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.


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.

An Autumn's Repose

Nights in West Michigan have grown consistently colder — in the 30s, usually — and most of the leaves have descended from their perches atop the now-barren canopy. Autumn’s full, glorious array reminds us to be prepared for the winter to come. A few weeks ago, I went for a walk in a county park and saw the transition up-close and personal: Bees going after every fading flower, greens turning into reds and yellows, squirrels building their stashes. All the little creatures, it seems, are fortifying themselves against the frigid desolation to come.
On Halloween day, I had my annual biometric screening. Most of the content — blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol, weight, BMI — met my expectations. No surprises. One measure, fasting glucose, caught me off guard. Not bad enough to freak out over, but not what I expected given that by all lights, I’m in better shape today than I was when I had my first assessment a full decade ago.
The thing about autumn is that the beauty of the landscape proves so charming that you aren’t forced to reflect on the clear lessons hidden beneath the surface. Instead, you repose quietly, enjoying the scenery or sipping the cider and relaxing in anticipation of the busy holiday season to come. So too with aging. We change styles and behaviors, but the danger that counts is the one locked deep within — we obsess about which sweater to wear but never think to check our biometric values. Like the parable of the grasshopper and the ant, at some point, the flurries will fly, and only the well-prepared will make it through. Wellness is a beast that requires daily diligence even in the warm summer sun, because if you come up short when a health blizzard hits … well, it is what it is. Now, then — some general updates, in no particular order.

  • Work continues to be busy. I just oriented my first official new hire as a department manager. Went smoothly. Our division is undergoing a significant restructuring, so it’s been “interesting times” around here in the fullest Confucian sense of the term.
  • It’s November, which means National Novel Writing Month. I’m again participating, and again hosting a write-in on Saturday mornings in downtown Grand Rapids. This year’s novel, should it be polished to the point of shopping, is literary fiction — a tale of a young wealthy man from a dog-eat-dog competitive social circle who, after he’s cut off from the family money, must develop his own life goals and set of morals while fending off the predation of his former friends, who now see a turn-about opportunity to further humiliate him. The meta-narrative of the story focuses on the main character’s investigation of the various classic sources of ethical meaning from the perspective of someone who’s working through a mash of antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders while drowning in a rich, hypermasculine peer group with similar tendencies. Given the language and very strong adult themes, if I ever publish it, it’ll be under a pseudonym. Probably my porn name, which actually makes a great author name, too.
  • The wrap-up activity after my conference took more out of me than I thought. I had to develop and compile surveys so I could issue continuing-education credits. That work, and the resulting time crunch, contributed to my inability to attend a much-anticipated Halloween party at PPQ’s house. CEs are time-consuming.
  • The election was … interesting. I volunteered a bit this year for the GOP, given my status as an elected precinct delegate. Did some door-to-door campaigning a few weeks ago for the MRP in eastern Kent County then spent seven hours as an election challenger in one of the busiest precincts in the City of Grand Rapids. Good experience, but it highlights how so much of the ground game is being run by very young people with very high self-regard who lack any substantive political experience.
  • The publishing company is humming along. We’re in the edit phase of our anthology and are actively looking toward starting a quarterly literary magazine in 2015. There’s much enthusiasm for that journal by several contributors, so I hold out hope that it’ll launch with sufficient love and nurturing.
  • The boy cat has started tunneling under my blankets at night to curl up next to me. It’s adorable. I get a little ball of fuzzy, purring warmth showing up at unexpected times.
  • Hard to believe, but Tony and I are closing in on our 200th podcast episode next month.

