What Wasn’t Said About Trump

On at least one subject I find myself in general agreement with the sentiments commonly expressed by today’s brand of feminist: I believe that the objectification of women is wrong.  I was therefore disappointed to see this point somewhat muted in the response to the video which surfaced of Trump discussing – boasting of – what can only be considered sexual assault.  In fact a number of people went to great length to separate bawdy talk from the idea of sexual violence, when the obvious connection should have been made, and made strongly.

What I witnessed wasna combination of taboo enforcement and guilt reaction.  People decided to be shocked (shocked!) that a politician would “openly” (the quotes are because no one knew about the conversation before a media leak) discuss actions we prefer to pretend are beneath the character of our leaders.  Blaming someone else – especially someone who is already unpopular – is safer than examining one’s one behavior.  When Trump excused his comments as “locker room” talk, athletes and athletic organizations issued pointed denials, which a great many people chose to accept – and ignore for the moment scandals from “sexts” to domestic violence.  As long as the appearance of Trump as an unusually awful outsider was preserved, all would be well: that was the message sent.

In contrast, when a fraternity makes offensive and immature banners, various persons go around screaming imprecations on the state of society.  When high school football players are involved in a rape, the very fabric of American culture is seen to be threatened.  In a sense this is actually a saner reaction.  The problem with Trump is not really that he has dragged the obscene onto the stage: the problem is that the obscenity Trump has dragged onto the stage is us.

As something of a traditionalist and conservative, I read history primarily to discover what has worked (or not), not merely to discover abuses we can blame our ancestors for while congratulating ourselves on our progress.  As a Protestant Christian, I read my Bible.  In either case, by law natural or revealed, I believe in patriarchy, assuming by that term we stick strictly to its technical definition of male strength, responsibility, and authority.  (That the point can be reasonably disputed from human history I grant: that it can, generally speaking, be disputed Biblically I do not grant.  While one could easily frame a definition of “authority” which would be experientially plausible and also significantly different from Biblical concepts, I offer the general rebuttal that – theologically speaking – if the use of a thing differs from its Biblical purpose, we have not “use” but “abuse”.  Abuses cloud the reputation of any principle: thus the bad name of patriarchy and the very valid objections to some of its most offensive manifestations.)

The key to a valid patriarchy is responsibility, and a chief responsibility, again to speak Biblically, is love.  Therefore it is a great shame on our churches today that so many pastors and Christian men in other secular positions of authority have abused their positions to take advantage of women emotionally or physically.  It is unconscionable for Christians, especially those men who are Christian leaders, to be continuing to recommend Trump personally.  (It was in fact, merely from what was known of him as a celebrity businessman, absurd and dangerous to stand with him as a Christian: those whose endorsements helped Trump even in the primary elections have cast their reputation and judgment into serious doubt.  But revelations since then – however “strategic” or “biased”, have pushed continued endorsement of Trump’s character from questionable to insane.)  I go so far as to say it is irresponsible to vote for him either as citizen or Christian, though I still stop short of saying I am sure of such a vote’s immorality.

But I am not here concerned mainly with Trump.  I believe Trump’s incendiary candidacy and his very good chance at election are not primarily his fault but ours.  What exactly do we mean by the “objectification” of a woman?  It cannot merely mean appreciating her beauty, or even discussing it, else we have to throw out about four fifths of all poetry ever written, and the Song of Songs in the bargain.  On the other hand, I do not accept the (at least vaguely coherent) argument that the real problem is that women are appreciated differently in culture than men are, and to solve the problem we have to allow the objectification of everybody: the thesis that the problem is not the action but some bizarre form of “discrimination”.  I see no reason to assume the two sexes ought normally, let alone necessarily, have their attributes receive the same cultural treatment.

