Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Lesson in Civic Speech

Name calling doesn't work.

Or, to be more precise, name calling doesn't work if you plan to ever talk to someone again.

But it can be a very useful tool for convincing your friends that you and they hate the same enemies. Thus, in politics - and what isn't political these days, from sports to entertainment? - leaders often say to their supporters: "Our opponents are extremists." "Their policies are stupid." "His behavior has been positively criminal." "Does she have a clue what she's doing?" Ridiculing opponents in this way can be a great way to signal to others that you share their values. It gets plenty of applause at campaign rallies.

It also poisons our democracy.

Name calling turns differences into divisions. It makes disagreements personal. It burns bridges. And that's a problem if you need to work with someone.

We use such language inside our political parties, even though opposing wings need to work together for the good of the party. We use such language in the open political arena, even though the parties will have to work together - in one chamber or the other of Congress, between the branches of government, in the statehouses, and in the many transitions between administrations - for the common good. We use such language to describe international leaders, even though we depend upon their support to solve the thorniest problems and bring about diplomatic solutions (for even a strong power cannot always resort to war).

Social media has not improved our behavior. It is far easier to belittle someone you cannot see than someone you must look in the eye.

We've all been there, we've all slipped into a rant that temporarily made us feel good and gave us a sense of camaraderie with those who agree with us. But what has it really accomplished?

St. Paul reminds us that our focus should be on the good things that are praiseworthy, not on shortcomings to be criticized:
Whatever is true,
whatever is honorable
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence and
if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things. (Phil 4:8)
So next time you're tempted to affix some derogatory term to your opponent, tempted to make assumptions about other people's motives, tempted to bad-mouth someone on Facebook: don't.

Let's speak in a way that strengths America's democracy, rather than harms it.

Today's meme comes from the Young Christian Democrats of America.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

In Virginia, Thanksgiving Comes in December

We all know the familiar story: in 1621 the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, sat down with their Native American friends and had a day of feasting and thanksgiving to God for blessings received: the first Thanksgiving, right?

Well, not quite.  When a group of English settlers arrived at the Berkeley Hundred on 4 December, 1619 they knelt and prayed, thanking God for their safe passage.  Moreover, the Berkeley Company, which organized their settlement, decreed that "the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned... in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God."  (If, however, you want to be a real stickler, Spanish settlers in Florida beat their English brethren by several decades, with a mass of thanksgiving and dining with local Native Americans in 1565.)

To be honest, most Virginians don't actually celebrate Virginia Thanksgiving, though there is an annual Virginia Thanksgiving Festival (which was moved to the first Sunday of November, in the hope of avoiding bad weather).  So why bring it up at all?

I have no problem celebrating the Massachusetts Thanksgiving, which has been a federal holiday - currently marked on the fourth Thursday of November - since 1863.  As Americans, we are all part of a single body.  We rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  But we also belong to local communities and cultures.  Apart from a short stint my in-laws spent in Boston when in graduate school, neither I, nor my wife, nor any of our ancestors have any ties to New England.  So why not celebrate something tied to our own state?

Fostering local holidays and culture can be an important part of building local solidarity, a sense of brotherhood with our neighbors, one which ultimately bears fruit in helping one another.  But how do we go about doing that?  For starters, what do you eat for Virginia Thanksgiving?

The Virginia Thanksgiving Festival offers a wide range of foods, from the usual turkey and cranberries to BBQ, baked beans, coleslaw, Brunswick stew, Virginia ham, sweet tea and pecan pie.  If you're historically minded, Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon both offer colonial recipes.  If you'd like more contemporary fare, simply ask your Virginia neighbors what they like to have at the holidays.  (It's a good excuse to actually talk to your neighbors!)  Or make up your own family customs; historical longevity is great, but it's the building of community that matters most.

Tomorrow our family will be eating turkey and mashed potatoes, like most Americans.  But in a couple weeks, we'll take a stab at celebrating Virginia Thanksgiving as well.  If you live in the Commonwealth, maybe you should try it too.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Can We Afford To Care for Our Neighbors?

