Saturday, June 2, 2018

Mary Midgley on 'Wickedness'

Interpreting evil is difficult. In Midgley's 2001 "Preface to the Routledge Classics edition" of her 1984 Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay, she says that if all human choices are mechanistic and there's no free will, "we would have to view ourselves also" — in addition to other people who have committed atrocities — "as tools or vehicles of the same kind". Alternatively, maybe we have free will but there's no shared standard to evaluate what we do with it; perhaps "each of us wanders alone in a moral vacuum, spinning values out of our own entrails like spiders," but then "we have ceased to be social creatures altogether." (Later in the book, she adds another risk of claiming that power motives as natural to animals: "power-worship seems to follow because what seems inevitable may command approval.") She says her book aims to distinguish "various forms and combinations of immoralism, relativism, subjectivism and determinism" whose Enlightenment origins are based in "an admirable reaction against the gross abuses that long attended the practices of blame and punishment," and "a determination to make human conduct as intelligible scientifically as the rest of the physical world," even if they do not achieve the correct answer.

In the book, she says: "Skepticism about it [wickedness] has three main forms. First...the idea that no acts are really wrong. Next comes the thought that — though there are wrong acts — nobody actually commits them. And finally comes the thought that — though people do commit them — they never do it on purpose, and so are not responsible." But we don't really believe these things. We cannot refrain from moral judgment. As she puts it:

"To inhibit these reactions would be to treat them [other people] not as people at all, but as some kind of alien impersonal phenomena. Since it is not possible to treat oneself in this way, this would produce a bizarre sense of total isolation in the universe. It cannot actually be done. The need to see ourselves and others as on essentially the same moral footing is in fact so deep that nobody gets anywhere near carrying out this policy. What it usually amounts to is a quite local moral campaign directed against the actual process of blaming. Moral judgment is by no means withheld; it is simply directed with exceptional ferocity against those caught blaming and punishing culprits accused of more traditional offences. This carries guidance of a negative kind for occasions when one is confronted with these offences oneself—namely 'Don't blame or punish.' That advice can sometimes be suitable and useful. But it is extremely limited. Most of life does not consist of such occasions, and most moral difficulties call for other principles, with their background of other moral judgments."

She isn't very concerned with exceptions to the rule, whatever the rule may turn out to be. Although Barbara Wootton worries that reckoning about the existence of psychopaths may "ultimately shatter the whole idea of moral responsibility," Midgley replies that "all conceptual schemes run into difficulties and paradoxes when they are used for awkward and unusual cases."

Everyone occasionally suffers a failure of willpower to do the right thing, but deliberately choosing evil is something different.

"Aristotle made an interesting distinction between people of weak will, who do wrong against their real wishes and intentions, and vicious people, who do wrong contentedly and with conviction. ... Contentedly vicious people do not as a rule describe themselves as vicious, nor even think their actions wrong. They tend either to justify them or to reject moral questions as pointless and irrelevant."

She believes it's important to recognize this:

"Indignant rejection of this myth [of the Fall] in recent times has been due to real misuses of it. But the consequences of trying to do without any such notion may not have been fully understood. There really is a deep, pervasive discrepancy between human ideals and human conduct. In order to deal with this, we need to recognize it, not to deny it.

Midgley asks whether wickedness might someday be treated medically as mental illness is.

"To return, then to the general problem — wickedness is not the same thing as madness, nor as a genuine eccentric morality. Both madness and honest eccentric thinking constitute excuses. And the notion of an excuse only works if there can be some cases which are not excusable, cases to which it does not apply. The notion of real wickedness is still assumed as a background alternative. Yet that notion is still hard to articulate.

The reason why it is so hard is, I suggest, that we do not take in what it means to say that evil is negative. We are looking for it as something positive, and that positive thing we of course fail to find. If we ask whether exploiters and oppressors know what they are doing, the right answer seems to be that they do not know, because they carefully avoid thinking about it — but that they could know, and therefore their deliberate avoidance is a responsible act."

Normal, good people have complex motives including a concern for other people and an ability to prioritize these motives.

"Exploiters and oppressors, war-makers, executioners and destroyers of forests do not usually wear distinctive black hats, nor horns and hooves. The positive motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfillment and professional conscientiousness. The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these — in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it. That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance. Except in rare psychopaths, we attribute it to the will. The will has steadily said 'No', just as Mephistopheles does. But because 'No' is such a negative thing to say, the mind has often not admitted fully what was happening. The staff officer, when he saw the army struggling in the mud [because orders had been thoughtlessly given to them to advance through it], was thunderstruck. Only then did his systematic negligence become clear to him. When it did, he had the grace to be horrified. Once the point was put before him, he could see it. He was capable of remorse, which not everybody is in that situation. Now this capacity for remorse seemed to Aristotle an indication of weak will rather than of vice. But these are surely not sharp alternatives. They are rather ends of a spectrum of clear-headedness about wrong-doing, on which all of us are placed somewhere."

Later, she brings up Mephistopheles again, in the context of enduring motives of destruction:

"...aggressive tendencies of this moderate kind do not answer to the essentially diabolical formula of a truly wicked motive, the interest in destruction for its own sake. When Mephistopheles tells Faust that he is the spirit which always denies, he is expressing something very different from a sharp, impulsive, wish to attack. That 'always' gives quite another colour to the business. Destruction as a policy is not just aggression. It is hatred. This is not a single, natural motive, but a considered attitude, in the end, a way of life. It represents a decision, not an original distinct motive."

To enable wicked motives and deeds, people sometimes have some kind of personality split. Their wicked self needs to justify their actions to their normal self.

"The question why one is behaving alternatively like two quite different people is one that cannot fail to arise. The answer 'I just happen to be two people' has never been found to be very satisfactory. Butler's point, then, seems sound, but it is a matter of degree, not a complete dichotomy. The more chronic, continuous and well-established is the self-deception, the deeper and more pernicious the vice. But some self-deception is probably needed if actions are to be called vicious at all."

Some of our anger is in response to real threats, but some is imagined.

"Specific grievances wear out; the unchangingness of group hostilities marks them as fraudulent. They are not responses to real external dangers, but fantasies. We erect a glass at the border of our own group, and see our own anger reflected against the darkness behind it."
Mary Midgley. Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay. (First published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.) Kindle edition: Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A brief history of eunuchs in Reay Tannahill's 'Sex in History' (1980)

In her 1980 book Sex in History, Reay Tannahill has a part called "Asia until the Middle Ages, and the Arab World," within which is a chapter called "Islam," within which is a section on "The Eunuchs" (pp. 246-254) The section is a world overview and has hardly any information on Muslim societies, so its placement under "Islam" is a little confusing. Since the history ends in the 1930s and she is writing a half-century later, she uses a lot of old material (not in the original languages of these cultures, but primarily in English) and puts a hint of second-wave feminist spin on it. Among her sources:

  • Stent, G. Carter. "Chinese Eunuchs." Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series XI, 1877, pp. 143-84.
  • Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. London, 1954.

She writes: "The eunuch of popular imagination is often a repellent, sinister figure, high of voice and flabby of flesh, with a taste for sweet-meats, bright colors, and strong rhythms, and a disposition that is acquisitive, cruel, and vengeful." She comments that these character traits seem more likely as a response to involuntary, rather than voluntary, castration. (p. 252) She proposes that "their emasculation made of the quicker-witted eunuchs far more effective officials than they would otherwise have been, for they owed no clemency to the people with whom they dealt." (p. 253) This statement is unclear: Does she believe that they were angry about their castration and therefore felt they had the right to take collective revenge on anyone they met, or that kidnapping, castration, and enslavement severed their previous social ties so that they generally had no need to play favorites with people at court?

