Trumpism is not conservatism

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USA Today reports on how thirty black students were ejected from a Trump rally in Valdosta, Georgia the night before Super Tuesday. Without knowing all the details, it is safe to say that on its face, the optics are disgraceful. This feeds the narrative that Trump is a strongman for bigots.

In recent weeks, movement conservatives have intensified their opposition to Trump. Famously, National Review withdrew its sponsorship from a GOP debate in order to come out in print against the orange mogul.

Trump makes it very easy for conservatives to disown him. Fewer than 100 words from the USA Today article readily exemplify how Trump has nothing to do with American conservatism:

During his remarks in Valdosta, Trump said he’s leading a movement. “I’m just a messenger,” he said.

Later, Trump said his whole life has been about making money, but “now I’m going to be greedy for the United States,” as the audience roared. “I’m going to take, take, take and we’re going to become rich again.”

Karen Clendenin, 58, a victims advocate in the local district attorney’s office, said she was very impressed and that she’ll vote for Trump on Tuesday in Georgia’s primary. Clendenin said she wore her “Trump” T-shirt Monday even though she was “a little embarrassed.”

  1. Trump doesn’t own his positions. By saying “I’m just a messenger,” Trump refuses to take responsibility for his own words and actions. He is comfortable as a demagogue and opportunist, but a coward when it comes to committing to ideas and people in the real world. If nothing else, American conservatives are loyal to ideas and institutions that have a past track record of serving the common good. Failure to own, defend, and advance these ideas and institutions is not conservative.
  2. Trump is a redistributionist. “I’m going to be greedy for the United States” is essentially the same promise a Democrat makes to redistribute wealth by making college free, erasing student debt, or raising the minimum wage. This is not the free market under the rule of law that Reagan conservatives advocate.
  3. Trump is a one-man lawyer employment agency. Conservatives despise how overly litigious America has become. The conservative’s bible about this is Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense. One major conservative plank for reforming healthcare is tort reform. When I read that one Trump’s supporters is a legal “victim’s advocate,” I take this to mean ambulance chaser, like the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards. The way progressives bring lawsuits, political correctness re-education and other vindictive instruments to bear on fellow Americans is anathema to conservatism. Trump’s constant threats to sue are much more at home with progressive tactics to silence and punish political enemies than with conservatism.

Bringing it back to race, opposition to immigration is populist protectionism, not free market conservatism which embraces competition and invites the best and brightest to become part of the American fold. Whatever Trumpism is, it is not conservatism.

Photo credit: markahuna via Imgur.

Arguing about race and justice: an apologist’s perspective

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship drew critical attention for a talk on racial justice delivered at Urbana 15, its recent student missions conference. After plenary speaker Michelle Higgins called out pro-life activism and explained Black Lives Matters to evangelicals, InterVarsity issued a clarifying statement. Many conservative Christians struggle to understand where Higgins’ message comes from, but it is not a new one in the Christian church or even for InterVarsity. What she said is important to understand, because everyone should know and speak truth and act justly.

 

What Higgins Says

Most people will find things to agree with and disagree with in what Higgins says. In an online video of her talk, she shares her personal story, or her narrative. For her, this includes the brutal killing of a mixed race man by white authorities in 1837, not far from where Higgins lives and the Urbana conference is periodically held. Disappointed that evangelicals don’t want to talk about racial justice in the wake of several high profile police killings of young black men, Higgins asserts that her fellow evangelicals have edited and “blanked out” parts of their own story. She believes evangelicals have inherited a burden of white supremacy that says, “white is right.” Higgins affirms that God alone gives people their dignity, and that Christians should give control of their narratives to him. Practically, this means standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matters rather than remaining comfortably indifferent. Finally, she asserts that we have the means to end racist and classist oppression, but we need the will to end it.

Insight from an Apologist

As a mixed race son of a white American father and an immigrant Thai mother, I have long questioned personal identity claims. I don’t fit neatly inside many boxes. Having come to Christian faith in adolescence, I was deeply involved in an InverVarsity community all through college and for years after. But like many others, I wasn’t adequately equipped to interact with some of InterVarsity’s views on racial justice. It took a few years before I learned to critically examine worldviews through my involvement with Christian apologetics. Like I suspect Higgins does, I believe Christians should speak and act truth in love, and this extends to race and justice.

