Will we as a country ever do great things again?

Will McAvoy loses it after hearing the pat answers of the 'liberal' and 'conservative' on the panel.

Will McAvoy loses it after hearing more than enough of the pat answers of the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ on the panel.

I really should have had more faith in Aaron Sorkin.

After all, there’s never been anything on television I like more than “The West Wing” (although I’ll note that “Band of Brothers” ties it).

But until this week, I had refused to watch “The Newsroom.” Long ago, when HBO first launched it, I read things about it that made me not want to see it, on the grounds that I thought it would just irritate me no end. But what I read was either a misrepresentation, or I misread it.

When my wife suggested, as I was clicking around in Amazon Prime, that we check it out, I trotted out the objections as I recalled them: First, it was about a TV news anchorman — and you know, I’m a print guy. I don’t even WATCH that TV stuff, network or cable. Next, he was an anchorman who one day loses it and launches into a rant that supposedly “tells the truth” for a change, and nothing is ever again the same for him or his network. That, of course, sounded an awful lot like “Network,” which I’ve always thought was overrated. (You probably have to have been around in 1976 to recall how “brilliant” it allegedly was.) I’ve never yet understood what Peter Finch’s character was “mad as hell” about, or why that supposedly connected with a wide audience. It was gibberish to me — sensationalistic gibberish. Unfocused emotionalism, signifying nothing.

Then there was my memory of the content of the rant on “The Newsroom” — which, as it turned out, was mistaken. As I told my wife, the “truth” he was sharing was paranoid nonsense like what we hear from Bernie Sanders and in slightly different form from Donald Trump, about how everything is fixed and the little guy stands no chance. My memory was clearly wrong. His “truth” was something else that tends to evoke a similarly dismissive reaction in me: a rant about how this is not the greatest country in the world, essentially a rejection of American exceptionalism. (There are a lot of things that prompt similar reactions in me, and sometimes I confuse them.)

Actually, when I relented and watched the show, I saw that even that wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Here’s what Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy says after being badgered into reacting while sitting on a panel in front of a college audience:

And yeah, you… sorority girl. Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know. One of them is: there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are, without a doubt, a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Yosemite?!

Here’s the video. In the context, and in light of his irritation at the pat answers given by the stereotypical “liberal” and “conservative” on the panel with him (irritation with which I fully identified; he could have been me sitting there, losing patience with their stupid game — so by the time he erupts, I’m in his corner), it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. I was willing to keep listening to him. And I was rewarded for that, because what followed redeemed what he’d said before, if it needed redeeming:

It sure used to be… We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reason. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reason. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed… by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

Right. Absolutely. That’s what I mean by American exceptionalism, and it describes the country I was born into and grew up in. And it evokes the sense of loss I have as I look around me today. (And the outrage I feel at the Trumpistas saying they would “make America great again,” when everything they want to do would accomplish the precise opposite.)

Anyway, I was hooked on the show right there. I’ve still only seen the first episode, but I look forward to watching more.

As I said above, I should have more faith in the creator of “The West Wing.” By the way, when I first heard about “The Newsroom,” I had not yet watched “The West Wing,” and in fact had avoided it for similar reasons. I had heard it was a liberal fantasy of what a presidency should be, and I don’t like that kind of stuff from either left or right. But again, I had been misled. And I’m beginning to think the reason why I keep getting misled about Sorkin is that he writes with an intelligence that other media have trouble describing, because their limited “left vs. right” vocabulary lacks the necessary words.

Having had them inadequately described to me, I simply wasn’t ready for shows that spoke so clearly to me, striking a chord that I’d not been told was there.

I may never like it as much as “West Wing,” but I’m pleased so far.

(Oh, and a brief digression that will only be of interest to fellow Sorkin fans: I think in this one, he managed to avoid a mistake he made in “West Wing.” Remember the pilot? Remember how Josh feels blindsided and gets upset because the White House is about to hire back a woman he used to be involved with? Well, the first episode of “The Newsroom” has the exact same plot point: the network boss has hired a woman with whom McAvoy has a past, and he is at first all bent out of shape about it. But this time, I think its going to work out. On “West Wing,” the woman in question, “Mandy,” was the one and only truly grating, irritating character on the show — and Sorkin wisely “ghosted” her before the season was over. She just disappeared, without explanation. This time, I think the character is going to work — I’ve even gotten to where I no longer expect her to mention “avian bird syndrome.” No need to send her to Mandyville — yet. Apparently, Sorkin learns from his mistakes.)

Anyway, to get to my point, more than 1,200 words in…

Let’s go back to that bit about how “We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior….”

Good stuff.

And why don’t we do stuff like that any more? Why did we lose our confidence? Was it just Vietnam, or what? In any case, I’m ready for us to get it back.

As 2019 dawned, The New York Times ran a piece about 1919. An excerpt:

To promote the idea of interstate travel, a military convoy left Washington for California in July 1919. The New York Times called it “the largest aggregation of motor vehicles ever started on a trip of such length.”

But the convoy broke down repeatedly, and took 62 days to reach its destination. It averaged just six miles an hour, and almost didn’t make it out of Utah. As it turned out, there were almost no paved roads between Illinois and Nevada. Decades later, the officer who led the convoy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would push for a national highway system as president. Even with a well-publicized divide between red and blue states, we can generally reach each other when we need to, and that is another unexpected result of a pivotal year….