Her world history is paraphrased below. This is already commonly known information for those who have read any significant amount about eunuchs.

Assyrian laws as far back as the 15th century BCE allowed a married man to castrate another man found having sex with his wife. "That this punishment was inflicted with a degree of frequency is suggested by the fact that there were a number of eunuchs among Assyrian royal officials, while others were employed in the harem to guard the four royal wives, 40 concubines 'and others' incarcerated in it, being forbidden to approach them more closely than seven feet, or to speak to them at all if they were inadequately clothed." When the Persian empire replaced it, Cyrus in the 6th century BCE believed that eunuchs could perform physical military service on par with other men and that they were ambitious, and that they had the further advantages of being incapable of committing sexual violations and tending to devote their loyalty to their king rather than to families they did not have. Tannahill says that the Persians were likely "the first to castrate prisoners in cold rather than hot blood" and that Herodotus reports that attractive boys were chosen for castration. Darius, after Cyrus, asked for 500 eunuch boys as tribute from Babylon and Assyria. Later, the practice was known in China, where eunuchs were employed in the imperial harem and as "private executioners." A slave trade in eunuch boys was known in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was known that some eunuchs had sexual desire and some women preferred them as sexual partners. The Roman Emperor Domitian banned castration in the first century CE but nevertheless, later, in the Byzantine empire, eunuchs served as imperial "ministers and even Church patriarchs" and "eight of the chief posts of the empire were reserved for them." Eunuchs were not generally known in the West "where women had some degree of freedom" and where leaders connected more directly with their people. "It seems that the original Hebrew attitudes [as in Deut 23:1] may have traveled to India with the Aryan invaders, for the Vedic and Hindu faiths regarded eunuchs as utterly unclean, an opinion that rubbed off even on the later Muslims (the Mughals) who ruled India from 1526 until 1806. The Indian zenana was guarded by elderly men and armed women, and eunuchs were few and far between." In the Turkish sultan's seraglio, the white and black eunuchs were mutilated differently. She talks about different procedures for castration and the fact that Chinese eunuchs preserved the tissue. Since the Turkish harem eunuchs "left no memoirs," if we want such first-hand accounts we must turn to Ssu-ma Ch'ien (1st century BCE) and Peter Abelard (12th century CE). "Both men were intellectuals, and both, after the first shock of pain and revulsion, had some escape into the private refuge of the mind. But the eunuchs of the harem were trapped in the mesh of social intercourse, with no way out. Whatever they may have felt for their fellow sufferers, to others they were over-sensitive — sometimes excessively affectionate, more often withdrawn and hostile." (p. 253) Thousands of eunuch slaves were still being taken annually into "Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey," but following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, N. M. Penzer could locate only a couple individuals in Turkey. In the early 1930s there were still a number of retired palace servants at the Refuge for Distressed Eunuchs near the Pa Pao Shan Golf Club; Osbert Sitwell spoke with them.


Reay Tannahill. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Eunuchs in Barnette Miller's 'Beyond the Sublime Porte' (1931)

Some notes from Barnette Miller's 1931 book Beyond the Sublime Porte especially relating to information about eunuchs.

A beautiful place to visit...

Miller opens her book with these words: "All the world has heard of the beauty of Constantinople as it is approached by sea. Many travelers have seen the long undulating line of the Thracian hills; the gleaming domes and minarets of the great mosques which crown the hilltops in high relief above a myriad of lesser domes and minarets; and, along the water's edge, the broken stretches and dark shadows of the imposing wall and towers which once completely encircled the city. When set in mist and suffused with the rays of the rising sun, this city seems, indeed, the nearest earthly counterpart of the Celestial City as described in the Revelation of St. John the Divine." She adds that "upon the point of the peninsula which cleaves its way like the prow of a ship between the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn into the swirling waters of the Bosphorus, hidden behind the high wall which divides the Acropolis of ancient Byzantium from the other hills of Constantine's New Rome, lies the vast pile of the old palace which was the abode of the Turkish sultans and the seat of their imperial rule — the Sublime Porte itself — for almost exactly four centuries, from its founding by Muhammad the Conqueror until its abandonment in the middle of the nineteenth century." (p. 3) The Sublime Porte then moved to Angora.

Of the palace: "It is in itself a museum of national art. Nowhere else is the historical continuity of Ottoman art so well illustrated; nowhere else, except in Brusa, are clearer examples of Ottoman primitive architecture to be found, and nowhere else, in so great profusion, such exquisite tiling and such rich inlay." (p. 6)

Note: The Grand Seraglio was later known as Old Palace, Eski Saray. It was also sometimes known as the Palace of Tears because it was a place of banishment for a deceased sultan's widows or for his wives whose sons had been executed. In the 19th century, the sultan Muhammad decided to leave his harem there (about 300 women and 70 eunuchs) and move his official staff to a New Palace, Yeni Saray, better known in Turkey as the Top Qapu Sarayi, "Palace of the Cannon Gate," at Seraglio Point.

...but a difficult place to live

Halidé Edib wrote in the introduction: "The gradual seclusion of majesty and of women, the eunuch and guard system with all its implied social intricacies, pomp, and richness, the sense of relentless power and authority — a combination of Byzantine, Persian and Roman ideas of power — are all there. One sees in passing the simple and democratic Turkish ruler of the Brusa period being transformed into the Great Emperor of the Near East, the successor of the Caesars." Miller quoted Sir Charles Eliot as having said: "The humiliating obeisances exacted from European ambassadors at the Seraglio had their counterpart at Constantinople as early as the time of Nicephorus Phocas. The cry, 'Padishahimiz chok yasha,' with which the sultan is saluted, recalls the 'In multos annos' which was addressed to the Basileus in precisely similar circumstances, and the subjects of both monarchs describe themselves as slaves (or kullar) in speaking to their masters." (p. 29)

When did seclusion start? "It was with the extension of the Ottoman Empire into Europe and the transfer of the capital to Adrianople, that the sultans for the first time erected a magnificent palace and took on the panoply of royal state, and there also they began to seclude their harem, installing eunuchs as its guard." (p. 28)

White and black eunuchs

The white eunuchs served as "palace chamberlains and guardians of the Imperial Gate (later of the Gate of Felicity" and were the muzakerehjiler (drillmasters) as "administrative and surveillance officers of the Palace School." (p. 60) They came from "the Caucasus, and, in the seventeenth century, also from certain states of India." They received the same education as the pages. "During the reign of Muhammad II the number of eunuchs in the Grand Seraglio was twenty-three, and the entire number in the royal employ some forty-odd. After the introduction of black eunuchs as the guard of the Royal Harem, the number of white eunuchs was usually in the ratio of one to every ten pages." (p. 60) The chief white eunuch was "grand master of ceremonies and head gatekeeper of the Grand Seraglio, chief of the Inner Service, and confidential agent of the sultan, [and he] was also the director-in-chief of the palace system of education." In the 15th and 16th centuries, the hierarchy under him next had "the head treasurer and the head commissary, who were also the heads of the corps of pages attached to these departments; the palace steward (saray aghasi), who was the assistant director of the Palace School, and at the same time the head of the Great and Small halls and the Hall of the Expeditionary Force; and the first officer of the Hall of the Royal Bedchamber, who had general charge of the school discipline. Ranking next to these officers of the general administration, there was attached to each hall a first officer (oda bashi) who, under the Code of Muhammad II, was held responsible for the order and discipline of his hal; and a second officer, known as the steward (ketkhuda). Each hall had also its own librarian, recorder, treasurer, and imam, and three muezzins. In addition there were student officers... The pages of each hall were divided into companies of ten, and presiding over each company was a lala, or pedagogue, whose duty it was to keep order and to preside during meals. At first white eunuchs, later the lalas were recruited to some extent from the student body, and, in cases of unusual ability, might be promoted to the rank of under-master (qalfa)." (pp. 60-61)