Telling Truth Carefully

In the face of those who deny it, Michelle Higgins correctly exhorts students at Urbana “to tell the truth, the whole truth.” But she overgeneralizes when she ascribes denial to North American evangelicals. For example, Higgins reports the evangelical heart attitude this way:

We’re not ready to talk about the fact that black bodies are grotesque to us, we don’t want to admit that. That’s a part of our story we’ve blanked out.

I can see this as an appropriate expression of righteous anger over a particular harm. I can see this as rhetoric to alert evangelical imaginations to some overlooked truth. But to assert that a whole group is in denial about something is a broad brush stereotype and a stumbling block to mutual understanding. Evangelists know that people bristle when they are told they are guilty of some sin they are unaware of, so why do social justice Christians speak so cavalierly? To so readily peg another’s heart attitude easily comes off as a manipulative and bald assertion. Prophetically speaking truth to power is appropriate for those who stand guilty, but it is far from established that evangelicals individually or collectively are guilty of all that Higgins lays before them.

At another point in her talk, Higgins says evangelicals have inherited a dominating Eurocentrism from the first missionaries arriving on the continent. She sums the inherited attitude this way:

I will not translate my Bible into their language; I will teach them what my Bible says according to me and have them learn what I believe Christianity to be.

Any Christian who is familiar with missions work knows that for centuries missionaries have diligently translated the Bible into native tongues. And for decades missionaries have been sensitive to the error of transmitting cultural non-essentials to people groups being reached out to. These, perhaps more so than the arrogant errors of four or five hundred years ago, are also evangelicals’ inheritance.

In the face of broad rhetorical accusations, many evangelicals have legitimate and unanswered questions. Speaking for InterVarsity, Greg Jao acknowledges the dissonance students experienced after Higgins’ talk:

“This was the first time many of them heard a message like this, and they were really wrestling with the implications: What does white complicity look like? What’s my responsibility as a member of the majority culture, and how do I know that what they’re saying is true?”

Advancing Agreement through Argument

The rhetorical questions Jao asks are familiar to me as an InterVarsity alum. I’ve heard asked many times, “What does it look like . . .?” This is not a bad way to proceed from established truths. But “white complicity” is controversial; it isn’t established in the church, the academy, or North American society that the crime of whiteness implicates any particular individual in any historical or systemic transgression. This is not denial but careful truth-telling. Merely finding that one’s values and tastes come from Europe rather than Africa doesn’t make one guilty of dominance. Social justice Christians who want to assert otherwise need to do more than just start conversations with open-ended questions. Requests for clarification and making distinctions aren’t always excuse seeking or the mere side effect of feeling uncomfortable. Instead, they are often crucial steps toward having constructive arguments that help lead to agreeing upon publicly shared truths.

Christian apologists do this in the broader culture, keeping in mind Peter’s advice to

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

An attitude of charity rather confrontation, and a disposition of credulity rather than suspicion, is required in helping others to see a truth that you see. Across the belief spectrum, it feels good to stand prophetically, speaking truth to power, but invoking imaginative sympathy and standing in solidarity aren’t enough to love God and neighbor. We must carefully speak the truth in pursuit of a deliberative consensus. Human imagination doesn’t just motivate feelings of sympathy and acts of solidarity, but enables acts of accurate understanding. If we can speak charitably rather than mislabel each other in the church, we will be closer to fulfilling Jesus’ words in John 13:35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Black Lives Matter, and they hold to quantum indeterminacy?

Let’s applaud Democratic pundit David Mercer for appearing in a debate about Black Lives Matter on Fox News’ “Strategy Room.” Yes, I was watching Fox News, but I am hopeful that Pope Francis will soon be offering absolution for that particular sin. Seriously though, it’s praiseworthy whenever people with different views come together for discussion. Even if it’s stuffed with rote partisan talking points and there’s more heat than light.

