One of the things I’ve learned in the many years I’ve worked on this site is that my family has a habit of following in the wake of its ancestors, even if the followers were reluctant to admit it. Our trips to the Bahamas were in the wake of Chet’s SPA trips; our moving to […]
Of all the prayers we used to pray from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer at Bethesda, probably my favourite was what the Prayer Book called “A General Thanksgiving,” but I normally attached the definite article to it. It’s especially appropriate now and here it is: Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we, thine unworthy […]
Readers of this blog will know that my family goes back a long way visiting the Bahamas in general and the Abaco Islands in particular. We had some exciting times, almost sending our ship to the bottom and riding out a storm. This beautiful paradise, which looked like this when we visited: Now looks like […]
Today, of course, is the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon–“one giant leap for mankind,” to be sure. It was a great accomplishment and deserves to be remembered. It’s easy to forget, however, that at the time there were many–especially on the left–who believed that the whole enterprise was a mistake, […]
I’ve posted elsewhere on my prep school, and it was a pleasure to hear that someone else thought enough to do the same: Tico Vogt, two years my senior, has done so in his post Renouncing Privilege. There’s a lot of ground to cover here; I’ll try to be as succinct as possible. It shouldn’t […]
Visits from grandparents are the joy of many families. For us, it was usually the other way around. After we we bounced from Chicago to Chattanooga to Palm Beach, we lived on the other side of the Palm Beach Country Club from my father’s mother. With my mother’s parents, we usually went to Arkansas to see them. They only came to visit us in Palm Beach once. And it was enough: in a letter my grandmother wrote to a friend in Chicago, she noted the following:
I know when Vernell (my mother) lived in Chicago, and when I would stay several weeks at a time when the boys were Babies, how hungry I would be to be with God(‘s) children in an old time church. And now they live in Palm Beach, Florida, and the same thing, and when folks aren’t spiritual minded they don’t care about the Lord nor his church in this world…
The idea of “the remnant”–that there are just a few of us hanging on to God–was born around the time the Israelites faced their first exile in Babylon with the destruction of the First Temple. It’s one that’s resurfaced many times. Church growth types decry the attitude of “us four and no more” but if you get enough “us fours” you can have quite a movement, and that was the reality of much of Southern Evangelicalism for many years.
What really strikes me about this more than half a century after she wrote it is the contrast to the fawning, sycophantic attitude towards wealth and the people it accumulates to (and the places they live) that is now standard in churches. It didn’t matter that Palm Beach was and is one of the wealthiest communities in the United States; a proper Christian church was absent, thus it wasn’t a good place. That reflects the attitude that eternity is what really matters. It’s tempting to criticise (as N.T. Wright is wont to do) that it’s escapist and reduces the relevance of Christianity in this world. But that’s not really true either: the legacy of “escapist” Southern Evangelicals is alive and well in ways that have been obscured by political shifts, but need to be re-examined.
The main thing Southern Evangelicals are remembered for is being atrocious racists. And there’s no doubt about that. But buried in that web is a class element, too. Descendants of a class-stratified British society, Americans in general like to think that they’ve gotten beyond class. But it’s easier said than done, especially in the South. Black people posed a perpetual economic threat for a people whose capacity for efficient work was fitful at best. That’s why they worked so hard to keep them down.
But the same people who despised those below them resented those above them as well. After Reconstruction they sized control of state governments from those who had led them in the Lost Cause, instituting some of the rawest populism this Republic has seen before or since. They tightly regulated activities that fuelled those they displaced, such as alcohol consumption. (They also tightly regulated utilities, too.) And the class-stratified nature of Southern Christianity insured that no one had to see someone from the “other side” of anything on Sunday morning, with their attitude buttressed by Scriptures such as the following:
Let a Brother in humble circumstances be proud of his exalted position, but a rich Brother of his humiliation; For the rich man will pass away ‘like the flower of the grass.’ As the sun rises, and the hot wind blows, ‘the grass withers, its flower fades,’ and all its beauty is gone. So is it with the rich man. In the midst of his pursuits he will come to an untimely end. (James 1:9-11 TCNT)
And they voted Democrat, reliably and Yellow Dog. Their voter participation rates were below their Northern counterparts and and many of those when they elected were corrupt and/or of atrocious personal morals. Today white Evangelicals are criticised for voting for Republicans with similar problems, but I guess it doesn’t matter when they’re Democrats.