Virtually everyone recognizes the desirability of caring for our neighbors.  But in an age of spiraling debt, can we afford to do so without busting the bank?  (In the recent election here in Virginia, Ralph Northam's opponents' primary argument was that the state could not afford his policies.)  I think we can afford to care for our neighbors, for several reasons:

  1. Social welfare should be a safety net, not a free ride.  There are a few with incapacitating handicaps who may require care for the remainder of their lives.  But these are few and far between.  Most people simply need a little help getting back on their feet.  Programs should be designed with this focus, providing, for example, vocational training, job searching services, and various forms of matching funds.  If you're providing for every need from cradle to grave, you're not only spending beyond the government's means, but also robbing people of the dignity that comes from being responsible for themselves.
  2. Local duties always come first.  Families should not be asked to care for their neighbors when they cannot provide for their own children.  Communities should not be asked to care for the next town over when the cannot afford to care for their own.  Christian Democracy embraces the idea of subsidiarity: problems should be solved at the lowest level possible, by the people who understand them best and have the greatest stake in them.  When we return more powers to state and local governments, taxpayers can have greater confidence that they are being asked to shoulder burdens that match their abilities.
  3. Social welfare should include frequent public-private partnerships.  Civil society has a vigorous role to play.  Just as the safety net should support, not replace, personal responsibility (see point #1), so too government welfare should support, not replace, the excellent work of private charity.  Americans have a strong tradition of helping our neighbors through a wide variety of civic and charitable organizations.  Deep in our American DNA is the sense of duty to volunteer and that's a wonderful thing.  Government programs should be tailored to support, with matching funds and light-touch regulations, the work of private organizations.
  4. There are opportunities for savings.  Increased transparency can shine a light on waste and reveal places where we can save money.  Spending on big-ticket hardware and government support to large corporations, typically in the form of generous tax breaks, cost taxpayers every year.  If we can close some of the loopholes and trim some of the waste, that leaves more money available for caring for ordinary Americans, particularly veterans, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.
  5. Not caring comes with costs too.  Minor health problems which would have been small, had they been addressed early on, can become costly chronic ailments.  Small investments in basic health can avoid those costs.  Drug abuse can become drug addiction which can lead to a variety of crimes, which in turn harm society and force us to spend money on policing and prisons.  A little money spent on drug rehabilitation may go a long way.  The list goes on and on.  The point is: before balking at every dollar spent, let's think about the issues at stake and make prudent, long-term decisions.
The American Solidarity Party platform states that, "we have an obligation to care for our neighbor, and especially to defend those who are most vulnerable. We believe that ensuring every person has access to essentials such as food, shelter, education and healthcare is an achievable goal in our society."  Let's work together and make it happen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Why We Are Flying the German Flag Today

Our family flies the US flag most days, but we also have a small collection of state and foreign flags. Since the white supremacist rallies here in Charlottesville, we have not flown our German flag. Not that there's anything racist about the Federal Republic of Germany, but we certainly wanted to avoid any misunderstanding.

I like flying a variety of flags. I think it is a useful reminder of our multiple identities and layered loyalties. I am an American and proud to fly the Stars and Stripes. But the US Constitution (signed on this day in 1787!) divides power between the federal and state governments. My wife and I are both proud of our home states and happy to fly their flags (albeit, in the case of Mississippi, the historic Magnolia flag). Our ancestors came from a variety of countries and their cultures are part of our heritage too. Identity is not an either-or question. We are Americans and Virginians and Catholics whose roots are in Arizona and Mississippi, France, Germany, Sweden, and half a dozen other countries. And we hold all those identities at once.

September 17th is the birthday of Friedrick von Steuben, a German aristocrat who came to America to help our young republic fight for its independence. His birthday - or a day near it - has long been marked as a celebration of German-American heritage. From my German-American ancestors I inherited a penchant for hard work, Biblical faith, and hearty food. I'm happy to honor them.

There are many stories that explain why the German flag three stripes of black, red, and gold. Many of these stories are legends which may or may not be historically true. But they tell us something about how people think about politics. My favorite explanation of the colors comes from the Weimar Republic, the attempt to create a democratic Germany after World War I. The black-red-gold flag that the Weimar Republic adopted is said to represent the three major political parties which worked to defend the republic against extremists on the left (Communists) and right (Nazis). These three parties were the Centre Party (black), Social Democrats (red), and Democratic Party (gold). The Centre Party was heavily Catholic, committed to seeing faith made manifest in the social and political life of the country, but also willing to compromise and work with other parties to see that realized. The Social Democrats were a party of the working class, closely tied to labor unions; they sought to protect the rights of workers and their families. The Democrats - whose heirs in modern Germany are the Free Democrats - were what we call "classical liberals," a party of the middle class committed to the free market, the rule of law, and efficient government.

