Monday, July 20, 2015

Does America Deserve The Donald?

Here's a scary thought: President Trump. While those of us with a sense of humor are actually kinda excited that he announced his candidacy, the prospect of Donald Trump being President of the United States is pretty unsettling. He has already said crazy things, and it's only a month into the campaign. But what if the unthinkable is true? What if Donald Trump is the president that America not only desires but actually deserves?

I should probably state upfront that I am in no way advocating or campaigning for Donald Trump. I think he is a racist, misogynist, megalomaniacal jerk. That being said, I want to use some of the crazy things he has said recently, as well as his personality and career, to simply propose that he totally makes sense as a presidential candidate.

1) Money. The most well-known thing about Donald Trump aside from his hair is that he is ridiculously wealthy. It's why he can have the deplorable hair: when you're as rich as he is, you don't have to look any way or do anything that you don't want to. When Trump announced his candidacy, he had to disclose his net worth, reporting $9 billion. NINE BILLION DOLLARS. (This is a suject of much debate online, by the way, as a Google search for his net worth brings up many articles about what he's "really" worth. We'll stick with the $9b figure because it's still a ridiculous number!) I think this has only exacerbated his cartoonish personality, as most of us can only imagine that kind of wealth in the following way:

But Americans simply cannot begrudge someone their financial successes when we've predicated our entire philosophy of work on the accumulation of wealth above all else. Donald Trump is just a capitalist, making extensive use of his silver-spooned childhood privilege and parlaying it into more money and more power. Incidentally, he shares this with so many other presidential candidates, both past and present, although maybe not to the tune of NINE BILLION DOLLARS. The fact of the matter is that to be president, you have to be rich. And the Donald is.

2) Television. I've seen maybe five episodes of "The Apprentice," but I know enough about reality television to know that Donald Trump is perfect for it. He's a loud, cartoonish man who plays the arbitrary judge of character and intentions, occasionally using the right words to make it sound like a morality play--the basic formula for any good reality tv show. He also happens to fit nicely into what I've called "wealth porn," a television phenomenon wherein shows exist almost exclusively to put the wealth of others on display. The fact is that Americans love rich people because our collective understanding is that we're all just rich people in waiting. In the ethos of American consumer life, isn't Trump the ultimate role model, graciously demonstrating the keys to success in prime time?

Furthermore, he managed to take one of the most horrific speech-acts in most of our lives, "You're Fired," and turn it into a mechanism for a game show. Behind every "You're Fired," however, was the audience's renewed hope in the American dream whereby hard work=money. They'll learn and work harder next time, Trump sang in our ears, that same tired tune which refuses to acknowledge privilege of any kind.

3) Racism. Among those "crazy things" that Trump said in the last month was the following:

"[Immigrants from Mexico are] bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting."

Most people aren't really surprised at such comments from the Donald but that doesn't make them any less shocking. Many companies have responded by pulling Trump products and doing what they can to distance themselves from his company. What his comments reflect, however, is the pervasive racist and xenophobic discourse that structures so much of our foreign and domestic policies. Other candidates and leaders may not call Mexicans rapists, but they certainly have sponsored economic and military policies that have destroyed the lives of droves of refugees, immigrants and migrants around the world. Closer to home, our justice system is maybe only now being truly examined (if it really is) for its well documented racism and codified injustice. On these fronts, Trump is more of the same.


I don't think that Donald Trump is the president that America needs. I do think that, on some level, he is the president that America deserves. If we continue to let our political discourse spin out into higher levels of absurdity, evidenced in no small part by the proliferation of cable "news" organizations, we will continue to attract absurd candidates. More importantly, however, is that when we allow our electoral system to be dictated by corporate money to such an extent that corporations are understood as persons with the same rights of free speech as individual Americans, we may as well sell our offices to the highest bidder. What Trump has shown us by his latest attempt at public office is not how absurd he is but maybe how absurd we may have become.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Get off my lawn, and other terribly helpful advice

My mid-morning perusal of clips from last night's NBA finals game was soured by a facebook post from Commonweal magazine. In their latest issue, Commonweal features an article by Rand Richards Cooper about technology. If you don't feel like clicking (or "flicking," as the case may be), allow me to sum it up: people these days (read: people younger than the author) are consumed by their relationships to their smartphones, and all of this flicking of the devices means that we no longer connect to one another. The article is peppered with scenarios--dinners, baseball games, etc.--where people who are together are actually on their phones, and all of this will mean that we won't be capable of reflection. "Occupied nonstop with taking things in," he writes, "we’ll have no time or place to mull things over. Eventually we’ll lose the ability."

