All Souls Kansas City

March 31: “A Feature, not a Bug” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

It has been quite some time, and I don’t know how it works these days, but many people in my generation learned to read by following the mild adventures of two children named Dick and Jane. Anybody here remember Dick and Jane? The beginning reader was urged to “Look, Jane, look” and “See Spot run.” Like many other educators in the late 50s, my mother found these texts insipid, and she saw no reason to withhold the joys of reading from bright children until they were allowed to enter public school classrooms no earlier than the age of six. Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, published The Cat in the Hat, his version of an early reader, in 1957, so it must have been rather new on the shelves when I began sounding out “thing one” and “thing two” at around three years old. Geisel wrote the book as an intentional reaction against the bland realism of Dick and Jane, and it was an immediate hit with teachers and parents, and presumably with kids as well, though of course it wasn’t their money buying it. As for me, I took to reading immediately, as may appear from the size of my library, and loved it – but I did not love The Cat in the Hat. No, no, I did not.

I was instantly and fiercely and forever on the side of the fish, who from the beginning warns, “This cat is not good. This cat should not stay.” It has been a lowering reflection to learn, in the course of casual research for this sermon, that Geisel modeled the voice of the fish on Cotton Mather, the famous New England Puritan minister – one of my spiritual ancestors, apparently. This is not to suggest that anyone else doesn’t or shouldn’t find The Cat in the Hat or its many successors appealing; only that I personally have never been a fan of the transgressive for its own sake. I was actually more comfortable in the ordered world of Dick and Jane, where I didn’t have to figure out whether or not I was being asked to suspend my disbelief about a fish needing water to survive.

Perhaps it has to do with growing up in a politically progressive, dogmatically humanist religious environment, where I learned that the only rules ultimately governing the universe were those self-enforcing laws of nature, like gravity. To try to defy them was not daring, but ridiculous, and the consequences were immediate, impersonal, and painful. We do not, after all, live in a cartoonist’s imagination, and it needs no artificial punishment to learn not to touch a hot stove. From an early age I understood that all other “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” were at some level arbitrary, whether they were parental, institutional, or social. Yet they served to enable life to proceed in a calm, predictable way, and it made me deeply anxious to see them violated, either by adults or by my peers. The appeal of the forbidden was always lost on me; I could certainly understand wanting another cookie, but not that taking it without permission would make it taste better.

I think this incomprehension carries over to the appeal of bullying, or making other people feel bad. I don’t understand it; I never have. Which is why, until I read George Godwyn’s blog post, I kept not being able to wrap my mind around the appeal of those ‘make America great again’ campaign rallies. Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why it makes sense to a certain cohort of people to resent immigrants, and women in positions of power to scorn the sexual prerogatives of men, and people of color who demand to be treated with equal justice and dignity, and GLBT folks who want everyone else to mind their own business about anybody’s sexuality, and journalists who challenge the ego and self-image of the supposedly rich and entitled. Much breath has been spent over dinner tables and over Facebook, pointing out how aggressive and unfair and personally hurtful and dangerous this rhetoric of exclusion is. Attention has been drawn, again and again, to frightening historical parallels. None of that has changed anything. There have been streams of advice about how liberals can and should be more open, accepting, and empathetic toward members of this cohort, in spite of not receiving even the barest courtesy in return. We have made ourselves feel guilty about this, assuming that our manifest inability, as demonstrated by polls, to call forth anyone’s better nature or higher self, was a failure of our willingness for connection. You may have asked yourself, as I have done, whether a preference for a society characterized by compassion, humaneness, and accountability was somehow an artifact of privilege.

No more; I’m done. I think it is time for us all to dispense with the premise that there is anything rational or morally mature about the policies of the current administration, or anything intended to be logically persuasive in its rhetoric. The hurtful and divisive tone taken by the president and those who endorse the agenda that he represents is not an accident of limited vocabulary, or an artifact of cultural misunderstanding. It is intended to flout the cultural conventions of decency; it is deliberately provocative, transgressive on purpose. Its contempt for good manners and good will is a feature, not a bug. The transgression of the disciplines of logic, respect for others, and self-control, are what constitutes its thrilling power, which means that appeals to reason or to consideration for those who have less power will never prevail to stop it. You can’t talk the Cat in the Hat out of his mayhem by pointing out that he is breaking the rules, and making a mess – that’s the point; that is his notion of fun. He cannot be persuaded, only overcome by the threat of a higher authority – in this case, Mom.

There is, I ought to confess, one form of transgressive thrill that does appeal to me, and that is self-righteousness. I take a certain pleasure in pointing out when those in power with whom I disagree are demonstrably wrong. It’s no fun, from my perspective, to be one up on somebody to whom I owe forbearance in the first place, like a frail elder, or a junior colleague, or someone less socially privileged – which I find means that the opportunities for really satisfying self-righteousness are rather few these days. But I would take unbecoming pleasure in thwarting an ICE agent, or a mega-church biblical literalist, or a sexual harasser, or the CEO of a polluting corporation, or a Ku Klux Klan demonstrator, or a holocaust denying professor. Those are the examples that come to mind immediately – I daresay there are a few others I could think of, or you could name. The point is that even someone with as little inclination toward the transgressive as I have, is not entirely immune. I’m not likely to be drawn into chanting “Lock her up” or “Build the wall,” but there are no doubt things I would chant, given the right circumstances. “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” for instance, if memory serves me.

