Alive and American in 2016

Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

I took to politics to at least as early as junior high. That’s when I started rummaging around YouTube, getting laughs out of George W. Bush gaffes and then stumbling down the rabbit hole of how many indiscretions and innocent lives lost his administration was responsible for. In 2008, I was a sophomore in high school but I remember waking up, checking my Yahoo! email account and feeling my heart beat quicker as news of a financial crisis I couldn’t even understand at the time still convinced me of its pressing importance and need for an immediate solution.

I remember a conversation I had on the beach for a school event, laughing my ass off as one of my best friends described the follies of the Federal Reserve and the military industrial complex. I remember paradoxically supporting both Ron Paul and Barack Obama in 2008 even though I couldn’t vote and turned a blind eye to how diametrically opposed so many elements of their philosophies were. I remember arguing for Obama with my Christian conservative friends and against him with my liberal ones, sometimes taking both sides in a single conversation. It was all so fascinating to me, the ways people differ, and it still is to this day.

But now, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my past, budding political perspectives or even the dire future ahead of us. Instead, I’m painfully stuck in this oppressive and horrifying present. On the one hand, it reminds me of my experience of the financial crisis. Each day a new anxiety forming and a new question in need of asking. It felt like the apocalypse then and it does again now.

Perhaps the most important difference between then and now, though, is that the America I saw melting down was still profoundly itself. It was fallible and divisive but still understandable and dedicated to its most cherished, enduring virtues and principles. The house was burning down but we all knew we had to throw water on the fire. This election year, it seems like everyone’s traded out the water for kerosene.

For me, Hillary Clinton looks like Mother Teresa compared to Donald Trump. My initial distaste for her hypocrisies, hanging questions and missteps remains in full force but it’s come to be supplemented with admiration of her resilience in the face of sexism amplified to eleven and the ugliest mudslinging campaign I’ve seen in the world of politics, reality television or even my personal life. When I heard Trump invited Bill Clinton’s rape accusers to a debate, I teared up and went to the back room at work to compose myself. In such a scenario, every woman involved was being exploited and it disgusted me on a more visceral level than most things can.

My parents disagree that she’s the better candidate and so do so many others. For them, Hillary Clinton isn’t just a liar but a murderer hellbent on destroying the foundations of American democracy, the things that make this country great. The email scandal may end up deciding this election and it drives me totally out of my mind. My research into the right’s favorite accusations to hurl at Clinton, “Benghazi” and “emails”, led me nowhere. I don’t think she’s guilty of those men’s deaths, I don’t think the emails signify anything treasonous or disqualifying beyond a certain degree of technological incompetence and I don’t see any meaningful reason to disparage her as a disparager of her husband’s accusers.

When it comes to Clinton, her corporatism, her hawkish foreign policy, her Diet Neoconservativism is what bothers me. For my conservative friends, I’ll give them this: the Clinton Foundation stuff seems really fishy to me and I’m still totally open to any more dirt that shows up on her. If this is taken as a defense of her, so be it. She is a deeply flawed and troubling candidate.

When push came to shove, I couldn’t vote for her (or Trump, no need to worry) because living in this state allows me to selfishly allow my fellow Californians do the dirty work of electing her while I can ostensibly wash my hands of her inevitable sins. I tried to mock the whole enterprise of this election by writing in “Hugh Jass”. I already regret this deeply. Not the pun, I’m still a fan of the stupid pun. But, though this election remains awfully absurd to me, this was a chance to stand against someone I consider such a horrendous and disturbing affront to modern democratic society that I can hardly categorize him even after all this time. I’ll regret till the day I die that I didn’t take that stand.

I’ve laughed at Donald Trump a lot this election. My main jokey observation about conspiracy theorists on either side has always been that they think *Insert Politican Here* is both the textbook definition of an evil mastermind while also being so hopelessly stupid and inept that they embarrass themselves repeatedly. For me, Donald Trump is the first person who really makes me wonder which end of the scale better suits him. Ultimately, he’s a buffoon. Unfortunately, he’s a buffoon with incredibly toxic ideas who may occupy the most powerful office in the nation in just a few days.

I’ve seen good, decent people at their wit’s end trying to justify him. This is as Sisyphean a task as they come. My dad always jokingly references his favorite conservative talk radio host, Mark Levin’s, quip: “Trump is the leader of the Never Trump movement.” I can only hope he leads this movement well enough to influence the outcome on election day.

A lot of ink has been spent describing how Trump has reactivated our ugliest elements as a nation. Racism, misogyny, nationalism-and-xenophobia-at-the-price-of-the-individual, narcissism, disregard for the rule of law, internal contradiction and an overall attitude of an abuse. These impulses exist to some degree in everyone but the voices are quieter for some of us.

What’s just as frightening to me, though, is there are as many tacit, reluctant Trump supporters as there are diehard devotees. I’ve yet to meet an outspoken white nationalist, neo-Nazi, woman-hating Trump supporter. The ones I know are disgusted by the man, by his lack of etiquette and ethical fortitude, but all this warrants from them is a quick burying of their face in their hands, a hint of regret and a guaranteed vote for him come November 8th.

I think this is the most disturbing thing to me about this election: that, no matter what choice is made, it’s an immoral one hopefully made moral by the extenuating circumstances. In the name of pragmatism, this election has made all of us sacrifice an element of our integrity and sanity. To pick the lesser of two evils, we are forced to take part in an act that is, as a result, evil in itself. This election has turned us all into desperate utilitarians.