No roads? No problem, to the man who whipped Hitler. We’ll build an interstate highway system. It may have taken him awhile, but he got to it eventually.

The first episode of “The Newsroom” is titled, “We Just Decided To.” I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but it takes us back to something Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell says in “Apollo 13” (one of the best movies ever about what’s special about this country):

From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.

We just decided to go. And we went.

This week, the Chinese landed a robot on the other side of the moon. They might as well. We lost interest in the place after 1972 — 46 years ago. Yeah, I know, we have those pictures of Ultima Thule, and that’s cool and worth celebrating, truly. But such accomplishments are too few and far between these days.

We live in a time when the most ambitious proposal to “do something big” is to build a gigantic wall on our southern border. It’s big, all right — you’d be able to see it from space. But as a monument to xenophobia, it diminishes the country. It makes us less than we are. It’s about closing, not opening. It is a big, fat NAY to the universe. It is in fact a profoundly depressing thing to contemplate, seeing what we’ve descended to.

Yeah, Ultima Thule. That’s great and all. But I want more. I’ll close with the words with which Hanks closed “Apollo 13:”

I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?

'We just decided to go: Tom Hanks, as Jim Lovell, ponders the moon.

‘We just decided to go: Tom Hanks, as Jim Lovell, ponders the moon.

68 thoughts on “Will we as a country ever do great things again?

  1. Doug Ross

    Maybe if we stopped don’t stupid things like fighting endless undeclared wars, we’d have the resources to do something “big”. As long as we waste money on that, there won’t be any to do important things.

    Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, I’ll bite, for the millionth time (I feel like Charlie Brown, and you’re Lucy with the football)…

        It’s not about money.

        It’s about will.

        It’s about confidence.

        It’s about giving a damn.

        It’s about caring more for the thing to be done, the thing that’s worth doing, than about our petty differences and other pathetic excuses for inaction.

        It’s a deep thing, a sort of collective soul thing.

        It’s not about money.

        Yes, the LBJ years were a time when we were flush with wealth, in the midst of the postwar expansion, and that made things easier.

        But the more important thing was that we believed in ourselves. A seed like JFK’s challenge to go to the moon fell on fertile ground. It was something we were up for, as a people. Just as we were up for the Peace Corps (you know, more meddling in countries where we have no business), and the Civil Rights movement (imagine something like the Civil Rights Act passing today, if you can), and yes, Vietnam.

        Do what I’m doing and watch the Burns series on Vietnam again. Notice how many of those veterans were motivated by the idea of going and saving the Vietnamese people from oppression. Never mind how disillusioned so many of them became. Look at how they were at the outset, how the whole nation was at the outset. That willingness to volunteer and to sacrifice was a beautiful thing, and it arose out of that spirit that we seem to have lost….

        Reply
        1. Doug Ross

          And for the millionth time I will respond with:

          You can’t do everything you want with finite resources. It is 100% about having the money to pay for what you want. You want everything. And your standard answer on how to get it is “taxes”. No consideration of prioritization, debt, or how to actually pay for what you want. You want the pie in the sky without having to pay for the flour and apples.

          There are BIG things going on every day, right now. Things that couldn’t have been imagined in 1968. It’s just they aren’t being done by the government because the government is, generally, inefficient, bloated, unproductive, and lacking innovation.
          Advances in technology, healthcare, energy, etc. are all happening without the burden of government.

          That we aren’t spending more tax dollars to put metal into space is fine with me. There are plenty of BIG challenges on this planet: food, health, energy for example, that deserve far more attention.

          But when military spending consumes 54% (2015) of all federal discretionary spending — more than all other spending combined — then perhaps we need to revisit our national priorities instead of just using platitudes about “WE CAN DO IT IF WE WANT TO DO IT!”. Talk is cheap… doing it is expensive.

          Reply
          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            How about plastic? Can we put plastic in space? (Probably not, given all the fuss about our having put it into the ocean.)

            We’re never going to have a meeting of the minds on this, because your worldview simply does not include what I’m talking about. You couldn’t care less about the thing I’m yearning for here, the thing Sorkin’s character was talking about. You don’t care if America is “great.” You don’t think it ever was, and don’t care whether it ever is.

            I’d love to hear some thoughts from some folks who care about what WE do as a people, and don’t see incremental technological developments achieved by this or that private individual or company as in any way as satisfying to the soul.

            I’m talking about America — about who we are and what we do. But you, Doug, don’t think in terms of “we.” You scoff every time I say “we.” You think it’s ridiculous. But the “we” is very important to me.

            Reply
  2. Dave Crockett

    I, too, enjoyed “The Newsroom” when it first aired for all the reasons you describe AND because I WAS in broadcasting in an earlier life.

    The rest of the short-lived series will leave you wanting more, I suspect.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Probably so. “The West Wing” at least had some resolution. Although really, it had declined some in the post-Sorkin years.

      In fact, in 2018 I tried watching the whole series again during my morning workouts.