Epochs, Ideology and the Things That Matter

A liberal looks at the country and, in his eagerness to immanentize the eschaton, rejects well-functioning tradition for want of some high-theoretic World State. A conservative looks at the country and, in his eagerness to restore long-abandoned traditions, rejects much scientific and cultural progress for want of Duck Dynasty. Yet a healthy body politic needs both visions; liberals and conservatives are merely opposite lobes of Uncle Sam’s lungs, diseased though each may be in its own special way. Lose one to cancer, you lose a lot.
Lose both, though, and you lose everything. The Zombie Apocalypse test is apropos: What really matters after catastrophe strikes? Think of an event like Hurricane Katrina, when public order in southern Louisiana was shaky for several weeks and ordinary survival became a genuine ordeal. In such a climate, does anyone really care about “trigger warnings” or carbon footprints or into which cathole the transgendered person gets to pee? Almost all of the current causes célèbres of the Left are what kids these days call #FirstWorldProblems. The issues that progressives adore are so irrelevant to life on the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy that it’s a wonder so many people invest so much time into advocating for so little substance.
Yet in that Katrina situation, the Right isn’t appreciably better. The preppers hide in their bunkers while the guys with guns take stuff from the guys with yoga mats. If public order is a long way off, you’re much more likely to end up with a descent into strongman-led tribalism, with a pecking order directly related to what you can contribute to the group in terms of rare skills or biceps size.
And therein lies the rub. Neither conservatives nor liberals currently articulate a comprehensive worldview that successfully encapsulates the value of ancient knowledge and antique skills, with a respect for the sundry joys of High Culture and a sophistication for harmonizing new insights with old wisdom. Today, we can afford to obsess about Facebook offering dozens of gender options. Tomorrow, when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, those same people who eagerly set their Facebook genders to “Cis Woman” or “Transmasculine” are unlikely to survive a week without dying of dehydration, injury or human-caused trauma. Today, we can afford to let conservatives be the voice of anti-elite sentiment. Tomorrow, when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, those same people who disdain higher education will be the first to chuck the last copy of War and Peace on the fire when the menfolk return with a fresh kill of some endangered species.
We might get lucky; we might get a world that looks like Falling Skies, with a healthy balance between warrior and academic leading the group. But we might end up with Lord of the Flies, instead. It scares me that I can’t tell which scenario is more probable.
We could, perhaps, console ourselves with the belief that the Zombie Apocalypse — a term of art, of course, for any great civilizational catastrophe — won’t occur. But such consolation is empty given the sprawling narrative of human history. The May edition of the estimable First Things included, as a feature article, “The Great War Revisited” by George Weigel.  It is a masterclass narrative in a magazine that, itself, sets the high bar of literary merit.
Weigel recounts the willful blindness of world leaders in 1914. No one could quite believe that the stability of the Westphalian system could collapse so quickly and so completely in so little time, so they acted as if it couldn’t.
Consider. On January 1, 1910, Tsar Nicholas II ruled an ancient, vast, autocratic Russian empire. Kaiser Wilhelm ruled a powerful, prosperous Germany freshly ambitious after Bismarck’s consolidations a generation before. Emperor Franz Joseph ruled the elegant if creaky Austria-Hungary — since 1848, no less. The Ottomans were in control, albeit tenuously, in Istanbul and had been for more than half a millennium. The Qing Dynasty ruled a decrepit China through a monarchy with roots two millennia old. America was quiet and disinterested in foreign affairs, with William Howard Taft presiding over a prosperous, growing but inward-looking country.
On January 1, 1925 — a mere 15 years later — the Romanovs were decomposing in a shallow grave while the Soviet Union crushed internal dissidents on Stalin’s orders. Germany was a shambles, the harsh Peace of Versailles spreading misery among Germans of every stripe and depriving governments before Hitler of any real, legitimate power … thus sowing the seeds of the next major war. Austria and Hungary were cleaved apart and the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI, had been deposed while Ataturk began his secularizing work (potentially sparking the tinder of later Islamofascism, to boot). The KMT was consolidating control in a democratic China while Japanese forces still stung by the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 had correctly gauged the exhaustion of the West and plotted accordingly. The United States, after Woodrow Wilson’s collectivist war policies and internationalist exhortations, was enjoying the Roaring Twenties under Calvin Coolidge. And families across the world were still coping with the devastation wrought by the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
All the things that looked so permanent in 1910 had been laid waste over five years of war and a decade of ill-managed peace. An entire generation had bled to death for naught on the fields of Europe, and others — India, Japan, China — took notice. The suicide of the West took some time, but each slice of the wrist was unmistakable —

  • The sinking of the Titanic (1912) — we began to doubt scientific progress
  • The Guns of August (1914) — we went to war because we couldn’t find a reason not to
  • The battles of Somme and Verdun and Passchendaele (1916-1917) — we killed millions knowing it was futile
  • European acquiescence to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia (1938) — we looked away from evil
  • The Yalta Conference (1945) — we let Stalin get his spoils without a fight, condemning millions
  • The Counterculture (ca. 1968) — we stopped being serious about shared culture
  • The War on Terror (ca. 2001) — we over-reacted to a minor threat, then under-reacted to major threats