"Although Turkish authorities concur in the opinion that black eunuchs, who [in contrast to white eunuchs] were entirely castrated, were not introduced until 1582 (990 A.H.), contemporary evidence exists which shows that they were being used as early as the reign of Muhammad II." (p. 91) She cites Angiolello for this and also an entry for the year 1542 in the Journal of the Bank of St. George of Genoa. The black eunuchs "had ready access to the sultan at all hours" (especially the chief black eunuch) and were "the intermediaries between the royal harem and the outside world, and they were the administrators of the vast properties held by the queen mother and qadins; no messages or gifts could pass, nor could business be transacted, except through them." (p. 92) Power people needed to bribe them. "Enormously wealthy and politically powerful, yet secluded from an early age and without education except of the most rudimentary kind, the introduction of black eunuchs into the Grand Seraglio is one of the several factors in the decline of the empire which may be attributed to the malign influence of Roxelana." (p. 92) The chief black eunuch was allowed to use the Gate of the gardeners (Bostanji Qapusi) regularly. (p. 145) "The palace chorus gave concerts on Tuesdays for the sultan and, on rare occasions, blindfolded and closely guarded by black eunuchs, for the Royal Harem." (p. 67)


To her knowledge, Ottaviano Bon, the Venetian Bailie in Constantinople from 1606-1609, was the first foreigner who entered the Grand Seraglio, and his writing on the subject "is the most lucid and succinct account given by an early European writer." (p. 9) Pierre Lambert de Sauméry, under the pseudonym De Mirone, wrote Mémoires secrètes et curieuses d'un voyage du Levant (1721) which was "almost certainly a plagiarism from that of [Aubry de] La Mo[t]traye published eight years previously." (p. 12) Yet it was the Frenchman Jean-Claude Flachat during whose stay in Constantinople from 1740-1766 likely received "the first grand tour of the palace, including the Harem" as described in his Observations sur le commerce et sur les arts de l'Europe, de l'Asie, et de l'Afrique. Flachat befriended Haji Bektash, the Chief Black Eunuch, an Abyssinian. (p. 13)

She was in Constantinople 1916-1919 and although "the United States and Turkey were aligned on opposite sides of the recent great struggle," she, "a foreigner, no more than a private individual and almost an enemy alien," was "accorded so rare a privilege" as to make architectural drawings of the Harem of the Grand Seraglio and was "allowed to continue the work when the military tide of events had turned still farther against the Turks. At the time comparatively few persons had ever seen the Winter Harem, and no one had ever made a[n architectural] plan of it." (pp. 18-19) She had to cease work, however, by October 1918 due to military action in the Balkans.

Miller, in her preface, acknowledges the assistance of her language teachers and several Turkish professors and officials, as well as Albert H. Lybyer, Arnold J. Toynbee, and Agnes F. Perkins, Professor of English at Wellesley College, for giving feedback on her manuscript.

The book

Barnette Miller. Beyond the Sublime Porte: The Grand Seraglio of Stambul. (1931) New York: AMS Press, 1970.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

On capitalism and compassion

Peter Levine wrote that "if you have voluntarily spoken for hours to a person about matters of shared interest, you must show greater concern for his welfare. It is not always desirable to incur obligations of this kind; there is such a thing as being over-obligated. Yet a life with very few such relationships would be narrow and impoverished."

Most people, including most defenders of capitalism, defend the value and power of sympathy, at least in words. The economist Adam Smith said, "The charm of life is sympathy; nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast."

What emerges from capitalist systems in practice, however, usually doesn't look like it comes from human sympathy. Parker J. Palmer wrote: "Deep caring about each other’s fate does seem to be on the decline, but I do not believe that New Age narcissism is much to blame. The external causes of our moral indifference are a fragmented mass society that leaves us isolated and afraid, an economic system that puts the rights of capital before the right of people, and a political process that makes citizens into ciphers." Our social systems affect our inner lives. "Thus we see the secret failure of American capitalism," wrote Edward Abbey. "For all of its obvious successes and benefits...capitalism has failed to capture our hearts. Our souls, yes, but not our hearts."

"Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) — the urtext of the new individualism — dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity," Phillips and Taylor wrote. The political philosopher John Locke, who was 19 when Leviathan was published, argued that states form to protect the self-interest of individuals. Locke believed, in Jeremy Rifkin's explanation: "Society properly becomes materialistic and individualistic because...this is the natural order of things."


Adam Smith, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," quoted by Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996. p. 92.

Edward Abbey, "Appalachian Pictures," in Desert Solitaire, p. 149

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. On Kindness. New York: Picador, 2009. p. 7.

Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard. Entropy: A New Worldview. London: Paladin Books, 1985. p. 34.

Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. pp. 37-38.

Peter Levine. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Narses, 6th-century eunuch general

Born about 480 CE in the eastern part of Armenia that Rome had given to Persia, Narses lived to the age of about 90, his major accomplishments all coming after the age of 70 as General-in-Chief of the Roman army. Corippus (In Laudem Iustini Augusti Minoris [In Praise of Justin II], Book III, Lines 218-230, translated by Averil Cameron) described Narses in Justin’s procession:

"In the meantime came Narses, the emperor’s sword-bearer, Narses, following on in the steps of his master, towering a head over all the lines, and made the imperial hall shine with his beauty, his hair well arranged, handsome in form and face. He was in gold all over, yet modest in dress and appearance, and pleasing for his upright ways, venerable for his virtue, brilliant, careful, watchful night and day for the rulers of the world, shining with glorious light: as the morning star, glittering in the clear sky, outdoes the silvery constellations with its golden rays and announces the coming of day with its clear flame."

David Potter explained:

"'Respectable' women were those who lived in overtly sex-free environments. The first thing Thecla had done upon becoming a Christian was to break off the marriage her mother had arranged for her. And the exceptionally powerful Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II mentioned earlier, had publicly declared her virginity: furthermore, many of her most powerful servants were eunuchs, lacking the basic male equipment – similarly, many of the men on whom Theodora would depend in later life had been castrated when they were boys. People were willing to castrate their young sons in the hope that the operation would enable them to obtain positions in the imperial service, thereby becoming far more powerful than they otherwise might. Indeed, this often happened, for, as far as we know, most of the powerful palace eunuchs came from humble backgrounds, and almost all from rural areas on the empire's frontiers, since castration was technically illegal in the empire proper. We have to assume that the parents of these boys were able to deal with the notion that, in effect, being prepared to sell their child's body was the key to his future. In the ideological world of sixth century Byzantium, respectability required chastity, and power required respectability." (Potter, pp. 40-41)

The 60-year-old Anastasius became emperor in 491 when he was named by the Empress Ariadne after her husband Emperor Zeno's death, the palace's chief chamberlain having suggested that she should choose the new emperor. Ariadne married Anastasius.