“Objectification” occurs when we view another person not as human but merely as a vehicle for our own desires and their gratification.  The objection to this is nothing new – “If your eye offend you…”  And thus we reach the connection between porn and the locker room, and sexual assault.  If one is in the habit of discussing women merely as sexual objects, the moral difference between discussion of lust and the violent action suggested by that lust is one of degree, not of kind.  (I am not even convinced a consensual affair – though it does show a minimal respect – is significantly different in kind if the woman is still in the man’s mind only an object gained.)  I am not saying the action adds no weight.  I am not trying to advocate any kind of thought crime.  I am not calling for the imprisonment of fifteen year old young men with an internet connection.

But I am insisting that we need to make the connection between our own habits and the things which occur in our culture’s public space.  The fad for criticizing so-called “rape culture” was just that – a fad – but it had latched on to a kernel of truth.  I think most of those engaged in that criticism had causes backwards: while some visions of masculinity certainly are “toxic”, it is not strength and responsibility that need to be discouraged, but insatiable lust.  Of course the combination can result in heinous abuses.  I am not disputing that.  In fact with lust encouraged in the general culture, we need to be conscious – much more than in a healthier sexual environment – of the potential for abuses, much as we need to be more conscious of jellyfish when near the ocean.  But mere strength is a factor that can contribute to abuses, not the source.

Many people want to say the lust is fine “as long as” – as long as it is between adults; as long as there is consent; as long as the age difference is minimal… whatever.  Many people, even Christians, are increasingly timid about suggesting any restraints on cultural “appreciation” for sex.  I think the minority reactionary attempt to make or remake laws is the wrong path: without social agreement, those laws will be ignored or abused; with social standards, such laws will be passed naturally or will be unnecessary. But at least that is a recognition that there is a dangerous area.

What I wanted to happen, while we issued our condemnations of Trump, was for the feminists – and the rest of us, Bible-thumpers and traditionalists and egalitarian activists and anyone with even a pretense of civility – to stand up and say, “See?  This is what we are running the risk of if we continue to treat sexual issues in such a cavalier fashion.”  Obviously I do not expect an immediate agreement between such disparate groups about what the appropriate sexual ethic is.  But the simple appeal to take it seriously is in fact a common theme we can strike.  For instance, I think “sexism” is overblown and often (sorry) trumped up.  But I still definitely think emotional, physical, and sexual abuse or rape, especially of women, is bad.  See?  Agreement.  I was disappointed that so many wanted to treat Trump as an exception, rather than recognize him as the logical expectation, in our culture.  Improvement does not come (only) from ostracizing the worst offenders, but from deterring even the little sinners.

Trump Culture

This is also an old post – the draft has been sitting around waiting for proof-reading since June – but in it I address many of the specifically sexual issues exposed by revelations about Trump.  I have edited this now rather more substantially than the previous piece, while keeping a lot of the overall structure.  But this still isn’t really about Trump, because Trump is a symptom, not the problem itself.  Trump is a disastrous reflection of what a lot of us Americans have been practicing unnoticed all along now.

The main fact I wish to address is this: rape is bad.  A rapist is a violent criminal and sinner.  It seems odd – almost vulgar – to state the case so plainly: not because there is any moral doubt on the subject, but because we instinctively understand rape to be a certain kind of evil, and one not to be dwelt on too much.  Or at least, one which a healthy society understands and does not need to tell on too much.  It’s an evil we associate in stories with wicked brigands, barbarians, and out-of-control armies in the worst wars; one we learn about indirectly as the desire of wicked villains and villainous knights.

Fundamentally, rape is an uncivilized crime in a way which many others are not.  Sex is necessary for the continuation of the species and any society which is a part of humanity; by an obvious growth from that necessity, a culture’s sexual habits, codes, and taboos are among its most essential characteristics.  Many throughout history have argued and still argue that determining and maintaining correct sexual behavior is vital to the health of a society: tellingly, most today within this tradition condemn our modern sexual libertinism.