I wish that this article was unique in Catholic media, just a little opinion piece on culture that would be read and forgotten. But it will be retweeted and shared hundreds of times, and people who read it in print will send copies of it to their friends and probably their adult children, hoping that it'll make them put their iPhones away at dinner, goshdarnit. People lap this stuff up, and editors know this. Check out this article from about a year and a half ago, this time from America, which warns that "digital isolation will only grow more acute as technology progresses." To be fair, the America article is more measured than Richards Cooper's but their similarities speak to something really irksome if not dangerous in Catholic media and American Catholic culture in general. My qualm with these articles is not each in isolation but the tone and posture towards technology that are cultivated by their publication and dissemination. Moreover, within these critiques of technological culture is a veiled critique of youth culture that is not just annoying but is quite ignorant given the present state of the American church.

Anyone who cares about religion in America knows that millennials are leaving religious communities in droves. For Catholicism, the relatively stable number of church membership overall obscures a seismic demographic shift, as the American Catholic church becomes more and more Latino while young people are opting out. For the first time in American Catholic history, young women are more likely than their male counterparts to say they do not attend Mass. This is a huge deal for Catholicism, which basically relies on women to keep families in the church.

In the midst of these real problems facing the viability of the American Catholic church, we read articles like the one I read this morning. Some might argue that these technologies are precisely the reason why young people are rejecting faith communities, but such a causal relationship is exceedingly hard to prove. What underlies so much of this anxiety about technology, I think, is a fear that if one embraces certain technological realities from a faith perspective, then one is automatically embracing the style of Christianity which has projectors in its worship services and glossy, over-designed pamphlets in its pews. This need not be the case. What is desperately needed at this time is not more talk about how technology "alienates" us but honest and serious conversations about what theological resources can be brought to bear in the historical circumstance in which we find ourselves and from which it is impossible to escape. We need less flat-footed warnings about kids these days and more intellectual rigor toward the things that matter to people now.

If the Body of Christ has nothing to say about the times in which the members of that Body live except "tsk tsk," it's no wonder young people are headed for the doors. Let us not be seduced by the false dichotomies which allow us to rest easy knowing that we're not like all of those kids on their damn devices, especially when those are the very people whose absence could spell disaster for the future church. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review: Tomorrowland

Let's begin with a confession: I love Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom. Walt Disney World is basically a giant, shiny toilet made of delusions where you flush thousands of dollars, but I simply cannot resist its futuristic elements. I suppose that would include Epcot too, Walt Disney's prototype for a future city. We're going to quickly bypass the troubling idea of a guy having such specific ideas about what future cities should be like, mostly because I'm sure he had very specific ideas about who should and should not be alive in the future.

Regardless, my Disney cynicism usually dissipates somewhere around the time I first catch a glimpse of Space Mountain. As a kid, Tomorrowland (one of the five major areas of the Magic Kingdom) was just the best. (I never had a princess phase, I guess.) It was by far the most intriguing part of Disney World to me and I even have fond memories of the syrupy idealism of The Carousel of Progress. Many of the things one finds in Tomorrowland (both the Disney Land and World versions) were debuted at the World's Fair, Walt Disney's stage before he built his own parks to showcase his ideas. This brings us to Tomorrowland, the movie.

Given my (somewhat shameful) fondness for Tomorrowland the place, I was very intrigued when I first saw the trailer for Tomorrowland, the film. Disney overlords knew that people like me--you know, the ones who ride the PeopleMover over and over--would shell out money for this film no matter what. And so I did. In recent years, Tomorrowland the place has become sorta sad, projecting a vision of the "future" that is clearly from the 1950s and 60s. It is no longer about the future, really, and is instead a kind of homage to what middle class white kids thought of as "the future" in 1955. It seems like the writers of the film have caught wind of this, and they situate part of the story right in the middle of this bygone vision, not with any sort of critical approach but with a typical Disney nostalgia that one can forgive up to a point.

One can even forgive the bad acting by Britt Robertson, who plays the forgettable main character, Casey. One may also be persuaded to forgive the implication that some elite people (mostly men) are pre-destined to save our entire world. That's about where my forgiveness ended. What one cannot forgive is the bait and switch this movie plays on you, wherein you spend about five minutes in the actual Tomorrowland of the trailer and of Disney lore. The rest is of the film is set in our own times, with the last quarter of the film in a dilapidated version of the shiny Tomorrowland we see in the trailer. But I guess that's the writers' prerogative, as much as it seems to betray Walt's own desire to immerse us fully in realities that either do not or do not yet exist.