On July 9, 518, the silentiaries "informed the magister officiorum, in charge of the palace secretariat, and the count of the excubitores (a branch of the palace guard) that the emperor was dead, and they should hold a meeting in the palace forthwith." Justin, commander of the excubitores, announced the emperor's death at the meeting. Meanwhile, "the excubitores in the Hippodrome proclaimed a man called John, only to be shouted down by the Blues. Inside the palace, another guard unit, the scholarii, tried to proclaim Anastasius' nephew, Patricius. But the excubitores, who disliked Patricius, were threatening to kill him." Also, "the palace eunuchs, who controlled the imperial regalia, were refusing to release it." They released it to Justin when the crowd declared him emperor. Soon,

"a group of palace eunuchs was charged with trying to assassinate Justin. This story appears to have been invented after a pro-Chalcedonian demonstration at Hagia Sophia named them as heretics who should be eliminated. Another story, which emerged later, was that the chief eunuch, Amantius, wanted to have his bodyguard, Theocritus, made emperor, and that he had given Justin money to have the crowd acclaim his man. In another version, Justin is said to have stolen the money to bribe his own way to the throne; and,in yet another, to have handed the money over and then had himself proclaimed. All of this looks like more nasty gossip concocted well after the event in order to both explain why Amantius, who would have been in control of the imperial regalia on the morning after Anastasius died, was executed, and to denigrate Justin, whom some of the aristocracy regarded as an accidental emperor..." (Potter, pp. 70-71)

The eunuch Misael was "exiled for complicity in Amantius' alleged plot against Justin in 518," but later became a personal servant to Theodora and "one of his jobs seems to have been to keep track of books that were sent to her." Severus wrote a letter to Misael discussing Theodora's reading habits. (Potter, p. 124)

At the Nika rebellion in 532, Justinian "sent the eunuch Narses to bribe some members of the Blue faction to begin acclaiming him and Theodora" in the Hippodrome. The Blues did so, but nevertheless Justinian's army slaughtered 30,000 people in the Hippodrome. (Potter, p. 154)

In 535, Theodora ordered Narses to bring forces from Constantinople to restore Theodosius to his position in Alexandria. (Potter, p. 174)

Under Justinian, who ruled until 565, Narses fought for the sovereignty of Orthodox Catholicism over the eunuch god Osiris and the goddess Isis, and he destroyed their Alexandrian sanctuaries. Narses believed that pleasure bred effeminacy and demanded traditional Roman ascetic discipline from his troops. He became a grand chamberlain in 540. He built a church and monastery in Cappadocia where he meant to retire, but was then appointed to overthrow King Totila and the Ostragothic Kingdom in Italy, which he did in the battle of Taginae in 552. He went on to siege the Goths at Hadrian’s Mausoleum, at Mons Lactarius, and at Lucca, where he faked the beheading of hostages and “resurrected” them as a condition of the Goths’ surrender. In 554, he became administrator of the Italy he conquered, and quarried classical buildings to build and restore churches.

Justinian’s successor, Justin II, chose not to support Narses, and the old general retreated to Naples. The Empress Sophia sent him a golden distaff with an invitation to return to the palace to oversee the women’s spinning, to which Narses replied that he would spin a thread of which neither she nor her husband would be able to find the end. Pope John III personally traveled to bring Narses back to Rome, where he returned to live on the Palatine Hill, the original site of the gallae’s shrine to Attis and Cybele. (The gallae had been banished from Rome when Narses was a young man.) Towards the end of his life, he built the eunuch monastery of the Katharoi.

David Potter. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Zheng He, early 15th century explorer

Eunuchs were also generals in China. The Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle (ruled 1402-1424) relied on eunuchs, especially in the military, because they had helped him usurp the throne from a government that had limited their power and they continued to support him after he claimed the throne.

The hundreds of Mongol and Muslim prisoners of war taken by the Chinese in 1381 under the first Ming Dynasty emperor (Yongle's father) may have included the future Zheng He (Cheng Ho), then ten years old. When Yongle was on the throne, he honored this Muslim eunuch with a Chinese surname for his ingenuity in digging around a reservoir to mount a defense in a civil war. Zheng He led seven naval exploration expeditions, invested the kings of Sumatra and Japan, and was nicknamed the “eunuch of the three gems” because China received tributes from other nations as a result of his expeditions. He was responsible for the appearance of an African beast which the emperor took to be a good-omened, sacred, magical ki’rin (we would call it a giraffe).

Prof. Liu Yingsheng said: “In today’s Chinese history, Zheng He is seen as epitomising peaceful internationalism. That is the image of China that current leaders wish to present to the world."

Monday, February 19, 2018

How to end violent motives, according to 'Virtuous Violence'

Answer: Convince people to update their cultural norms and relationship models. Here's why.

Only a small proportion of all violence is an instrumental effort to get something, like someone else’s wallet, Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai maintain in their 2014 book Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. Most violence, they say, springs from motivations within the perpetrator’s moral worldview, meaning that the perpetrator resorts to violence to constitute or regulate an important relationship “with a fully moral partner” especially as a kind of punishment or revenge. The perpetrator (and those around them) perceive it as a moral obligation to carry out the violence even if doing so triggers “guilt, shame, remorse, sadness, nausea, or horror” due to competing motives; overall, to the group, the violence “makes local sociocultural sense.”

Commonly, people understand their “setbacks, failures, illnesses, injuries, and deaths” to have been inflicted upon them by angry “deceased ancestors, spirits, or deities". This is just a supernaturally illustrated instance of the same principle. They believe the gods use violence to manage relationships, too.

Steven Pinker wrote the foreword, in which he claimed that his own prior book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, included a similar claim that violent people believe they are acting for a higher good. He praised “Fiske’s theory of relational models [as] the best — indeed the only — overarching theory of social psychology.” This refers to an identification of four types of relationships — Fiske calls them "communal sharing" (CS), "authority ranking" (AR), "equality matching" (EM), and "market pricing" (MP) — any or all of which can be transgressed and thus lead to violence.

In particular, violence is used to uphold expected relationships based on who one is, such as establishing power dynamics based on race and gender (CS, AR), as well as on what one has done to earn one's treatment by others (EM, MP).

A 1996 paper by Bandura et al. in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology proposed a scale to measure moral disengagement based on one's willingness to use violence and lies to protect one's in-group. Fiske and Rai, however, say that behavior sure looks like moral engagement to them. Even if your personal or cultural norms hold that “moral motives must be peaceful,” it doesn’t mean that people with violent motives aren’t engaging in moral reasoning of their own. Once you accept that the violence is morally motivated, it “makes no sense” to understand violence as dehumanizing its victim, since the perpetrator must assume the victim is human enough to bear guilt and to feel pain “in order for his punishment to have any moral meaning.” Perpetrators “fully appreciate that they are hurting fully human beings, and judge that it is right to hurt them.” The prefixes of dis-engagement and de-humanization are also confusing here because they imply "an original state of social relatedness…[and] moral engagement” that has been abandoned in the act of violence.

Violence is usually treated as “the essence of evil,” but this is a mistaken understanding. “Morality is about regulating social relationships, and violence is one way to regulate relationships.” Ordinary people “feel that it is morally right or even obligatory to be violent.” They do it “to create, conduct, protect, redress, terminate, or mourn social relationships with the victim or with create, sustain, modulate, and repair the relationships that matter to them, to terminate relationships that become intolerable, or to mourn the loss of a partner.”

That is not to say that violence is (objectively) moral. It is only to say that real people perceive and reason it to be moral within whatever cultural view binds them. To argue that violence is truly immoral (as seen from some outside perspective) or that the violent person somehow misunderstands their own cultural norms is not the project of Fiske and Rai's book.

The authors present a recipe for "the only way to reduce morally motivated violence": Bolster relationship norms that support nonviolence and prohibit violence, grow networks of relationships that uphold these norms with complete clarity, and build awareness and consensus about these norms and relationship networks so that everyone knows that everyone else agrees on them. This is "what cultural change consists of: consensual transformation of preos and metarelational models." "Preos" and "metarelational models" are their funny words for cultural norms and complex relationships between multiple people. It just might work.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Sound, Color, Melody, Harmony: Ernst Cassirer on Benedetto Croce's theory of aesthetics

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), in his papers kept at Yale that were published several decades posthumously, argued against the opinion of Benedetto Croce that all language is lyrical and aesthetic, and that we are all, therefore, in a sense, artists.