      At some point during the campaign I stopped, because it got to a point that I just find too painful to watch again. I’m talking about the start of Season 6 — the second season without Sorkin. It’s when Bartlet and Leo have their falling-out, leading to Leo’s departure from the chief of staff job.

      I couldn’t stand that. Their friendship was just too important to the show — more important to me than a fictional Mideast Peace agreement. And it’s just not the Bartlet Administration without Leo at the helm.

      And while there are some good episodes later on — I like the Arnie Vinick character, and I LOVE when Josh goes to save Sam again from the private sector (Doug probably hates that part :)) — I just find the breakup too painful to push through again.

      Also, there’s the sadness of his fictional heart attack at Camp David foreshadowing John Spencer’s actual death.

      He fell to his knees there in the woods, and I quit watching…

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Maybe I could go back and watch it now.

        Maybe the reason it was so painful to see was because I was involved with the campaign, and every day was so intense, and I just didn’t feel like watching something so unpleasant before the crack of dawn each morning before my long day.

        By the way, “The West Wing” had a lot to do with my going to work for James. I’ll have to tell that story in a separate post sometime. It’s pretty corny, so it will have to be on a day when I don’t mind being taunted about it…

        Reply
  3. Mr. Smith

    I watched all three seasons of The Newsroom. It sags a bit on into season one, when it gets side-tracked with Millennial romances. But stick with it, because it picks up again after that. In fact, I think it’s one of the few series that got better as it went along. Some of the “current event” references may already seem somewhat dated, however.

    Along with Sorkin, practically anything David Simon is involved with is good.

    As for achieving great things, I’m afraid there are too many people who’ve been trained to holler “taxes, taxes, taxes!” every time someone proposes something – whether it’s a new effort in space exploration or granting everybody access to heath care. Until we get past that kind of me-ism, we won’t achieve great things.

    Reply
    1. Doug Ross

      Note: I have joined the single payer camp, not because it will be better but because it will shut up the people who think it will be better.

      Reply
    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yep. And of course we’ve had that since Reagan. I saw it happen at the time on the local level in Tennessee. In a relatively short time, I saw county commissioners go from having rational arguments about whether to raise taxes or not — nobody wanting to do it, but maturely recognizing it as an option if necessary — to having arguments that go nowhere between ideologues who will ALWAYS oppose a tax increase, no matter what, and a remnant of people who still approached the issue rationally.

      And of course, the ideologues mischaracterize the reasonable people as ALWAYS wanting tax increases, to try to make them seem just as inflexible. And now a significant majority of the electorate can’t remember any other sort of discourse.

      As for Millennial romances — yeah, I sort of saw that watching the second episode over the weekend. I was like, what is this — high school?

      But of course, that’s always been a facet of television. You ever notice how few leading characters on television are married — from “Andy Griffith,” “Bachelor Father,” “My Three Sons” and “Family Affair” to the present day? That’s because the writers want to leave in the possibility of romantic entanglements — they don’t want their options closed.

      Unless married life is a central part of the central idea of the show — as with “I Love Lucy,” “The Donna Reed Show” or the original “Roseanne” — characters have historically been less likely to be currently married than people in the general population (although that’s less true today, of course, with the decline of marriage). Or so it seems to me. I haven’t done a statistical analysis or anything…

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Of course, back in the 60s, if the single characters had kids (which they often did, because that gave the writers a lot of “cute kid” storylines) they were more likely to be widowed than divorced…

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          It’s interesting how many of those widowed parents were Dads. I have trouble thinking of many single Moms before “Alice” and “One Day at a Time” in the 70s.

          I suspect it was socioeconomic. You could believe the Dad had the income to support the kid and pay a Mr. French (or, if he was on a sheriff’s salary, bring in an Aunt Bea) to do the cooking and keep house. Whereas with a single mom, you had to deal with more painful realities. Remember that while “Alice” was a silly comedy on TV, it arose from the rather gritty and depressing “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” which started with her husband’s death and the bottom sort of falling out of Alice’s life (even though the husband was no bargain, either).

          By the 70s, TV was trying to tiptoe toward “social relevance” as opposed to idealized family situations…

          Reply
  4. Doug Ross

    Note: I have joined the single payer camp, not because it will be better but because it will shut up the people who think it will be better.

    Reply
  5. Phillip

    I was a little kid at the time and (you’ll be shocked—not—to know this) a super-geek big time into everything about the space program (by the time of the moon landing 8-year-old me liked to show off by naming every Mercury/Gemini/Apollo flight to that date with the names of the crew). And it sounds like you were similarly into it as well.

    But I think we may be romanticizing in retrospect the sense of “national unified purpose” around the moon landing project. There was significant opposition to spending all that money on the Apollo program. It just so happened that the mission was also so tied together with our Cold War rivalry with the Russkies that it was destined to have bipartisan support among the political class. (As we’ve been recently reminded on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, that mission was hurried up and upgraded from another earth orbit mission to a lunar orbit one because the CIA came up with photos of a giant Russian rocket that seemed ready to make a trip to the moon).

    Conversely, I think it’s also easy to overlook the “big things” of our recent era, partly because they may be a mixed blessing (as in the case of the Internet age of the past 25 years), or because our attention span is too short, or we don’t take the time to really appreciate what is involved. I think the Mars missions and those that have explored Jupiter/Saturn and their moons, discovering possible sources of either currently-existing or once-having-existed life, are jaw-dropping in terms of the accomplishment itself and in what we are learning about our solar system and beyond.