Imagine being a normal person born on January 1, 1890. You saw the entire world change before you greeted your first grandchild. You were born into a world without widespread automobiles, powered flight or amenities like indoor plumbing or electricity; as a child, you likely heard stories from your parents of the Civil War, the taming of the American Frontier and the era of tall ships. You lived through the Great War and World War II and the Cold War. If you lived to the ripe old age of 80, you died after seeing a man walk on the surface of the moon.
Think about that.
History is replete with moments in time where everything changed within a generation and old truths and new ideas fought bitterly for supremacy. The Great War was such an inflection point. So was the political upheaval of 1848. So were the Napoleonic Wars a generation earlier and the French Revolution that lit their fuse. So was the Reformation, starting with the 95 Theses posted in 1517 and persisting through centuries of wars of religion in Europe. So was the discovery of the New World in 1492. So were the Crusades. So were the crowning of Charlemagne, the Mongol invasions, the collapse of Rome and Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.
So why do we persist in thinking that such an earth-shattering event can never again occur? Why must we be so un-serious about the future that we can relish small-potatoes political idiocy as the world smolders while waiting for the tinder for the next world-historical dislocation?
Today’s domestic politics isn’t up to the task. Neither the Right nor the Left can articulate a coherent vision for what the world ought to look like next week, let alone a century hence.
Some of today’s more enlightened pundits — I’m thinking especially of George F. Will and Peggy Noonan — correctly note that the race for 2016 is hamstrung by both the Republicans and the Democrats lacking a consistent and comprehensive message about what they want for America. Debates currently focus on irrelevant personalities (Bill Clinton, the Koch Brothers) or on issues that aren’t really significant in the grand scale of things (marijuana legalization, the minimum wage). We’re back to small-ball politics.
But while politics is about legislative agendas, ideology is about the big picture. And on that front, all the main ideological voices in America lack a conceptual coherence that applies with equal validity and rigor to life on a college campus as well as life in a post-apocalyptic village. Ideology requires a conception of the human condition that applies regardless of any individual human’s specific condition. It requires a nuanced teleology. Ideology shapes politics, so with ideologies in disarray, it’s no surprise the our politics follows suit.
Progressive ideology spends so much time on harmonizing complex identity relationships that the framework it’s built upon cannot endure in adverse material conditions — what works in faculty lounges at Berkeley won’t work in a rural farming community in Nebraska, and certainly won’t work in a long-term survival situation. It fails the test of universal relevance. Conservative ideology lacks coherence on the big questions of life and human relationships; half of engaged conservatives appear quite willing to live within Leave It to Beaver and eschew politics entirely while the other half can’t figure out if it’s for or against the NSA, for or against starting council meetings with an invocation to Jesus, for or against vaccines. The libertarians fail to concede that humans are social animals, and that eusociality imperfectly squares with contractarian principles, so they seem like the rump at a linguistics conference that really, really wants you to believe that Esperanto is a logically superior alternative if only people would abandon their native tongues and give it a chance.
(Sneaky thought: You know who actually nails the big picture effectively? Catholics and Jews, and non-radicalized Muslims.)
I want conservatives, in particular, to advance a coherent framework that tells me what kind of America we aspire to in the year 2114. Don’t recite policy — recite the principles that policy will be shaped by. That framework will give a compelling, universal why as well as a specific answer to the tough questions we prefer to elide:

  • If human life is precious, will we abolish the death penalty when we abolish abortion?
  • Which is better: A well-reared child attached to two same-sex parents, or a poorly reared child of two opposite-sex parents?
  • Under what circumstances will we invade a sovereign state? To acquire resources? To avert genocide? Never?
  • Can we force children to get mandatory vaccination against parental consent, for diseases that could devastate large populations?
  • Does human destiny reside in the United States, across the globe or among the stars?
  • What should be in the public square, versus entirely private, versus private but subject to government monitoring?
  • To what degree should individual risk be socialized?
  • What is the purpose of a well-lived life?
  • Is society stronger with a Judeo-Christian worldview, with a secular worldview or with a Greco-Roman ambivalence about religion?
  • To what degree should a person be required know how to change a tire, raise a garden or build a fire in the backcountry?
  • What is the point at which we agree that gulf between “have” and “have not” is too wide to tolerate?
  • How do we balance libertarian autonomy with the stabilizing power of society’s little platoons, without rendering either useless?
  • At what point does market inequality amount to de facto duress for the economically disadvantaged?
  • What is the proper response to a person who is biologically female but professes to be male in gender?
  • To what degree are people free to make choices that may not redound to their long-term advantage (smoking pot, eating too many cheeseburgers, avoiding dental exams, driving without a seatbelt, etc.)?