But many of them took their populism to Washington and voted accordingly. It’s easy to forget, but they also voted for such things as restrictive banking laws and 70% top marginal income tax rates. People like Carter Glass and Wright Patman ruled the roost; LBJ himself physically bullied the head of the Federal Reserve. Buoyed by this and the egalitarian spirit of a generation that fought World War II together, income equality had its golden age between 1945 and 1975, and it’s gone down ever since.
And that brings us to Elizabeth Warren. As we’ve pointed out before, she’s not much of an Indian, but she’s certainly a Scots-Irish redneck. She’s probably her party’s best heir to the legacy of Glass and Patman (to say nothing of Huey Long.) Her circuitous route to fame through Harvard and Massachusetts is due to the fact that her fellow Scots-Irish have abandoned the Democrat Party. But will her own brand of populism resonate in her own party now, especially since with the sexual revolution they have abandoned Christianity?
In spite of fifty years of growing income inequality, Americans are still in denial about the reality of class inequality. The left has addressed this by obsessing with intersectional identity politics. The result of this that, while a few people have moved up, it’s easier to obscure the regressive nature of the society in virtue-signalling rhetoric. As long as this is true inequality will continue to grow even if the Democrats get rid of their bête noire. (That’s the unheeded lesson of the Obama years.)
Warren’s ancestors harboured a great deal of resentment towards those above them and shaped a great deal of public policy as a consequence of that resentment. That’s what it’s going to take to get the kinds of policies passed the Democratic Socialists want, not the reality-obscuring intersectionality that dominates leftist rhetoric. Whether they’re ready to appeal to a mentality that resents Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey as much as it resents the Kochs remains to be seen. Whether the Democrats are ready to embrace someone like Elizabeth Warren also remains to be seen. At this point I doubt it, but those who would discount a Scots-Irish politician would do well to remember Bill Clinton.
But the Democrats better make up their mind quickly. If they’re gunning for the resentment vote, chances are Donald Trump has beaten them to it, and getting it back won’t be an overnight proposition.
So what’s the matter with Broward? Republicans tend to blame one-party Democratic rule, and even some Democrats agree that the lack of serious partisan competition has led to bad incentives and bad habits for county leaders, just as uninterrupted Republican rule at the state level has helped make Tallahassee’s political culture dysfunctional. Broward’s decentralized political structure, with a new and largely ceremonial mayor chosen every year from a nine-member county commission, has also reduced accountability: Broward’s independent fiefdoms like the election office, sheriff’s department and schools are essentially free to run wild. Broward’s public health system has been particularly problematic. Its CEO committed suicide in 2016 amid a federal investigation into shady contracts, and his successor, who got the job despite having a degree from a defunct diploma mill and despite being under indictment, recently resigned after less than a year in office.
I’ve used the modified Monkey Jungle phrase “where the animals are tame and the people run wild” to describe all of South Florida, but the original impetus to do it came from Broward County, that Strange Place to the South (for those of us in Palm Beach County.) Broward County, however, is Ground Zero for South Florida’s basic problem: it’s made up of people groups who basically don’t like each other and don’t form a community, even when they vote alike, as they do in Broward. The result is that, when community problems arise, nothing gets done, because there is no community, even with political unity. People just yell at each other.
But isn’t the whole country getting that way? To grow up in South Florida was to see the future, and sad to say it hasn’t been very nice.
Amendment 13, a highly charged proposal to end greyhound racing in Florida, passed. It means the roughly dozen racing tracks in Florida will have to shutter by 2020. Animal protection groups celebrated the victory, calling the win a “historic effort.”
“Tonight, in an historic vote, Florida voters have delivered a knock-out blow to a cruel industry that has been hurting and killing dogs for nearly a century,” the Yes on 13 campaign wrote in a statement. “This is a small step in turning the page on a relic of the old economy, but a giant step for animal protection nationwide.
Florida is home to 11 of the remaining 17 greyhound racing tracks in the country.