    Of course we as the United States do have the capability and the resources to perhaps accomplish two of the really really “big things”: being the absolute world leaders (not the foot-draggers and treaty-breakers) on dealing with human-generated climate change, and finding an enduring solution to the high costs of healthcare and the inequities that still exist in terms of all Americans’ access to affordable & quality health care.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Or….

      I could console myself somewhat if we don’t do the “big things,” but just stop hating each other so much. The place to start would be by addressing what McAvoy said here: “We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election…”

      Then, maybe the big things would follow…

      Reply
      1. Doug Ross

        Brad – did you see Elizabeth Warren call out Joe Lieberman last week for being a paid shill for China? She’s in full on campaign mode now — already in Iowa stumping.

        Reply
    2. Norm Ivey

      I’m with Phillip on this one. Climate change presents the kind of challenge that demands great things. Unfortunately, since science is now something many people think they can choose to believe in or not (an idea validated and encouraged by ignorant or amoral politicians), we’ll never have the shared factual basis to act on it until the effects of climate change are so obvious even the ignorant and amoral will have to acknowledge it.

      Reply
      1. Doug Ross

        If I believe the science about climate change — and I do – just don’t think there is a solution that will make a difference because we can’t control China, India, etc. — can I also believe the science that says there are two genders? There’s a whole bunch of people who say “believe the science” when it comes to climate but want me to believe there are more than two genders — and that gender can be chosen. I’m fine with people behaving in whatever way that they want but biology seems to be pretty clear that you are either male or female. Sorry for the tangent…. one of my pet peeves.

        Reply
        1. Norm Ivey

          I agree that a solution has to include everyone. Right now it’s only the USA that’s the holdout. Nations are going to respond to the challenge. China is doing amazing things with solar–not just building their own solar farms, but producing the solar panels that the rest of the world is going to use as solar expands. It may be that we can’t make much of a difference regardless of what actions we take, but I KNOW that inaction will make an undesirable difference.

          As for the gender thing, that’s one of my meh topics. Call yourself what you want, and remind me to use whatever pronoun you prefer. I don’t care that much. It is kinda amusing that the B in LGBT means bi-, though.

          Reply
      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        But Norm, here’s the thing… yeah, we need to stop overheating the planet, but that’s not a terribly inspiring “big thing” to do. Doesn’t stir the blood. It’s more of an “eat-your-vegetables” thing.

        Compare it to cooking. If you’re a chef, you can really throw yourself into preparing a great banquet, getting creatively inspired and feeling a sense of accomplishment when your meal is a success.

        But reversing climate change is like… washing the dishes after the chef is done. It’s a big chore and it needs doing, but it’s not a thing to make one’s heart beat faster or make you feel you’re realizing your potential.

        Same kind of deal with unmanned space probes….

        Remember that probe droid that shows up briefly at the start of “The Empire Strikes Back?” Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. The drone operators back at evil empire HQ probably took pride in their intelligence-gathering mission, seeing it as essential if the Emperor were to find the Rebels and crush them.

        But you’re gonna remember the storm troopers who attacked in the giant walkers more. Their role is more exciting…

        Reply
        1. Norm Ivey

          I get it. Wants are inspiring and needs are not.

          Our grandchildren will grow old in a world you and I wouldn’t recognize. Climate change will bring with it a degree of pain and suffering that a future generation might find it an inspiring goal. I don’t believe we will take steps to reverse it. I’m beginning to doubt that we’ll ever take large steps to mitigate it (except through the marketplace, and I don’t think they’re up to what it’s going to take). So all we really have left is to adapt, which is going to require enormous infrastructure projects. Trying to relocate a city the size of New York, DC or even Charleston should stir the blood a bit.

          Reply
  6. Harry Harris

    I’m inclined to think we’re to balkanized and self-interested to do much that’s great as a country. We would rather call names and throw labels around than work out sound policy around difficult issues. With such a diminished sense of community, we’ve let ourselves be divided by people whose interests are advanced when a large segment of the population is too intellectually lazy to care about details and is easily duped into seeing almost any development as a zero-sum game. There’s just no “we” left with any power anymore. Even the church in this country is at war with itself and often used as a political tool instead of an instrument for healing anything societal.

    Reply
    1. Doug Ross

      I basically shut off all interest and have little regard for people who express opinions that include the phrase “white men.” followed by a list of all the wrongs supposedly caused by white men. I am particularly dismayed when a white man says it…

      Reply
        1. Doug Ross

          Only if you follow it with “… I apologize for all the things I’ve done to oppress everyone else in the world, to steal money from the pockets of orphans, and to sexualize every female I have encountered.” And then beat yourself with a stick for ever being born a white male.

          Reply
          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I’d answer that at some length, except… I already DID answer it at some length, but then I clicked in the wrong place (I’m still not sure what I did) and somehow lost the whole comment, and I’m kind of ticked off about it, and don’t want to try to reconstruct it…

            Usually, I can figure out a way to get back to what I’ve typed. But this time it was just GONE…

            Reply
    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I still don’t grok tribes. I don’t understand the urge to identify with them, except as a sort of atavistic hunter-gatherer thing that we just haven’t evolved out of.