I have been horrified, as discussion of rape has spread recently, to find the phrase “boys will be boys” discussed as though it were an excuse commonly made for abusive or sexually-charged behavior.  Previously I cannot remember encountering the sentiment as anything other than a way of summing up – some would say stereotyping – young male behavior as opposed to female: fights and noise and not sitting still versus hair-pulling and screaming and talking too much.  But even allowing some misinterpretation by persons dismayed by any differences between the sexes, I have simply seen the sinister use alleged far too often to dismiss it as non-existent.  Moreover, I have on the internet personally observed far too many persons, mainly male, supposedly committed to equality or feminism or (in contrast) gentlemanly behavior discussing women in terms mainly or only of attractiveness, or justifying fairly embarrassing, or occasionally contemptible stories with the disreputable phrase, “Doesn’t matter; had sex.”  This is putting aside, for the moment, relatively less contemptible stories, desires, and anecdotes I’ve heard of in face to face encounters – “IRL” in cheezburgrspeek.

There is a plain explanation for this unbridled public lust.  We have been told for some time now of the joys of sexual liberation.  Who does what with whom is largely regarded as nobody else’s business.  Sex, sometimes in its kinkier variations, is generally celebrated in movies, checkout line magazines, and popular books.  The “sex scene” for many if not most people has lost whatever shock value in once had by virtue of rarity.  “The internet is for porn” is a standard joke and a by-word around that same internet.

One of the dangers of telling people what to do is that they may do it, and you may not like the consequences.  And many young people – especially young men – have embraced this sexual “liberation”.  The apparently unexpected consequence – unexpected by the “liberators”, at least – has been that sex is for many no longer a subject of cultural taboos but instead a rabid expectation.  If – especially – a woman does not “put out”, she’s regarded as not playing fair, because one is expected to want to have sex at any if not all times.

In this toxic cultural context, rape becomes to many little more than taking what one “should” be getting anyway.  There is little hope of overcoming “rape culture” as long as “sex culture” holds sway, especially over the young men who have throughout history generally been the majority of the most violent criminals.  Certainly the element of violence still generates horror in most minds, but the act itself becomes no more terrible morally to this corrupted conscience than a gunpoint robbery.  (That is itself a nasty crime, but I note that while discussion of the problem of rape has grown more frequent, there has been at the same time a tendency to want to reduce penalties for crimes in general.  Perhaps another indication that, while many “crimes” are almost legal fictions, people know rape harms the social foundations?)

There is an especially dangerous mix in many parts of America, where Christian social roles have not been exactly lost, but are corrupted by widespread abandonment of accompanying responsibilities.  (Determining to what extent they were ever fulfilled is not my purpose here: but when the ideal result is barely even taught, certainly the overall results will degrade.)  A man by social habit still expecting to be treated as a leader, but no longer raised with any significant awareness of the corresponding duties and also in the modern manner expecting and desiring sex, becomes a vicious predator.  Various men, particularly pastors, have masked despicably hypocritical behavior this way.  But I am not sure such massive scandals, bad as they are, are as worrying as the widespread degradation of behavior I refer to here, except as a symptom.  More young men play sports than middle-age ones lead churches: not only pastors commit crimes.

This year we have seen this breakdown of cultural morality come to vivid political life in the person of Donald Trump – who periodically claims to be a Christian, and many of whose supporters at least attach the cultural label “Christian” to themselves.  Among those with no particular moral education, beliefs, or habits I fail to find it surprising, but we need to address the problem of why these failures – exemplified now by this support for Trump – are prevalent among the culturally “Christian” or “conservative”.

The first is a desperate opposition to the far more popular perversions, which are often understood strictly “us” versus “them”.  It would be deadly to the morality play propagated by many – especially leaders – to admit our own failures, so mere sexual violence – as opposed to the other depravities – is ignored if at all possible.  After all – as I said above – we all know it’s wrong and don’t need to dwell on it, right?  This allows “them” to continue to be evil only, while “our” intentions are pure, and the frenzy of zealotry is maintained.  Yet we know that, when a problem does exist, it needs to be addressed, and by more than the word “mistake”.

