Picture It: Spring, 2024

Four-and-a-half months since my last update. The TL;DR: Life is good. This update will be lengthy, and organized in sections that appear in no specific order, so grab your favorite beverage and let’s get down to business.

The Winter That Wasn’t

So, uh, how about last winter, amirite?

In Grand Rapids, we had roughly two weeks of legitimate winter, which wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t good, either. I was rather excited to drive a full-sized truck with new tires and four-wheel drive through many mountains of snow. But alas, most of the winter was snow-free and hovering within that awkward range of cold that’s too chilly for being coatless but not chilly enough to feel like winter.

That meant that a lot of green appeared unseasonably early — I saw trees budding in early April, when they shouldn’t have budded until the first week of May. Lucky for them, we didn’t experience a meaningful frost after that point, but still.

The view out of my home-office window, that one day we had snow this winter. 🙁

The upside? The Climate Prediction Center suggests that West Michigan will have a 40 percent to 50 percent chance of higher-than-normal temperatures through the November-through-January window, at which time (December-through-February) we’re back to equal probabilities of warmer or cooler weather through the second half of next winter. Also, equal probabilities or wetter or dryer than normal conditions through the summer, and a 40 to 50 percent probability of higher-than-normal precipitation from December through March.

I love Michigan’s climate. I love hot, humid, sunny summers and cold, snowy winters. And everything in between. It felt weird to not really have much of a winter this past season, but perhaps we’ll make up for lost time six months from now.

A Productive Lent and Easter

For several years now, it’s seemed as if I keep trying to have a spiritually enriching Lent or Easter or Advent or Christmas or whatever season. And then — poof. Nothing happens.

This year was different.

I decided to tackle Lent the down-and-dirty way: One day at a time, driven in large part by the gratitude I felt from Cade’s cancer being classified as Stage II instead of Stage IV. I started on Ash Wednesday, partaking of the noon service at St. Mary’s in downtown Grand Rapids. That Saturday, I attended Confession for the first time in a couple of years, at Sacred Heart. Then Mass at St. Anthony.

Holy Week split between St. Anthony for Good Friday and St. Isidore for Easter Sunday as well as for another stint in the penalty box confessional.

Given my weekend schedule as of late, I’ve settled on a routine of Sunday evening Mass at St. Isidore while also observing my normal First Friday Adoration schedule (midnight until 2 a.m., if anyone’s up for joining me!) at Sacred Heart. I’ve been reading the Bible cover-to-cover while in Adoration. I started in 2021 with Genesis and now I’m up to Micah, although I’m reading the RSV-2CE (the Didache Bible from Ignatius Press) so the Maccabees appear after the minor prophets instead of with the rest of the historical books. I figure in another couple of years, I’ll be through Revelation.

Oh, and I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours much more frequently. I’m especially a fan of combining the Office of Readings with one of the major hours (morning or evening). The Psalms are growing on me, it seems.

I’ll probably be a three-parish Catholic going forward, depending on my schedule for any given weekend. I’m technically registered at Sacred Heart, but usually attend the Sunday evening Mass at St. Isidore. I love everything about Sacred Heart (the Extraordinary Form liturgies, the beauty and reverence, the preaching) but it isn’t an especially warm place; I don’t feel “home” there. I do feel at home at St. Anthony, but liturgical practice there is so trapped in the disco era that it’s rarely spiritually fulfilling. I also like the decor and the liturgical reverence at St. Isidore — and monsignor is a thoughtful homilist — but the evening Mass is very sparsely attended and their otherwise divine music director seems to favor the most kitschy folk tunes that the abysmal Gather hymnal can muster, set to organ and delivered operatically. Quite disorienting.

The Church of the Age of Aquarius

Oh! Speaking of the disco era, on a recent episode of The Pillar Podcast, Ed Condon made a point about the state of the Catholic Church in the English-speaking world that I think is profound.

He argues, in short, that a lot of the liturgy wars of the last 40 years have sprung not from disagreements about Vatican II but from “the spirit of the age” that infused the first round of implementation strategies for the Missal of Paul VI. That age was the early 1970s, and so it’s not a surprise that a lot of the trappings of “bad liturgy” are holdovers from that specific moment in time. It would be odd if it were otherwise! And now that the vanguard of that age are starting to die off, the fruits of Sacrosanctum Concilium may flower with the deeper authenticity that comes from its distance in time. Just as has happened after every major council of the Church from antiquity.

Consider all the cringeworthy guitar Masses, felt banners, hand-holding, and jokes from the pulpit. Or the “liturgical dance.” The absence of Latin and any ad orientem celebrations. Proliferating announcements in the middle of Mass. The vast, chaotic horde of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The communal penance services and the whole “let’s let everyone wash everyone else’s feet” nonsense of Holy Thursday. And don’t get me started on the music, which in many parishes is stuck in ’60s- and ’70s-era folk tunes that are hard to sing but do a great job of either glorifying the congregation (Tom Conry’s atrocious Anthem) or audaciously acting in persona Christi (Toolan’s insipid I Am the Bread of Life).

None of the above was mandated by the Council. None of it. It flowered because a certain class of reformist-slash-hippie experts who surrounded the Council and the implementation immediately after it exercised a disproportionate influence on English-speaking Catholicism. They hard-coded a very “1972” ecclesiology and anthropology into their experimental new rites. It wasn’t for nothing that in November 1985 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops needed to explicitly ban the Clown Mass, after all. But the problem is that 1972 didn’t move forward in conjunction with the calendar. So now it’s 2024 and a large group of modern Catholics formed in the Ordinary Form of the Mass still worship as if it’s 1972. And when the Church moves on, they get mad; the Associated Press, in a much-heralded recent article, shows the resentment of these Age of Aquarius Catholics even as the more mature fruits of the Council — branded as “conservatism” or a “return to old ways” — begin to manifest among younger Catholics with no bone to pick about the Extraordinary Form. The Catholics who were active from the mid 1960s through the late 1990s and haven’t kept up with the times are being left behind even as they clutch their horrid Gather hymnals and natter on about female ordination and synodality and whatnot.

The problem with the “full and active participation of the Faithful” is that the word participation does a lot of quiet heavy lifting. In the 1960s and 1970s, a popular but hollow anthropology arose that equated doing something (speaking, singing, acting) with engagement. The idea that a person could engage quietly, through private prayer, to contribute to the Holy Sacrifice seemed like an outdated notion — an idea best left with the old babushkas toting their mantillas and their pocket missals and their rosaries. But that diversity of engagement is precisely what the Council mandated from the beginning.

Arts-and-crafts decorations and folk tunes and blessings by EMEs are not the authentic fruit of Vatican II. We’re only now starting to see the Council’s fruit blossom, after a transition period where the heralds of the new discover they’re fighting to sacralize the same pop-culture mentality that gave us bell bottoms and brutalist architecture. Parishes that close the door on the Age of Aquarius (e.g., Sacred Heart) will thrive; parishes that don’t will decline along with their Mainline Protestant brethren.

(Oops, sorry — I meant “along with their Mainline Protestant sisters and brothers.“)

Of Cats and Snakes

My four felines are a-purrin’ along. Team Orange (Murphy and Fiona d’Cat, at home) are aging but doing great. Team Grey (Theon and Kali d’Cat, at the office) have settled into a comfortable friendship.

Apollo d’Snek recently came out of brumation; he’s now hyperactive, looking for a mate, instead of burrowing in his substrate. We transferred him to a new, larger enclosure a few weeks ago and he seems to be digging it, although he needs some new branches to climb upon. And Athena d’Snek is growing rapidly. Despite being juvenile, she’s very chill and has responded well to being handled, including by children at the dojo.

Horsing Around

Joining me this month is Tyr d’Horse.

Tyr is a 4-year-old mustang from the Eagle HMA, which is just north of Las Vegas. He’s already 15.1 hands tall. He’s sorrel with a flaxen mane and tail as well as an elegant and controlled gait. He needs a bit more meat on his bones, but we can fix that. And somehow his tail and mane got chopped, but that’s also a solvable problem.

Photos really don’t do him justice, so here’s a video of him with the two-year-old that the trainer purchased in Cassopolis:

Tyr is curious and slightly cautious, but despite being an untouched feral gelding, he never freaked out and never showed signs of distress or anger. For the princely sum of $125 I obtained him through an Internet auction run by the Bureau of Land Management. He was shipped from Wyoming to Cassopolis, Mich., where my trainer and I signed for him. At the trainer’s facility, he got very close to me and Cade to munch a book of hay by our feet, and when the trainer entered the pen, he was alert but didn’t panic. All of this is a good sign that he’ll be calm and easy to work with.

He’ll be with the trainer in Big Rapids for two to six weeks for basic gentling (wearing a halter, allowing hoof inspections, allowing me to approach and touch, and being willing to trailer) before he goes to his “forever home” in Marne. From there, I’ll work with him (and also with a different trainer) to get him trail-ride ready. Of course, he needs to gain some weight and I need to lose some before you’ll see me on his back, but we have all the time in the world. He’ll have a mustang friend at the boarding facility in Marne — Cade’s gelding, Oliver, who followed the exact same path a year ago. (And now, Ollie is super chill and fun to work with. And incredibly smart: he knows which pocket contains the treats and he also knows when all the treats are gone.)

Oliver (L) and Kodiak, Cade’s horses. Ollie is a 5-year-old gelding from Divide Basin who arrived in Michigan last year, along the same trajectory as Tyr. Kodi is roughly 8, small, and dead broke — although he seems to have been a bit maltreated with his former owners, a problem that Cade is rectifying with some gentle care. And don’t let the photos fool you; Ollie is probably only around 14hh.

So stay tuned for equine updates, pardners.

Long Live the King of Statistical Improbabilities

Speaking of Cade — his chemo has been doing well. He underwent surgery in January to remove a large mass. After that, and after two (unnecessary and invasive) lung biopsies, he was cleared to begin chemo. He started on a potent fortnightly drug combo and recently stepped down to something more tolerable. He’s still on a treat-to-cure pathway, which we both see as a gift.

It’s been remarkable to watch his journey of “kicking cancer’s ass.” Since the new year, I’ve been with him through three surgeries, an E/R visit, a half-dozen imaging studies, and countless ambulatory appointments. Together, we’ve had fun (penguin feeding!) and experienced anxiety (a kidney crisis for Chloe the Elderly Leaky Chihuahua). We’ve worked with his horses, set life plans, visited a casino, taken road trips, cared for his mini-zoo, gone on picnics, and enjoyed date nights. Much of what’s happened to him and to Chloe has been highly improbable — which is why I want him to play the lottery! — but he’s kept up a good attitude. I’ve been impressed by his quiet courage, his determination, and his limitless empathy.

Adventures in Zookeeping

After Cade’s surgery, he enjoyed limited use of one arm for a while so I helped him with the maintenance and feeding of The Menagerie. He cares for a dog, two cats, two horses, a rabbit, a chicken, a quail, two rats, a half-dozen mice, a toad, several frogs, a scorpion, a tarantula, an anole, a crested gecko, a couple of bettas, a guppy tank, and a goldfish tank. And did I mention the 29 snakes, ranging in size from a baby palmetto corn to a full-grown female boa constrictor?

Helping him tend to these animals has been eye-opening and incredible, as has working with him to help Chloe the dog with some kidney problems — e.g., by giving her subcutaneous fluids and injectable meds on occasion.

I suspect that starting an animal rescue will be in our future.

Settling Into Paris

For the most part, I’m completely settled at The Chateaux, my new home in the Heritage Hill district of Grand Rapids. One of the last things I needed to do was to attend to the basement. A previous occupant had left some miscellaneous boxes in the basement hallway, so I’m dispensing with those. I’ve moved my storage stuff to the storage room (shocker!) and the big main space has now been fitted with a 12-foot-by-16-foot half-inch foam mat system so I can practice karate down there. I even put up a mini shomen on the north wall, with pictures of our founding masters as well as my own lineage and a copy of my nidan certificate.

I’ve also set up my exercise bike, additional LED lighting, a side table, and a fan. I’ll soon order a treadmill and a cable-driven weight bench, as well as some smaller hand weights to work with my multipurpose bench and its elastic-band system.

The movement of the recumbent bike has led to a cascade of minor changes on the second floor. My Yamaha keyboard has relocated from my office to the Adventure Room, for example. I replaced the bookshelves in my office and bought a new reading chair, so the older reading chair has also moved to the Adventure Room.

I also finished smarting-up the joint. I installed two interior surveillance cameras, both pointing at the exterior doors. I added a video doorbell, an outdoor weather station, a smart door lock for the front door, and a smart thermostat, in addition to a half-dozen smart light bulbs. All of these are controlled through Apple Home. I’ve set several handy automations to instantly transform the lighting depending on my mood and the time of day.

A few things remain to wrap up (seating in the three-season porch; seating on the front porch and planters for my seeds) but the big stuff has been done for a while now. It’s a significant improvement upon The Fortress.