      Yeah, I identify as an American, but that’s because I don’t see it as a blood-and-soil thing. I see it as belief in a common set of ideas, such as valuing pluralism and other aspects of liberal democracy…

      I was thinking about it over the weekend, and had to admit, though, that I have one tribal instinct — I tend to regard people who think in terms of “people like me” (whether it’s as white people or black people or Democrats or Republicans or Gamecocks or Hoosiers or what have you) as “people like them.” I see them as the “other.” So the thing exists in me, too, I guess….

      Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Nope. In fact, it’s the opposite. “Catholic” means “universal.” And that’s one of the reasons I’m Catholic.

          Go to a Mass at my church, and you’ll see black, white, Anglo, Hispanic, Asian — people whose ancestors hail from everywhere on the planet.

          It’s kind of funny. For centuries after the start of the Reformation, you saw all these people who kept splitting off, and then splitting off from the splitting off, in an effort to create something that got them back to an original, generic form of Christianity.

          And they saw the Catholic Church, which actually WAS the original (in the Western Roman Empire, at least) and generic church as this weird, cultish, foreign influence bogged down by all those centuries of monarchy and hierarchy and Old World Ways. They saw the idiosyncrasies, and not the fundamental nature…

          But I tend to see all those separatist sects as being the ones marked by a particular time and place and culture, with a less sweeping scope.

          So I decided to be Catholic. I’m not Catholic because I’m of a certain race or nationality, but because I chose to be. The idiosyncrasies don’t bother me. I love history, and all the marks of 2,000 years of Western civilization that attach to the Church just make it more engaging to me… I like that at Mass last night bits of the service are in Latin and Greek, just as I dig the fact that we sang a song (“What Child is This”) to “Greensleeves,” a hit tune that Shakespeare mentioned.

          And I like that wherever you go in the world, you can walk in and participate in Mass and know what’s going on, whatever the local language.

          It’s the opposite of tribalism…

          Reply
          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Americans think “popery” is weird, with all its trappings of royalty and the Middle Ages. Me, I look at the Pope and I see the original Pope, St. Peter. And to me, he’s the most down-to-earth, regular-guy apostle there ever was (WAY cooler, for instance, than Paul).

            If you asked me to pick which apostle I’d want to have a beer with, it would be the Big Fisherman every time…

            Reply
            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              And one advantage to being Catholic is that if by some miracle St. Peter DID come up to you one day and said, “Let’s go get a beer,” you could do that. If you were Baptist, you couldn’t… :)

              Reply
            2. Harry Harris

              If you follow and believe the Biblical account from Acts and the letters, Peter had to be dragged away from the tendency to allow the church to be a sect of Judaism, subject to The Law and certain practices. The attempts by some to draw the circle according to their culture and religious upbringing caused quite a struggle, with Peter on the wrong side, it seems. Aren’t many of us glad he was pulled, pushed. “”dreamed””, and confronted away from that tendency. The issue persisted for decades even after the main leaders relented in trying to narrow the circle – and made lifestyle changes. Exclusivism dies hard. Check out the pronouncements of some “contemporary loudmouths” today (to steal a phrase from Sandburg).

              Reply
              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Actually, I look at it a different way.

                Paul’s pulling the Church away from Judaism, in my mind, led to an awful lot of horrible things over the last two millennia, up to and including the Holocaust. That separation encouraged the gentile world to view Christianity as THEIR thing, which helped eventually to facilitate casting Jews as the OTHER, and even as villains. And it started early, by the end of the 1st century, judging by the way John speaks of “the Jews.”

                To me, Christianity IS an offshoot of Judaism, and Christians should have been taught all these centuries to fully and deeply respect that. Jesus said he did NOT come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. I think having new adherents of the Faith get circumcised would have been a small price to pay to engender respect of Judaism and prevent the rise of virulent anti-Semitism.

                Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Anything we could have done to help all Christians appreciate and embrace that seems to me like a pretty good idea.

                So for me, Peter’s Judaism-centered approach had a lot to recommend it…

                Reply
                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  My view may be an unusual one; I don’t know. I’m not enough of a theologian to know such things. But I can’t bring myself to applaud a trend that eventually led to demonizing Jews…

          2. Doug Ross

            If there is only one God, choosing any religion is choosing to be a member of a tribe – a tribe has certain characteristics, rules, etc. that prevent others from being a member. I can’t be an atheist Catholic. A woman can’t be Pope. And, I may be wrong, but I think you have shown some favoritism to some politicians in the past specifically because they were Catholic – as if that is in and of itself a distinguishing characteristic.

            It’s no different than identifying as a practicing Jew – the original tribalists.

            Reply
            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Wow, you leave me nowhere to go, do you? :)

              If I point out the obvious, which is that my being a voluntary adult convert to Catholicism is about as different from being Jewish — an actual ethnicity — as you can get, it sounds like I’m saying there’s something wrong with being a Jew. Which there isn’t.

              Although you and Bud kinda make it sound like there is…

              Reply
              1. Doug Ross

                There’s a difference between someone born Jewish and a “practicing” Jew, right? I can convert to Judaism if I want to join that tribe. Or I can be born Jewish and convert to Catholicism if that “tribe” suits my spiritual needs.

