The Better Letter: More Grace

A bit more grace is almost always a very good idea.

As a kid, I sang this song in Sunday School (but it wasn’t nearly as much fun). 

Regular TBL readers (now thousands of you — many thanks) know what a music geek I can be and, according to the Substack analytics, TBL readers are checking out my musical links with increasing frequency. This week features even more music than usual. That’s partly because I needed it and partly because I discovered some cool new stuff.

Enjoy.

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Political Fundamentalisms

Historically, fundamentalism was an ecumenical Christian movement in North America premised upon certain fundamental truths all Christians shared (most prominently the authority of the Scriptures, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the atoning work of Christ, and the Second Coming) and reflected by a series of tracts called The Fundamentals

Over time, the idea developed in general terms to denote a peculiar zealotry with strict adherence to a set of basic ideas or principles. In the words of the American Heritage Dictionary, it is “a usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.”

All fundamentalisms share a very narrow epistemology. For example, Christian fundamentalism is based upon the idea that the Bible + common sense = readily ascertainable truth. In today’s America, where the political has become essentially religious and replaced religious expression for many, there are more fundamentalisms than ever.

In each case, the fundamentalist emphasis is on (capital “T”) Truth that is readily ascertainable. Such fundamentalists have a base-level arrogance. The fundy mindset isn’t at all humble and generally rejects the idea that being wrong is a possibility. 

Moreover, and most (a-hem) fundamentally, those who disagree are inferior. That idea is incredibly dangerous and not terribly constructive, as history makes ever so clear.

We live in a politically polarized time, to state the obvious, largely driven by fundamentalist thought. My Facebook newsfeed today, like every day, includes multiple passionate defenses and denunciations of public figures of every political persuasion – and that’s just among my friends, who also denounce each other. Twitter exists for another level of fundamentalisms entirely.

Relationships are frequently fractured over fundamentalist politics. The divisiveness is pervasive.

That most partisans see “their side” as not just true and right, but obviously true and right is a by-product of our bias blindness. We are quite good at seeing the failings and foibles of others. Ourselves? Not so much. 

Accordingly, we see our strongly held (fundamentalist) positions as not truly debatable. Instead, they’re objectively and obviously true. After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them. And (our thinking goes) since they are objectively and obviously true, anyone who makes the effort should be able to ascertain that truth. Our opponents are without excuse and our fanaticism is excused. 

“If they disagree with me, they are denying reality.”

Accordingly, few partisans accept that their opponents are generally people of goodwill who simply disagree about what is best for the country. They are deemed as being engaged in denialism.

Because the assumption — steeped in bias blindness — is that the “other side” is not generally acting in good faith, the necessary conclusion is that those who disagree aren't just in error, they’re evil or damned or irrational or delusional or mentally ill or or or. And they are necessarily inferior.

Sometimes it’s true that the “other side” (whatever side one chooses) is what I’ll call irrational with intent. But I doubt that it’s the usual case. We should never underestimate the power of confirmation bias and bias blindness. 

If we are to have any hope of seeing leaders with different viewpoints working together to solve problems, it ought to start with the idea that those who disagree are generally people of goodwill acting in good faith. In other words, they may be wrong, but they aren’t necessarily (or even likely to be) stupid, delusional, or evil. And they aren’t inferior, either.

We could all do with a good dose of reverence, an ancient virtue that can be secular as well as sacred and which has the grace to recognize that we could easily be wrong, even though we all tend to think we know better. Where the fundy sees the opposition as inferior, the better approach is to treat the opposition with courtesy and respect. Such behavior fosters understanding and, perhaps, compromise. The right position (or the right cause) doesn't excuse poor behavior. A little humility goes a long way.

In this age of Trump and intentional misinformation, one’s behavior is of particular importance. Misinformation can and should be rejected out-of-hand, even if it is less prevalent than we’re inclined to think. Still, how we treat purveyors of misinformation — especially those who are duped — matters a lot.

In his fine essay, How to Cure a Fanatic, Amos Oz points out that “[t]he essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force people to change.” Prophets and Twitter influencers tend to be fanatical fundies. The so-called “cancel culture” – left and right – is fundamentalist through-and-through.

“Now, there is a matter of being simply wrong, and there is a matter of being culpably wrong. A person cannot be held morally responsible and condemned for every false belief he has. All of us have false beliefs. Moral culpability can only be assigned to a particular type of false belief. It is a false belief that puts others at threat of harm and which a morally and intellectually responsible person could have been expected to see as a false belief.”

I agree. A bit more grace is almost always a good idea.


One Question

One of the more remarkable — and remarkably corrupt — things about our current culture is that it is beyond fashionable to disparage, condemn, criticize, and defame the American people (or huge swaths of them), American government, American history, and America itself. Within some cliques, it seems obligatory. That’s not altogether wrong, as we have many flaws and shortcomings, some enormous.

But a bit of perspective is in order.