Truck Camping, & Sundry Other Adventures

A few weeks ago, my brother and I camped at Mud Lake State Forest Campground. It was the first time I had set up the truck tent in the back of the Silverado. With his help, I erected the tent and the rain fly, set up my 10-foot-by-10-foot popup tent, and got everything into good order. I even used a cot with a mattress pad and slept reasonably comfortably that night.

Everything worked out well. I brought a two-burner Coleman stove, a couple coolers of food and beverage, a comfortable camp chair, a folding table, and all the other little necessities that made for a much more pleasant camping adventure. We planned to spend three days and two nights there, but a band of severe weather passed through with extraordinarily high winds, so we called it off by mid-day Saturday.

However, on Friday night, we enjoyed a roaring campfire, plenty of bourbon, and a couple of cigars, as well as good conversation. And the next morning, we chatted about his own rig — a utility trailer that he can also use as a more rustic camping trailer.

We definitely want to get out more often. I’ve already scheduled a couple of long-weekend camping trips this summer. Plus, I’m thinking long and hard about Brian’s trailer setup. Ideas, ideas.

Adventures in Analytics

Life on the work front has been interesting. My two biggest clients have both used me for a combination of revenue strategy, analytics, and business-process management. Since I started independently consulting in 2018, much of my time has been spent as a virtual CIO.

One recent takeaway: The SMB market doesn’t use advanced analytics, and I’m increasingly skeptical of the claims that Big Data or Big Analytics (or, I suppose, Big AI) will prove meaningful at anything lower than an enterprise level. And even then, it’s more about the culture of the C-suite than the skillset of the analytic corps.

Give a company a well-designed, well-documented SQL server with a robust, normalized data model and an open-source visualization tool (Metabase, Superset, Redash, &c.), and they’ll do 95 percent of what needs to be done. The real question is whether that extra 5 percent is worth the time and expense to achieve.

In some — many? — cases, I don’t think it is. At least, not for SMBs.

Bookstore Growth …

The bookstore is taking off. I think I’m up to more than 4,000 books in stock and I’m still on deck for my plan to start investing in new local-author titles later this summer.

It’s nice to have a series of regular customers who come in, browse, shop, and chat. We’ve done no advertising — it’s all been word-of-mouth, plus additions to mapping tools — but the reaction so far has been great. And, the weekly seminar program has been a lot of fun. We have a book group, a game night, a writing-craft night, and a big-idea discussion night.

At the end of the month (May 29, to be precise) we’re going to have a community potluck and grill-out for writers and their families. Should be a good time!

… and Publishing Shrinkage

I’ve formally closed Lakeshore Literary, Inc., and have decided to stop publishing long-form fiction. (Some publishing operations, like a reboot of The Lakeshore Review, will restart in a few months under the Foundation as a purely non-profit undertaking.) Some of the admin stuff is still unwinding, but the State of Michigan has endorsed the resolution to dissolve and so I’ve been slowly spinning the company down since January.

The biggest reason is financial. Lakeshore Literary has never made money; in fact, it’s lost me considerable money, in addition to the expense of uncompensated editorial and administrative time. The small amount of revenue we received for published books and journals paled in comparison to the cost of actually running and maintaining the business. I don’t have the bandwidth to manage projects that need hundreds of hours of time, especially when the terms of those projects shift unexpectedly and the cost-benefit ratio is on the wrong side of green.

Relatedly, I’m also closing Diction Dude LLC, my writing consultancy. I haven’t really done much writing consulting and having yet another business entity floating out there, consuming resources without contributing revenue, makes no sense.

I’m kinda-sorta-but-not-really sad about this turn of events. Of all the things on my plate, publishing was the thing that took a heck of a lot of time for no discernible ROI. It was a pricey hobby that must now yield to more productive pursuits.

An Author Alliance

From October 2023 through April 2024, the staff of National Novel Writing Month (which eventually dwindled to just one person) experienced a catastrophic implosion related to a series of scandals involving shady sponsors, incompetent staffers, and the failure to take seriously some complaints about forum moderators who may (or may not) have abused their authority — including, in one case, a moderator alleged to have groomed minors to join a fetish-story community dedicated to adult baby diaper lovers. Over the last few months, all of the staff but one seem to have quit. And the one remaining staffer decided to fire all 800-plus municipal liaisons worldwide who manage NaNoWriMo regionally, with no good plan in place to bring them back aboard.

You can’t make this [expletive deleted] up.

Anyway, our NaNoWriMo region has elected to go independent. As of last month, we formally separated ourselves from HQ and have become the West Michigan Author Alliance, a loose writing group under the aegis of the Lakeshore Literary Foundation. More to come!

Writing Projects

My personal writing has been largely on hold given time constraints, but when I get the chance, I do spend some time re-constituting From Pencil to Print, a book I started in 2017 but then blew up into several smaller books. It’s a book about the craft and business of writing. My revised plan takes the content of two of my manuscripts (one published, one at 85 percent completion) then adds a bit and subtracts a bit to arrive at a more coherent final output.

No sense yet of how long it’ll take to finish; I’m simply taking time where I can to work on it without being driven toward an artificial deadline.

The 17th, Yet Again

I’m running unopposed for the Republican nomination for Kent County Commission for District 17. Although I’m sure to lose the race in the general election (this district is something like D+50), it’s a good exercise in civic engagement to “fill the tree” to ensure that people have options as they cast their ballots.

This is, I believe, my fourth run at this office. We shall see if, this year, I crack my P.R. of 22 percent in the general election. 🙂

The Last Tech Tweak

In my last post, I noted that I had migrated from Logseq to Bear. I didn’t stay on Bear long before migrating (again), this time to Obsidian. So far, Obsidian is everything I wanted from Logseq but with none of the vexing sync errors.

Fingers crossed, this incarnation of a PKM will stick around a while. Using Obsidian and Todoist together, and being more thoughtful about which calendars and email accounts I provision to which devices, has certainly streamlined things for me.

The Discovery Era Ends

As I write this, two episodes remain in the fifth and final season of Star Trek: Discovery. Nerds — especially Trek nerds — will quibble, but the popular reception of Discovery hasn’t been all that hot. There’s a lot wrong with the series; several gifted actors (Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, David Cronenberg, Tig Notaro, Jason Isaacs, Michelle Yeoh) did their best with uneven writing and myriad Mary Sue moments and a push from execs to boldly go (into trans and non-binary spaces) where Trek had never gone (so ham-fistedly) before. Basically, the same problem that Doctor Who experienced in the Jodi Whittaker years.

But I’ll admit: I really like Discovery. A part of it stems from its reboot of the franchise after so many years of dormancy. But another part is that the series brought me joy in a rough time. When Season 1 debuted in late 2017, I was going through a politically toxic patch at work. Weekly Disco drops gave me something to look forward to. Now that the show ends in just two weeks, I find I’m a very different person occupying a very different and much happier personal and professional place. But I will still miss the show, and I will miss Martin-Green’s Captain Burnham continuing to settle into her well-deserved center chair.

Making Time

Connecting over a campfire is more important than Inbox Zero. This picture captures the campfire at Mud Lake, where I enjoyed great companionship with my brother last month.

I’ll wrap up with an observation.

Longtime readers know I’ve had a running personal debate about time and communications. I tried an experiment in January and I’ve found it to be extraordinary helpful. To wit: Consolidating email accounts and calendars, limiting what accounts load on my phone, and suppressing notifications for most communications services (including email).

I’ve only been reading messages intermittently and on a per-account basis. This has been great for keeping me focused on what I planned to do instead of reacting to whatever came into the inbox. I’ve got a lot on my plate and compartmentalizing has been a solid success strategy.

Cade’s cancer diagnosis really whacked me over the head with the value of finding time for the things that are important and stopping things that aren’t. That process starts with getting control over a day. You can have all the insight into emails and task lists that you like; if your day is not yours to govern, then the odds you’ll make progress are greatly diminished.

I’ve found great comfort in having an up-to-date 50,000-foot view of what’s on my plate. But for a long time, other people could add whatever they wanted to that plate on any random day. It’s not visibility, but decisiveness, that frees up opportunities to do the important-but-not-firedrill things that make life worth living.

When I was a hospital chaplain, I often visited the elderly who were close to death. Not one of them — not one — ever lamented having less-than-perfect credit or wishing their car was cleaner. Instead, they felt loss about relationships and about dreams not pursued. They regretted all the time wasted on things that seemed important in the moment but offered no meaningful strategic value. They felt shame about pursuing vendettas or punishing slights instead of just moving on and opening their hearts to other opportunities.

Dreams are real. To live them, you must seize control of your day to ensure you can give the right resources at the right time to manifest them in the universe.


Thanks for reading. May you have a happy and productive summer!

An Update, 18 Months Overdue

I used to maintain this blog with one to six posts per month, but my last post was September 2020 and I’d been flaky since late spring. There’s a reason for that, albeit not a super-compelling one. The pandemic and its associated drama affected me as much as anyone, and it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve been comfortable closing the door on one chapter of my life — running mid-2016 until late-2021 — and moving definitively into the next one. 

Oh, and a blessed Christmas to you and your family. I write this post on Christmas Day, with coffee at hand, classical Christmas music softly playing, the cats docile, and some myrrh incense burning near the window. My family routines were “mostly normal” this year and I hope they’re “fully normal” next year. May you each find some measure of joy this holiday season.

This’ll be a massive update, so buckle up and grab the extra-large-sized beverage of your choice. As usual, subjects aren’t presented in any particular order.

Health and Well-Being. After re-reading my recent posts, I think I was a bit inconsistent with how I characterized my run-in with the coronavirus — mostly to avoid in-the-moment questions or swoop-ins from readers. Here’s how it all ended up going down. First, I contracted Covid-19 (we think; tests weren’t available at the time) in early March 2020. I had come back from the lovely Bonaire diving trip with my friends Jen and Dave and then a few days later: wham. Much of March and April were pretty much lost; I was able to basically sit at my desk and do my contract editing job, but not much else. Exhaustion was pervasive and I had an entire week where my nights were interrupted by high nocturnal fevers and shortness of breath. I never experienced the loss of smell or taste, but virtually every other box was checked. From the beginning of May, when the worst of it has passed, until probably mid-to-late January 2021, I wasn’t quite right. Whether you call it Long Covid or just some lingering malaise, it came and went in fortnightly spurts. I’d enjoy roughly two weeks where everything was right as rain followed by a fortnight of exhaustion and mental fog. During this period, my weight yo-yoed like a sixth grader on the playground. But by late winter, I have consistently felt fine. I’ve been symptom-free since February, and now I sit comfortably in the “double vaxxed and boosted” category.

Ironically, despite the excellent “no sickness” theme of 2021, I’m writing this while battling a mid-grade sinus infection (thanks, dry winter!). I also had a bout of norovirus that first manifested itself on my return flight from Las Vegas this past summer. I am still apologetic to Delta Air Lines for not anticipating that gross liquid sludge would spew from my body from both ends simultaneously a mere 20 minutes out from landing. At least I managed to close the lav door one millisecond before the eruption.

Gillikin & Associates. Contract work over the last two years has been — well, inconsistent. I started 2020 with a full-time contract-but-W2 assignment performing content renovation for Dotdash. That contract expired in July. In that peak-of-pandemic period, the employment outlook was double-plus ungood. I acquired another contract gig, for blog-article writing in the tech sector, but it didn’t come within a country mile of paying all the bills. The enhanced unemployment benefits of that period saved me from an ignoble return to the metaphorical “mom’s basement.” By Memorial Day 2021, I landed an analytics-consulting contract thanks to my friend Patrick, and then a curriculum-development contract with a university thanks to my friend Andrew. What had been famine turned into feast, and the second half of 2021 has been one of the most financially well-performing periods of my entire life, with no signs of impending abatement. When you bring in enough revenue that you have to actually put yourself on payroll and provide yourself benefits, you know something is going well. May it persist!

Lakeshore Literary. When we shut down Caffeinated Press in December 2019, it was with some degree of both relief and disappointment. Relief, insofar as a business that didn’t grow quite right was finally allowed to slip gently into the night. Disappointment, insofar as part of the hope and promise of local literary excellence suffered because of the well-intended peculiarities of our business model. I launched a business structure for Lakeshore Literary — a successor company, but without the complexity of business partners — in early 2020 but apart from publishing my friend Lisa’s college-success textbook, it didn’t do anything. That is now changing. My colleague Garrett and I are co-editing a new triennial literary journal, The Lakeshore Review, and I’m re-doing the small press thing, as a part-time one-man shop. Significantly, it’s going to include retail: I’m planning for roughly 250 linear feet of shelf space to play with, to open a hyper niche bookstore focused on literary journals, small-press titles, and strictly curated self-published works. No general-catalog stuff. Plus, cafe seating, coffee and tea, and packaged snacks. Things get moving as of January 3. More about that in the next paragraph.