"Every man who succeeds in expressing his thoughts or feelings is, according to Croce, a sort of poet; we are all lyricists in our measure." (Cassirer, p. 158) Cassirer argues that "Croce is wrong when thinking that lyricism (liricità) is the proper and essential root of language." Language's sense of the lyric is "always counterbalanced by another element, by its inherent logicism." (Cassirer, p. 190) Cassirer believed it important to be able to "speak of different kinds of expression," that which is aesthetic and that which is not. On Croce's interpretation, in which all expression is lyrical: "A letter, for instance, in which I succeed in expressing my thoughts or my feelings, is, therefore, just as much a work of art as a painting or a drama." (Cassirer, p. 207)

Emotion alone does not make language artistic, Cassirer insists:

"But to my mind this theory fails in a double respect. The mere fact of expression cannot be regarded as an artistic fact. If I write a letter destined for a practical purpose, I am, in this act of writing, by no means an artist. But a man may even write a most passionate love letter in which he may succeed in giving a true and sincere expression to his deepest feelings without, by this fact alone, becoming an artist. Without doubt the great artists are capable of the deepest emotions. They possess a rarity and intensity, a scale of feeling that we do not find in the average man.

But this strength and multiformity of feeling is in itself no proof of a great artistic capacity and it is not the decisive feature of the work of art. The artist is not the man who indulges in the display of his emotions and who has the greatest facility in the expression of these emotions. To be swayed by emotions means sentimentalism, not art. (Cassirer, pp. 207-208)

Rather, what makes something lyric is a special quality of the word choice. He objected that "verbal expression, expression by linguistic symbols, is not the same as lyrical expression. What impresses us in lyric is not only the meaning, the abstract significance of the words; it is also the sound, the color, the melody, the harmony, the concord and consonance of the words." (Cassirer, p. 158)

L'art pour l'art

Cassirer also wrote:

"I do not wish to defend here the device l’art pour l’art — art for art’s sake. Art is not a display and an enjoyment of empty forms. What we intuit in the medium of art and artistic forms is a double reality, the reality of nature and of human life. And every great work of art gives us a new approach to and a new interpretation of nature and life.

* * *

Every sort of aestheticism, every variant of the theme l’art pour l’art, is unsound and dangerous. To speak of a purposeless art, or of an art that has its end in itself, is a mere juggling with words. Art has a very definite purpose; the purpose not only to describe or express, but to improve our feelings. If it forgets this purpose it forgets itself; it becomes as futile and meaningless play." (Cassirer, pp. 157, 200)

Donald Phillip Verene, ed. Ernst Cassirer. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945. (1979) New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Croce's name was also mentioned by Merold Westphal:

"A second model which may be helpful is the notion that aesthetic perception is essentially ‘disinterested.’ This idea takes its rise in eighteenth-century England with Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Burke, and Alison; it is central to the aesthetic theories of Kant and Schopenhauer, and in our own century no less so to Croce’s famous Encyclopedia Britannica article, ‘Aesthetics,’ Edward Bullough’s influential concept of ‘psychical distance,’ and C. S. Lewis’s gem, An Experiment in Criticism, where the idea is ever so succinctly summarized: ‘the many use art and the few receive it.’ Shaftesbury, who stands at the fountainhead of this tradition, uses four examples to make his point... The desire to touch sexually, to eat, to own, and to command — each of these is an instance of what Shaftesbury means by interest. ... a genuine appreciation of the beauty at hand must be disinterested, free from the dominance of those desires or interests." (Westphal, p. 131)

Shaftesbury "seeks to refute the Hobbesian claim that ‘interest rules the world,’ that we are machines fueled solely by self-interest. Hobbes’ is a general theory of human behavior, not an aesthetics, and Shaftesbury is especially eager to dispute it in relation to moral and religious behavior, to show that self-interest is ‘an obstacle to piety, as well as to virtue’ and that there is more to be found in them than just another ‘bargain of interest.’" (Westphal, p. 135)

Merold Westphal. God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion. (1984) Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

'A River in Darkness': Masaji Ishikawa's escape from North Korea

A River in Darkness, a memoir to be released Jan. 1, 2018, is a harrowing account of a man's immigration to North Korea in 1960 and his escape back to Japan in 1996.

Korean-Japanese immigration to North Korea, 1959-1984

Masaji Ishikawa grew up in Japan with a Korean father and a Japanese mother. In Japan, Koreans "were at the bottom of the pile" socioeconomically and were discriminated against. They were originally brought to Imperial Japan "to serve as slave laborers and, later, cannon fodder," and by the mid-twentieth century Japan feared that this group "might become a source of social unrest".

When North Korea's leader, Kim Il-sung, who presented himself as the liberator of North Korea from South Korea and the United States, said he would welcome expatriate Koreans into the socialist country he was building, many people took the offer. Ishikawa called it "a mass repatriation campaign in the guise of humanitarianism" which, from Japan's perspective, "was a solution to a problem. Nothing more." North Korea, for its part, needed laborers to rebuild following the Korean War. In 1959, the Red Cross Societies of Japan and Korea negotiated the details, and soon after, people began emigrating from Japan to North Korea by boat. About a hundred thousand people made this journey until 1984. They were promised a better quality of life than they could reasonably expect in Japan.

Arriving at North Korea's immigration hub in 1960, the six-member Ishikawa family was given a single cold room and was not permitted to leave the center. Ishikawa, then a teenager, immediately noticed that the residents "were infinitely poorer than we’d ever been during our tough life in Japan." The promised "year's supply of rice" given to his father was mostly inferior grain. In general, the Koreans from Japan were not welcomed warmly as immigrants. The usual term for them was "Japanese bastards."

Work and ideology

In North Korea, adults were expected to work in conformity with the motto: "No work, no dinner." Officially, able-bodied people were to be given 700 grams of food each day, and the elderly and sick were to be given less than half that, but in actuality people who didn't work were given nothing. The state distributed food to people who had officially recognized jobs. Ishikawa's mother never had an official job because she only spoke Japanese, not Korean. She assisted childbirths and gathered mushrooms and firewood. For many others, the most likely alternative to an official job was becoming a thief or vagrant. "So old people had to work until they died. They truly did."

Children were also expected to work. For example, the school expected the children to produce two rabbit pelts each year. Rabbits were difficult to catch, and each pelt was worth about two weeks' of an average worker's income at the market. Ishikawa performed physically strenuous farm work as a teenager.

Ishikawa was a member of the Youth League. They were required to pledge allegiance to Kim Il-sung and socialism and were given membership cards. His birthday on April 15 was the biggest national holiday and in the 1960s resulted in a ration of pork, fruit and dessert for each family. When Kim Il-sung committed an atrocity, people rationalized it with whataboutist comparisons: "'Remember the time of Japanese colonial rule!' 'Never forget the cruelty of American imperialism!'" A stray comment against North Korea's leadership or principles could result in hard labor, a concentration camp, or execution. (He said: "I never witnessed a public execution myself, but it wouldn’t surprise me.") The ideological way of doing things was always called Juche, which could be translated as "self-reliance, autonomy, independence, or responsibility — all the things we weren’t allowed to have....that’s always the way with totalitarian regimes. Language gets turned on its head. Serfdom is freedom. Repression is liberation. A police state is a democratic republic. And we were 'the masters of our destiny.' And if we begged to differ, we were dead." Everyone was told that the US occupied South Korea. US intervention in Korean national boundaries was blamed for North Korea's starvation. The North Koreans were told that the solution was to unite with South Korea, but they were given inconsistent information about whether South Korea was also starving. To him, this made no sense: If both nations were starving, unity could not save them, and if only one nation was starving, it wasn't obvious how only the U.S. and not North Korea itself was to blame.