The second is that most in these communities don’t really expect the problem to occur, and may not look for it or understand what they should be seeing.  “Somebody else” has sexual problems.  Small town horrors are probably not as rare as we like to think, but still shock us when they make the news: violence and sex – and sexual violence – these are (in part justifiably) thought of as “inner city” problems.

The third is a sometimes over-generous application of a particular understanding of Christian charity – and American privacy.  If a problem has occurred, if it can be dealt with quietly, it is often felt that even an effort to alert people that there has been a sin or crime – or that there is potential for a problem to occur or reoccur – is somehow a violation of confidences.  Although the potential for abuse is heightened when combined with wilful ignorance, this motivation I at least find laudable in as much as it shows concern for others – but in practice it is merely concern for personal popularity (no one wants to be known for offering bad news) and even amounts to a lack of awareness and accountability.  Worse still is when reluctance to make problems public becomes a reluctance to even take proper measures to keep original offenders accountable – what if someone notices that?

However, while the conservative holdouts of America see this obsession with sex combining with their own typical sins in deadly ways – while many find themselves in the despairing position of feeling driven to vote for a lewd and predatory man – while many are not even particularly despairing about it because at least “he” isn’t “them” (never mind that Trump was and still, substantially, in habits and associations, is) – it is oversimplifying things if we try to shuffle off American sexual brokenness on conservatives alone.  It is even oversimplifying things when churches – trying to be responsible – attempt to “own up” to any and all American sexual failings, as though they all originated with hypocritical Christians.

I have no idea what the distribution of violent sexual misconduct is now when correlated with political party or professed ideology.  I do not know how things would break down if we count up cases of adultery and divorce, though allegedly the latter at least is, without fine distinctions among creeds, indistinguishable from churches’ American surroundings.  The Republican party has had a great number of sexual scandals among its leadership.  All of this is true: but it must be said that the conservatives have not – generally speaking – yet been guilty of the public embrace of sexual libertines and perversion which more and more characterize progressive politics.  The failures of the conservatives – including religious conservatives – are many: but the responsibility for propagating the anti-social beliefs and habits driving much of the sexual breakdown is not to be put on the conservatives, except in so far as they – we – failed to successfully combat pernicious ideas before they took hold.

How do we break the grip of this sex obsession?  There is an earnest effort underway by the heirs of the original sexual liberators to focus on the violent aspect of rape and create a new feeling of guilt for violating a person’s body without their consent.  This is well-intentioned and correct as far as it goes, but it is not sufficient, because it does not address the fundamental problem.  As long as sex is considered to be practically an abstraction; as long as we talk about sex as though its natural place were merely among the pleasures like chocolate or music, separated from any relationship or biological realities of society; as long as we treat sex as something to be desired in any context and at any time, rape will continue to be just another petty misdeed, another stolen candy bar, to many people.

I am not demanding that a largely areligious society return – if in fact it was ever really there – to some ideal of Christian marriage.  I am not that unrealistic, nor do I particularly believe in making adults do things they do not understand and do not themselves believe in.  But it will be impossible to maintain sexual sanity without some set of rules, call them what you will: habits, taboos, expectations in the culture generally.  To an extent I think I see this happening already, in reaction, as the “status” of relationships takes on social importance, and many people begin to treat at least certain kinds of – still unmarried – sexual partner with as much seriousness or more than others have come to treat a spouse.  I don’t think all of the resulting habits are good; I think it will take far more than a little quiet reaction (while the loonies still go on preaching “liberation” and “finding yourself”) to regain stability; I think among the worst mistakes made by popular culture is to ignore conservative and especially Christian warnings that sexual relationships need to be taken seriously.  The re-emphasis of the villainy of sexual crimes is hopeful, although some of the proposed solutions and resolutions are – curious.  Still, while as a Christian I remain less than sanguine about the long-term prospects without actual reformation and repentance, as a mere citizen I see some hopeful signs that the seriousness of the situation is being realized, and slowly addressed.