The L&G Center. The biggest news of Q4 is The L&G Center. It’s a 2,800-square-foot office space located near the intersection of 44th Street and Burlingame Avenue in Wyoming, Mich. My business partner Allison and I co-lease the building through an LLC formed solely to address our real-estate arrangement. I run G&A and Lakeshore Literary out of it; she runs her own business, Fourth Form Martial Arts Studio, out of it as well. The 1,200-square-foot front space is a mix of literary retail and cafe (15′ x 30′), plus an open studio that serves as the karate dojo or for special events (like poetry readings). We make the space available for rent if the situation feels right. The “dojo side” (which is roughly 25′ x 30′) when used as an events space can hold, we think, roughly 80 people auditorium-style or 48 people seated four to a six-foot table. With three generous storage rooms, funky cantilevered cabinetry, two ensuite restrooms, a kitchen, a skylight, a large conference room, and private offices for me and Allison, it’s a comfortable location that we rented for a steal. But it was a steal because we needed to replace the 30-year-old carpet, repaint everything, and perform non-trivial interior maintenance on our dime. We leased the space in mid-September and will enjoy our grand opening on January 3. It’s got a bit of an industrial/rustic feel to it, yet it’s a great multipurpose space with plenty of parking and easy access to US-131, M-6, and I-196.

Karate. So why, pray tell, did we start The L&G Center? Blame karate. 🙂 In November 2020, in the throes of National Novel Writing Month, I connected with a writer named Allison who, as fate would have it, I had met before — in karate class, ca. 2007-2008. She was a shy wisp of a blonde teenager at the time, but she ended up becoming a fierce, whipcrack-smart woman whose favorite word directed at me is a poorly considered “Veto.” When I studied karate in those days, it was at East West Karate Center. It turns out, East West persisted until the pandemic killed it off. One of the sixth-degree black belts rented space at a gym in Dorr, Mich., for twice-weekly informal karate and weapons classes. Allison encouraged me to go to those classes, and I did. I reconnected with so many folks I remembered from those long-ago days. In July, Allison and Muhamet tested for higher-degree black belts. Then in August we had a karate pool-slash-whiskey-sampling party and the subject of moving out of that tiny rented gym arose. I mentioned I was looking for office space, the group had convinced Allison to start a dojo again to replace East West — and six weeks later, we took possession of The L&G Center and she founded Fourth Form. I am the dojo’s most senior kyu student, anticipating black belt testing in the summer of 2022. We’ve welcomed back some of the old East West students and even a few new ones. It’s an exciting time, and my Kent County-based peeps should strongly consider coming to the dojo’s hard launch and karate demonstration at 6p on Monday, January 3. (We’re at 1590 44th St SW, Wyoming MI, 49509.)

Writing. I’ve made minor progress across several projects, but nothing to speak of. I’m focusing next week on my project list, to see if a bit of sorting and prioritizing will make things easier to execute. I think I’m leaning toward spending the entire year drafting The Bear of Rosebriar Creek, which is a literary novel featuring four broken main characters who each find a measure of healing during a community’s panic over a man-killing bear. I’ve been noodling over this story for years but haven’t had the cojones to tackle it. Until now, I guess. No promises.

Top: Round Lake, and the flooding of our campsite. Bottom: Clear skies along the Manistee River.

The Great Outdoors. I haven’t done any scuba diving since Bonaire, nor have I yet resumed flying lessons, but I have done some hiking. Twice this year — once with my brother, and once with my friend Scott — I trekked to the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula for overnight hiking adventures. Scott and I did a section of the North Country Trail between the Fife Lake Loop and Hodenpyl Dam; Brian and I did two nights at Round Lake State Forest Campground. Both trips were “car camping” with day hikes. Scott made delicious food near our campsite overlooking the Manistee River while Brian made delicious food while we hammocked in a hurricane. I also went on a few night walks at Millennium Park. Just me, my headlamp, the critters, and a few meth addicts scurrying through the underbrush.

Faith Formation. I’ve been more active at church lately. I’m a member of the Communications Apostolate, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m part of the volunteer team that prepared our parish’s annual report and helped pull off our “renewal of fidelity” annual commitment program. Sacred Heart is a parish where stewardship is a four-letter word — an approach I find most refreshing. We had a pastor transition this summer; the Rev. Robert Sirico was granted senior priest (i.e., retired) status and the Rev. Ron Floyd was appointed as canonical administrator. I moved to Sacred Heart for Sirico but I’m staying for Floyd. It’s a vibrant, intellectual, humble community with rich worship and a spirit of service. I miss my old friends at St. Anthony but spiritually, the trade was worth it. 

Intellectual Formation. This topic could be a blog post in its own right, but I’ll keep it brief-ish. I started 2020 working full-time as a contract editor for Dotdash, and all the while, I spent countless hundreds of hours background-watching lectures and podcasts on YouTube while I worked. I mostly stopped reading books and flipped to consuming videos over much of 2020. I absorbed such treasures as Jordan B. Peterson’s extended series about the book of Genesis, Joe Rogan’s shows, the Dark Horse Podcast livestreams with Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, and countless other bits of content from the center-right and the non-woke left. Early on, I became enamored with the “Intellectual Dark Web,” but eventually the luster dimmed. Stuff like Weinstein getting on the Ivermectin train and Peterson’s extended illness changed the nature of the beast. Toward the end of 2020 I eventually stopped watching YouTube videos and moved back to a beefier podcast roster, augmented by much more reading.

On the podcast front, I’ve found that tend to not miss many episodes of Sway, Pivot, and Your Undivided Attention (tech-focused); Blocked & Reported and Useful Idiots (media criticism); Left Right & Center, Checks and Balances, and The Argument (bipartisan/centrist issues-focused); Action Unwind, New Discourses, Three Martini Lunch, The Editors, and Mad Dogs & Englishmen (conservative-leaning politics); and FiveThirtyEight Politics, Slate Political Gabfest, The Ezra Klein Show, and The Weeds (left-leaning politics). Fitting imperfectly into the mix are The Glenn Show, Conversations with Coleman, and Honestly with Bari Weiss, each of which comes from an anti-woke center-left perspective. Atop that listening, I subscribe to National Review and have been working through a slush pile of books. Currently on the table: The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die by Niall Ferguson, and Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen.

I’ve always positioned myself as something of a center-right thinker, although the Hidden Tribes report doesn’t really capture me very well. A lot of the strident, populist, more authoritarian streams of conservatism strike me as both silly and sinister, but the progressive left seems morally bankrupt and incapable of engaging the world outside its bubble. One of the take-aways from my podcasts is that when I disagree with the content of a particular episode, when the podcast hails from the right I tend to disagree on specifics of policy, whereas when I disagree with the content from a left-leaning episode, my frustration sources from the content presenting a caricature of the world. Too many straw men, too little understanding of countervailing arguments. I think that’s why I could never actually be a “man of the left” even if I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments and positions from that worldview.

If you ask where my head’s at and how it’s changed in the last 24 months, I’d distil it to this: I have less confidence in the integrity of the media and less confidence in political leaders to successfully navigate complex problems sourced from several unrelated input streams. I think the fringes of the left and the right are increasingly indistinguishable in their lunacy and their nihilism and that social platforms make this problem several orders of magnitude worse. Enlightenment liberalism (aka “David Frenchism“) is a noble framework worth protecting from integralists, socialists, and all the ne’er-do-wells in between. I’m paying more attention to disciplines like evolutionary biology and econometrics than I used to, and I appreciate how those disciplines help to undermine the superstructure of Critical Theory. And I see that in the absence of a real God to worship, people build destructive religion-like cults out of squishy nonsense like Q-Anon or antiracism. 

Political Engagement. I ran for office again in 2020, for county commission. For the second time, I was persuaded to run in this D+1,000,000 district in the heart of south-central Kent County. The upside was that I returned as a statutory member to the Kent County Republican Executive Committee.

For the 2020 election, I was the sole GOP challenger for the Absentee Voter Counting Board for the City of Kentwood, Mich. I spent 20 hours on-site at Kentwood City Hall, watching the opening and tabulation of countless thousands of absentee ballots. Kentwood even used Dominion machines! And you know what? I saw zero evidence of voter fraud. The loudest voices proclaiming The Big Lie come from people with literally no understanding of how votes are counted and audited — a fact that the shitshow of a “forensic audit” in Arizona proved beyond all reasonable doubt. As I look to candidates for state and local government in Michigan, the first thing I look for are two disqualifiers. Are they invoking the “America First” dog whistle? Are they in favor of a “full forensic audit?” If yes to either, they’re automatically disqualified as far as I’m concerned. As the debacle of the Senate elections in Georgia and the success of the Virigina gubernatorial elections attest, competent-and-sane Republicans will win while voices undermining the legitimacy of the election process will not.

Frankly, I’d rather win than fraternize with the liars and grifters who can’t get past their loss in 2020.

Social Media. Those of you with eyes to see and ears to hear will likely know that I’ve been off social media for most of the last two years. That’s not an accident, and it’s probably not going to be meaningfully changed. I am now convinced that Facebook is a force for evil in the world, and that Twitter has done more to pollute the body politic than any single other factor. I am not in a “delete my accounts” mode because I have businesses to run; I will probably occasionally throw things out there, but also never bother to check feeds or notifications. Increasingly, I’m turning to tools like blogs and Discord for communication and community. 

Winnie_Bot. I’m one of three “core” members of a project team for an open-source Discord bot called Winnie. Winnie_Bot tracks word sprints, goals, and related activities. In addition to serving as the project PM, I was also the translator of Winnie_Bot into Latin and I helped shape the core model for the bot’s database. Our product owner — Dawn, from Melbourne — and lead developer — Katie, from Ohio — have been a delight, and the community has been a big part of our success. That said, our go-live goal of October was sorely missed, at first by a little, and then by a lot. We’re making a lot of changes to the bot to conform to some Discord-specific changes that will take effect in April. We suspect that come 4/1, we might be the only bot left standing in this space. So we’re taking the time to get it right. It’s been a fair amount of work, especially in October and November, but it’s been fun.

National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo 2021 came and went. I spent it as a Municipal Liaison for the OCGR region (Ottawa County-Grand Rapids). I was co-ML with my friend Mel. It was a virtual-only year again, and it showed. Participation and interest were significantly lower. I wrote hardly anything, but then again, I was focused more on Winnie than writing. 

GRWT. The Grand River Writing Tribe diversified at the beginning of 2020. We split into three groups. One, the oh-so-cleverly named “OG Tribe,” contains most of the original cast of characters. The new in-person group, informally named “Bob’s Bitch Lasagna” for Reasons, is also doing well. Then “Group V” — the virtual group — consists of folks from across eastern North America. It’s great to be part of these groups; I’ve learned a lot.

Committee on Professional Ethics. I’m beginning my third year as a member of the Committee on Professional Ethics of the American Statistical Association. Over 2021, CoPE engaged what amounted to a 10-full-month exercise in rewriting our ethical guidelines for the practice of statistics. The process required weekly two-hour Zoom meetings, interspersed with periods of more intense work on a person-by-person basis. I was a member of the Working Group for the revision and was accountable for leading discussion around the revisions of two of the existing principles. We collectively wrapped that work by Halloween, and we’ve since learned that the ASA Board of Directors was satisfied with the work with very little requests for subsequent revision. I have been tasked with leading a similar workgroup in 2022 related to a framework for the application of these guidelines on an institutional basis. It’s gratifying to put my ethics degree to practical use.

Relationships. I think I’ve done mostly OK in maintaining relationships during the pandemic. In some ways, my immediate family got a bit closer, even as the extended family became more — well, extended. I saw my grandmother for the first time in 20 months on Thursday. I see Tony and Jen occasionally and we did enjoy an overnight karaoke party at Dimondale Manor with PPQ and The Good Doctor over the summer. I don’t feel as if I’ve lost friends, although I do think that I’ve lost a degree of connection to the folks from the extended podcasting community.

Roux and I, fleeing the Mounties.

Travel. Since the beginning of the pandemic I’ve traveled twice and received an out-of-town visitor once. In late June 2021, I attended the 360 Vegas Vacation in Las Vegas, in that sweet spot between lockdown periods: Apart from the airports, you’d have forgotten that it was a pandemic, in those pre-Delta days when all the infection lines were crashing and vaccination rates were shooting up. Then this autumn, Roux from Denton flew to Michigan. He and I spent one night at an Airbnb in Windsor, Ontario, then he spent two nights in Grand Rapids. It was good to see Roux as well as the ol’ standbys from the podcast community.

Podcasting. All my grand plans for Vice Lounge and Diction Dude were skewered by the hell that was 2020. I had a great talk with some folks in Las Vegas about VLO, including Tim of The Bettor Life, and I am planning on bringing VLO back in 2022. The format will be a bit different and I’m making changes to a bunch of stuff (no Patreon, less social media, but more stuff like livestreams and community on Discord). It’s on the docket for January, although I reserve the right to bump it as things settle down at The L&G Center after our grand opening.