Between them these three defenders of Weimar republicanism express a decent approximation of my own political views, namely Christian Democracy. We must always be mindful of the men and women whose labor - often manual - makes our country and its prosperity possible. But we also have a duty to ensure that this is done in a manner that is free, fair, and transparent; rather than creating a mess of regulations and bureaucracy, we should craft a simple set of rules in which all people can thrive. And all this should be done with love for our neighbor and acknowledgement of divine sovereignty, from which we derive our sense of justice and to which we own ultimate loyalty.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why I'm Interested in Wilhelm Röpke

I recently bought a copy of Wilhelm Röpke's A Humane Economy as well as a biography of him. Röpke (1899-1966) was a Swiss economist who inspired the German economic miracle under Konrad Adenauer's Christian Democrats and, so far as I can tell, held firmly to two ideas: (a) The economy must be a moral place which cares for all of society. (b) Individuals and private institutions, not the state, should be the primary actors in the economic sphere. With regard to the latter point, he bears much resemblance to Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian school of economics, which staunchly supports the free market against an overly regulatory state. But unlike Mises or F. A. Hayek - to say nothing of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of libertarianism - Röpke explicitly emphasized the social and moral role of the economy.

The demands of social justice are clearly written in the Gospels and across both the Old and New Testaments. The appeal of this part of Röpke's thinking to me is obvious. But I am also attracted to the small, individual, private vision as well, for at least three reasons I can identify:

(1) As someone coming from a conservative, formerly GOP background, I have some deep-seated suspicions of government. Some of these are irrational. Many I have abandoned over the years. But some remain, with good reason, I think. We have seen in other arenas - such as same sex marriage or the never ending war in Afghanistan - the pernicious effects of a government that may have too much power for its own good.

(2) I would not characterize America's welfare state as a failure. There are many good programs accomplishing a great deal of good in our society. And yet, deep problems remain. I think it is worthwhile to at least ask if there might be alternatives to simply creating another program. This is particularly so in the US, which has a deep tradition of volunteerism and individual initiative. Large government-directed social programs may make sense in other countries, but I think Americans instinctively want to do these things themselves.

(3) Being moral agents and caring for our neighbors are fundamentally individual responsibilities. There are many legitimate roles for the government, but there is a cheapening of our dignity if, at every turn, we simply pass our moral obligations on to distant bureaucrats. Encountering the poor and the weak, the stranger and the outcast for ourselves is an experience - and a duty - which no program, however well-meaning or effective, can accomplish.

So I'm excited to read more abut Röpke and his ideas. If I find the time both to make headway on my new reading and to type up some additional thoughts here, I look forward to sharing my new discoveries.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Under God" - On Its Necessity

This post first appeared on The Guild Review.  Sorry for the shortage of posts of late; I hope to change that in the coming weeks and months, but life has been busy!

In 1954 a joint resolution of Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Among those pushing for this addition were the Knight of Columbus, an American Catholic fraternal organization.

To secularists, these words are anathema, an attempt to establish an official religion and overturn the First Amendment.  To others, these words nail America's flag to the mast of Christianity, underscoring that this country is, and always has been - at least in their view - a Christian nation.

I am both less confident and less interested than this latter party in America's Christian heritage.  This is not a debate I wish to enter today.  Rather, I would like to contend that the words "under God" are essential for Christians, or indeed probably any people of theistic faith, to say the pledge.

My hang up is the word "allegiance."  Christians owe their allegiance to Jesus Christ, their Lord and their God.  He is king of the universe and king of their hearts.  All Christians are, rather literally, monarchists.

This does not necessarily mean that Christians should be theocrats, endorsing government by bishops or other clergymen.  Indeed, Jesus Himself insisted that that which is Caesar's should be rendered to him.  But I would contend - as I tried to flesh out some years ago - that the republics we establish by the consent of the governed must exist under the larger kingship of Christ.  He has granted us, so to speak, the right and responsibility of looking after the affairs of our particular polities. But this does not change the fundamental reality that He is the ultimate lawgiver, judge, ruler, and commander.