Standard of living

None of the houses had bathtubs, and he resented that he couldn't bathe daily. His family installed their own makeshift bathtub and changed their clothes daily. The neighbors, "native" North Koreans, perceived these hygiene habits as "Japanese decadence." The neighbors also resented that the Ishikawa house had a tile roof. Conditions worsened over time. Three-and-a-half decades later he noted that "Turning the light on at night in North Korea was tantamount to high treason."

Once, after hosting a party and inviting officials, the Ishikawa family's house burned down. The same officials responded to the family's request for aid the next day: “we will grant you special dispensation to cut down some trees so that you can build a new house for your family. That is the party’s pronouncement." They also gathered their own stones, mud, and straw. They were left with two outfits each and no underwear.

Among the initial promises by North Korea to Japanese immigrants were free healthcare and free education. Neither of these were realities. Doctors demanded bribes of money or cigarettes. University education was only made available to those to whom the party wanted to give it. Toward the end of high school, Ishikawa was told that he'd been assigned to the lowest of three castes — presumably because he was Japanese, and having nothing to do with his academic effort — and so would not be able to attend university. Instead, he was asked what trade he would like to pursue. He said he'd like to work in a factory, but he was assigned to work on a farm. Farming was frustrating to him. Farmers were required by party ideology to plant rice very close together, ostensibly for efficiency, even though most farmers knew that rice needed more space to thrive. Crops failed year after year. Also, regardless of what farmers produced, the party took the entire crop and gave farmers a fixed ration of food. (In the early 1990s, the last few years of Kim Il-sung's life, this was less than was given to party officials, and less in actuality than was officially promised.) This meant that workers had no incentive to do their jobs well and indeed were often punished severely for attempting innovations. They could be fired for making comments or suggestions, and loss of a job could mean starvation. Workers had to attend twice-weekly ideology meetings, sometimes until ten o'clock at night. Anyone who missed a meeting was "put under surveillance by the secret police."

Famine and escape in 1996

In one moment when he decided he could not bear to be around people anymore, he asked to be transferred from his farm job to a more isolated job as a charcoal burner far away. While few people would have wanted such a job, it gave him more freedom: "The party didn’t seem to care whether I was alive or dead. To them, I ceased to exist altogether."

His family stories are at the extremes of survival: Selling blood to buy rice, childbirth without medical assistance, burying an infant whose mother had been too weak to feed it and for whom it had been difficult to afford a little cornstarch and rice to make a weak formula, stealing work pants off a clothesline to replace the work pants on a corpse to give it more dignity in burial, an old man beaten to death after being tricked by a thug and a cop, a man being cut down from a noose while trying to hang himself. In the famine of the early 1990s, children stopped going to school to help search for food. They boiled plant substances found in the woods that were fatally toxic if not prepared correctly, tasted terrible, and caused painful constipation. Corpses lay unclaimed in the road. Ishikawa says he believed rumors of cannibalism. In 1995 people were given no grain ration at all, and his family collected acorns to survive the winter. From eating weeds,

"our faces grew swollen, and our urine turned red or even blue. We all suffered from chronic diarrhea. We couldn’t even walk in that condition. No one thought or talked about anything except food....When you’re starving to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose. Once your lips disappear, your teeth are bared all the time, like a snarling dog. Your nose is reduced to a pair of nostrils. I wish desperately that I didn’t know these things, but I do."

In 1996, he made a successful break across the border into China. Getting caught on either side of the border would have meant execution. He identified himself as "the first" to have escaped North Korea (he is indeed one of only a few) and managed to convince Japan to take him home, although he had partly forgotten how to speak Japanese. The Japanese government asked him not to admit that he was helped. "The Japanese government still hasn’t officially admitted that I ever returned to Japan at all," he said. He has been able to send a little money back to surviving relatives in North Korea but has not been able to rescue them.

What got him through

He said "I didn’t really believe in God" but, in the worst of times, would — and still does — pray for a better outcome. What really helped, though, was a general will to survive despite occasional flashes of hopelessness. Being the recipient of a single act of human generosity in dire circumstances "reminded me what it was to be a human being. And I came to recognize that, no matter how difficult the reality, you mustn’t let yourself be beaten. You must have a strong will. You have to summon what you know is right from your innermost depths and follow it."

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Will organized religion 'take ownership' of the President?

Thoughts on this book:

The main learning I took away from Stephen Mansfield's Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him (Baker Books, 2017) was the personal influence of Norman Vincent Peale over Donald Trump as a young man. Apart from this biographical detail, I struggled with complex reactions to this book. It didn't hit the nail on the head but neither did it have fatal flaws.

Mansfield appears to tread a fine line between heavily criticizing President Trump for transparently ridiculous behavior that cannot but be criticized and yet grasping for biographical details — if only, perhaps, in the interest of fairness or charity — that make Trump seem like a heavyweight who can coherently assume, if not deserve, the mantle of the President of the United States. Most readers will probably feel that the author goes too far in one direction or the other in its opposition or support for the President. Mansfield acknowledges says the book he's written is "dangerous" (at least for its publisher) because it "critiques a sitting president" yet also "takes [the president] seriously" when he is deeply unpopular. This nebulous idea of taking the president seriously makes the book a little maddening or bewildering. What exactly does it mean to take Trump seriously? He is a wealthy celebrity who has made high-stakes business transactions throughout his life and got elected president. He has a biography similar to others who grew up in a wealthy family. He has psychology and motivations that, like any other human's, can be examined, analyzed, and interpreted. In that regard, the book takes him seriously. But I am not certain that the book — which doesn't mention global climate change or the North Korean nuclear tensions — fully and directly engages the extent of the influence the president has on others and the lasting damage he can do to the nation and the world.

On a related point, the author does not directly reveal his own religious and political beliefs. (At his most explicitly theological, he writes of "the good that courageous voices of faith can do. If they will set themselves to tell the truth, if they will remember that they are emissaries from another land, they can remind leaders — who are too often mired in the temporal — of higher purposes and surer boundaries. They have the power to fix vision upon the eternal.") What peeks through occasionally is a form of political moderateness that rings either a bit insincere or underinformed. For example, on “the all-important issue of race,” he says that the president has delivered “at least racially inappropriate if not outright racist statements on many an occasion.” If one really believes the issue is all-important, the president's well-documented outright racism should be easy to call out. "Inappropriate" is far too mild a word, unless one believes that racial justice and race relations are mostly about being well-mannered (and thus not genuinely all-important). For another example, the author describes the record of Barack Obama on LGBT rights and the position of Hillary Clinton on abortion rights as “extreme.” It is hard to tell if that is his personal view or if he is reflecting how he thinks many religious people perceive them. But, again, if you really believe in LGBT rights and abortion rights, defending them is not "extreme." Trying to toe some kind of moderate line in these contexts doesn't work very well, especially if you don't attempt to explain what your view is and exactly why you believe it to be fair and good despite its avoidance of the "extremes" of nondiscrimination and liberation movements. Mushing around the topic results in a kind of diplomacy that, while trying to be polite and reassuring, achieves the opposite. This undefined moderate stance, perhaps attempting to represent neutrality, does not help the reader understand the author's view and therefore it muddies his moral portrait of the president because it is hard to understand exactly where his points of disagreement are.

The analysis ends at events that happened shortly after the January 2017 inauguration, but the book was not released until Oct. 3. The details of Trump's tumultuous first year in office could not have been anticipated, so Mansfield does not address how bad the presidency really is, and therefore the book will strike many readers as a little tone-deaf. For example, the problem of the president's persistent falsehoods is ever more serious and means something different as he approaches a year in office. The Washington Post counted "1,628 false or misleading claims" through mid-November. We are no longer mainly interested in evaluating his character to know whether to vote for him or to predict how he will govern; we are (or should be) interested in how the government is now being run and how foreign relations are being conducted. We have passed the point where his character flaws are impacting people's lives and causing lasting damage.