Kali d’Cat, looking up at me, wondering why I’m taking her photo.

Cats. Murphy and Fiona d’Cat are both doing well. As is Kali d’Cat, the outdoors-dwelling sweetie. I have since discovered that Kali was a TNR kitty (trap, neuter, release). She is super affectionate, a bit skittish, and clever as hell. She also picks-and-chooses when she gets violent with the other larger mammals that approach her food dish. Most of the time, she lets the raccoons and opossums eat away, but every now and then holds her ground. She doesn’t like being picked up, but she does enjoy belly rubs — right up until the second she doesn’t. (He says, with a scratched right hand.) She lives on my back porch and has no real interest in coming inside. I have given her a cardboard box with a heating pad that’s on all winter long. The pad quickly heats to something like 95F when pressure is applied to it. She figured out the box/pad thing in a hurry and spends most of her time there when it’s cold.

OK, all for now. I’ll work on getting back on a regular schedule for 2022. Until then, I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy nude new year.

Risk Mitigation, Political Ineptitude, and the Failure of Public Health Policy

Various reactions to the coronavirus pandemic in mid-to-late May raise a disquieting thought: What if the logic model of public-health policymaking is structurally flawed? I don’t claim to have an answer or a solution, but I think the question requires meaningful discussion.

Let’s start the conversation by reviewing CDC guidance about preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Then we’ll explore individual and social risk mitigation, followed by the long-term political risks of over-reliance on public health guidance.

Public Health Guidance: The Dirty Secret

Everyone’s heard the CDC guidelines for staying safe during the Coronapocalypse — 

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer of at least 60 percent alcohol before you touch your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoid close contact and practice “social distancing” of at least 6 feet
  • Wear a cloth mask at all times when you’re around others
  • Do not wear an N95 mask; that model should be reserved for healthcare workers only
  • Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces daily
  • Take your temperature

Simple, right? But the devil’s in the details.

Public-health officials reduce the management of complex diseases and medical conditions into a small set of easily comprehended behavioral norms. These rules, because they’re intended to be fully intelligible even to people with below-average cognitive repertoires, often elide the details and the counterfactuals. Doctors and public-health bureaucrats issue directives intended to serve as maxims — as a catechism of sorts — that everyone memorizes and observes. Deviation from the catechism is bad, either for your own health (as with chronic-disease avoidance) or for others. When others come into the equation (as with Covid-19), deviation may even be accompanied by legal sanctions or social shunning. In most cases, though, the maxims are useful and benign.

All these rules offer broad generalizations that won’t be applicable in all circumstances, however. That’s the problem with broad-based, simplistic rulesets: They work at a 60,000-foot level, but sometimes prove incoherent at a 6-foot level of social distancing. But because they’re The Rules™ they’re inviolable, even when a proportion of the population recognizes that a specific application of those rules proves absurd. The reaction in Michigan to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer forbidding big-box stores from selling gardening supplies or from people engaging in recreational boating offers an excellent case in point. She invoked restrictions about essential and non-essential business activities that might, at first glance, enjoy some grounding in Science™ but in context stood in almost perfect contradiction to the best available clinical evidence.

(Turns out, you actually should be outside, and both gardening and boating are great environments to get some sun and to get some fresh air while not being in close proximity to others.)

Let’s go back to those CDC guidelines, developed by public-health officials to serve as an easily understood catechism. What are their vulnerabilities?

  1. Wash frequently: Frequent hand-hygiene is default best practice. The CDC guidelines for frequent hand-washing with soap and water (normal soap, not the antibacterial kind, I might add) is always called for, as is alcohol-based sanitation in the absence of soap and water. This is a good guideline, but it’s universal — not just applicable to SARS-CoV-2. You should always practice good hand hygiene, pandemic or not!
  2. Social distancing: Useful in principle, useless in (some) practice. Social distancing has been invoked as some sort of magical talisman to ward off infection, but it isn’t. The six-foot exclusion zone is just an average. Given what we know about the way SARS-CoV-2 spreads, in some cases six feet isn’t enough, but in other cases, it’s superfluous. To be infected, you must be exposed to a certain number of active virus particles. At a clean, well-lit and well-ventilated supermarket, passing within two feet someone who isn’t coughing isn’t likely to materially increase your risk of infection. However, it’s several orders of magnitude worse to stand cheek-by-jowl for 10 minutes to buy Michigan Lottery tickets in a dank liquor store with no active ventilation. And the risk of infection outdoors is almost zero; the infinitesimal number of confirmed outdoor-infection cases in China relate to people who stood in close proximity and talked face-to-face, unmasked, for an extended period of time. Keeping eight to 10 feet of distance from unmasked people in a dark and poorly ventilated space makes a ton of sense; keeping six feet away from masked people in a bright, breezy public park offers comparatively less value. But because the rule must be simple and universal, it doesn’t admit to context-sensitive refinement or prudent situational enforcement.
  3. Cloth masks: The CDC tweaked its message; nowadays, the rule is to wear a cloth mask to prevent the infection of others, not to avoid infection yourself. To be clear: Wearing a cloth mask doesn’t stop you from being infected. Rather, those masks minimize the transmission of virus particles by infected but asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carriers. That being the case, after you’ve been confirmed to have antibodies and aren’t symptomatic, you aren’t a transmission risk. Yet the “thou shalt wear masks” rule is considered an absolute, with some stores refusing service if you don’t wear one, even when any individual person presents literally zero risk to others or the environmental context is not favorable to virus transmission. In fact, the CDC recommends masks only when “other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” When you read the fine print, you discover that the recommendation is not for all people to wear masks in public at all times.
  4. Avoid N95 masks: From the beginning, CDC said N95 masks weren’t necessary. This lie (and it was a deliberate lie) was intended to minimize runs on these masks, preserving supply for frontline healthcare workers. And as someone who’s worked in health care for two decades, I totally get it. But an N95 mask, if properly fitted and used according to spec, not only reduces your outbound infection risk, but also your inbound infection risk. Everyone should be using N95 masks, not homemade cloth masks. But because the supply chain proved fragile, the CDC offers guidance that is deliberately inaccurate to distort the market for these masks. No matter how noble, a lie is a lie, and when people know it’s a lie, then why should they trust any of the other guidance? Especially when it breaks down within a specific context? It’s difficult to understate the credibility hit that public-health officials took over this about-face on masks.
  5. Clean and disinfect: CDC recommends daily cleansing of surfaces. However, different pathogens react differently to different surfaces in different contexts. For example, on copper, SARS-CoV-2 has an estimated life of just four hours. On cardboard, it’s 24 hours. On glass, it’s up to five days—but not glass exposed to direct sunlight. But you don’t get infected from a surface; SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t enter the body through hands or skin. If you practice religious hand hygiene, you will not become infected from surface contamination. That said, obviously you should not allow your stuff to become a petri dish of pathogens. But the practice of ostentatiously disinfecting, say, shopping-cart handles doesn’t really matter as long as you wash or sanitize your hands after shopping but before you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. This surface-disinfection practice certainly helps to a degree (what if you involuntarily touch your eye to remove an eyelash? or absently re-adjust your cloth mask and touch your lips?), so it’s not a useless exercise, but it’s an adjunct practice to limit transmission of the virus through the respiratory tract. Fetishizing the cleansing of surfaces brings diminishing marginal utility, but it creates a false sense of security that makes other precautions seem less urgent. (“I won’t bother with hand sanitizer because the nice lady sprayed my cart handle with something, so I’m safe.”) So, yes, clean your surfaces — but understand that surface contamination in itself isn’t an infection risk.
  6. Take your temperature: Something like 40 percent to 80 percent of all transmission events are estimated to occur from people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. That’s the big reason for the “wear a mask” rule — you’re highly contagious early in the infection, before symptoms manifest (if they manifest at all). But you only show a fever when you’re symptomatic, and fevers aren’t restricted to SARS-CoV-2 infections. The practice of some healthcare organizations, TSA and some retail establishments of taking surface skin temperatures is therefore odd. If you’re sick enough to be symptomatic, you’re likely not traveling anyway, and even if you are traveling, an elevated temperature (unmanaged by a fever reducer like acetaminophen, which will fool the thermometer in low-grade cases) could source from any of hundreds of infections, not all of which are transmissible. You’ll get a fever if your appendix is about to burst, but you’re not going to mass-infect people with appendicitis if you’re out in public. Public temperature reads are very obviously kabuki theater — no different from TSA “randomly screening” an 85-year-old grandmother.

Put differently: CDC guidance is directionally useful at a population level, but the value of the guidance — because it must be simple enough for low-IQ people to understand — diminishes as you move from the general to the particular.

This phenomenon always applies to the management of any disease condition. Public-health officials focus on the herd, not the individual. Public-health guidance is replete with “rules” that don’t make sense in specific situations but reduce herd risk in the aggregate. Perhaps the classic pre-coronavirus example relates to HIV transmission. The official guidance is to not engage in unprotected sex (without a condom or pre-exposure prophylaxis or both) with someone who is HIV positive or who is uncertain about his HIV status. Yet a person can be HIV positive but maintain clinically undetectable levels of the virus thanks to modern antiretroviral therapies. There’s almost no risk of contracting HIV through unprotected sex with someone with an undetectable viral load. But that kind of asterisk doesn’t fit on a bus poster and it’s not easily digested by a low-IQ audience, so the high-level rule remains unchanged.

(Obviously, unprotected sex can generate other infections beyond HIV, but that’s beside the point.)

Plenty of problems arise when individuals and politicians maximize the 60,000-foot advice at the expense of useful context, though. People cannot properly account for risk through universal rules, and when they experience the disconnect between the universal and the particular, they may dismiss the universal guidance wholesale as “fake news” or “political posturing.” 

This 60,000-foot-to-6-foot scale problem may be a fatal structural flaw with the entire discipline of public health management.

Risk Mitigation for Individuals and Groups

In the WEIRD world, transparent and open access to information is crucial. With information, individual actors price risk effectively. That’s why we’ve got laws against insider trading. The pricing of risk — actuary science — can be arcane, but it’s a critical skill for thriving in a complex environment. Every action entails some degree of risk, from which we protect ourselves with insurance or with behavior modification. High-risk activities tend to require higher premium payments, because the insurer is likely to experience higher or more frequent payouts, or more elaborate safety mechanisms. It’s well known that humans tend to suffer loss aversion and retroactively rationalize predicable but low-frequency loss as a black-swan phenomenon. In other words, by default, we tend to suck at accurately estimating risk on the fly. Actuaries are simultaneously boring and critical.

Risk mitigation works on an individual level, too. We all take various steps to reduce potential harm, often when the mitigation step is minor and the potential cost is very high but the risk is very rare — as with wearing a seatbelt to prevent ejection through the windshield after a high-speed impact. Other forms of risk mitigation incur minor costs when the risk is high but the cost is low, as with frequent handwashing during cold-and-flu season. And sometimes, as with Covid-19, we don’t know enough to estimate cost or risk.

Each person must judge risk for himself, though. The relative risk-to-reward ratio is a subjective assessment. One reason the “don’t tread on me” types rejected both the Affordable Care Act and the wear-masks-in-public rule stems from a sense that they price risk differently from the authorities; mandates that overrule a person’s innate risk threshold are seen as an infringement of liberty. They don’t like that their choice to act or not-act has been taken away from them, that someone else imposed a risk-reduction cost that they wouldn’t have voluntarily accepted. And in a tort-happy legal system, the dial seems to turn ever more tightly into a health-and-safety framework that nowadays results in CPS referrals if a kid plays alone in the front yard. A big part of the modern populist movement is, in a sense, a reaction against costly or invasive mandates arising from irrationally low risk tolerances in public policy.

Think of it this way. Assume that two years from now, a new respiratory virus spreads across America. We know that if you venture into a mass public gathering, you have a one-in-five chance (20 percent) of acquiring the illness, and if you’re infected, you have a 1 percent chance of dying. A public-health expert says that in a nation of 300 million, half the people venture out in public once per year. Thus, they estimate that 300,000 people will die in a year from this new virus without interventions. They deem this risk unacceptable, so they ban public gatherings, driving both the infection rate and the case-fatality rate to very low numbers. 

A win for the experts, right? All it cost was 1 percent of GDP from lost economic activity arising from the banning of those gatherings, including the loss of 1 million jobs. (And no one calculates the secondary effects of the solution, including increased rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and diseases of despair that arise from the economic dislocation of the public-health intervention.)

But what if instead of ordering a banning of those events, officials laid out the risks? If you as an individual realized that each mass public gathering you attended translates to a 0.2 percent morality risk, would you still go? Would your opinion change if you realized that the only people who died were those with a defined set of risk characteristics that you either did or did not share? It’s likely that these events would shrink, but they wouldn’t be banned. Some people would likely die that wouldn’t in an outright ban, but the secondary economic and health risks wouldn’t materialize, either. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s a necessary one.