On the Republic, and If We Can Keep It

This post was originally composed back in March.  I’m unsure why I didn’t publish it then.  I’ve done some minimal editing, mostly to recast the tense of the discussion.  I’m now treating this as the first part of a discussion of Trump – and how his disgusting displays reflect all too clearly many of the problems with American culture.  In the second part I plan to address the sexual and social angle, but I think this groundwork or recognizing the lack – often embraced – of American political involvement is necessary too.

I had previously issued a general critique of Sanders, and discussed some of the reasons for Trump’s incredible, not to say fanatical and worrying, popular support.  I am now going on to state a more general concern.  The 2008 campaign of President Obama has become a model for executive campaigns.  An energetic, media-savvy candidate; a couple parts conjuring trick about some noble (or not so noble) cause, and a dose of hero-worship: this is the new model for success.  I mentioned the current President’s campaign; McCain probably got more support (almost certainly more attention) from his selection of a running mate than his policies; Romney was dismissed, sometimes explicitly, far more for not being interesting than for his policies – he didn’t excite people.  And this time around, Cruz and Clinton, running tight, generally well-managed campaigns, were unable to pull away from Trump and Sanders respectively.  Cruz eventually capitulated: Clinton won but in a race close enough to generate ill feeling and conspiracy theories until swallowed up by the threat of Trump.  This is particularly notable for Cruz, who – unless you oppose his policies, which most of his party does not – is most substantially criticized by the claim that Washington insiders (that is to say, his coworkers) don’t like him: and for many Republicans, given the general level of trust in the politicos, that is practically an endorsement.  The more or less complete lack of traction for the best-credentialed Republican candidate, Kasich, is perhaps even more telling.

It is evident from all of this that the American people, as a citizenry, do not take their government particularly seriously.  As we are allegedly a democracy, and constitutionally a republic governed by representation, we can further say that we are not particularly interested in self-government.  And this is born out in practically every other sense the phrase can be taken.  Our habits are libertine, and we celebrate it.  Our social involvement, especially with neighbors outside our particular groups, is limited.  And quite often our actual participation in government might as well not exist.  I speak here as a guilty party, for the record: I am less than diligent about things like cleaning the apartment; I have put in few appearances and less effort at local social or municipal functions; and I would have to look up the name of my mayor, let alone state delegates or congressmen.  I could probably pick my 2014 ballot out of a lineup if the alternatives were not too similar, but I could not recreate it from memory.

Heinlein wrote a story, published as part of the novel Time Enough for Love referencing the “man who was too lazy to fail”.  In Cheaper by the Dozen, the loosely biographical novelization of Frank Gilbreth, Jr.’s childhood, his father (the efficiency expert) is mentioned to have looked for the laziest worker in a plant to figure out the best way to achieve efficiency.  Similarly, when I was in high school and college, there seemed to me to be a sort of unspoken challenge: who could achieve the most while appearing to work the least?  At times it seemed much more important to meet this challenge than it did to actually learn anything, which no doubt explains why I never did learn – or have forgotten – quite a bit that I was and am supposed to know.  The aphorism attributed to Brander Matthews, that a gentleman does not need to know Latin, but should at least have forgotten it (after previous study) is small comfort; and I am at any rate duly punished for my sins by the humorous karma of trying to persuade current high school students to actually learn their mathematics.

This juvenile approach to work is quite alive and well among theoretical adults.  If you spend much time poking around the internet, you will quickly discover vast numbers of people cheerfully admitting to wasting time on the web while they are supposed to be working.  Sometimes this is justified with a, “Well, my boss hasn’t given me anything to do so…”; more often, it’s implied or claimed that the work is done already.  While there may be a legitimate question of what working hours are really necessary, the general tenor of such comments is not particularly concerned with it, except as an excuse.