So when a Christian - or, so far as I understand, a Jew or Muslim as well - is asked to swear allegiance, the natural question would be, "Do you mean allegiance in the ultimate sense, or in the local, political sense?  If you mean in the ultimate sense, my allegiance is to God alone."

Perhaps, you say, it is obvious that a political pledge is concerned with allegiance in the local, political sense, and not in the universal, theological sense.  Perhaps that should be obvious.  But across the centuries - and certainly in the 20th - regimes have made claims that exceed the political.  They have demanded that their own fiat should trump the consciences of citizens, that the good of the state is more important than the moral law.  In such cases, the political has claimed an unholy, idolatrous precedence.

Let me be clear: I do not think America is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian dictatorship along the lines of the Communists or the National Socialists.  But it never hurts to make clear, long in advance of any problems, the terms of our discussion.  And let us not forget that the dictatorship of relativism is quite strong and that it must be opposed, in culture and, yes, sometimes in politics.

Concerns about the First Amendment's establishment clause are not to be taken lightly, but neither should we overlook the fact that, absent these two little words, large swaths of America would rightly have serious questions about taking the Pledge of Allegiance in good faith.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Four Tips for Living Localism

In the past 15 years I have moved more times than I care to count. I have lived in four states and the District of Columbia, as well as spending a semester in Italy and a summer in Germany. Both of my parents are from states other than that where I grew up, and I married a gal from yet another state. I am what David Goodhart calls an "Anywhere," a person at home in the globalized, cosmopolitan world.

But there are problems with such a globalized view. As R. R. Reno recently pointed out in First Things, self-government necessarily requires some sort of localism. The larger the entity involved - epitomized by that largest of all entities, the global community - the more likely that political and cultural elites run the show in a insular world that common folk can rarely penetrate.

In the last few years my wife and I have settled down in Greene County, Virginia, where we own a home and raise our children. I am ready to become a "Somewhere," a person rooted in a given place, a person committed to living in solidarity with one's neighbors. But how do you go about doing that, in concrete ways? Let me make four suggestions:

(1) Get to know your neighbors. Yes, your literal neighbors, the people whose homes are within sight of yours. Wave when you see them getting the mail. Talk to them on a Saturday afternoon when you're both out mowing the lawn. Invite them and their kids over to have take-out pizza on your porch some Friday evening. There's no substitute for actually knowing actual people.

(2) Subscribe to your local paper. I have had a subscription to the Financial Times, a British newspaper focused on international business and politics, almost continually for the last decade. It is emblematic of my status as an Anywhere. But lately I also took out a subscription to the Greene County Record. The journalistic quality is hardly the same, the problems discussed are hardly as large. But I think subscribing to the local newspaper, however modest it may be, has a couple virtues. It helps us understand the problems and opportunities of our local area. I have been surprised to discover how many concerts and classes there are, at little or no cost, near our home. Moreover, a subscription to the local newspaper encourages investigative journalism - or at least some level of coverage - regarding local politics. And that's important. One reason so many local political scenes are run by a good ol' boys network is that there is so little media attention focused on local politics. My 50 cents per week is a modest contribution toward improving such coverage.

(3) Take an interest in your lowest level of government. Who represents you on the city council or county board of supervisors? Do you know how long their terms are? Where they meet? How much authority does your local body have? Given the limited media coverage, you'll have to do some homework on this one, but the local newspaper will help you. And you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that, in conjunction with your neighbors and other informed citizens, you can actually make an impact on local politics, with visible results in your community. It's not always easy, but probably a lot easier than trying to change the outcome of a presidential election.

(4) Get involved in your house of worship. Don't just show up for worship once a week. Get to know your fellow worshipers. Join a Bible Study or men's or women's group. Find a ministry that needs your help. Serve on a committee. Teach a class. So much of the basic fabric of civil society has been destroyed, but one of the few places you can still reliably find its remnants are in houses of worship. I don't think that's a coincidence: our faith in God has implications for how we love one another. So if you want to see your local community reinvigorated, your fellow believers may be a good place to start.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Pontificating on Dylann Roof - Is It My Place?

I recently published a blog post calling to spare Dylann Roof from the death penalty. But as I was pushing the button, I heard a little voice in my head. The conversation went something like this.