The structural bias of public-health policy is that the average citizen is too disengaged, or simply not capable, to make an informed decision in light of these facts. Thus, they set rules — intelligible at a fourth-grade reading level, and often accompanied by pictures — that easily distill to a few slogans that anyone can understand. Even, significantly, people with an IQ that’s more than one standard deviation below the mean, which therefore necessitates the removal of a lot of context in order to preserve the universality and intelligibility of the rule. Plus, they favor population-level interventions (mandatory masks and social distancing, quarantines) in lieu of targeted strategies for clinically relevant sub-populations. 

Perhaps, though, public-health officials ought to focus on risk identification and quantification and risk-cohort stratification, and let the mitigation strategy fall to individuals and elected leaders. Because when the experts in a very narrow field gain control of the levers of power, too much goes awry.

The Long-Term Political Risk of Public Health Kabuki Theater

Remember in March when the primary justification for state-level quarantine orders rooted in a fear of over-stressing the health systems and running out of ventilators? Turns out, people across the ideological divide got behind that argument. Then, when the feared stresses and ventilator shortages failed to materialize, some governors changed their tunes. Now, emergency orders were justified to “bend the curve” or to prevent people from becoming ill.

It doesn’t take a constitutional genius to realize that neither state nor federal governments labor under an affirmative duty to prevent individual citizens from acquiring a respiratory infection, even a particularly nasty one. Offer high-level advice? Sure. Pen emergency orders requiring people to remain in their homes and, in many cases, to lose their livelihoods? Maybe not.

Public health officials throughout this pandemic did what they always do: They offer a maximalist case for applied epidemiology: “To minimize harm, engage in these activities and refrain from these other activities.” Too many political leaders simply parroted this advice without translating it into a broader risk profile that included considerations far removed from the public-health officials’ domain of competence. Like, for example, economics. Political leaders who outsourced policy to the most risk-averse public-health expert didn’t effect a good kind of balance. This dynamic played out — in part, from partisan-media laziness — in a red-vs-blue divide among the governors. The reality is a bit more complex; after all, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia (a Republican) was targeted by the media for opening Georgia while Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado (a Democrat) did pretty much the exact same thing at the exact same time and the media didn’t pounce.

A better example might source from a pair of Democrats. In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer cloaked herself in the righteousness of public-health virtue even as some of her directives offered no meaningful effect on public health but scored Democratic Party talking points. Meanwhile, the attorney general, Dana Nessel, publicly argued with President Trump over wearing face masks at the same time that Whitmer herself appeared at a news conference without one. In Colorado, however, Jared Polis reopened the state using a model that balanced emerging cases relative to economic risks. (So did Brian Kemp. And a few other governors, Republican and Democrat alike, didn’t shut down their states at all.)

It’s not red-vs-blue; it’s holistic vs. outsourced. Governors most averse to pandemic risks tended to maximize vague public-health rules and talk about “safety” while governors most averse to long-term economic and secondary public-health costs tended to blend expert advice from many disciplines into a more comprehensive plan of action. 

The effect of the safer-than-thou governors may prove catastrophic in the long run — not from Covid-19 morality figures, but from public rejection of the “we’re in this together” argument that makes early, strong action uncontroversial. If, two years from now, a new coronavirus appears with significantly “worse” clinical profiles to SARS-CoV-2, and Gretchen Whitmer invokes emergency powers to shut down the state, will she get an early bipartisan consensus and public support like she did in 2020, or will a non-trivial chunk of the population trot out the “fool me twice” canard and actively resist from Day One?

Worse, ostentatious compliance or non-compliance becomes a form of virtue signaling. Security guards have been killed because they refused admittance to non-masked store patrons; some store patrons have chased un-masked shoppers out of stores. It’s dangerous that a face mask, which is only contextually useful, absolutizes into totemic status. Yet here we are.

You get one chance to deploy public-health emergency powers. Screw it up politically, and you don’t get a second chance, even if the second occurrence justifies the emergency more strongly than the first chance did. I’m terrified of the long-term repercussions of Gretchen Whitmer’s deferral to public-health authorities and her refusal to work effectively with the Republican-led state legislature. Because the next crisis will be worse. And now, we’ve potentially lost a vital tool because we misused it the first time.

But Whitmer’s fecklessness isn’t the whole problem. Perhaps our public-health officials, who are so sure of themselves and of the principles of their discipline, ought to take a long look at whether they made things worse by offering systemic policies that source from one domain of knowledge only, and which didn’t allow for reasonable tailoring at the 6-foot level where ordinary citizens reside.

A Pandemic of Opinions About the COVID-19 World Order

What a difference a month makes. Just 30 days ago, the Wuhan Coronavirus seemed like a distraction from the seriousness of the Democratic beauty pageant. Partisans sniped about whether COVID-19 represented an existential threat to the species or a hoax to get Trump. The Dow was looking to crest 30,000 points. Life offered predictability.

In fact, just six weeks ago, I remember sitting on the porch of our rented apartment in Bonaire, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, enjoying rum and a cigar and talking to Dave (who frequently travels to China) about whether he had been to a place called Wuhan, because the news stories out of China were looking scary. He told funny stories about his travel adventures in China and India.

Now? No one’s laughing. No one with working synapses thinks it’s a hoax.

Where to begin?

The Epidemiology

Let’s start with the science. 

The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan likely originated with a wet market. That’s a market serving slaughtered animals, many of them exotic. The Chinese government made motions to shut them down after the SARS epidemic but let them persist. 

Some terms: The virus, called SARS-CoV-2, sometimes leads to a disease called COVID-19. People can be infected by the virus and, because they’re asymptomatic, not actually manifest the disease. The math about the dangers of COVID-19 are based on reported cases of people whose infections have morphed into the disease. However, some unknown proportion of the country has acquired and defeated the virus without developing the disease. Keep that distinction top-of-mind when you think about population-prevalence statistics. A good deal of reporting has mixed, willy-nilly, cases of infection and cases of disease.

It’s difficult to get a good sense on how wide the disease has spread, in part because people with very mild cases are likely under-counted in the denominator and in part because some of the worst outbreaks occur in countries with regimes that shade the truth (China, Iran, possibly Russia and Venezuela). For people with mild-to-moderate infections, the disease symptoms are so similar to influenza that only a specific test yields a concrete diagnosis. In general, though, the danger signs of COVID-19 include dry (often extreme) coughing, shortness of breath, and fever.

The CDC offers an online symptom self-checker that helps put your mind at ease about what your best course of action may be. In general, if you experience trouble breathing, become confused or lethargic, show a bluish tint to your face or lips, or feel persistent pain/pressure in your chest, seek immediate medical attention. Those are signs of hypoxemia—low blood oxygen—and is caused by, among other things, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a serious complication from COVID-19.  Basically, your lungs fill with fluid, preventing oxygen absorption in your tissues, which is why the number of ventilators is important. (If you’re a worry-wort and you merely think you’re having difficulty breathing and then hyperventilate and then generate the same symptoms of respiratory insufficiency … get yourself a pulse oximeter and learn how to use it.)

However, those big-three symptoms everyone talks about aren’t the only ones that manifest with COVID-19:

 

When you consider how COVID-19 differs from the cold or the flu, two statistics matter:

  1. The R0. The R-naught of a pathogen marks its replication multiplier. A pathogen with R0 = 1 generally results in one infected person infecting a single other person, in the long-run average. Diseases with an R0 of less than 1 generally self-contain; not enough people get them to cause a pandemic. Diseases with R0 above 2 spread like wildfire. It’s easy to see why: One person infects two. Those two infect four. Those four infect 8, who infect 16, who infect 32. Imperial College London estimates the R0 of COVID-19 to be 2.4. That’s code for “a lot of people will get exposed to this thing in the normal course of business.”
  2. The case fatality rate. The case-fatality rate is the proportion of people infected by a pathogen who will die from the pathogen or complications related to it. A study published 24 February in JAMA suggests a case-fatality rate, as represented by official Chinese statistics, of 2.3 percent. That rate, however, is highly dependent on the age and chronic comorbidities of the afflicted. Relatively few young-and-healthy people die of COVID-19, for example, although they can and do. In Italy, the official case-fatality rate is somewhere above 8 percent, but Italy’s population skews older and they’re classifying any cause of death that looks like COVID-19 to be COVID-19, so that number is almost surely overstated. In the United States, it appears to hover around 1.45 percent with statistics current as of 26 March.

People sometimes ask: Is all this drama worth it? After all, more than 80 percent of infected people experience no or very mild symptoms. In fact, absent clinical testing, doctors can’t tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu. So why worry?

The best way to answer that question is to look at the interplay between the case-fatality rate and R0. The flu’s case-mortality rate is around 0.05 to 0.1 percent with an R0 of 1.3. Compared to the flu, it appears COVID-19 kills 15 to 75 times more people and infects twice as many people. Although it’s true that for a broad swathe of people, COVID-19 infection proves utterly anticlimactic, the public-health concern isn’t with the 80 percent. It’s with the 20 percent who require hospitalization. Of those, 5 percent will die, and a proportion will only survive acute respiratory distress syndrome through the use of a ventilator—and many those extreme survivors will never regain full pulmonary function.

If we leave the disease unmanaged, the prospect that 1 million or more Americans could die from COVID-19 isn’t scaremongering—it’s science. Given that there’s presently no vaccination or treatment, the only tool in our toolkit becomes an artificial reduction in R0 through tactics like enforced social isolation. Because even though the virus might have an average “natural” case-fatality rate of 1 percent in optimal-care settings, if a large chunk of that 20 percent who require hospitalization can’t get a ventilator, the case-fatality rate increases. Sometimes dramatically. In an overstretched healthcare system with inadequate ventilator supplies and fewer healthcare providers (because they, themselves, are sick!), that death rate climbs. And climbs. And climbs.

Are these broad shutdowns scary? Sure. Unprecedented? Yup. Necessary? Absolutely!

In a perfect world, by mid-summer, we’ll all look at these shutdowns and wonder if it was all a let-down. Much ado about nothing. If that’s the case, then congratulations to us all—these measures worked. And if mid-summer comes and the world feels like Thunderdome—well, then, they didn’t. And may God have mercy on our souls.

Shining Points of Light

Resist the urge to see only the bad and the scary, though. Use this moment as a ready-made excuse to connect with old friends (remotely, of course) and to practice random acts of kindness. Stories abound of people doing good things—like people who organized a drive-by celebrating a 7-year-old’s birthday. Or the teenager who delivered dinner and offered an impromptu trumpet performance for an isolated elderly couple. Or the students who use their 3D printer to help create face masks for healthcare workers. You can be the hero of such a story, too.

I’ve been eating my own dog food. The last few days, I’ve been sending occasional text messages and emails to folks I haven’t seen in a while, or who I know might be struggling, or who happen to live in a hot zone like NYC. We each enjoy our web of networks. Now’s as good of a time as any to make sure the strands connecting each node remain active and strong.

Some institutions are doing their best and thereby demonstrating their resilience. My home parish, for example, has followed the orders of the bishop and the governor to suspend public services, but the church stays open for private prayer and individual confession remains available. Plus, the parish has called every registered parishioner to check in, and the pastor has been releasing daily YouTube videos with Lenten reflections on the readings of the day plus a blessing. (And the bishop live-streams Sunday Mass from the Cathedral.)

Arts institutions have offered creative online performances. Even Sir Patrick Stewart has been tweeting a sonnet a day. Because Shakespeare. And corporations are helping, too—Xfinity/Comcast is, for the next few months, waiving all Internet usage caps to accommodate work-from-home activities.

When you’re part of the solution, you’re not part of the problem. You can be a shining point of light. And when enough points of light glow in the darkness, the darkness shall not overcome it.

The Problem of Information

Speaking of darkness, let’s turn to the media.

The most significant gut-churning lesson from the last 90 days isn’t about the virus or the economic aftereffects of it. Rather, for me, the big story has been the utter failure of the press to be serious about, well, anything. Consider:

  • Reporters have repeatedly asked President Trump if it’s racist to call the disease the “Chinese Coronavirus” or the “Wuhan Coronavirus” despite that it’s common practice to name new diseases after the location they first appeared. Think about that. You’re a reporter. It’s a pandemic. You have access to the President of the United States. And your primary goal is to try to dunk on him about terminology? Seriously?
  • The conservative media went on, and on, and on, about how COVID-19 is just the flu and complaining about it is like impeachment all over again. Then they decided it was serious and Trump’s response has been perfect.
  • The progressive media attacked Trump for not locking the country down, days after attacking him for locking down the borders, despite that the president has no authority to lock down parts of the interior—let alone the entire country—except in specific instances of armed insurrection. No matter what Trump does, it’s too little, too late, too corrupt. Even Governor Cuomo has found nice things to say about Washington’s response, for cryin’ out loud.
  • The centrist pundits tried to prognosticate their way into relevance, only to be proven wrong (in the aggregate) at every step of the way.