True, the purpose of the book is only incidentally, and not primarily, to do the three things discussed in the previous paragraphs — respectfully and seriously assess the president as a full human being who has lived over 70 years on Earth, project one's own moral beliefs to judge how he handles his current role, or concretely assess from a historian's viewpoint what he has accomplished since his inauguration — but rather to explain, as its subtitle announces, "why Christian conservatives supported him" in the election. This it does in a general sense. The answer provided is: Because they were angry and Trump's personality appealed to them. The book is far more about Trump than it is about the Christians who supported him. For a sociological study of those Christians, I recommend The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones, released four months before the 2016 election, a book that Mansfield unfortunately doesn't reference.

Trump's Character

First, this is a man who "has lived the life of a celebrated hedonist."

He developed a "juvenile" obsession with the size of the crowds who came to see him. "When he spoke at Liberty University in 2016, his first words had to do with breaking an attendance record. He was in a church service at the time."

He avoids taking expert advice. As a result, his wife Melania's inaugural speech was plagiarized from Michelle Obama's eight years earlier. Melania's interesting life story was "worthy of a great speech" and there was no reason for her to "borrow from the one person on the planet from whom she most needed to distinguish herself". Mansfield believes this was an accident due to incompetence, and he attributes it to Donald Trump's reliance on advice and assistance from a disordered family team where "[n]o one was put in charge." A professional speechwriter would never have made such a sophomoric error.

He also likes to fight. At school, he threw things and needed constant attention. He has asserted that his own "temperament" hasn't changed much since first grade. In second grade, he disagreed with a lesson and gave his teacher a black eye. In business, he said that "most people aren’t worthy of respect” and in Think Big he wrote, "You need to screw them back fifteen times harder...go for the jugular, attack them in spades!" At his campaign rallies, he incited violence.

Americans note his "almost complete lack of the character that is usually the fruit of sincere religion." Americans expect that a president's character is fixed by the time he or she is elected, unlike the Pope whose ordination transforms him, and, when considering Trump, a "deeply imperfect man" with apparent "deformities" and "oddities," the thought of him remaining the same "can be a disturbing experience."

Influence of Norman Vincent Peale

The famous religious leader Norman Vincent Peale was Trump's greatest personal mentor during formative years, and in return Peale called Trump his "greatest student of all time." Even though this faith "largely failed him [Trump] as both a public and a private man," he returned to these roots in the 2016 campaign, revealing "a softening in religious matters". The nature of this softening is not clearly identified.

Peale was one of the earliest promoters of "the power of positive thinking" as demonstrated in his book of the same title. "Peale believed, for example, that 'attitudes are more important than facts,'” Mansfield writes. If "true religion" is defined as the "ultimate concern" that passionately animates a person's thoughts, words, and actions (as Paul Tillich proposed), then Trump's true religion is “self,” “winning,” “being rich,” and “being the best.” This is inspired by Peale, who showed him "a religion of empowerment, not of transformation." Mansfield sees limitation in this approach. As he explains it, adding what seems to be his own theological commentary: "Trump took from this that it is God’s will to carry him further in the direction he was already going. He did not understand from his time under Peale’s ministry that God empowers a man only after he remakes him."

(For a similar take on Peale's influence, see this short video featuring Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps.)

Ignorance of religion

Speaking to pollster Frank Luntz, Trump was unable to name anyone in the Bible he admired, and, when asked for his personal beliefs about God, "he spoke at length about buying a golf course." Asked by a radio host to name a favorite Bible verse or story, he babbled and the only thing he could come up with was "an eye for an eye." He said he'd never asked God for forgiveness and was unable to say whether he preferred the Old or New Testament. To Fox News, he identified himself as "Presbyterian" but "also busy." In church, where he said he went mainly for Christmas and Easter, he seemed not to recognize a communion plate. Addressing Liberty University, he showed off his baptism photo and certificate but had no personal conversion story. Moreover, Mansfield believes, the students saw that Trump's vengeful attitude in business and past marital difficulties did not align with their idea of Christianity and they had hoped to see "'fruit,' evidence of a life changed by conversion and modeled on the message of Jesus Christ." "It was, in short, the worst presentation of religion by a presidential candidate in recent memory," Mansfield opined.

Yet Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, in 2012 called Trump “the greatest visionary of our time.” This seems key to understand. Why was he elevating Trump, if Trump was so ignorant of religion? What did he hope to get? Mansfield addresses this.

Why religious conservatives wanted Trump

First, they

"were traumatized by the Obama years and fearful a second Clinton presidency would mean more of the same. They would back anyone who could win. They would take a nonbeliever. They would accept a candidate of doubtful morality. They were even willing to risk racial and gender offense on the part of their candidate. They could not endure more years of bombardment from a religious left intent upon remaking the nation."

Exactly how they thought liberals in power would "remake the nation," and why that was more exhausting or existentially more threatening to them than ordinary policy disagreements, is not made clear in this book.

They were angry — that much is made clear. They had a sense of being

"sidelined by history and feared their country as they knew it was slipping away. They wanted change, at nearly any cost, and they looked beyond more experienced candidates to set their hopes upon the sharp-tongued, hard-hitting, angry-as-they-were billionaire from New York. He won them by promising to give their country back to them and to win a future for their children. They believed him, largely because he spoke of faith like a crusader, like one who understood religion as a perpetual call to arms."

In 2016, voters wanted the angry candidate. They asked themselves: "Who best gave voice to our political rage? Who best channeled the anger that kept us up at night? Who was the standard-bearer of our wrath?" When they saw Trump, they felt "they would take him, flaws and all, if he would help them take their nation back."

Donald Trump publicly announced early on in the campaign that he felt he could do better with religious people than Hillary Clinton could. Mansfield wonders why Clinton did not pay closer attention to this and act on it. After all, she "possessed a deeper religious history and wider religious knowledge, and was more articulate in expressing her faith than her opponent" yet she managed to "neglect" those voters. Her choice to give her first speech after receiving the Democratic nomination at a Planned Parenthood event may have been principled, but it wasn't savvy.

Religious people were attracted to how Trump "speaks publicly in the same way that millions of Americans do around kitchen tables, at bars, and among their closest friends. Crass, insulting, bullying, sometimes ill-informed, always opinionated, usually prejudiced, Donald Trump is very much the private voice of millions of Americans." Mansfield continued: "When Trump declared at the 2016 GOP convention, 'I am your voice,' he meant it mainly in an economic sense. Yet he may have inadvertently stated a broader truth. He is a supercharged version of what America has become." This is well put, but it's not obvious what it has to do with religion. Plenty of people are ill-informed and have reason to be angry. Religion, in its most noble self-declared intentions, is supposed to do battle with the ego and replace it with humility and patience. Are white Christians angrier than everyone else? Why? And why do they think, more than anyone else, that Trump is the answer?

(One possible answer I found: Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, wrote in May 2017 that today's American Protestant evangelical "religious not born of traditional, innocent faith" but is rather "intellectualized" and "highly politicized". They are suffering from "an alienating hyper-commercial culture" that breeds "emotional insecurity." Evangelical support for Trump is transactional; what they seek is "community and identity".)