Here’s a quote from Mr. Mercer I want to share with you (circa 3:25) :

When black men–now I’m above the age–but I had a better chance between 18 and 35 of going to jail or being shot than I did getting a college education.

Percentages apply rightfully to the activity of indeterminate theoretical entities, like the chance a subatomic particle will pop into being out of a quantum vacuum. Individual human beings, who are always particular and situated in history, don’t reduce down to a neat statistic. They always have the messy baggage of having had some particular woman as a mother, man as a father, or another person as guardian who raised them for better or worse. There are always certain values instilled, and a particular cultural milieu present. Whatever the mix of people and experiences, I bet it was this, more than mere statistical chance, that determined whether Mr. Mercer ended up going to college.

None of this is to “blame the victim” for those who end up killed or in jail. By the way, are there some excluded options, like going to trade school or just entering the workforce? At any rate, the claim I’m making is modest: persons are particular, and given the knowledge a person has about himself, any claim he makes that some statistical chance holds sway over him isn’t credible. It is one thing to talk percentages about the weather or health events, but socioeconomics always involve people informed by values who are making choices. Whatever the issue may be–race, gender, jobs, or families–let’s not abstract away that part of the policy conversation.

Anti-racist Yard Sale

Hi Cogitators, after a bit of a hiatus, the Cogitduck comic strip is back!  I’ve revamped the aspect ratio to conform to a newspaper comic slot (wink, wink).  I also sketched and “inked” this on a Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet.  The S-Pen is pretty sweet!

For more info on the invisible knapsack of privilege, see one of my very first posts.  For my past references to the racist dog whistle, revisit my commentary on Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016, or my critique of a 2012 guide to decoding racist political ads.  And, most importantly of all, to learn about what Margaret Thatcher lamented as “anti-racist mathematics, whatever that may be,” visit here.

Which Americans in denial about race?

The aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal dominated news and commentary last week.  As the pleas and prescriptions from all corners reverberate, what should Americans of conscience do?  Despite long standing calls to have a national conversation on race, many remain unwilling to confront the more difficult aspects.

Take this case in point.  On the Monday after the six woman Florida jury handed in a “not guilty” verdict, The Atlantic Wire serve up this combative headline: “Richard Cohen Shows Why Racism Makes You Do Dumb Things.”  Later that day, another headline-as-testy-retort: “No, Blacks Don’t ‘Benefit’ from Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law.”  The Atlantic brand should bring to mind a measured–if passionate–patrician, East Coast progressivism.  Those were its roots, at least.  But with the headlines it runs these days, The Atlantic is clearly a plebeian outlet for snarky partisan sniping.

Somewhere on the Atlantic Coast. | Photo credit: oefe / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

In responding to Richard Cohen, Elspeth Reeve fails to explain what it actually means for Cohen to say something “racist.”  It’s just an epithet meant to draw her readers into a denial of the violent crime problem in the African-American community.  She cites statistics indicating, in the past couple of decades, a steady decline in violent crimes nationally.  From this, she plucks the fact that violent crimes committed by African-Americans have also gone down.  In the world she paints, conservative commentators are crying wolf about a nonexistent epidemic.  This is a perverse inversion of what was happening six months ago.  Then, conservatives were citing declining national rates to dismiss the hysteria over an epidemic of gun-related homicides.  Now, this good news has become a liberal talking point.

Over the past week, conservative media have consistently hammered away at the issue Elspeth Reeve and her Atlantic Wire colleagues deny: African-Americans, particularly young men, commit violent crimes at a grossly disproportionate rate.  Blacks make up about 10 percent of the population, but are responsible for half of all violent crimes, including murders.  And about 90% of those murder victims are African-American.  It’s simple math then that nearly half of people murdered in America are black.

The Wall Street Journal has run a number of excellent editorials on the problem.  Black conservative Jason Riley opened the salvo by reminding us how far back the problem goes.  Consider his quoting of a prominent black civil rights leader:

“Do you know that Negroes are 10 percent of the population of St. Louis and are responsible for 58% of its crimes? We’ve got to face that. And we’ve got to do something about our moral standards,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a congregation in 1961. “We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world, too. We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves.”