For a long time, China lied about the respiratory illness arising from this virus. Chinese authorities at all levels suppressed information. None of this information is in dispute. As recently as this week, China maintained that a U.S. Army athlete brought the virus to China last November. To mention the duplicity of the Chinese Community Party in allowing the disease to spread isn’t racist. It’s truth.

A Gallup poll taken March 13 to March 22 shows that of nine polled entities, the U.S. news media was the only institution underwater in its approval rates. Overall approval for the media stood at just 44 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. Contrast that to the media’s foil, President Trump, whose approval rate for the coronavirus crisis stands at 60 percent. Even Congress is at 59 percent approval. 

For an excellent case study in the utter lack of self-awareness “infecting” the media, consider Damon Linker’s March 27 column in The Week in which he wrote:

Over and over again, those who report on and analyze politics at close range have documented the president’s lies, exposed his schemes to enrich himself, taken note of his errors and their consequences, and highlighted his incompetence and cruelty — and at every step of the way they have assumed this would make a political difference. But it hasn’t.
 
Maybe it’s time to recognize that it won’t.
 
Accepting this is hard. Journalists, academics, and intellectuals tend to be idealists. They went into this line of work not because they wanted to be rich but because they wanted to make the world a better place in some way. This doesn’t mean their ideas on improving things would always have positive outcomes if they were enacted, or that their favored policy proposals deserve to take priority in our public life. Not at all. But it does mean they tend to assume that most people will recoil from outright lies, deception, malice, injustice, sleaze, and thuggish imbecility when it is exposed and demonstrated to them.
 
But maybe that isn’t true.

It’s isn’t true at all, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of the tendency of the modern commentariat to loathe Trump and the Republicans so much that bumper-sticker slogans substitute for truth and moral catastrophizing reins supreme. Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the Intellectual Yet Idiot as “the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think and 5) who to vote for.” Sounds a lot like the press corps, from top to bottom, and their fellow travelers in Twitter’s Blue Check Mark Brigades.

I think there’s a lot of truth to Taleb’s framework. And—forget the coronavirus a moment—the prevalence of the IYI crowd in the media and in the commanding heights of academic administration and cultural institutions hints at the weakness of the elite worldview that’s part of the current repatrimonalization of Western institutions. Individual people cannot make prudent decisions about life-or-death choices, let alone inform their economic and political beliefs, when the primary gatekeeper of information is across-the-board corrupt. How much of the populist resurgence roots in some way to a reaction against IYI narratives?

Yet that’s where we’re at. I’ve dreaded this conclusion for a while now, but the systemic failure of the press seems inescapable. 

Preparing for Tomorrow

Pundits churn out prediction stories like the genre’s en fuego. Every single one of these predictions is utter horseshit. No one knows what lies ahead. No one knows how long it’ll take to get Wuhan Coronavirus under control; no one knows the final death toll; no one knows the secondary toll taken from loss of livelihood in the shutdown; no one knows how long the economy will take to return to pre-crisis levels; no one even knows if the economy will ever fully recover given the presently unquantifiable risk of radical social disruption that renders the Washington Consensus moot.

So I’m not going to offer predictions.

Instead, I do two things:

  1. Hope for the future. Humans tend to rally in the face of adversity. I’m generally bullish on the short-term prospects. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of a renaissance in organized religion and in the strengthening of the “little platoons” in hyperlocal contexts. I believe we’ve got it in us to come out ahead. I remain hopeful that human ingenuity will find a way to defeat this virus and that by mid-summer or autumn, we’ll have something like a solution that allows for a significant degree of a return to normalcy. I’m betting that by Thanksgiving, we’ll be giving thanks for the CoronaCrisis receding in the rear-view mirror.
  2. Plan for the apocalypse. I also remain aware that things can always get worse. How much worse? No one knows. But just as the best-case scenario isn’t likely to materialize, neither is the worst-case scenario. That said, if you plan for the worst-case scenario, you’re prepared for everything. So I’ve been slowly working on stocking some non-perishable food items and jugs of water. I’ve made sure all my first-aid kits have been re-stocked and that stuff that’s expired got rotated out. I’ve added recurring tasks to my to-do list to swap and recharge the batteries in my radio and flashlights. I’ve re-inventoried my hiking-and-camping gear. I’ve been making checklists in case I need to get out of Grand Rapids in a hurry—Where will I go? What will I bring? How shall I provision for, and transport, the cats? If I’m traveling by car, what else might I toss in my bags if I’m not sure how long, or ever, it might be before I return home? 

Think about these things. Being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best means that you’ll take whatever happens in stride.

All that said: Stay safe and healthy. 

Why @kattimpf is Wrong about @justinamash

N.B. — Sometime between when I accessed Timpf’s referenced story, and after I posted mine, the story at NRO updated. The content didn’t shift much, but some of the stridency of tone amped down and the H2 subhead changed. There was no editor’s note indicating a change from the version as published the day before, however.

Edit — the paragraph after “two complexifying factors” was modified to change verb tense throughout, to better represent Amash’s stance as a now-former Republican.


 

In a January 17 piece published on NationalReview.com, NRO reporter Kat Timpf claims that major funders of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) have backed away from Amash, and that this behavior proves that “there is no place for an independent in politics” and that because “Amash makes his political decisions based only on his principles,” the fact that he’s being de-funded is proof that “the people in power over us are not interested in searching for the truth.”

I disagree.

Myriad substantive questions about politics, ideology and pragmatism weave through The Annals of Amash MMXIX—indeed, throughout the man’s entire Washington career. I suspect a book-length treatment might actually make for compelling reading, but even in the short-opinion-journalism realm of NR and NRO, readers deserve a more intellectually honest treatment of Amash’s complicated story than what Timpf’s piece provides.

I’m a fan of Timpf and, on the whole, I enjoy her work. It distresses me, though, that with this Amash story, she saw fit to focus on FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and the DeVos family without any recourse whatsoever to the people who actually cast ballots in the Third District. Did it not occur to her that other stakeholders matter and might therefore create a feedback loop to FreedomWorks, Club for Growth or the DeVos family? Did she not realize that the Chamber has long opposed Amash? Perhaps, despite her Detroit heritage, she didn’t enjoy access to boots-on-the-ground Republicans in West Michigan through whom she might have done some on-the-record reporting. Maybe Jay Nordlinger could have lent his Rolodex.

So contra the hints that Amash is some wise, noble leader “guided by something greater than the thoughtless partisan hackery” that suddenly infested FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and the DeVos family starting the day before yesterday, I’d like to lay out a series of reasons why Amash has never been an effective steward of the interests of the Third Congressional District.

My comments follow from the perspective of a lifelong resident of the Grand Rapids metro area and as a person who’s repeatedly won election as a precinct delegate, state convention delegate and even (two terms) a member of the Kent County Republican Executive Committee. In other words, as Amash’s constituent. These comments are my own and do not reflect the opinions of local Republican leaders or the county party as a whole.

Contra Amash

So, five specific arguments. Buckle up.

Background: Amash has never been especially popular with local Republicans.

In the 2010 race to succeed retiring Rep. Vern Ehlers, Amash earned 40.4 percent of the vote in a five-way primary. That result was good for first place, but the conventional wisdom at the time was that the next two figures (Bill Hardiman and Steve Heacock) were stronger candidates; they ended up splitting the “business establishment” vote roughly evenly.

One reason Amash succeeded in 2010 stems from a nexus between the Kent County Republicans and the College Republicans at Grand Valley State University, who’ve consistently taken a more libertarian worldview than rank-and-file precinct delegates across the district. Those CRs, in turn, tended to be the people door-to-door canvassing and even working as interns or paid employees of the county and state party. Amash didn’t enter 2010 with incumbency (although he was a state representative at the time), but he came from substantial family money, early DeVos support and the support of a swath of ideologically committed quasi-libertarian door-knockers full of youthful enthusiasm. And all this, at the dawn of the Tea Party era, which would have elected a ham sandwich if it promised to cut the deficit. What’s surprising isn’t that Amash won a five-way race in those circumstances; what’s surprising is that he only earned 40.4 percent despite these structural advantages. Had either Hardiman or Heacock withdrawn and all of his votes transferred to the other, Amash would have lost the primary in a landslide, because together, Hardiman and Heacock drew 51 percent of the vote. (Of course, elections don’t work that cleanly, but if there had been only one conventional-wisdom candidate, it’s easy to see pathways by which Amash never made it to Washington.)

The Gentleman from the Third District of Michigan didn’t face a primary opponent in the presidential election year of 2012. In 2014, he beat businessman Brian Ellis, 57-43. Ellis was backed by several national groups frustrated with Amash’s role in the Freedom Caucus and his public undermining of Speaker John Boehner. That primary was nasty enough that Amash famously refused to take Ellis’s concession call. In part because of the Amash-Ellis grudge match and the outside money that flooded it, no one wanted to primary him in 2016 or 2018 despite several people expressing lukewarm interest. Yet despite all of his structural advantages including incumbency and big outside money and a litany of puff pieces from libertarian journalists inflating his national stature, Amash only netted 57 percent of the Republican vote in the Ellis primary.

Other considerations matter, too. Local Republicans aren’t as sensitive about what the national groups are doing, but some local dignitaries exercise considerable sway. Not just the DeVos family, but also people like Peter Secchia—the U.S. Ambassador to Italy for Bush 41—and members of the Meijer family. And Ellis himself allegedly played a will-I-or-won’t-I game with an eye toward a rematch that foreclosed realistic alternatives over the next two cycles. (He never put his hat in again, though.)

Timpf: “[T]he people in power over us are not interested in searching for the truth.”

A clue about why Amash isn’t quite as loved relates to his imperfect ideological fit for the district. Amash doesn’t shy away from touting himself as a constitutional conservative who exercises fiscal restraint and believes in the separation of powers. Fine and well; on paper, I’m all in. But he also says and does other things that are inconsistent with the principles of the Republican base in his district.

For example, he voted present on bills defunding Planned Parenthood because he claimed that they were unconstitutional bills of attainder. Forget how obscure—and how subjective—his assertion landed. He told the displeased Michigan Right to Life that despite its revocation of his endorsement, he’s the most pro-life member of Congress and that his votes were policy whereas their preferences were merely politics. It’s like Sheldon Cooper Goes To Washington. Amash enjoys a rich history of well-actuallyism in lecturing the rubes on Facebook about hyper-technical aspects of the Constitution that justify him ignoring local priorities. If gaslighting RTL about being the most pro-life member of Congress represents searching for the truth, I dread to contemplate what a dishonest Amash might say or do.

(Relatedly, one is tempted to ask why, if he believed the defunding bills were unconstitutional, he voted present instead of nay as the Founders intended. Surely it wasn’t political cowardice thwarting him searching for the truth?)

West Michigan is a deeply pragmatic place. Observers including Timothy P. Carney in his Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse and Salena Zito and Brian Todd in their The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics have visited, inter alia, various West Michigan communities. They attest, as do others, that the region embodies a salt-of-the-earth Protestant Principle valuing hard work and straight talk. We’re the home of Gerald R. Ford, for cryin’ out loud. Our conservatism has always bent an ear toward justice, and our love of the Constitution is second to none.

We also expect that stuff gets done without needless drama, and we understand that the Constitution is a governing framework and not a part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. On one hand, most of us nod and smile when we’re lectured about bills of attainder, as long as things get done. On the other hand, we don’t welcome virtue-signaling over Constitutional arcana when the alternative is more dead babies (had his protest vote not been, as usual, utterly irrelevant, he’d have incurred a lot more back-home wrath over that situation). Amash’s balancing act is more tolerated than loved.

Combine this incongruence with two complexifying factors.

First, he wasn’t often present among the rank-and-file Republicans. As in, you never saw the guy. He rarely attended county executive-committee meetings. At state conventions, he mostly hid in the corner. When I was a College Republican at Western Michigan University, I saw Fred Upton all the time. When I volunteered on the youth committee in Ottawa County, I saw Pete Hoekstra all the time. As a member of the Kent County executive committee, I almost never saw Justin Amash—in fact, I see Bill Huizinga, whose district includes a nibble out of the side of Kent County, an order of magnitude more often than I saw Justin Amash. Maybe I’m not important enough to warrant the Congressman’s attention. And that’s fine and probably true. But when a broad swathe of precinct delegates thinks that your congressman thinks that you’re not important enough—well. It’s not clear why groups like FreedomWorks and Club for Growth should fund a candidate whose support among the rank-and-file local activists has always been softer than it looks. Especially now that Amash’s reputation among stalwarts has been deeply poisoned by his blithely leaving the party that sacrificed so much for its long-absentee landlord.

