policies are important not for their practical outcomes but for their symbolic value. The real question is “Whose country this is?”

Ten years ago, people like Pastor Jeffress and his followers opposed Obamacare not so much because of its effects on healthcare but because the change symbolized a lowering of their status. It was saying that people like them — White, Protestant, non-urban — were not longer the dominant group in the nation. (See this earlier post about healthcare and Prohibition as status politics.)

In that post, I said, “the election of Obama and now the possibility that he will enact a real change confronts them with the reality of their loss of dominance. That’s why they see health care in such apocalyptic terms.”

Today, these same people have tied their status not to any issue or policy but to a single person — Trump. They see the specter of Trump being removed from office, whether by impeachment or an election, as a huge threat. But what is threatened is not their “deeply held faith values” as the pastor says. It’s their status position of dominance.