Reading in the age of Trump

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Well, as I’ve written in Ruminations, the pre-election status confessionis has now morphed into something else. We now have to figure out how to accept the new reality without “normalizing” it. It seems to me that in this greatly altered political scene, preachers and leaders within the church need to do more intentional and more theological reading.

I realize that my sources are pretty “elitist.” I do listen to CNN (mindful that “CNN sucks!”) quite a bit, but much more frequently to the in-depth interviews on NPR (I just sent in yet another contribution to WNYC which has pledged itself to double down on serious, analytic journalism in the time soon to come). Oh, and let’s not forget the relentless interviewers on the BBC, who outdo anyone that I know of in American media; I just listened to a takedown of a government spokesman in Istanbul, where the British interviewer, with her comprehensive knowledge, cut off the guest at every pass. However, there is no substitute for actual reading. The publications that I read more or less cover to cover are the New York Review of Books and The New York Times.…not exactly populist sources! I look in on The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard fairly regularly, which places me firmly in the traditional old-line Republican camp. I read the “Publius Decius Mus” article that has gotten so much attention. I try to listen to Fox News sometimes, but except for the ballsy Megyn Kelly, it’s a pretty painful experience. I depend on friends to send me articles from The Atlantic and The Guardian.

However, the point of this is that even with my mostly left-leading sources, it’s possible to get some idea of the breadth and depth of people’s reactions to the new situation. For instance, soon after the election, The New York Times featured a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a Trump supporter, an devotee of right-wing, often fake news named Laurence something (darn it, I lost the link), a man to be taken seriously (and perhaps even literally). I was touched by the description of this man, the adoptive father of several mixed-race children, who did not fit into any predictable box.

And the ever-wise David Brooks advises us Trump critics to “take a break from our never-ending umbrage to engage in a little listening”:

The best careful description of Trump supporters that I’ve read comes from before the election, indicating the prescience of its source. It’s from the Washington Post. It’s long, but well worth pondering:

My next recommendation is a November 11 column by Nicholas Kristof urging all people of good will to resist the ugly spirits released from Pandora’s box with a “12-step program” of affirmative actions.  I have already found that some of his suggestions are really helpful, and make one feel re-empowered. (One strategy that he doesn’t mention is subscribing to ProPublica, the first online newsroom to win the Pulitzer-Prize; supporting it definitely feels like a step in the right direction.) Here’s the link to Kristof’s column: 

Nicholas Kristof sometimes identifies himself as a nonbeliever, but there is something in his background and sensibility that shades toward an evangelical heart. (He recently interviewed Tim Keller.) For years I have noticed that he makes a point of defending evangelicals, broadly defined, against liberal disdain. An indefatigable world traveller, he has observed, close-up, the charitable activities of Christian agencies and missions in dangerous countries abroad, and calls the attention of his readers to them. The link below takes you to a column in which he specifically refers to evangelicals as people who should have a respected place on campuses in order to open up our educated population to the fact that politically liberal views are not necessarily the be-all end-all.

One of the great questions confronting the church in the years to come will be how to conduct ourselves when everything seems to be going the wrong way. I was very impressed by Amanda Taub’s analysis of failing corrupt regimes around the world. She writes about “islands of honesty” and how they can help to bring down an unlawful government. This should encourage us all, because even one person can be an island of honesty. Here is the link:

I read everything that Eduardo Porter writes in his column “The Economic Scene” in the Times. He examines moral and ethical issues related to the economy. It’s worth Googling his name and reading his recent columns. The one that most caught my attention, about income inequality, reminds us that since the 1970s, “there has been close to zero growth for working-age adults in the bottom 50 percent.”

Mark Danner is one of our most important long-form journalists. His most famous essay informed a wider public about one of the most horrific massacres of civilians in recent times, by US-trained soldiers in El Mozote, El Salvador, in 1981. As a sign of its importance, it was given its own New Yorker cover when it was published in 1994 (Wikipedia has a pretty good account of El Mozote and Danner’s research.) Danner has a new piece, “The Real Trump,” in the December  22 issue of The New York Review of Books. He is one who is going to continue his decades-long fight for humane values by exposing and writing about lies and cover-ups. (You have to subscribe to read this one.)

I was arrested by a one-page piece by Evan Osnos, about the extraordinary Chinese dissident Xu Hongci, who endured horrific decades in the Chinese labor camps, escaping three times, successfully on his fourth try, in 1972. He died in 2008, leaving behind a manuscript of his story, which will be published this January as “No Wall Too High.” The last paragraph of Osnos’ piece caught my attention:

Xu’s story can be read as a testament to man’s unwillingness to succumb…But above all, it should be read as a warning. Tyranny does not begin with  violence; it begins with the first gesture of collaboration. Its most enduring crime is drawing decent men and women into its siege of the truth. (The New Yorker, Dec. 19 & 26)

And finally (for now), one of my favorite columnists is E. J. Dionne, whom the Times stupidly let go some years back. He writes for the Washington Post now. This is a very affirming piece about what may very well come about to galvanize people, young ones especially:

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