The same determination to make the minimal necessary exertion extends to politics, in several alarming ways.  The most obvious is what passes for our public political debates.  A reasonably nuanced introductory explanation of a plausible policy position, including the goal, its relation to current reality, and what would be necessary to change things would, on virtually any political topic, take a good fifteen minutes.  A plausible debate between two candidates – let alone several – on one topic – let alone several – could therefore hardly begin with less than a pair of speeches, taking at least (what with applause, the commercial break between, and so forth) forty minutes; an attempt to ask thoughtful questions, and answer them reasonably, much longer.  And while the total time allotted might not be too different from reality, the format certainly would be.

As for the persons included in the debates, much is made of the “two party system”, but very few have pointed out that this is due far more to the media than to any constitutional requirements.  (Though both state and federal regulations quite often have been crafted to maintain the imposition of this system.)  The so-called “election cycle” is stretched out by inordinate attention to party primaries – and cast as a two-party race from the initial stages by ignoring the other parties.  It’s not like it’s particularly difficult to talk about narratives with more than two parties: there are these things called sports which media similarly obsesses over, and even when the Yankees and the Cardinals (say) get most of the attention, the Nationals, Red Sox, and so on are hardly out of the public eye.  Yet the same attention to detail is noticeably lacking in political coverage.

Part of the difficulty is that few people are particularly interested in nuanced evaluations, political compromise, or even understanding other citizen’s concerns.  I have been appalled this election cycle at the number of people I have talked to who have expressed their distaste for the caucus system practiced in some states: who, they seem to say, would ever want to go talk to other people, especially all those unwashed masses, about political opinions?  Many people’s only real concern seems to be electing someone who, more or less, will enforce their own desired political program.

And I do mean enforce.  Whether we are talking about the projection of military and legal force implied by Trump, or the expansion of governmental programs of Sanders (or the precursory programs such as the “Patriot” or “Affordable Care” – it’s an open question which was less accurately named – acts under Bush or Obama), the prevailing opinion on all sides seems to be that governmental power is something to be wielded as a big stick against those culturally or socially recalcitrant.  The metaphors applied by politicians are as frequently as not violent ones; so and so will “fight for” your putative rights; such and such a policy is a “violation of” liberty, as though liberty were a peace treaty; and so on.  And so, while the media – allegedly run by responsible persons and charged with telling the truth – is responsible in some sense, it is not really surprising that two large camps should form when the rhetoric is that of conflict.  Political success in a democracy, especially when “government” is reduced to the application of force in demanded directions, is on the side of the big battalions.

So far I have hardly said anything new, that you cannot find lamented somewhere else.  And, if I were merely repeating the complaints, I would go on to talk about all the usual remedies, “tolerance”, “bipartisan action”, “reform”, and so on.  It does not take a very attentive mind to notice that all of these tend to mean, “enact the speaker’s preferred policies” – and the process of doing that brings us right back to the problems noted above.

So what are the causes of this political immaturity?  What are the solutions?  The causes are harder to identify in detail, but there are a few things which seem obvious.  The first is recent history: the United States has been for some hundred years now in the midst of one crisis after another, many of them military.  The habit of looking for an enemy is one easy to ingrain, and hard to eradicate – to paraphrase Lewis, the great majority of moral teachers have repeated the same basic truths, because they need to be repeated.  It is not hard to fall into the habit of regarding a political opponent with the same distrust as one would a foreign enemy in time of war: friendship between such opponents is rather more notable.

The second is, I think, a side-effect of the first.  Because it made dealing with crises easier, by self-deception or perhaps for some honest conviction, the restraints of government have been largely discarded or dismissed.  Some of these restraints have been removed honestly and by due process – I am thinking particularly of the expansion of voting rights and the change in senatorial elections – but others have been swept away by government usurpations, the products of which we are now accustomed to and objections to which are ignored, or dismissed (by those who benefit) as old-fashioned or by appealing to an alleged impossibility of retrieval, or excused by the (fallacious) reasoning that, since change happens, changes which have happen must be justified (as long as the speaker agrees with them).