And this week, Shelby Steele–another Black intellectual off of the liberal reservation–explicated on the concept of “poetic truth,” a cudgel with which today’s morally diminished civil rights leaders try to exercise influence.  Steele authored one of the more compelling books I’ve read.  It’s full title says it all: White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.

Reading the testy headlines of the The Atlantic Wire, I was reminded of Dr. Steele’s thesis, inasmuch as I understood it.  It’s true, whites helped destroy the promise of civil rights.  It wasn’t bigots in the American South.  Rather, it was privileged whites–read, East Coast progressives–who had luxury enough to quench their feelings of guilt by demanding untenable social policies.

As Steele recounts his college years in White Guilt, it was spoiled white teenagers and militant black youth who worked together to occupy university lecture halls and chancellor’s offices across the country.  Today’s privileged, well-connected, young and idealistic white elites–politically progressive through and through–indulge the same luxury their parents and grandparents did before them.  They can afford to imagine a common cause with minorities.  They can afford to indulge white guilt fantasies with little consequence.  It is the marginalized who can’t.

How does one have real solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed?  President Obama had a good point in last Friday’s speech.  He implored, “. . . we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys.”

It turns out, some people have already done that thinking.  The answer doesn’t lie in next entitlement program, or supporting the right to wear a hoodie.  The answer is cultural capital, earned success, a flourishing moral ecology, traditional family values, an opportunity society.  This is not racism or hate speech.  George W. Bush put it well when he warned against the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  How does America, as one nation, raise those expectations for young African-American men?  That is the challenge.

The half-life of racism

Attorney General Eric Holder made a bit of a splash when speaking at Columbia earlier this year.  He told the audience at his alma mater that he could not imagine a time when the need for racial preferences like affirmative action would cease.

So at what point does racism stop mattering in American life?  Perhaps you’ve entertained this question before.  If government, civil society and churches have been laboring against this great sin for decades, is there anything to show for it?

Surely, in 300 years, after our great-grandchildren are deceased, the old, nasty attitudes so prevalent before the Civil Rights era will have been expunged.  But if not, there will be sophisticated equipment–maybe like a Star Trek tricorder–to empirically identify any remnants.

For now, we are lucky to have wagging tongues like Chris Matthews to tell us when someone is being racist.  Or, we can just as well heed the dire warnings of speakers at this year’s Democratic National Convention.

Anyone who genuinely seeks a substantive discussion of issues, such as our raging national debt or the proper scope of federal government, has required a little patience in dealing with smokescreens thrown up by progressives and Democrats.  We know these as racism, the war on women, homophobia and so on.

The identity politics fiefdom built on these “wedge” issues is troubling in how it treats people in need as abstractions, not individuals.  The long history of progressive prescriptions affirms the ineffectiveness of promises perennially extended toward these abstracted victims.  President Johnson launched a “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, but the numbers of poor and dependent have reliably increased in the decades since.  Why should we think that President Obama, in spending ever more sums on the same problems, will change that?

While some conditions haven’t improved, there has been tremendous progress on societal attitudes.  Among those born after the tumult of the 1960s, the ideal of “equality” crowns the paramount virtue of “tolerance.”  But many remain beholden to the hope that just a little more money to social programs, a little more Ad Council propaganda, will actually change conditions for the abstraction.

What if these well-intended moves crowd out the healthy habits and cultural capital necessary to the success of the individual?  These, not the wasteful expenditures of federal welfare programs, are what can change conditions on the ground.  But to assess this soberly will require a little distance from the crooning promises of “Hope and Change” or MSNBC’s alarmist cries of “racism!”

Would it be safe to say that, in America today, we’re beyond the half-life of racism or patriarchy?  Existential struggle against oppression need not trump every policy consideration.  As I noted recently, a diverse lineup of thought leaders in media and at this year’s Republican National Convention have given us hope that we’re past that point.  For the sake of true progress, and the issues that really matter, I hope November will reflect a similar move among the population at large.