Aaron Linderman, the Reader: Back in November you wrote a post about boundaries, about not having an opinion on things that aren't really your business. You don't live in South Carolina. Your family wasn't among the victims. You're not on the jury. Is it really your place to be commenting on this?

Aaron Linderman, the Writer: Does seem rather inconsistent, doesn't it?

Reader: Yes, it does.

Writer: Well, I suppose I was trying to articulate a principle, namely, that in cases like Roof's, we - and by that I mean the people of Virginia, my state - should show mercy.

Reader: Perhaps you should have been clearer about that. Perhaps you should have written about some of the people currently on death row in Virginia.

Writer: That's a good idea. But I think the argument would be basically the same: These are unsavory people who have grievously hurt society. But rather than continuing the cycle of violence, we should demonstrate that we live in a humane civilization and spare their lives. Moreover, in the overwhelming majority of instances, there's no serious case that they pose a threat of escaping and striking again.

Reader: But on that point about the ongoing danger to society: Are you aware that, here in Virginia, six death row inmates escaped from the Mecklenburg Correctional Center in 1984? It can happen.

Writer: Indeed, it can. A group of seven who escaped in Texas in 2000 also comes to mind. The state has the responsibility to protect society.  For this reason, I think we should probably keep capital punishment on the books, but with several strict limits: (1) There must be the utmost certainty of the defendant's guilt. These days that probably means DNA evidence. Here in Virginia Earl Washington was wrongly sentenced to death, and there are many other cases as well.  This is utterly unacceptable.  (2) It must be a particularly heinous crime that is being punished. (3) The prosecution must make the case that there is a real probability that the defendant could escape from a maximum security prison and kill again. Speaking of prison security, I'd be quite happy to vote for extra money for maximum security prisons, so that we can have confidence in a life sentence.

Reader: This is all interesting, but aren't we getting away from the initial question? Is it really your place to comment on this case?

Writer: Carnes Lord, in his book The Modern Prince, discusses the "right to be wrong." He argues that our elected leaders - not bureaucrats or investigative journalists or other backseat drivers - have been vested by the people with decision-making authority. A bureaucrat has a duty to describe a situation as best he can and to subsequently carry out his orders as well as possible. He does not get to decide, in a fundamental sense, what to do. Elected leaders are vested with that power. We can criticize their decisions, but we must also recognize that, in giving them the authority to make such decisions, we are also granting the possibility that they will make poor ones.

That concept may be relevant here. A jury of ordinary citizens in South Carolina has been given the authority to decide Dylann Roof's fate. I contend that the best choice would be to grant him mercy - even, and perhaps especially, if he is uninterested in it - and spare his life. But I also recognize that government is best conducted, whenever possible, at the local level. And if the above discussion has demonstrated nothing else, I think it shows that this is a complex question. The South Carolina jury is free to make their decision as they see fit. But I do hope they choose life.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mercy for Dylann Roof

The trial of Dylann Roof, the murderer of nine worshipers at a black church in Charleston in 2015, has now moved to the sentencing phase. The basic question is whether Roof will received life in prison or be executed for his crimes.

There is no doubt that Roof's attack was heinous. In addition to the deaths themselves and the attendant suffering inflicted on the community and the families of the victims, Roof's motive casts a further specter: he sought to ignite a race war in America.

In spite of all this, Roof's life should be spared. His execution would potentially make him a martyr to those few people who share his twisted views of racial superiority and violence. In contrast, sparing his life demonstrates that American society retains the moral high ground and will not stoop to the kind of vindictive actions Dylann Roof has taken.

To my knowledge, no one is making the case that Roof poses a significant threat of escape. So long as he remains behind bars, he poses no threat to society. His blood need not be shed to protect the rest of us.

Human life has dignity - all human life. If we embark on the task of choosing which lives are and are not worthy of respect, as Dylann Roof did, we enter morally dubious territory. Human dignity is innate and inalienable; even acts as heinous as Roof's cannot erase the sacred calling given to him and every man and woman on the planet: to love and to be loved.

Perhaps, as he lives out his days in prison, Dylann Roof might yet come to see that. I'm not optimistic, but I can hope.

UPDATE: For further discussion on this topic, see the follow-on post.