We can hope that the Zombie Apocalypse never comes, despite history’s ample lessons. But while we maintain this foolish hope, will we think prudently about what kind of life ought to persist between our cyclical catastrophes, or will we duck our heads in the sand and continue pretend that today’s hot-button social issues really do have meaning?

The Nature of Faith

Last Sunday, we had a closing four-hour retreat for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Robert of Newminster. The session was pleasant and the people at that parish are really quite delightful. The experience, at the time when Palm Sunday opens Holy Week, reinforced for me a concept I don’t take seriously enough — that is, the role of religiosity in the lives of ordinary people.
The social scientists tell us that formal religious profession is on the wane. Only one in five Americans visits a place of worship in any given week. Although three-quarters of us confess Christianity, demographers project that Christianity will be a minority faith tradition by 2030 given that one-third of people under age 30 claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Yet the religious impulse, as a human phenomenon, is quite different from religious practice. For the unchurched or the atheistic, their religious impulses tend to find expression in other pursuits — sexual licentiousness, radical environmentalism, unfocused spiritualism, unfettered egoism, etc.
Look at the pseudo-messianic undertones of the climate-change True Believers. Some of them suggest that people who disagree with their interpretation of climate models aren’t just mistaken — they’re morally defective and ought to be silenced — or even put in jail. Look, too, at the furor over the departure of newly appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Some representative supporters of same-sex marriage have argued, loudly, that one man’s private donation six years ago is a public matter because he’s a public face of a company. Think what you will about climate change and same-sex marriage: The zeal to persecute non-believers is a religious impulse that goes beyond mere disagreement about facts, theories or policies.
The phenomenon is simple, really. Human nature is what it is, and that nature prompts us to seek to belong to a tribe. The evolutionary biology and developmental psychology of humankind is fairly well understood on the matter, thanks to pioneering work by researchers like Jared Diamond. Our tribes both fuel and channel our passions and inspire emotional bonds that transcend abstract, dispassionate reason.
Tribes are funny things. In simplest form, they’re society’s little platoons, the places where we discern meaning and level-set sociocultural expectations and find refuge in a like-minded community. In years past, tribes in the United States looked like ethnic bars, churches, fraternal clubs and neighborhood associations. Yet these mediating institutions, across the board, are failing. Gentrification is leading to the erosion ethnic identity for most white Americans; church attendance is on the wane; fraternal organizations are a shell of their former glory; neighborhood civic groups have been superseded by online communities.
So how do we find our tribe? How do we belong? We do it the same way we always have — we find people who “look like us” and share our worldview. Except now, we’re not finding communal solace in religion or civic virtue but rather in political and public-policy forums, and our potential fellow travelers don’t need to hail from our neighborhood but rather can come from anywhere there’s broadband access. Hence the polarization of the electorate: We’re sorting ideologically across party lines because we have fewer purely local social ties to bind us.
Religiosity, when channeled through institutions that have had millennia to develop, is mostly benign. Religiosity, divorced of anchor institutions and self-directed through political channels, is harder to manage. Harder to mediate. Without a diversity of those “little platoons” to provide a broad-based context, we fall into the solipsism of a single-issue messiah. Political activism sourced from a wholly self-contained belief system cannot be reasoned with; it can only be confronted or accommodated.
Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith compels us; even people who profess atheism nevertheless need faith in something. It’s hard-wired into us as humans. As the rich tapestry of competing loyalties — a diversity that helped to check the excesses of any single constituent part — fades for many of our fellow citizens into a single-issue monochromatic print, our faith loses its grounding.
Some may argue that religious conservatives are ignorant. Or superstitious. Some probably are. But their faith in something bigger than themselves offers their religiosity a more humble, more humane path. Those whose faith hails from their own privileged beliefs, answerable to no higher authority than their own egos, have a tougher struggle to maintain a similar humble, humane demeanor. And, in this poisoned climate, it shows.
As a Catholic, then, I must confess: I have not really appreciated the gift of faith until I finally understood people whose faith is little more than a megaphone for their own psyches.

On Libertarians and Ron Paul

By popular demand (i.e., Abbi), I present a brief synopsis of why some people like Ron Paul.