What does not betray Walt's vision, it seems, is the narrative itself, which ends up being a diatribe against both dystopian fiction and real crises like climate change and starvation. That's right: the writers don't make any sort of effort to talk about how dystopian fiction and real-life catastrophes are different, but opt instead for an ideological position which maintains that our eventual demise as a species can be fixed by (wait for it)...dreamers. The problem with Disney World and all things Disney is the simple refusal to engage in things that are really important, at least for any sustained amount of time. Perhaps a company that predicates itself on fantasy notions that we can simply build new "worlds" and "lands" in which to retreat is bound to make such a film. Or maybe Disney (the World, the Land, the films) gives people a sense of hope in a world full of despair. But one has to ask: hope in what? In our own ability to save us from ourselves? In our own imagination, which often dreams of new ways to kill instead of to love?

Disney has released a truly anti-dystopian film, one that sets up the false choice of hope or dealing with real human tragedy, and tells you that you must pick. But what these filmmakers (and probably Walt himself) fail to understand is that the question of hope is at the very center of the dystopian fiction that Tomorrowland assaults. Furthermore, the real tragedies around us--war, hunger, greed, the destruction of nature--from which Disney directs our gaze are the very sites that need our hopeful attention the most. By lumping these two things together and dismissing attention to them as unhelpful, I'm afraid Tomorrowland invites us into real despair. There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day...unless that was the day you saw Tomorrowland. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

In the Market for Justice

An interesting trend has developed lately around our national "debate" over gay marriage. Americans both for and against legalizing same-sex marriage engage in boycotting and targeted patronizing of businesses based on the business' position on the issue, usually voiced by someone in a leadership role.

Three years ago,  Chick-fil-a, purveyors of (delicious) fried chicken sandwiches and sweet tea, became a flashpoint for the gay marriage debate. The CEO of Chick-fil-a, an evangelical Christian named Dan Cathy, made a not-so-surprising public statement about his opposition to same-sex marriage (and presumably, to same-sex relationship in general). In the summer of 2012, then, people drew lines on gay marriage by boycotting or buying Chick-fil-a. I drove past one of the restaurants in Dayton during this time and saw an enormous amount of people clamoring to exercise their freedom of speech by doing probably the most American thing possible: buying a fried chicken sandwich.

It's happening again, of course, as Indiana's passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) effectively allows businesses to deny service to individuals on the basis of their sexuality. (By all accounts, this seems true, unfortunately.) A hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Indiana decided to go public with their refusal to cater a gay wedding with their pizza. Besides the obvious problems here--who wants pizza at a wedding, let alone mediocre, Midwestern pizza?; "cater" is a strong word for pizza delivery; why are businesses feeling the desire to discriminate in hypothetical situations--the Memories Pizza conversation is just another version of the Chick-fil-a situation, with admittedly more complicated legal stakes. Memories Pizza has gone on to receive over $800,000 in donations from presumably like-minded people. At least they got chicken sandwiches last time!

On the other side of things, a backlash ensued against world-famous fashion designer Stefano Dolce, who said the following: "I am gay, I cannot have children. I don’t believe one can have everything in life, if it isn’t there it means that it cannot be. It is also nice to deprive oneself of something. Life has its natural course, there are things that cannot be changed. And one of these things is the family." Celebrities and other people who can actually afford Dolce and Gabbana called for a boycott, calling their opinions anti-gay. Most notably, singer Elton John spoke out against them, taking special exception to the implication that his own children are "synthetic."

For whatever little they have in common people on both sides of this debate share one thing: their chosen method of political action.The internet provides both sides with extensive lists of businesses to boycott or patronize, and people think things are really happening here. The heart of this movement is not a renewed sense of civic or political activity in American culture. Rather, where the heart of civic discourse should be one finds instead a pile of cash, the only language that has any political relevance anymore. Trained by a market logic that infuses every aspect of our lives, we give money or withhold it because it is our only means of political voice. Especially after Citizen's United, Americans know well that unless you "put your money where your mouth is," whatever you believe has no teeth. Demonstrating in the street is fine for a night but even the largest demonstrations are easily ignored until economic strategies take hold.

Most of the Americans donating to Memories Pizza or boycotting Dolce and Gabbana might not be as bluntly cynical as I'm being here but it seems pretty obvious that in a market economy as thick as ours, market exchange has become the only effective means of political activity. One of the terrible things about this new and singular means of political efficacy is that it inspires no real conversation. What it inspires is a tangible way to score points for one side of the debate or other. As we enter a new election cycle, we will pretend that we have free spaces for thoughtful political discourse, while at the same time we lament in our hearts the economic reality of our political system.

Boycotting or patronizing businesses on this issue may make us feel good and righteous, but it's doing precious little to move public discourse forward. It simply allows us to re-harden our political identities in antagonistic ways. Even more disturbingly, it shapes those identities primarily in terms of what we buy and what we don't, allowing what we perceive to be the true and the just into commodities. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Shame is back, baby!