What is interesting, and infuriating, and intractable about the Make America Great Again movement, is that it is precisely MY expectations of human decency that they are taking such pleasure in flouting. When did I – when did we – become the establishment, the arbiters of culture? I missed the moment! I came to adulthood believing that we were the outliers, the ones whose values were against the popular norms. And yet it appears that to a certain extent this moment did happen. One commentator I read without copying or remembering their name, alas, has written that sometime during the decades between the 1950s and now, our culture has shifted. We have moved from the understanding that it is unacceptable to be weird or out of step with the mainstream, and not really a problem if you are cruel, as long as it is to those who are powerless and/or different – people of color, women, homosexuals, children, the disabled or neurologically diverse. From that to a new standard which is the reverse; it is not that much of a problem anymore to be different or weird, but it is unacceptable to be visibly or verbally cruel. If this is true, it would certainly be a change after my own heart; I see nothing reprehensible about oddness, and everything wrong with deliberately causing pain. And, it seems to me that this is precisely the expectation that the chanting, Fox News devotees derive their unholy joy from transgressing. They know they are causing harm, and fear; we don’t need to tell them again, they are well aware. It’s what they want to do; it’s a choice – a celebration of their power to be selfish and cruel to those they can hurt if it feels good, and a celebration of the inability of anyone else to stop them.

So; what then? It is no easy thing to halt the madness of crowds in its tracks, and I don’t think there is any magic solution for the MAGA transgressive high. Five conclusions occur to me, if what Godwyn has proposed is true, as I’m inclined to think that it is. The first is that we must not give up our own commitments to the disciplines of reason and logic, of good manners and good taste, and to compassion for the needy and the hurting. However, what we should give up is sulking when those considerations have no impact on people who are enjoying the flavor of transgressive cruelty. We must continue to be the grown ups in the room, and model our values, but we can stop pointing out that the government’s behavior, and that of its supporters, doesn’t reflect those values. They already know that. It’s not an accident; it’s a feature, not a bug.

Second, I think that whether or not we can stop them, and as uncomfortable as it makes us, we must bear witness to every word and every act. We must show up at the scenes of cruelty, and document whatever we can. When this toxic infatuation subsides, the first impulse will be to deny that it happened, to suppress the records, to make us, and others, skeptical of our own traumatized memories. We will need to be able to prove that what we experienced was real. We must do all that we can to protect the principle of a free press, and journalists as individuals. We have to keep our eyes open, remain alert and curious. We will need to be able to tell the story of what happened, and how it all came to pass. Keep watch; bear witness; remember.

Third, as Godwyn points out, part of the excitement comes from transgressing standards that even the rally crowds in their own more thoughtful moments would affirm. We must keep chipping away at the inconsistencies between who people say they are, and what they say they believe, and the reality of what their behavior actually brings about. I particularly enjoyed a meme I saw recently, a quote from the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor who says, “The only clear line I draw these days is this: when my religion tries to come between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor. Jesus never commanded me to love my religion.” We need to harp on every policy that devalues families, that dishonors veterans, that makes children unsafe, that eliminates jobs, that is unbiblical and unchristian. That kind of cognitive dissonance can puncture the haze of excited narcissism over time. And don’t forget that it offers an equal-opportunity challenge; we too must be constantly alert to how our own actions reflect our ideals, and how effectively we ourselves practice as we preach.

Fourth, we must use the tools of democracy effectively, recognizing that we are in a struggle for power. Moral suasion is less effective against a bully on a rampage than higher authority, which is what our government intends for the will of the majority to be. If it is true, as the community organizers say, that power is organized people, and organized money, then liberals and progressives need to keep up the energy of nominating bold thinkers and caring representatives from diverse communities, and supporting them with contributions, with enthusiasm, with votes, and with cheering on while they serve. We ought to be willing to have intense, substantive conversations about issues, and still unite behind candidates that represent our understanding of the common good. The thrill of transgressive defiance and rage is no substitute for grass roots political work over time, nor can the intense but fleeting camaraderie of a mob replace the network of community connections that are built by patient and persistent effort. This moment, exasperating as it is, is not time to let slip the basic disciplines of political practice. Connect, pay attention, advocate, get out the vote. We know how to do this, we just need to believe that it still matters.

Finally, we need to find our narrative, the story about how we are all in this together, about how the planet needs us to unite, how differences are beautiful and good, and how we all thrive when we use our abundance to care for those who need it the most. We must offer an alternative to the toxic pleasures of transgression; something more satisfying than the forbidden fruit of hatred. The best would be learning to celebrate our connections and our diversities in ways that excite and engage and transform us, so that the hunger of our spirits can feed on something more nourishing than the empty calories of F-you. It seems to me that if Seuss’s young characters were not sitting around, alone and bored on that cold, rainy day, the Cat in the Hat would not have had the opportunity to insert his transgressive chaos into their household. We must prepare the alternative for when the fever of the rally crowds breaks, and the hollowness of ‘build the wall’ becomes evident even to its most fervent devotee.

We must continue all along to teach the values of reflection, humility, and generosity; of dignity, acceptance, and kindness; of seeing each other as beautiful and accountable and blessed. We must not just teach these ideals, but demonstrate them in action, in our communities, and the way we treat our neighbors. For in the end, it is not words or slogans or chants, even in huge crowds, that are finally persuasive, but examples. You cannot teach responsibility by inciting selfishness; you cannot teach respect by practicing contempt; and you cannot teach greatness by modeling petulance. No; you teach care by showing compassion; you teach generosity by showing acceptance; you teach love by listening and comfort, by sharing and commitment. Because no matter what corporate greed and inherited privilege might urge us to believe, our capacity for mercy and loyalty to each other is a feature of the human condition, not a bug.