A few points:

  • The most basic ascription of a libertarian is someone who believes in maximal individual liberty and minimal state intervention. Libertarians are in favor of things like gay marriage and drug decriminalization, on the theory that a consenting adult shouldn’t be prohibited from engaging in an action that doesn’t infringe upon the life, liberty or property of another. State regulation is limited to basic infrastructure — including a predictable property-rights regime — intended to provide individuals a defense against force or fraud by others. Libertarians tend to be non-interventionists in international affairs and favor user fees instead of taxes for public goods. They’re also often more trusting of the free-market system despite occasionally demonstrating cynicism about very large corporations and multinationals.
  • Libertarians often (but not always) align with Republicans on many issues, because many Republicans tend to favor smaller government and lower taxation. However, this association strained during the George W. Bush years; libertarians did not support intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor did they smile upon the “compassionate conservative” agenda that included Medicare Part D and democracy-building across the world.
  • The above notwithstanding, there’s really no such thing as a “typical libertarian” any more than there’s a typical conservative or liberal. Adherents of libertarian thought argue robustly among themselves about various aspects of their ideology, perhaps even more so than denizens of other main ideologies.
  • Some libertarians — again, like some liberals and conservatives — have their hobbyhorses. Ron Paul, for example, doesn’t much care for the Federal Reserve System and America’s current monetary policy. Paul doesn’t much care for “fiat money” — that is, money issued solely on the credit of the issuing government — and favors a return to a gold-backed dollar. The dollar was actually backed by gold until as recently as 1971, when President Nixon unilaterally terminated the convertibility of U.S. dollars into gold.
  • Ron Paul is, by all accounts, a highly intelligent man. He’s also not much of a team player; House leadership could rarely count on him to vote against his principles for the sake of a party goal. Some characterize him as a crank. Others think he’s a modern-day Cato.
  • Many young people who favor conservative economic policy but remain uncomfortable with the quasi-evangelical social policy of today’s GOP aligned with Ron Paul.

Questions? Bueller? Bueller?

On the Ethics Relating to Feral Cats

Last week, I said that I’ve got a family of ferals in my garage. These four felines have prompted quite a bit of discussion among my friends.

First, the Lenin question. What is to be done? Abbi and Brittany advocate TNR — trap, neuter, release. The idea is to crate the cats, take them to a local clinic that does free spaying and neutering for ferals, and then put the fuzzy four-legs back where they came from. The argument is that TNR is the most humane way of addressing burgeoning urban populations of feral cats: You don’t kill them outright, but you do remove their ability to procreate, thus controlling their numbers and limiting their footprint upon the bird and small-mammal populations.

Stacie, by contrast, echoes the official line from PETA, which is to trap and euthanize. Their argument is that there are too many feral cats already, killing birds and otherwise disrupting the local wildlife while simultaneously leading Hobbesian lives of nasty, brutish conditions. Better to painlessly euthanize them as an invasive species and be done with it.

Of all the ethical positions to take, it appears that the least laudable is precisely the one I’ve taken: I am feeding them. I’ve been giving Snowball and her three shorties a cup of dry food per day plus a plastic dish of clean water.

My strategy leads directly to a second point, regarding the line between feral and domestic cats in general. The mama of the bunch — which I’ve cleverly named Snowball because she’s solid white — went from hissing at me if I got within 10 feet, to meowing (happily) when she sees me and letting me pet her when I feed her. She actually comes to me when she sees me in the driveway. All this, within one week. Yes, her behavior is Pavlovian. But it’s interesting, because my two indoor cats pretty much act the same way. Granted that the indoor kitties are litterbox trained and don’t scratch stuff up, the question remains whether they’re really all that different from Snowball.

Dogs domesticate. Cats don’t, really. Snowball could probably never be an indoor cat — I wouldn’t even try. My indoor cats would probably die within a week if they were released into the wild. But habituation and domestication are wholly separate concepts.

More interesting are the kittens. When I first saw them, they were old enough to eat dry food and explore on their own, but not so old that they didn’t occasionally nurse. The kittens remained afraid of me; only one let me touch him when they dared to approach the dry food I left out. And now, I haven’t seen any of them in the last two days.  So do I still feed Snowball, when she doesn’t seem to be managing a litter anymore?

Decisions, decisions. Perhaps the best insight came from Alaric, who noted that presuming to make any interference with the cats — TNR, euthanasia, even feeding — is to presume to intrude upon the natural order of their lives, so right off the bat any choice violates their autonomy as creatures operating in the natural world. Every other ethical choice follows from that first-order violation.

Who would have thought that something as commonplace as a transient family of ferals could prove so ethically complex?