2016 and RNC: increasingly visible, minority conservatives buck liberalism

This past weekend, I saw Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America.  It was playing on some 1,000 movie screens.  And this upcoming weekend, it will open up on a thousand more.  There’s been considerable coverage now that it’s broken into the weekly box office top ten.  Not only that, it’s at least the fifth highest grossing political documentary of all time.  Watch out, Michael Moore!

I have offered some critical words about D’Souza’s past work.  Just the cover of his 2011 tome, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, comes off as a psychoanalytical potshot.  But given the election year excitement and buzz, I thought I’d give 2016 a try.

Dinesh D’Souza travels the world to learn about Obama’s roots. 2016themovie.com

The film is well-produced, and acclaimed Hollywood veteran Gerald Molen can be thanked for that.  The music, not overbearing or manipulative as we might expect for a political documentary, lends an air of excitement and intrigue befitting the cosmopolitan journey.  After all, this is D’Souza’s “reading” (as my wife put it) of Obama’s globetrotting, cross-cultural upbringing.

D’Souza lays out a comprehensive case in the course of 90 minutes; undoubtedly, he has done his homework.  Polished graphics and dramatic cuts of D’Souza retracing Obama’s footsteps through Indonesia, Hawaii, and Kenya add grit and a kinetic potency to his “anticolonial” thesis.

A recent AP Fact Check–which Breitbart’s Big Journalism has answered–takes exception to some of D’Souza’s claims.  But the finer points of what Obama was exposed to at prep school or what his father’s old associates believe about Israel pale in comparison to the the core fact that the AP fact checker perhaps willfully overlooked.  This is the odd trajectory his white, American, maternal side of the family put him on.

Looking beyond the film for a moment, we can see the root of that strange trajectory.  President Obama’s maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, named his daughter after himself.  Of course, people mostly know her by her middle name Ann.

Back in the film, we see Ann’s radical values–adopted early in life–play out.  She rejects her Indonesian husband Lo Lo Soetoro because he cozies up to an American oil company and comes to oppose communists.  This telling is hardly the kind of “logical stretch” that AP’s fact check would have you believe the film is built on.

D’Souza’s most important revelation may be Obama’s “founding fathers.”  How he comes to know one of these guiding lights is particularly telling.  Young Barack’s grandfather Stanley Dunham  introduces a peculiar personal friend to be his mentor: card-carrying Communist (no. 47544) Frank Marshall Davis.

At one point in the film, D’Souza refers to Obama’s ideas as “alien.”  As cringe-inducing as this may sound, it is not a prelude to a radical right rant.  Neither is it a racist code or dog whistle.  After all, D’Souza is a mixed race immigrant from the global South.  That Barack Obama is black is merely an asterisk to the long-raging ideological struggle that lent his mother and grandfather strange ideas most Americans reject.

As important as D’Souza’s revelations are, we’ll find in 2016 a deeper significance.  It’s a film where a South Asian immigrant stars in a winsome, provocative telling of his own life as it contrasts with Obama’s.  During one prominent segment, D’Souza invokes the expert testimony of a fellow biracial academic, Shelby Steele.  Liberal Hollywood doesn’t hand us such a substantive, diversely-cast film everyday.  Sure, there’s Harold and Kumar, if Asian-Americans being depicted as stoners is somehow a good thing.

What 2016 accomplishes by featuring such thought-provoking minority conservatives is something neither the media, academia, nor the rest of our liberal cultural elites can stand.  This film is a very “brown” critique of the liberal worldview, and something I deeply appreciate as the son of a Southeast Asian immigrant myself.  Just as D’Souza relates his own college experience to spotlight the strange thinking of some Americans, I can recall absurd liberal expectations that I encountered as a college student of color.

Minority conservatives are to be found not just on screen, but on stage, at the Republican National Convention.  Speakers like Nikki Haley, Artur Davis, Condoleezza Rice and Susana Martinez have this year voiced their rejection of liberalism while affirming all that makes America powerful, decent, and good.

Nothing threatens the liberal worldview more than when its objects of sympathy and concern stand up, call it for what it is, and reject it.  As important as it will be in getting out the 2012 conservative vote, 2016 is,  perhaps more significantly, another nail in the coffin of liberal ideas whose time has passed.

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