Every once in awhile, I read or hear a theologian say that we've lost our sense of shame. This is another way of saying that we've lost our ability to see our own sins, which is probably true. But I'm here to give those folks some good (?) news: Shame is back, baby!

There persists the very tempting and very dubious claim that the relative anonymity of our online lives only exacerbates our lack-of-shame problem. The social and physical distance created by online space, the argument goes, allows us to behave in ways that are shameful but without any of the repercussions that would make us aware of this fact. But the internet has started to do what it normally does, namely changing in a way that is at once logical and somehow still unpredictable. And it's about public shaming.

I stumbled upon a Tumblr last fall called "Racists Getting Fired." I found it on Twitter during the height of the national debate surrounding the death of Eric Garner at the hands of violent police officers. The gist of the site is that racists are out there posting racist things online, and that these things often don't have social consequences--so let's post them and get them fired (and more). My first reaction to this was, quite simply, This is awesome. I continue to appreciate the motivation behind "Racists Getting Fired" and sites like it. I mostly like it because it shows us what I have long maintained about online space: The internet renders sin visible in a way that few other things can. Social sin like racism and sexism has a way of hiding in the nooks and crannies of our daily pleasantries, and by our own production, we have created a space where we can see such sins on full display.

But internet-shaming should be about more than the visibility of sin. And herein lies my worry. The most recent case of internet-shaming is the public outing of the Oklahoma University Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity's semi-private chanting of a racist song (presumably one of several). Last week, one of the frat brothers, Levi Pettit, apologized in a press conference in front of community leaders, many of them black. NPR interviewed two of them after Pettit's speech, showing the mixed reception. The tone of his voice alone is enough to warrant more than a mixed reception but the problem isn't this kid and his dubiously sincere "apology." The problem is that for all of the public shame that this kid and his friends deserve, we're just scapegoating. We're demanding, implicitly and explicitly, that this one person apologize for this one chant of this one song at this one fraternity. We move quickly past the moment, failing to probe it for its real problems. We fail to talk about the fact that these songs are just symptoms of the racism that persists in our country. We fail to talk about the institutional racism of the universities that fast-track some people to positions of power and others to places of further oppression. We fail to shame ourselves into asking tough questions about where we spend our money, send our kids to school, and how we vote. 

Our technological capacities allow us to render social sins like racism visible in new and important ways, but we don't yet know what to do with it. Shame is back, baby, and it shows us whose thinking is backwards. It's just a shame that it hasn't yet pushed us forward. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why I Still Watch the NFL

It's a tough time for critical-thinking, football-loving people. There was a time when I very vocally opposed the Super Bowl. I thought that the blatantly consumerist ends of the contest were just too insurmountable to watch in good conscience. As a baby theologian, I knew about the primacy of conscience and followed mine, all the way to finding another activity on that and every other Sunday during the NFL season.

I changed my mind somewhere in the past 15 years or so. Does this mean I've ignored my conscience? Or worse yet, have I let it be re-formed in a way so as not to be bothered at all?

There are enough reasons to boycott the NFL (and maybe even football in general): the mishandling of domestic abuse cases, a league-wide denial of the continuing effects of play on mental and physical health, contribution to sexist culture in its portrayal and treatment of women, and racial tone-policing that treats and labels minority players in markedly different ways. All of these create a stew of moral dubiousness that is sure to make us think twice.

As much as I respect the decisions of my younger self, I have to say that my moral stand (to the degree you could even call it that) was a bit misplaced. I love football for football's sake. I love the game itself. I even used to love playing it. Some of my most formative childhood moments happened during games of backyard football, which we played day in and day out. I happen to think that there are ways to alter the game to respect the bodies of its players. But the real problem--the thing at the heart of our stew of moral dubiousness--is precisely that: the respect of bodies.

As a culture, we do not respect bodies. In fact, we have a whole hierarchy of bodies that undergirds our political, economic, and social lives. The NFL treats women as objects or less capable than men because America treats women this way. The NFL values its profits over the longevity of its players' lives because we have long valued profit over the lives of workers. The NFL treats the bodies of minority players differently because those bodies don't matter as much in wider American culture.

We don't have a football problem; we have a body problem. Unless we transform our culture into one that respects the bodies of all people who live in it and make it possible, our games will continue to reflect our most deeply held attitudes toward those bodies. I continue to watch football not only because I love the game but because I cannot be a voice for cultural change if I exempt myself completely from that culture (as if that was possible). The Second Vatican Council challenged church leaders, theologians and lay Catholics to "read the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel" (Gaudium et Spes). Watching the Super Bowl does not necessarily mean that we are choosing to ignore all of the problems of the NFL. In fact, it might give us very particular images, sounds, and moments that reflect the "signs of the times." Those little reflections are the shared experiences upon which real conversation and cultural transformation are built.