Zero Political Shades of Gray

The meta-debate about same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court prompted a side conversation with a friend that highlighted my frustration with people whose opinions on any given subject constitute little more than a rationalization of the inverse argument offered by an ideological opponent.

Conservatives don’t care much for progressives. Progressives don’t care much for conservatives. Yet too many people from each camp content themselves to find an explanation — any explanation, no matter how flimsy — to justify their oppositional defiance to a caricature of the position of the other side.

Put differently: Not only do we lack 50 shades of political gray, we lack any shades of gray. Positions distill to paired binaries; you’re pro or con without any hope of a middle ground or an alternative position. Deviate from the black-and-white model, and you’re either a traitor to the cause or a wacko kook outside the mainstream.

Almost every political question being tossed about in the mainstream press — entitlement reform, gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage, defense spending — distills into a straw man. Policy issues with several distinct facets are ground into a single surface that reflects back a mere bumper-sticker slogan.

Consider just two questions: Same-sex marriage and gun control. On SSM, you’re either for “marriage equality” or for “traditional marriage.” Very little serious attention is paid to the best, ideologically hybrid solutions, like splitting religious and civil marriage or treating marriage like a personal contract like any other. On gun control, you’re either in favor or against tougher laws; not many have bothered to adjust their solution set in light of a copious stream of data that suggests that some regulations are useful and others aren’t.

America’s problems have solutions. Social discord has an exit strategy. But as long as we insist on treating every policy question like a zero-sum game with only one valid answer per ideology, we all lose.

The Establishment vs. The Tea Party; Or, Why Word Choice Leads to an Irrational Narrative

The lion’s share of internecine Republican warfare rests on a problematic assertion: That there’s a qualitative difference, ideologically, between the Tea Party and the so-called Establishment.

I’m not so sure that there is.

What’s the major difference between Tea Party and Establishment Republicans? Only one real distinction comes to mind: Experience.

The Tea Party is upset because they see what they believe is an America under siege by the forces of collectivism and fiscal profligacy. Agree or disagree, but their lament is at least coherent. They want change, and they want it now, and they don’t want it watered down.

The Establishment, by contrast, is probably more Right than Center, but years of observing the Buckley Rule — achieve the most conservative candidate or position that’s possible and don’t die for lost causes — has opened them up to compromise and incrementalism. You might not, for example, get an immediate change in entitlement spending, but you might get a bending of the curve downward with folks like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell in charge.

Thus, the struggle between Tea Party and Establishment is probably less about ideology — I think everyone’s fundamentally on the same page — than it is about tactics. The Tea Party folks, because they’re mostly not accustomed to holding significant elective office, fail to understand that you can’t just stomp your feet and get your way. The Establishment folks, because they’re more interested in playing chess with the Democrats than checkers with their co-partisans, seem tone-deaf to the implications of sacrificing an occasional pawn.

It’s convenient to fan the flames of internal discord by alleging a difference in value systems between these two wings of the GOP. In truth, the differences aren’t all that significant, and with a bit of time and good will, we could end up with a GOP that’s got a passionate base with a bit more wisdom, and an elected class with a bit less risk aversion.

As long as we stop letting MSNBC and The Nation set the terms of the discussion.

Credit Where It's Due, to @RepJustinAmash

A few weeks ago I posted a somewhat negative essay detailing my concerns about my Member of Congress, Rep. Justin Amash, and his public response after his removal from the House Budget Committee.
I didn’t actually catch it until two days ago — my house line usually gets robocallers, so I rarely listen to the messages — but Congressman Amash called my home, personally, to offer a gentle defense.
Part of his message cut off, and regardless it’s a bit unseemly to analyze a private call in a public forum, but I would be remiss if I failed to note the good-faith effort Amash made to address the concerns of one of his constitutents. Not many in his position would bother to take the time.
One of these days I’ll have to attend a local town-hall forum and talk to him in person.

Credit Where It’s Due, to @RepJustinAmash

A few weeks ago I posted a somewhat negative essay detailing my concerns about my Member of Congress, Rep. Justin Amash, and his public response after his removal from the House Budget Committee.

I didn’t actually catch it until two days ago — my house line usually gets robocallers, so I rarely listen to the messages — but Congressman Amash called my home, personally, to offer a gentle defense.

Part of his message cut off, and regardless it’s a bit unseemly to analyze a private call in a public forum, but I would be remiss if I failed to note the good-faith effort Amash made to address the concerns of one of his constitutents. Not many in his position would bother to take the time.

One of these days I’ll have to attend a local town-hall forum and talk to him in person.