                My only point is that when someone says they aren’t a member of a “tribe”, it might be because they think the tribes they are in are just “naturally” the right ones. And when you speak with disdain about sports fans that makes you part of the anti-sports tribe (us vs. them).

                Reply
                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Where is this anti-sports tribe? Where does it gather, and cheer for its own? Maybe I should go to there, and feel the warmth of that solidarity…

                  Look, let’s be honest. Part of my being a non-tribal person is due to a personality attribute that isn’t very admirable.

                  I don’t get into sports the way a lot of people do because I don’t get excited on behalf of other people the way normal people do. I’m not a cheer on the sidelines guy. I don’t thrill to other people’s successes, or mourn their defeats. (I actually like to PLAY sports, or I used to. But I don’t want to watch other people do it.)

                  I’m not a generous-enough person to do those things. For me, one of the weirdest things that sports fans do is talk about their team as “we.” As in, “On Saturday we’re facing a tough opponent.” Really? When did you make the team?

                  I’m not able to feel that, most of the time anyway. (I have occasionally gotten excited about the Braves when they were in playoffs or the World Series, and experienced a bit of that “we.”)

                  And I think that’s something missing in me. You might even say it makes me kind of a jerk.

                  But one thing it’s most definitely not, that that is tribal. It’s pretty much the opposite, for good or ill…

                2. Doug Ross

                  Yet you enjoy music, movies, ballet (right?), and other activities performed by others don’t you? How are sports any different than some fan boy posting about a band? The performance gives you pleasure. Watching people excel at something that you and I could never do can be inspiring. I could never throw a football like the Clemson QB did last night but I HAVE thrown a football so I can recognize how special his physical talents are and that he has had the discipline to hone those skills to the 99.999% level.

                  When the audience pays money to go to a Phillip Bush performance on the piano and stands and applauds at the end, it is no different than when we stand and cheer for a Michael Jordan dunk from the free throw line.

                  And for someone like me who grew up playing sports (team and individual), I have no shame in rooting for a team or spending hours of my spare time reading about sports, playing fantasy sports, betting on sports, etc. It’s an activity… a hobby.. and a passion. None of which are ever a bad thing.

          3. bud

            Go to a Mass at my church, and you’ll see black, white, Anglo, Hispanic, Asian — people whose ancestors hail from everywhere on the planet.

            So? That has nothing to do with my point. You won’t find any atheists in the crowd. Visit the Unitarian Church and you just might find an atheist or two in attendance.

            Reply
            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I am just not following your point at all, Bud.

              When you go to a place that’s about belief, you’re going to find people who believe in that thing. By definition. Just like you’d expect to find people who believe what Democrats believe at a Democratic party meeting.

              It would be insane to expect anything else.

              For instance, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to expect to see me at a football game. Not my thing. I don’t believe in that particular god. And yet, you seem to be suggesting that there SHOULD be people like me at football games. What would you do to make that happen — force us to go?

              I hope not. Because that’s the glory of our system — freedom to act in accordance with our own beliefs.

              How that’s a BAD thing in your mind — if that indeed is what you’re suggesting — goes right over my head…

              Reply
              1. Harry Harris

                ” By definition. Just like you’d expect to find people who believe what Democrats believe at a Democratic party meeting.”

                I’da thought that even your short association with James Smith’s campaign would dispel any such notion as this. Hang out with a few more Democrats. You’ll see your expectations revised and your assumptions diminished.
                And, by the way, even among “creedal” Christian groups, the views on exclusivity varies greatly.

                Reply
                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I don’t think I’m following you, Harry — and usually I do, because you express things well.

                  Why wouldn’t I “expect to find people who believe what Democrats believe at a Democratic party meeting?” And how would my experience with James change that? That IS what I found among the Democrats I worked with — they tended to believe in stuff Democrats believe in. Especially the party people (as distinguished from Smith campaign people).

                  The folks on the campaign were great people. And very tolerant — which I think they’d tell you is a value Democrats embrace. They tolerated me, anyway, as an outsider among them.

                  I’m still humbled that James — and Mandy — chose to take a BIG chance bringing me on the campaign. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I just wish I could have helped them win.

                  They really took a chance bringing me on. And I learned inadvertently that a lot of people — not people on the campaign, but other Democrats out there — didn’t like them bringing on someone like me. James took some heat for it, I believe. But he stuck with me, and I appreciate it. I’ll stick with him any time he needs someone to have his back, any time…

          4. Norm Ivey

            Religion is definitely tribal. It gives us a sense of belonging with a group of like-minded individuals.

            There’s nothing wrong with tribes until we decide our tribe is the one true tribe, and all other tribes are the enemy.

            Imagine there’s no heaven
            It’s easy if you try
            No hell below us
            Above us only sky

            You may say I’m a dreamer
            But I’m not the only one
            I hope some day you’ll join us
            And the world will be as one

            Now that’s a tribe.

            Reply
            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Yeah, I don’t like that song. I love the music, can’t stand the words. They’re nihilistic. Nothing worth dying for, and nothing worth living for. There’s just “me.” As in, “Yoko and me.”