Major corporations have no problem signaling their virtue by boycotting Georgia or moving baseball’s All-Star Game. But ask those same entities why they do business with a country that is crushing democracy in Hong Kong, ethnically cleansing Tibet and East Turkestan, and operating gulags for their minorities, and you’ll get an answer of numbing doublespeak, if you get an answer at all, along with continued groveling to China and its interests. 

Last year, Apple’s Tim Cook committed his company to fight the “the fear, hurt, and outrage rightly provoked by the senseless killing of George Floyd and a much longer history of racism.” That’s not at all a bad thing. But why is he still doing so much business with a country that, according to the Global Slavery Index, enslaves more than three million people today? Note, too, that given China’s history of lying and covering up negative news, the actual numbers almost certainly far worse than the dreadful numbers I have recited.


Totally Worth It

Here’s a fantastic new song from the great Sara Niemietz. 

Something seems a little off. You would have done far, far better owning Dogecoin this year (+6,821%, as of yesterday, YTD; it may be wildly different today) than Pfizer (+12.63%), Moderna (+107.72%), or JNJ (+7.48%). The former is (literally) a joke; the latter three made vaccines that saved millions upon millions of lives and did so in record time.

I’m a Believer” has a remarkable history. It was written by Neil Diamond and it exploded to number one on the charts when “recorded” by the Monkees in 1966 (Diamond played acoustic guitar on the track). It is one of fewer than forty singles to sell at least ten million copies. It got new life from the movie, Shrek, wherein it was covered both by Eddie Murphy and Smash Mouth. Weezer covered it for the sequel. I like this cover by Pomplamoose. 

Here’s a remarkable commercial.

From NPR: John McConnell, from Colorado Springs, Colorado, was recently looking for a Toyota Tacoma and was shocked to see the one he wanted was priced several thousand dollars above sticker. He plans to buy it anyway. Prices are being driven higher by supply chain snarls that are leading to shortages of key components such as computer chips for cars, hence the higher price that Toyota wants for its pickups. At the same time, the rapid rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is sparking a surge in pent-up demand after a year of home confinements, and those who can afford it are willing to pay up. Thursday's CPI report showed used-car prices soared 29.7 percent over the last year. The cost of rental cars has more than doubled, too. 

The most incredible thing I saw this week was by an amazing young woman. It was totally expected, as she’s the GOAT and there’s absolutely no controversy about it, but no less incredible.

This is the best thing I saw or read this week. The most important (though I’m no fan of his politics). The most insightful. The saddest. The most adorable. The sweetest. The most delightful. The loveliest. The cutest. The most inspiring. The craftiest. The most ridiculous. The stupidest (only the state has a monopoly on force). The slipperiest. The most absurd. The most insane (although the competition was stiff). The most obvious. The most interesting

I thought this might be the funniest or the most horrific, but I went with the most insightful. It also has the best line: “Trump’s life after the White House doesn’t resemble that of a typical ex-president so much as a foreign monarch cast into exile — like Napoleon at Elba, but with golf and a bigger buffet.” 

The funniest. The most amazing. The least surprising. The most disappointing (perhaps not in the way you think). The most powerful.

I can neither confirm nor deny. Just enjoy itBOOM! I’m mostly a “3.”

This was the wildest.

The following is almost unbelievable.

She may well be the most talented singer in popular music today but is largely unknown in the U.S.

Please contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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“Sacredness is realized in the act of attention because reality is communicative and the mind is made, grace assisting exquisite effort, to experience its meaning.” ~ Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here?

The first episode of “Desert Island Discs” was recorded at the bomb-damaged Maida Vale Studios, in West London, on January 27, 1942, and aired on the BBC two days later. It’s an interview show with a simple premise: each guest discusses the eight recordings that he or she would bring if cast away alone on a desert island.

Here are mine.

Abbey Road, The Beatles | Rumours, Fleetwood Mac | Come On, Come On, Mary Chapin Carpenter | Now That I’ve Found You, Alison Krauss  | Tapestry, Carole King | Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan | Live, James Taylor | Songbird, Eva Cassidy

What are yours?

I needed this. Maybe you do, too. Karolina Protsenko is 12-year-old violinist. I don’t know who the boy is.

And this.

And this.

And, oh my, this.


Benediction

In a music-soaked TBL, this week’s benediction will give words the last word.

“Some things are more important than votes.” May that be so and may we make it so.

“One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Soviet dissident, who had first-hand experience with the idea.

Truth is never required or established. It is always and everywhere elective, hard-won, and tentative. In today’s world, what you believe to be true doesn’t matter as much as how strongly you believe it and the importance you give it. 

Christians are supposed to be comfortable in the counter-culture (as the 19th Century hymn recites, “When all were false, I found thee true”), but precious few of us have been. Today, in America, almost none are. May that change. And soon. Amen.

Thanks for reading.

Issue 66 (June 11, 2021)