Second, the considerable and uncritical fluffing he gets from libertarian-leaning journalists distorts a reasonable assessment of Amash’s legacy. The running joke among some conservatives in Kent County is that we don’t have a member of Congress, but rather we host the member representing the editorial board of Reason magazine. Timpf is on the record that she’s a libertarian. She’s also a journalist, with the NRO byline of reporter instead of columnist. Her suggesting that the libertarian-leaning Amash is “searching for the truth” comes off, tonally, like Sean Hannity “reporting” that Rudy Giuliani is “searching for the truth” in Ukraine.

Timpf: “Although Amash remains the most fiscally conservative member of Congress, his departure from the Republican party and support of impeachment have apparently made him a leper in the eyes of the exact same groups who claim to want to fight for fiscal responsibility.”

Like it or not—and I very strongly don’t like it—today’s GOP structurally aligns with Trump-style populism that treats deficits with as much seriousness as Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare For All plan does. Relatively few people care about the deficit and budgetary restraint in the current economic environment. It’s surely to Amash’s credit that he does, but it’s not obvious why fiscal conservatism is the only lens that matters. Timpf surely understands that complex situations arise from, and result in, complex causal relationships. Distilling Amash’s fall from grace as a sign that Club for Growth and FreedomWorks don’t care about fiscal restraint is Vox-level concern trolling.

One thing that bugs people at home: Amash is perfectly willing to forego nine-tenths of a loaf if he can’t have the whole thing. For example, he voted against Paul Ryan’s budget program because he didn’t think it went far enough. Regardless of one’s sympathy for Amash’s instinct on the matter, he was quite willing to be part of a cadre of House Republicans whose resistance to John Boehner and Paul Ryan forced the House to incorporate more Democratic demands to pass the House. In other words, active opposition led to a more strongly adverse outcome than merely accepting a partial victory would have. It’s not clear why ideological inflexibility leading to worse fiscal outcomes is truly the mark of a fiscal conservative.

Timpf: “Like him or not, you really should respect the fact that Justin Amash makes his political decisions based only on his principles — which is truly refreshing in our hyper-partisan era.”

If Justin Amash were truly the One Honest Man In Washington™, as he’s so often deified by libertarian-leaning journalists, he wouldn’t have voted present on the Planned Parenthood bills. Period. If he were a man of deep political integrity, he would have resigned his office before he resigned the party that sent him into office, freelancing against our will. I totally understand that he’s come to an anti-Trump space. I don’t own a #MAGA hat, so I get it. But surely Amash understands that for all practical purposes, he’s deprived the people of the district with effective representation. It’s not obvious which principles support a member of Congress undermining the voice of his district because he lacks the grace to resign when his own beliefs meaningfully evolve to contradict the beliefs of the people who elected you.

A principles-based approach to leadership aims to get the best possible result in light of your ideological lens. Amash has proven, time and again, that he’d rather be pure than effective. I understand why, tempermentally, some members of the libertarian-leaning commentariat would rather rhetorically liquidate the kulaks than nibble on half a loaf of bread. Ultimately—as Amash’s own implosion has shown—inflexible ideology inevitably leads to the loss of even that half a loaf. If given the choice, I think most people in the district would rather eat something than gloat about nothing.

Timpf calls this rigidity principle. I think she and I entertain very different understandings of what that word entails.

Timpf: “[t]here is no place for an independent in politics.”

Surely a political reporter has heard of a dude from the People’s Republic of Vermont named Bernie Sanders. (She may have heard of Joe Lieberman, too. Or Ross Perot. Or Ralph Nader. Or Teddy Roosevelt’s second go-around. Or even that one guy with the wooden dentures named George Washington.) I know what she meant, but what she meant, she didn’t write.

Rhetorical precision matters.

Amash, In Perspective

The foregoing suggests, correctly, that I won’t be at the head of the parade celebrating the legislative career of Justin Amash. Yet I’m not anti-Amash. I think he’s done a better-than-average job and really does take his role seriously. I don’t think he habitually lies about his beliefs, and he has the courage to stand up for his perspectives. These are all admirable yet rare traits for a congresscritter.

However, he’s never been well-aligned to the zeitgeist of the district. Some of us back home have grown weary of the self-important thorn-in-the-side shtick so loudly trumpeted by Reason editors and their fellow travelers. Some of us back home have eaten our fill of arcane lectures about constitutional provisions that long since crumbled under the moss of desuetude. Some of us back home would rather see our political beliefs supported by our representative than to be told that our politics is subordinate to his policy.

Justin Amash left the Republican party and he abandoned the president that his district did—and still does—support. If he were truly the man of virtue that he and his disciples position him to be, he’d have resigned his office and simply stood again this November on the Libertarian ballot. 

But power corrupts, and it corrupts most viciously those most convinced of their own far-seeing rectitude.

Vote Nov. 3 — And Write Me In, If You Live in Grand Rapids!

Greetings, friends.

So picture it — a few months or so ago, the local newspaper noted that the filing deadline had passed for two open seats on the Grand Rapids Public Library’s Board of Library Commissioners, yet only one candidate had filed. And in addition, a vacancy had opened, leaving potentially two unclaimed seats.

I filed the form necessary to seek appointment, but the GRPL team suggested submitting the paperwork to earn a write-in seat in the Nov. 3 election. So I hoofed it to the city clerk’s office and filled out the necessary forms to be a lawfully recognized write-in candidate. And I also filed, later, appropriate forms with the county clerk’s office for the Citizens for Jason Gillikin campaign committee. (We have a $0 budget, as it happens.)

I believe GRPL can do more to grow the local writing culture. If you vote for me, you’ll see a stronger push for programming that supports G.R.-based writers and more ties to the programming offered by Kent District Library.

So on Nov. 3, if you reside in the City of Grand Rapids, don’t overlook those municipal races. Instead, search for the section for the Board of Library Commissioners and write “Jason Gillikin” on a blank line, with a filled-in oval.

Thanks for your support!

 

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch — and Ideology for Dinner

On my drive into the Caffeinated Press office this morning, I flipped around the FM dial, searching for nothing in particular. I settled, grudgingly, on the local Michigan Public Radio channel, wherein NPR’s Weekend Edition was already in full swing.

Apart from some brief news about Sen. Bernie Sanders and his trek to South Carolina, the segment I heard featured the host speaking to an academic about the allegations of a rape culture at St. Paul’s, the elite boarding school that has prepared many of America’s top political and financial leaders.

The part of the interview that caused an involuntary, Spock-like eyebrow raise came when the guest asserted something to the effect that all of the stakeholders at St. Paul’s must band together for a “discussion” about ways to stop male upperclassmen from treating “girls like currency” in their competition to “score.”

Golly.

So let’s stipulate two things from the outset. First, that St. Paul’s — a 150-year-old institution that only recently allowed the admission of females — consists of teen-aged students from the upper-upper-crust of American society. And second, that if the stories about the schools are true, the school’s culture permits or even celebrates young males targeting even younger females for sex, yet there’s been only one allegation of rape. And that allegation is disputed.

Two points follow.

The first, and the more minor, point is that there appears to be a curious disconnect between the broad, left-leaning culture that mocks sexual abstinence training — see, for example, John Oliver’s take on sex ed in the U.S. — and the reaction to what happens when teenagers actually do what the sex educators encourage. Because the salient point at St. Paul’s is that even if older male students seek sex with younger female students, there’s been but one allegation of coercion in an environment where the occurrences of such liaisons is probably very high. In other words: The sex-ed folks say: “Do it, safely, and with consent,” and except for a single reported occurrence to the contrary, the kids seem to have followed their education. So what, exactly, is the problem that requires “discussion?”

Perhaps I’m cynical. But we should not be surprised when the left-leaning consensus is that we should train middle-schoolers to enjoy the fun of sex responsibly, that when those middle-schoolers pass the puberty mark, they’ll behave as they’ve been taught. If one student raped another student at St. Paul’s, then prosecute that occurrence. But to probe a deeper cultural problem? It’s not clear what such a problem could be, given that the students of St. Paul’s by and large seem to stick to the syllabus.

The bigger point, I think, is that the desire for a “discussion” about “treating girls like currency” in a male-on-male competition to “score” speaks to something quite unrelated to the current sexual mores of the students at St. Paul’s. Granted that in today’s ideological climate, any allegation of rape will find a chorus of professionals claiming a deep-seated cultural problem — hey, sociologists gotta pay the bills, too, even if every problem they see is a nail and the only tool they own is a hammer. Put that knee-jerk reaction aside long enough to reflect on just how curious it is that people assume that with the right degree of consciousness raising, we can consistently rise above hormones and instinct to be a New Soviet Man better person.

Peter Drucker said that culture eats strategy for lunch. What he meant was that the collection of habits and pre-rational behaviors that directly affect how people interrelate will always undercut an agreed-upon strategy that doesn’t square with that culture. For example, Microsoft’s strategy of unifying its software under one common codebase was, for a long time, hampered by an organizational culture that tied employee compensation to different internal business units sabotaging the success of other business units to improve their own relative metrics. When that sort of adversarial culture thrives, you have roughly zero chance of achieving a strategy that conflicts with it.

Let’s introduce the Gillikin Corollary: Culture eats ideology for dinner. In other words,  the highfalutin maxims of both the Far Left and the Far Right so often fail in the real world, because the real world is a messier place with a culture much more firmly rooted in the principles of evolutionary biology. The Gillikin Corollary is why both liberals and conservatives are mistaken in their pronouncements on sex ed: The conservatives are wrong because an abstinence-only training program (or worse, a “let’s pretend parents will teach their kids about sex” get-out-of-jail-free card) conflicts with teenage hormones. The liberals are wrong because on balance human males are sexually aggressive and human females are sexually receptive, so training everyone to be a metrosexual contractarian is doomed to failure. We’ve been wired over thousands of generations of pre-history that sexual dominance meant reproductive success and that human social frameworks were optimized for relatively small tribal groups. (See, e.g., the writings of E.O. Wilson.)

To quote Barack Obama: “Now, let me be clear.” I condone neither rape nor cultural norms that subtly compel people to engage in sexual behaviors they might have avoided but for engagement with that culture. If the student accused of rape at St. Paul’s is found guilty of rape, he should be punished.

Yet I cannot help but shake my head in amazement as the folks at NPR look at the story out of St. Paul’s and bemoan the fact that young males at an elite school engage in allegedly predatory sexual practices. Do all the left-wing sociologists and anthropologists out there really think that what they need is the right mandatory consciousness-raising program and that with it, a quarter-million years of evolution will therefore dissipate into a warm and loving enlightment completely untethered to hormones and pre-rational instinct? That a half-day seminar about “no means no” will perfectly empower testosterone-driven, highly competitive teenage males to default to asking, “May I unbutton your shirt now? May I kiss you? If your BAC is above 0.05, can we wait until we both can provide informed consent? Are you OK if we always use condoms until marriage?”

Riiiight.

The culture of an elite school serving elite families revolves around succeeding in a socially competitive world. That’s the culture. And a strategy of sexual egalitarianism will never thrive as long as that culture — and its supporting cast of hormones and instinctive behaviors — continues to imperfectly align with it.

I suspect there are ways to more effectively frame sexual education for both males and females — but those methods must be rooted in the human condition as it is, not as we’d wish it to be.

So for me, the most fascinating part of the whole St. Paul’s story isn’t the “Senior Salute” or the rape allegation; rather, it’s the putatively earnest belief that something like the “Senior Salute” could have been avoided with the right combination of training, seminars and consciousness-raising events. It’s pretty obvious that left-wing nostrums about hyperinformed and explicit consent are just as untenable as right-wing nostrums about virginity until marriage — and they’re both off-base for exactly the same reason.

Culture eats ideology for dinner.

A Consequential Month

What a month it’s been. Our black-robed overlords rescued Obamacare (again) and wrote same-sex marriage into the Constitution. Charleston continues to mourn even as the Confederate battle flag suddenly disappears from the public square and from retail shelves. Pope Francis decided he’s an environmentalist. The surviving Boston bomber got the death penalty, as did one of two prison escapees from New York, and police continue to be recorded while mistreating blacks. And it turns out the IRS has been playing games with Lois Learner’s emails — just as Hillary Clinton has played games with hers. All while Republican presidential candidates pretend that gay marriage really isn’t a thing and no one seems too concerned that the Office of Personnel Management suffered one of the most catastrophic, and most damaging, security breaches in U.S. history.

Sigh.

I survey all of this, but am relatively unmoved by most of it; the one truly touching moment was the way Charleston as a community and the families of the victims as a group came together after the church shooting to be, well, adult in the face of evil.

Perhaps my lack of engagement is a twofold function of my disappointment in the reflexive groupthink increasingly ingrained in public debate, and my belief that deep down, Fukuyama is right and the real crisis facing America isn’t the Red/Blue divide but rather the conflict between various elites seeking to colonize the country’s commanding heights. “Partisanship” is a chimera used to render into the binary a sociocultural struggle that crosses many different subpopulations and many different interest groups.