“Because of the decision of millions of Florida voters, thousands of dogs will be spared the pain and suffering that is inherent in the greyhound racing industry,” said Kitty Block, acting president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
Greyhound racing was a part of the landscape when i grew up in Florida, which inspired one of the oldest pieces on the site: Running Rusty. I used the mechanical rabbit which the greyhounds chased to make a point about American life:
I suppose this is fine for dog racing but unfortunately too much of life for too many of us has turned into a dog race where whomever we feel is in control of our situation is “running Rusty” in front of us. From youth onward we’re motivated — pushed and shoved in some cases — to achieve goals which we may have had nothing to do with formulating and which we really feel we neither want nor are able to accomplish. If and when we reach these goals it seems that success is more elusive than ever because the “track owner” is moving Rusty faster than we can keep up by either making new demands or enticing us with new things to go harder for. This is called “being challenged” and of course has its upside but in many cases it’s manipulation, pure and simple.
It looks like Rusty, like so many Floridians, is being retired along with the dogs. I really think this is another example of sentiment and respectability taking precedence over substantive good, but that can be said about just about everything in this country, and that includes the rest of the election last night.
And, sad to say, it does nothing to address the great paradox of American life: while many call for a more humane and just society, the corporatist nature of our system keeps “running Rusty” on all of us for their own benefit.
Some readers of the blog are doubtless buffaloed at my blasé attitude regarding what Anglicans call WO (women’s ordination.) I explain some of my rationale here but some of that comes from being a product of the Palm Beach social system. That system–exclusivistic and highly non-industrial–moulds everyone who lives there in ways that aren’t obvious until they get away from it. So here are some reflections on the effect of that system and why it’s relevant in the church today.
First, a core feature of the system is the simple fact that women have been powerful and played a central role in the system long before the move to “liberate” them got going. An easy-to-understand example of this was Marjorie Merriweather Post, who owned Mar-a-Lago for so many years. Mar-a-Lago was (and is if you ignore the fact that it’s a private club now) the largest private residence on the island, and she was prominent (including the square dances she held.) But she was only one. Palm Beach was a place where work was a four-letter word in the past for many people (or in their ancestors’ past.) With this a person’s position based on the job they did (and for many years it was the men who did most of the paid jobs) didn’t really bear on where you stood in the scheme of things.
This tended to put women in the driver’s seat in many ways–overseeing households (where they routinely told men what to do,) controlling fortunes (based on the terms and conditions of those fortunes) and organising events. There’s power in all of that. It’s hard to swallow industrial-era based complementarianism when you’ve been exposed to that. (A cursory reading of Proverbs 31 should also put paid to such thinking, but I digress…)
The second is that power is not always exercised in the open. We are routinely regaled with things such as “the first woman to…” and so forth. And these accomplishments should not be gainsaid. However, one thing one learns in a place like Palm Beach (and should be learned elsewhere but frequently isn’t) is that real power often resides in the hands of those who aren’t in the limelight, or who don’t have the formal position. That, just about as much as anything, drives me crazy about American political dialogue. The whole rise of the Religious Right in politics was based on the idea that, if we could win enough elections, we could take American back for God again. We now know that this was not true in the 1980’s and certainly isn’t now, although elections are important.
An interesting example of how this played out relevant to the topic of women took place when the Vestry of Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, led by shirt magnate William Cluett, booted the ladies’ rummage sale from the parish hall on “scriptural” grounds. In those days vestries were an all-male affair, and in a complementarian world the ladies would be compelled to sit down and shut up. They didn’t; led by prominent socialite Helene Tuchbreiter, they moved their operation elsewhere and started the Church Mouse resale shop, which is today a part of the scene in Palm Beach.
So why is Palm Beach’s social system educational for the rest of us? Well, “moving up” is a big deal for Americans in church and elsewhere. You simply cannot promote industrial-era complementarianism one the one hand and the desire of upward social mobility on the other without running in the simple fact that, when you reach the peak of the latter the former isn’t operative. For all of its unBiblical aspects, Palm Beach’s social system in many ways reflects a time before what job someone had defined their status in life, and that’s something that everyone needs to remember. If we could get past that, we could liberate ourselves from many things.
P.S. One thing I didn’t touch on was the exclusivist nature of Palm Beach’s social system. We hear many opponents of Christianity decry churches as “country clubs” but if you’re a product of a system where being in a club was a big deal that isn’t much of an insult. And if we’re going to implement things such as the “Benedict Option” that aspect will be a key to our survival. But again that’s another post…