Moreover, Mansfield omits the early sexual harassment accusations against Trump and other politicians. The most he says is that Trump's "treatment of women was sometimes obscene" including occasional "disparaging" or "raunchy terms" for them. It seems he is mincing words out of a sense of propriety. The president has said worse things about women than Mansfield is willing to print. This is a book about voters, so everyone is over 18, and we need to address our adult issues head-on. If we can't call out big issues like this, then it is hard to figure out why people voted the way they did in the past; if we can't say what should be done differently in the future, then it is hard to know why we care why anyone voted the way they did in the past. Sexual morality used to be a matter of concern for religious voters. Now something has changed. Sexual harassment and the changing response to it has become part of the zeitgeist, such that the many women who reported harassment were named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2017. We need to understand the religious conservative response — or, more accurately, the lack thereof — to abusive behavior by men in the Republican Party. Why is it tolerated? Why don't such accusations hurt candidates at all today? (Marie Griffith recently called it an "extreme politicization of Christianity" and said that evangelicalism "has become so focused on power.")

Trump does like being gently challenged by people he trusts, and so the "reticence to urge him toward a broader faith and deeper character was unfortunate...The religious leaders who surrounded him in the 2016 campaign might have been just such teammates, had they been willing to take the risk of calling him to a more vibrant Christian faith."

Ed Simon wrote on Dec. 31, 2017 of the large majority of white evangelicals who voted for Trump and Moore that it is human nature to resist or abandon the demanding ”countercultural” commitment of Christianity and to betray the faith "for thirty pieces of silver." The irony he sees is that, since the evangelicalism of Reagan’s time, "many apocalyptic minded conservative Christians made a sort of prophetic parlor game out of conjecturing who the potential anti-Christ could be. Figures from Hal Lindsey, to Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, and Jerry Falwell often fingered world leaders or liberal politicians as being in league with Satan. An irony since if the anti-Christ is supposed to be a manipulative, powerful, smooth-talking demagogue with the ability to sever people from their most deeply held beliefs who would be a better candidate than the seemingly indestructible Trump?" Simon does not wish to identify a "literal ant-Christ" but worries that so many Christians "seem to lack the self-awareness to identify something so anti-Christian in Trump himself. Or worse yet, they certainly recognize it, but don’t care."

How much of our differences are due to religion and how much to race?

Words like “white,” “black,” “African-American,” “Hispanic,” and “race/racial” — used in their racial sense and not in other senses like “race for the White House” — occur, in total, about 75 times throughout the book. That is to say that the subject of race is addressed substantially but isn’t the main focus. The term "white supremacy" doesn't appear at all. Many people have come up with the answer that white people voted for Trump because they are white but this is not quite the same answer Mansfield finds. He recognizes that Trump supporters are mostly white, but he wants to focus on religion. It's fine if he has a different conclusion or passionate interest. The question for me is how well he makes his case. For an entire book focusing on how Christians vote, the words “Protestant” (6), “Catholic” (7), and “evangelical” (20), alongside “Jew” (8) and “Muslim” (8), seem relatively underused. And I am including the bibliography. (These demographics are critical to understand because, as Pew Research found, three-fifths of white Catholics and four-fifths of white evangelicals voted Trump over Clinton, but for Hispanic Catholics it was the other way around, and black Protestants preferred Clinton almost nine-to-one. The vote looks more predictable along color lines than along theological lines.) When I find myself searching an ebook I’ve just finished for keywords so I can retroactively piece together the themes, it underscores for me that something was a little off from my experience as a reader.

Johnson Amendment

As someone who likes to fight, Trump could not understand why clergy did not pick political fights from the pulpit even when they felt themselves "under attack in nearly every arena of American culture." Some clergymembers explained to Trump that they could not make political statements or endorse candidates due to an IRS restriction called the Johnson Amendment. Trump "saw an opportunity both to right what he considered a moral wrong and to unchain a vast army of influential supporters. The Johnson Amendment had to go." He announced this on stage in Dallas on Feb. 26, 2016. The crowd was elated to see an atypically secular candidate nevertheless recognizing their needs and rising to meet them. In so doing, "Trump could win support from some of the nation’s most powerful religious leaders." After his election, he told his evangelical advisory council: "The only way I’m going to get to heaven is by repealing the Johnson Amendment." (One of the members corrected him on that theological point.)

Joy-Ann Reid didn't mention the Johnson Amendment in Fracture in which she traces the current manifestation of racial/political polarization to Johnson's election to the presidency, ten years after the Johnson Amendment was passed. Johnson's rival, Barry Goldwater, was a racially polarizing figure. By the time of the election, religious leaders had been ten years' silenced about political campaigns, thanks to the previous work of Johnson, who was a Democrat, and the last Democratic presidential candidate ever to win a majority of white voters. He got 59 percent of the white vote, but his popularity declined while he was in office, and, in the next election, the Democrat got only 38 percent of the white vote. The man behind the Johnson Amendment may explain why, to this day, it is white evangelical leaders who object most vocally to this rule.

Neither did Robert P. Jones mention the Johnson Amendment in The End of White Christian America. He spoke instead about the broader issue of so-called "religious liberty," emblematized by the example of Christian bakers who are asked to provide wedding cakes for same-sex couples. This would allow the freedom to refrain from speaking or acting in the way ordinarily required by antidiscrimination law, whereas the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would allow the freedom to actively speak or act. These are different problems. The complete absence of the Johnson Amendment from Jones' book, plus the self-undermining assertion by Mansfield that most Americans, including the religious, "not only do not understand what the Johnson Amendment is but may not wish it abolished once they do understand it," makes me curious to confirm the importance of the Johnson Amendment in the minds of evangelicals today. If they don't know what it is, they can't be angry about it, much less be willing to negotiate its repeal in exchange for willfully discarding their fervently held beliefs about, say, sexual harassment and assault and public morality and piety for politicians. My sense is that Mansfield meant that it is mainly the religious leaders who are aware of and concerned about the restriction.

Christianity Today reported in December 2017:

"...overall, most evangelical leaders — and most people in the pews — did not want to see pastors endorsing politicians. Among the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), 90 percent of its board of directors, including the leaders of major denominations and ministries, said they opposed pulpit endorsements in a survey conducted earlier this year.

A LifeWay Research survey conducted during the 2016 campaign found that 73 percent of Americans with evangelical beliefs said pastors should abstain from endorsing candidates, and about 65 percent said churches overall should abstain."

Repealing the Johnson Amendment is not the only way religious people can feel powerful. Mansfield praises, by contrast, "the art of prophetic distance" through which a religious leader delivers a message and models right action to political candidates without endorsing any candidate over another.

Furthermore, Mansfield observes that, if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, then liberal as well as conservative clergy can become politically active. Indeed, most of them, Mansfield believes, "are more left-leaning and will become champions for the other side. Trump may be dealing both himself — if and when he runs for a second term — and other conservatives a difficult hand to play."

What does it mean to take ownership?

Mansfield believes that "the religious voices Trump allows a hearing" may be able to hold sway "between the better angels of human nature and the lesser spirits that lurk in the dark". He warns that for clergy "[t]o support Donald Trump without caveat, to extol him as chosen by God without identifying what is morally objectionable in his politics and behavior, is much the same as extolling American culture without expressing any moral reservation." If religious leaders are not "courageous" and "true," then "they may pay a great price and draw the ire of later generations for being cowardly and unprincipled — all while owning Donald Trump."

But what does it mean to "own" him? The word suggests to me that they already have a particular level of influence over him as well as the future ability to take credit and blame for his deeds. It also suggests to me that Trump has somehow insinuated himself into the religion so that the ownership is mutual. Mansfield does not pinpoint the level or scope of influence nor does he anticipate exactly who might need to apologize for what in the future or, more pressingly, who might be able to fix it. If there is a catastrophe and the best we can hope for is a public apology, then "owning Donald Trump" isn't a very high stakes wager for the faithful to take. This is what we really need to know: not only why white Christians voted for Trump, but what everyone is going to do right now as 2018 rolls in about the terrible mess we are in and how we are going to avoid a similar outcome in the 2020 election.


For more on the Johnson Amendment, please see the June 2018 blog post on Disruptive Dissertation.