              I think we’re having trouble with words here. Some of y’all are not using “tribal” the way I do.

              I use it in a “Blood and Soil” sense, or in the sense of a sub-rational identification that has something atavistic about it.

              A religion is a set of beliefs, like a political party or an ideology. It’s not about people who are genetically or ethnically related. Properly understood, it’s usually not tribal.

              Tribalism is the reason we have so much trouble understanding places like Afghanistan. Such places are tribal, and have trouble connecting with modern nation/states that are more about abstract ideas. But the split isn’t perfect between modern and anachronistic — more advanced places can be kind of tribal, too. I’ve cited here before a great observation I read years ago about the difference between being Japanese and being American. They’re both modern, advanced nations. But to be considered Japanese, you have to be ethnically Japanese. Everyone else are gaijin. To be considered American, you can be anything — even a little green man from Mars — as long as you hold to a set of ideas propounded by some 18th century guys of English descent.

              This is why Trumpism is such a threat to what America is about. You have people defining “American” more in blood-and-soil terms.

              Of course, there are overlaps here and there. Judaism is a set of ideas — ones that Christianity has developed from. But it’s also a Tribe — if your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish.

              It doesn’t have to be about blood or soil. I speak of sports fans as being tribal because they split up the larger set of “Americans” or “South Carolinians” into clannish groups that aren’t based in anything rational, into divisions that have a very primitive hunter-gatherer feel about them.

              When I was a kid, I traveled around so much that I didn’t really develop a sense of myself as connected to this piece of soil or another. I just saw myself as American, and identified with the ideas that define that identity. And I was always in one way or another an outsider of the communities I lived in. Sometimes I tried to connect with the tribe, though. For instance, during the one year I lived in Bennettsville, the place where I was born but had never before lived (this was while my Dad was in Vietnam), every kid was expected to declare for either “Carolina” or “Clemson.” Being independent wasn’t an option, especially for a 9th-grader. I chose the Gamecocks, possibly because my uncle was at that time at USC.

              I tried belonging to the tribe. It didn’t really stick, though…

              Reply
              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                And there are Christians who use that very word, “Christian” in a way that has tribal overtones. In the sense of there are “Christians” and other people who are beyond the pale. “Christian” is sometimes used in a way that implies “acceptable,” or “proper,” or “good citizen.”

                And there’s nothing new about that. Brian will back me up that in the fictional early 19th century world of Jack Aubrey, doing something “like a Christian” meant doing it in the proper manner.

                But that usage seems kind of alien to me, if you’ll excuse the word in this context. :) It doesn’t fit with Christianity as I’ve experienced it. My notion of the church is universal, broad, cosmic. And yet, even among Catholics there are people who voted for Donald Trump, and have a more “people like us” concept than I do. Catholicism is a hotly contested concept even among Catholics. Which is weird when you consider that a hierarchical church with ideas such as the Magisterium ought to appear more monolithic.

                And I suppose those people are the ones Bud sees as representing the church. I tend to see the Cardinal Bernardin manifestation, which is what I find myself interacting with. My experience is very different.

                As I always say, people are complicated. And groups of people — that includes churches — are far more so. Each blind man can touch the same elephant and honestly describe something very different…

                Reply
                1. Bryan Caskey

                  “And there’s nothing new about that. Brian will back me up that in the fictional early 19th century world of Jack Aubrey, doing something “like a Christian” meant doing it in the proper manner.”

                  I’ve clearly been away too long, as you’ve forgotten I’m Bryan with a “y”. Hope you’ve been doing well, old friend.

                  And yes, it had that meaning. It seems connected with how Stephen and Jack would often remark in “bless your heart” kind of way that someone is only a “foreigner” and therefore couldn’t help but be somehow benighted.

                2. Brad Warthen Post author

                  If only Stephen would learn to come aboard like a Christian.

                  The “misspelling” of your name was merely my way of invoking the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when we were all more casual about spelling.

                  Seriously, it was the result of conscious effort — just not ENOUGH conscious effort. Since I’ve been back at ADCO, I’ve had to try to retrain myself to spell it with an “i” because I’m once again working with Brian Murrell. Every time I go to send him an email, I stop a split-second to tell myself, “remember to use an ‘i'”…

                  In this case, I failed to pause another split-second to say, “but this isn’t Brian Murrell…”

                  It’s like church. How, you ask, could it be like church? Like this…

                  Several years back, the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. changed the responses from “And also with you” to “And with your spirit.” Which to me is a counterintuitive change — I thought the old form made more sense, despite what the pedants may say.

                  Since I so often attend the Spanish Mass, which had always used “Y con tu espíritu,” it has taken me years to get used to the change in the English, and consequently I’ve said it the “wrong” way probably hundreds of times.

                  Interestingly, other catholic churches, such as the Anglican, stuck with the old language. Once or twice a year, I attend services at the Episcopal church two of my grandchildren attend. I did so on Christmas Eve. And then, when the priest said “The Lord be with you” and everyone else was saying, “and also with you,” I said, “and with your spirit.”

                  What a lousy time for my retraining (my brainwashing, if you prefer) to finally kick in.