Take the twin colossi of Obamacare subsidies and gay marriage. On the outcome, I am satisfied with the high court’s conclusions. But in both cases, I think the majority opinions are dangerously wrong-headed, and it doesn’t take a law degree to understand the danger in both majority holdings. The chief justice’s dissent in Obergefell outlines why: It wasn’t the conclusion, but the logic model, that sets us up for more of the same. Kennedy’s majority opinion is filled with trite slogans that retrofit a hodge-podge of vague metaphysical assertions about human nature to justify a foreordained policy preference. And despite the acid of his dissent, Scalia’s rebuttual in King v. Burwell highlights that the majority elected to finesse a partially dishonest read of Congressional intent instead of agreeing that words have meaning and that it’s not the court’s job to pass laws that are internally coherent.

Distilled, my discomfort lies with the regrettable predictability of the political process, leavened with my increasing disdain for activists of any stripe. (Yes, I even loathe activists for my own causes. Do, or do not; there is no protesting.) More and more, I care less about the what and more about the why, and it’s an extrapolation of all these little whys that leave me slightly bearish about the future.

A lot happened this month. Inasmuch as some of what transpired might feel definitive, I cannot help but wonder whether all of these matters — gay rights, Obamacare subsidies, pulpit environmentalism, police aggression — aren’t truly concluded, but rather enter a new phase of social discord.

Like I said: Bearish.

The Moral Assumptions Within Income-Inequality Arguments

Throughout all the Sturm und Drang of the politics of wealth redistribution — intensified since the 2008 financial crisis — various groups assembled to review options to moderate the gap between rich and poor. Usually, such groups issue reports filled with dismal statistics and urgent demands for sweeping economic change, couched in language that suggests, but never justifies, a moral imperative to act.
Case in point: Laura Kiesel, writing for MainStreet, quotes a recent Oxfam International report alleging that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s wealthy now control 48 percent of the world’s wealth, and that the 85 wealthiest people on earth control as much wealth as the 3.5 billion people on the bottom end of the scale. Let us assume, prima facie, that the Oxfam International report is accurate. Many commentators immediately jump to the assertion that such an imbalance of wealth is politically and morally objectionable.
Question: Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?
One common rhetorical strategy is to assert that a specific cohort of people find imbalance to be unfair. And if it’s unfair, then clearly it’s unethical. Recent polling suggests that Americans making above $70k favor redistribution methods by about 54 percent, but for households below $30k, the rate jumps to 74 percent. The less you have, the more you resent those who enjoy plenty, and the more you’re excused for your resentment. A delicious interplay of argumentum ad misericordiam and argumentum ad populum.
Resentment, though, isn’t a compelling moral justification for the confiscation of another’s assets. (Although, I suppose, it could be a perfectly valid political justification, depending on the health of the state.) We haven’t really gotten to the heart of the question, yet, so let’s come back to Oxfam. Kiesel’s article addressed the group’s “Seven Point Plan” to reduce income inequality by clamping down on tax dodging, offering free/universal health and education, shifting tax burdens from labor/consumption to wealth, moving toward so-called living wages, introducing equal-pay laws, guaranteeing a minimum basic income and agreeing to “a global goal to tackle inequality.”
The ideologically astute will no doubt observe that Oxfam’s laundry list hews astonishingly close to the default policy preferences of the Far Left and includes major policy points that aren’t central to the goal of significantly flattening the distribution curve. Either Oxfam and its coreligionists have cornered the market on the best way to make everyone’s life better, or they’re singing to the Marxist-Leninist choir from The Hymnal of the Righteous.
Righteous. A curious term. An interesting tidbit about moral philosophy: It’s the twin to aesthetics. Go to any Philosophy 101 textbook worth its salt and look at the various trees of specialization beneath philosophy as a discipline. You find theories of fact — metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, etc. — and theories of value. There are only two value theories in philosophy: ethics and aesthetics. The first addresses the question of what is right, and the second, what is beautiful. But their approaches are largely similar, and they deal with similar concerns about universality and interpretation.
Within the discipline of moral philosophy, several paradigms assert themselves. None really offers a compelling, immediately obvious justification for the assertion that income inequality is, ipso facto, a morally blameworthy scenario:

  • Divine Command: In the Christian world, the highest commandment is to “love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” In practice, this commandment preaches individual generosity to the poor and the avoidance of ostentatious consumption. Significantly, Biblical norms address an individual person’s responsibility to assist the poor, not a state’s obligation to prevent poverty. It’s a big leap to claim that Scriptural injunctions to alleviate the suffering of the least well-off requires the coercive power of government.
  • Natural Law: This approach is probably the least favorable to wealth distribution among all the main ethical paradigms.
  • Deontology: A good deontologist is a slave to duty. Although a person can assert some duty to help the poor, someone else can assert a counter-duty to maximize the efficiency of capital. Duty-based ethics is more about process and intent rather than outcome; a duty-based claim in favor of redistribution can be countered with a duty-based claim against it.
  • Consequentialism: In the mode of moral reasoning that elevates the outcome above all other considerations, the moral nod goes to the person who can make the most sound and convincing claim about what will follow if some action is or isn’t undertaken. As such, consequentialism itself — like deontology — is indifferent to the plight of the poor, except in those cases where a person advances an argument related to the poor that’s more compelling than the counter-argument.
  • Egoism: If you’re a “have not,” you want to become a “have;” if you’re a “have,” you want to avoid becoming a “have not.” Because the locus of moral reasoning is on the self, egoism does not readily admit to compromise positions for sweeping social issues.

So the point of the bullets, above, is to merely indicate that there’s no obvious, inherent moral imperative to support wealth redistribution. Many, many arguments pro and con litter the rhetorical landscape, some more convincing than others, but the fundamental point is that redistribution is a conclusion, not a premise, within the broader economic debate.
Question (again): Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?
Many worthy arguments both favor and oppose the significant redistribution of capital. I think, though, that the real question here isn’t moral, it’s aesthetic. People look at the juxtaposition of a wealthy person like Bill Gates or Carlos Slim or a prince of the Saudi royal family, relative to an emaciated child living in the slums of an Indian metropolis or in a camp in the East African desert, and find the comparison to be not beautiful.
It takes a callous soul to argue that it’s beautiful that some people live in palaces, dining on endangered species, while other people live in rape tents, dining on a few bugs and table scraps. Inequality, in its extremes, is ugly. And because it’s ugly, we are tempted to flip from the aesthetic to the ethical side of the philosophical coin and therefore conclude that it’s also inherently immoral. (Such a move is common: Think of how many book and movie villains aren’t just evil, they’re also deformed in some physical or psychological manner.)
The thing is, many ugly things are perfectly OK from an ethical standpoint. Controlled burns of national parks, for example. And many beautiful things are morally repugnant: Look at the formal photos of a child bride on her wedding day for a case study.
The moral dimension of wealth inequality cannot be trumped with the “ugly” card. We need reasonable debate to ensure that the self-righteousness that comes from privileging our moral positions as assumptions instead of arguments, yields to a degree of good-faith pragmatism that keeps us from demonizing the Other. Even when the Other is a guy worth billions of dollars and you’re left paying for a useless graduate degree in puppetry.
Because when your aesthetic sense tricks you into thinking that your moral preferences are normative, you won’t stop at income inequality. You will, like Oxfam International, subsume a whole list of policy preferences under the pristine banners of Progress, giving you the joy of righteousness while guaranteeing your efforts will come to naught.

On Bakeries, Pizza Shops, Florists and Same-Sex Nuptials

Dismay.
I can’t think of any other word to describe my impression of the brouhaha sweeping the country about the collision of same-sex marriage and the religious beliefs of small-business owners.
Off the bat, I’ll declaim what I believe to be self-evidently true: The radical monoculture of the Totalitarian Left tears at our shared social fabric. I could go on at length about the subject, but there’s not much I can add to what’s already been published by conservative commentators the last few weeks. Even for conservatives like me, who are supportive of gay rights, it’s difficult to be allies when the most prominent spokespeople of the Left have gone Full Alinsky on us, adopting hate-filled rhetoric and violent intimidation along the You Will Be Made To Care axis of “argumentation.”
That said, I am skeptical that a plain and faithful reading of Scripture justifies a small-business owner refusing to supply a same-sex wedding. There’s plenty in both Scripture and Tradition to bar a faithful Christian from being one of the spouses in a same-sex marriage … but serving as a contractor? One could, I suppose, elucidate a fairly subtle theological argument to justify non-engagement with a same-sex wedding in any capacity, including as a vendor, but it’s an argument — an interpretation of religious norms, not a plain-text reading of one. And the nature of many of these arguments I’ve encountered recently suggest that there’s not much theological nuance there; the arguments have all the superficiality of a post-hoc rationalization, a thin veneer disguising overt discrimination.
In other words: I throw the bullshit card on the idea that there’s a specifically religious reason compelling enough to justify the denial of service to same-sex clients. Especially when the very folks who argue their religious rights are violated by acting as vendors for a same-sex wedding also argue that those weddings are invalid in the eyes of God. So what’s the religious problem, then, in catering a make-believe wedding? The only way the religious-exemption logic holds is if the objector conceded that same-sex marriage (even civil marriage) is divinely sanctioned — but then, divine sanction erases the claim for a religious exemption. The mind boggles at the irrationality of it all.
To be sure, many Christians profess significant problems with homosexuality and the expansion of marriage to same-sex partners. Those problems are rooted in valid readings of Christian theology. I believe very strongly that Christians should not be targeted or persecuted for adhering to those beliefs. I also believe very strongly that gays and lesbians should not be ostentatiously refused public accommodation by businesses, through the self-serving and open-ended assertion of religious liberty.
These Christians are also Americans. The civil law has recently opened a gulf between what’s legally permissible and what many Christians view as being morally permissible, regarding the institution of marriage. Squaring the circle between private faith and the public Constitutional order isn’t easy, but there are ways beyond public foot-stomping to remain true to your faith while fully participating in even today’s more permissible social climate.
In fact, the real problem here is the perfect storm of a brand of Evangelical conservative Christians who want to make a stand, and be seen making a stand, for their disapprobation of gay rights — in opposition to far-Left ideologues eager to pick a fight with the “bitter clingers.” So we’re left with the rank idiocy of the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA bills but also uncharitable lawsuits against bakers and florists who prefer not to celebrate that which they morally oppose. The veiled threats of the far-right blogosphere contributes, too, with its denunciations of the “caving” by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, while far-left activists delight in vitriolic denunciations of alleged intolerance that are untethered to reality. All of this drama constitutes a self-inflicted injury for Christian conservatives.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of a devoutly Christian baker, caterer, florist or wedding planner. You’re behind the counter, conducting your trade in peace. You go to church on Sunday, you tithe, you pray. And then Adam and Steve sashay into your storefront, ready to place an order for a sheet cake for their upcoming wedding. What do you do?
When you walk the Path of Martyrs, eager to be seen as making a stand for Jesus, you tell Adam and Steve that you can’t support them because you’re a Christian and won’t be a party to their sin. Cue the raging public shitstorm. (And, in a sense, the religious hypocrisy — viz Matthew 6:5.)
In a more reasonable world, when Adam and Steve cross your threshold, you smile at them, congratulate them on their engagement, ask friendly questions about their color choices, and enquire about the date of their ceremony. Then you appear crestfallen when you say that you can’t accommodate that date because you’re already booked solid that weekend, but you’d be happy to refer Adam and Steve to Jane’s Bakery across the street. And wouldn’t you know it, Jane just came back from a confectioner’s conference and she has some really great designs for contemporary his-and-his cakes!
Better yet, you mark that date on your calendar and genuinely take it off as a day of prayer, thus protecting you from the accusation of lying while deepening your relationship with Jesus. Sure, you’ll lose some revenue, but consider it as an investment in your treasure in Heaven. Net result: Happy customers, happy proprietors. You have rendered on to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and onto God that which is God’s.
The cynic view, of which I’m increasingly persuaded, is that all of this drama has very little to do with gay marriage. If Adam and Steve want to get married, fine; you’d think they’d find vendors who support them, instead of compelling vendors who don’t. Human decency, and all that. And you’d also think that small-business owners would recognize that baking a cake isn’t a sin, even if you don’t like your customer.
What we’re seeing is, I think, less a genuine question of gay rights or religious freedom, and more a paradigmatic question of whose orthodoxy will govern the terms of engagement in the naked public square. So in a sense, all of this drama is small-small potatoes skirmishing in a much larger and more significant cultural war, a conflict wherein certain modes of thinking that contradict the Authoritarian Left must be rooted out, suppressed, denounced — while certain practices that conservative activists despise must be de-legitimized in the name of “freedom.”
Don’t be distracted. None of this is really about a nuanced view of Christianity, or about gay marriage. Rather, it’s about competing claims to the power to coerce normative values on the larger body politic.
Hence, dismay.

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