There are, of course, the church-burning racist scourges of society and the wealthy, corrupt lying career politicians but this is not most of us. Most of us, maybe even all of us, are the ones who go along with aspects of their agenda and then disavow them as ideological allies. To even consider that we’d check the same box as an unscrupulous Wall Street executive, a regressive racist, a foreign leader without the nation’s best interest at heart, a disgraced adulterer or rapist, or any given negative archetype is too much for most of us to think of as more than a thought experiment. Sadly, it’s a reality. They are the ones whose interests are being directly served this year and we’re all just along for the ride.

The thing I’m most angry about this election is how because of the corrupt collusion of the DNC and the double-mindedness of most Democrats, because of the GOP’s crowded primary and legacy of implicitly saying the things Trump says so explicitly, because of the way the right and left wings have both written their narratives with plentiful holes up to now, because misinformation agreeing with you has a higher price value than information contradicting you, because so many people are unwilling to educate themselves in politics, civility and virtue, because of negligence or nefarious purpose, we have all been made to make one of the toughest moral decisions of our lives and no way of making it is “right.” It’s just, to each of us, “less terrible” than the alternative.

But a vote for Trump is a vote for our basest impulses and our most desperate, fruitless attempts at making sense of the world. A vote for Clinton is a vote for the same genteel but deranged brand of politics that’s held sway over this country for much too long. A vote for a third party candidate is a vote wasted for the right reasons and a vote like mine, a vote thrown away as some misguided, absurdist protest, is a vote wasted for the wrong ones.

I’m most angry that I regret the way I handled this election and so will, to at least some extent, most everyone I know. I’m most angry that, in 2016, nearly all of us, in some way, were made to regret being alive and American.

He’s Not a Republican: John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”

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The diverse and manifold strains of contemporary Christian theology seem to all be bent on convincing you of one thing in particular: Jesus is not who you think he is. Saints and denominations of many places and times all have their takes on who Jesus is or was, and that’s not counting the rival viewpoints offered up by Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, etc. So whenever a scholar tries their best to get to what Jesus must’ve meant to his immediate contemporaries, first-century Jews and Gentiles, it comes as a welcome repose from the endless barrage of revisionism. John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is an eye-opening look at what Jesus and the other New Testament writers meant socially and politically to their initial audience.

Jesus, even more so than Moses, Muhammad or Gautama Buddha, is an historical figure regularly invested with timelessness, sometimes at the expense of losing his identity as a first-century Jewish historical figure. No one’s at fault for perpetuating this way of thinking about Jesus; the Christian doctrine of Christ’s preexisting eternality can find its root in the early letters of Paul and his compatriots. It remains ironic though that we lose the historical Jesus so easy when the Four Gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke, are so hung up on certain space-time details of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. Their theological points are made through their historical storytelling and analysis.

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What Yoder brings to the table seems obvious once stated but stays hidden in plain sight for so many. The theologically charged, historically rooted stories and letters of the New Testament were meant to bring about change in this world, which is to say at least a significant part of Jesus’ message could be considered social and political. His life and teachings were revolutionary for their era and remain revolutionary now. And surprise: Jesus isn’t a Republican! Or a Democrat. Or (sigh) a Libertarian. His sociopolitical message is, instead, something far more radical and inspiring than anything you’re likely to see on Capitol Hill.

While Yoder is most known for his appeals for Christian pacifism, I found them a bit underwhelming here. It wasn’t to say he did a poor job defending a “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus-was-anti-war position. You’ll find ample support for them in the book but his thoughts on the issue are drowned out by some more poignant statements on the nature of both power and servitude, as redefined by Jesus’ life, death and teachings.

Chapter Eight, “Christ and Power,” is one of the most succinctly and simply put explanations of the Christian idea of “principalities and powers” I’ve ever read. Yoder suggests that the “principalities and powers” Christ is now ruling over, as we are told by Paul the Apostle, shouldn’t defined so medievally as angels and demons. Instead, the text and context are speaking about the powers which drive reality, the wholes that are more than the sum of their parts.

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In other words, the “powers” referred to by Paul are the social constructs which surround us that end up taking on a life of their own. Are humans responsible for the creation of politics, economics, religious life, sexual norms, etc.? Contemporary sociology would say so and Yoder agrees, in part. We created money, for instance, but in some unknowable way, money has taken on a life of its own. Even the atheist Karl Marx conceded to this sort of ideology. There were intangible forces behind the tangible ones. It’s refreshing to hear such a clear thinker make a case for a world beyond materialism that can still be rooted in a pragmatic and empirical view of reality.

His chapter on “revolutionary subordination” is even more intriguing. Long have there been arguments about Christianity’s supposed pro-slavery, anti-women stance. Yoder highlights Paul the Apostle’s stance on women and slaves in the light of his cultural context. The Roman stoics weren’t even paying attention to women and slaves. Paul makes claims which, out of context, seem to be subjugating to women unless you realize Jesus’ main political message was “strength to servitude.”

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Were slaves and women encouraged to be “subordinate” then? Yes, but so were men and masters. The only reason Paul encourages slaves and women to remain in their position was because he was also encouraging an ethic by which everyone would serve each other. Women and slaves had a head start. The playing field would become level and, if Jesus is right in saying “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” then Paul’s admonitions to women and slaves are actually very respectful and even empowering. Unlike the pervasive Greco-Roman culture, Paul and Jesus respected women and slaves as actual people worthy of admonition, encouragement and dignity.

The Politics of Jesus is a breath of fresh air, even forty years after its publication. Why most of Yoder’s ideas haven’t gained traction in the Christian church are beyond me. He makes a pretty compelling case for his views being the very same as those which belonged to the early church, the apostles and Christ himself. One would think Christians would like to align themselves with such a worldview.

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