                  But it woke me up enough to remember that the protestants say the “Our Father” the wrong way…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          Speaking of tribes… David Brooks had <a href=”https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/03/opinion/self-care-individualism.html”>another good one</a> over the weekend. There was one passage in it that made me think of something that was probably different from what he meant:

          Second, you want to make yourself heard. You want to put up a lawn sign that says, “Hate is not welcome here” or wear a T-shirt that says, “Stop the Violence.” By putting up a lawn sign that everybody else in your neighborhood already has, or wearing that T-shirt that all of your friends already wear, you are taking a stand and displaying who you are. You’re showing the people who are trying to silence you that you are not going to stay silent! You are going to wear your fashion item whether they like it or not!

          He was mocking “woke” people who parrot the politically appropriate feelings about things.

          But it made me think about Gamecock paraphernalia.

          I don’t get it.

          If you live in Oregon and wear a Gamecock shirt, that actually says something about you. You stand out from the other folks in Oregon. You’re saying this is a part of who I am as an individual. People say “Brad? Oh, yeah — that South Carolina guy.”

          But if you live in Columbia, and you invest a bunch of your disposable income in Gamecock paraphernalia, and trot it out every game day, and go about wearing it and mixing among thousands of other people who are ALSO wearing Gamecock paraphernalia… it says absolutely nothing interesting about you whatsoever.

          Why do people take the time and spend the money to do that?

          Reply
          1. bud

            I remember visiting a college sports apparel store in Portland, OR a few years back. Their featured hat had “Go Cocks” on it. Not particularly noticeable around here but in Portland I’m sure everyone’s inner middle schooler enjoyed the double entendre.

            Reply
  7. bud

    Sorry Brad. You absolutely wrong about religious affiliation not being tribal. It absolutely is. Heck we have entire nations that cater to one specific religion. Israel is the worst.

    Reply
    1. Harry Harris

      “Israel is the worst.”
      Whaaaaat? Check out any of the Muslim-dominated countries surrounding Israel. While I disagree with most of Israel’s recent policies toward their neighbors, their religious favoritism nowhere nearly approaches the official oppression of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, for instance. Separation of church and state is, in my view, the only workable policy – and it’s a struggle to keep that in balance. Religion can be tribal, but it can also be universal and inviting – it depends on who one allows to draw the circle. I prefer that circle be drawn by the proper authority, not by self or tribally-interested men. Sorry, governments, Pope and clergy. It’s not your job.

      Reply
      1. bud

        Ok, I see your point. But it makes mine. Religion is by definition tribal and exclusive. Christians boost THEY are the only one who will be granted salvation. Everyone else burns in hell. By definition that is exclusive, tribal and discriminatory.

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Except, you know, we don’t say that…

          Yeah, you can go out and find people who say things like that, just as you can find Muslims who think “death to the infidel” is core to their faith. But that doesn’t mean that’s what Islam is…

          Reply
          1. bud

            Bull. There are many biblical quotes that explicitly refute what you’re claiming. It just doesn’t get any more tribal than this. Here’s just one.

            John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

            Reply
              1. Jim Cross

                I think that bud may be closer to the Church’s teaching on this subject. I refer you to the _The Catechism of the Catholic Church_, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 3: The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic (this is part of a discussion on the Apostles’ Creed).

                Reply
                1. Jim Cross

                  I think that bud may be closer to the Church’s teaching on this subject. I refer you to the _The Catechism of the Catholic Church_, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 3: The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic (this is part of a discussion on the Apostles’ Creed). Can be found at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P14.HTM.

                2. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Except that all liturgical churches use those same words. The “church” in the creed isn’t the Roman Catholic Church; it’s much broader. Else you wouldn’t hear Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists chiming in….

                  Baptists, of course, don’t see themselves that way. Every separate Baptist congregation is seen as a separate “church”…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Good points, Harry.

        Speaking of Church and State…

        My wife and I recently watched, for the first time, “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” the 1933 film starring Charles Laughton. We enjoyed it. But then something dawned on me, right at the end….

        The film had OPENED with the execution of my cousin Anne Boleyn, then spent the rest of the time on Henry’s experiences with his last four wives.

        Which immediately struck me as… odd. Most of the drama, most of what defines Henry and his role in history, came BEFORE that. All they had to say about Catherine of Aragon, his REAL wife (see how I slipped in the orthodox Catholic position there?), was a flippant one-liner. On the screen we saw the words:

        Henry VIII had six wives. Catherine of Aragon was the first: but her story is of no particular interest — she was a respectable woman. So Henry divorced her.

        I chuckled at the joke at Henry’s expense. But of course, we know that was NOT why Henry divorced her. Having a respectable wife was, to the king, no obstacle to his enjoying the favors of women who were less so. See, for instance, Anne’s sister Mary. And being married to the daughter of their most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella was rather a political asset for a monarch.

        So I wondered at that.

        But when it got to the end, I stopped wondering. I suddenly realized that this was a British film, made in 1933, and the filmmakers had zero interest in delving into the salacious, religious and political implications of how and why the Church of England, of which King George V was the head at the time, got its start.

        We don’t think so much about it now, but that would have been pretty controversial stuff at the time in prewar Britain. The film was even a little racy for its time, but they weren’t going to go THERE….

        Reply

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