Tuesday, October 23, 2018

It Was Good For the Hebrew Children

Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace, from Robin's Great Coloring Pages.

I've been neglecting David Brooks since he came back from his recent book-generating aestivation (an aestivation or estivation is like a hibernation only in summer), for reasons akin to those cited by blogfriend Andrew Johnston; he's really not giving me enough material that I haven't already dealt with (Drew shows convincingly that you could write a really thorough review of the new book before it's even published, so that it's impossible to see why you'd want to even look at it, let alone slaving over an analysis of the text).

There's a moderately funny bit in today's column, though, a pre-election whine about Democrats failing to make a serious attempt to get his vote by offering a spiritual program ("The Materialist Party"), instead of talking about health care, health care, health care, or
“The top three issues this year are health care, health care and health care,” J.B. Poersch, of the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, told CNN....
In normal times, there’s good reason to run on this issue. Millions of families are plagued by inadequate insurance coverage. If you’re trying to win a swing voter in Arizona, it’s a bread-and-butter issue that has appeal.
But the Democratic campaign is inadequate to the current moment. It offers no counternarrative to Trump, little moral case against his behavior, no unifying argument against ethnic nationalism. In politics you can’t beat something with nothing. Democrats missed the Trumpian upsurge because while society was dividing into cultural tribes, they spent 2008 through 2016 focusing on health care. Now that the upsurge has happened, they are still pinioned to health care.
That's not the funny bit, of course, just the setup. You can feel your eyelids drooping as you try to decide which of these flabby complaints you want to address. Is a Mr. Poersch on CNN a better authority than Beto O'Rourke or Alexandria Ocasio-Córtez on what the campaign is about? Has he ever heard a speech by O'Rourke or Ocasio-Córtez or Andrew Gillum? Has he not noticed that the extraordinary wealth of ethnic and gender identities in this year's Democratic candidates is a unifying argument against Trump's ethnic nationalism in its own right? that you don't have to talk about it so much when you're living it (43% of Democratic House candidates this year are women, 13% of Republicans). Does he really think nobody in the party is making a case against Trump's immoral behavior? (A lot of candidates aren't talking about it, worried about hurting the feelings voters who supported him, but it's everywhere in the air.) When we're talking about materialism,  are we talking about Feuerbachian materialism, the belief that everything that exists is in the physical world, that there's no quintessence, aether, phlogiston, ghost-stuff or ectoplasm? Or Trumpian materialism, the belief that the best person is the one with the nicest apartment? Was there a Trumpian upsurge? Or was there a Clintonian downsurge managed through the independent efforts of Vladimir Putin, James Comey, and Amy Chozick? How is there anything in this analysis that we need to pay attention to?
We’ve learned a few things about the Democratic Party. First, it’s still fundamentally a materialist party. The Trumpian challenge is primarily a moral and cultural challenge. But the Democrats are mostly comfortable talking about how to use federal spending to extend benefits. Some Democrats want to spend a lot more (Medicare for all, free college education), and some want to spend less, but their basic instinct is that national problems can be addressed with more federal money. Their basic political instinct is that you win votes by offering material benefits.
Second, we’ve learned that when Democrats do raise a moral argument, it tends to be of the social justice warrior variety. The core argument in this mode is that the oppressive structures of society marginalize women, minorities and members of the L.G.B.T.Q. communities.
No. "Social justice" has a meaning, and a moral significance going back at least to the 8th century B.C.E., to the reigns of Uzziah and Jeroboam, and the fulminations of the prophet Amos, chapters 2 and 5:
For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted....
Therefore because you trample on[b] the poor
    and you exact taxes of grain from him,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
    but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
    but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions
    and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
    and turn aside the needy in the gate.
The god of the Hebrews demanded that the wealthy among them stop selling their countrymen and women into slavery, stop wallowing in ridiculous luxury, and share the material wealth, or be cursed by exile and the loss of nationhood (as subsequently happened, when they fell under the yoke of the Assyrians). That's a moral message, and a very forceful one, more forceful, I think, than the whimsically utopian suggestion of Rabbi Jesus that you'd be best off if you gave all your possessions to the poor, which is why it was always Amos, not Jesus, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. adverted to in this connection.

It's always a moral argument. When we ask that everybody have access to medical care, we're asking for justice. When we ask that everybody have access to post-secondary education or training, we're asking for justice. When we ask police not to shoot black men dead in the street, that's justice too. There's justice for individuals, there's justice for groups, and the biblical injunctions apply to both (the needy, the unprotected widows and orphans, and foreigners or "strangers" most forcefully of all in the Tanakh, "because we were strangers in Egypt", calling on the empathy of remembered experience). It's all one thing.

And it involves groups because people are often oppressed as groups, does David Brooks seriously not know that? And they organize, as they have a (constitutionally guaranteed) right to do, ethnic and gender groups, labor groups, religious congregations with particular justice interests from Quakers to Reform Jews, advocacy associations from civil libertarians to climate scientists, and they tend since the 1960s to look to and belong to the Democratic party as full and equal members (not suitors, going hat in hand to the gentry to beg for a favor as you would be going to the wealthy 60-year-old white man's party, but democratic participants in the sharing) because of its commitment to justice for all, however weak it sometimes seems.

And if it's material rather than ectoplasmic, if it's about cash and food and doctoring rather than "shared intimacy" and "telling a new story" and all those other neurasthenic Brooksian ghost yearnings, if it's about stuff that really exists rather than stuff that makes Brooks feel moony, so is that old-time religion, folks, and it's good enough for me.

That's the funny part. I guess it's not that funny, but what the hell.


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