Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Source of book: I own this. 

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This one was nominated by my wife, and, like her suggestions tend to be, a fascinating book. I was not familiar with the author, but my kids have read her children’s books. 

The Night Watchman is almost two books in one. There are several concurrent plots tied together by the characters. The one main plot is historical: the story of how the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa defeated the congressional attempt to terminate the tribe’s status and evict them from their lands. Erdrich has very slightly fictionalized her own grandfather Patrick Gourneau in this book, renaming him Thomas Wazhashk, and adding details to his daily life. The core elements of this plot, however, and the main outline of Gourneau’s life, remain intact. As a lawyer, I enjoyed this part of the book most - it is fascinating and infuriating and really brings to light how white America has and continues to take what little Native Americans have left. 

The second main plot and the various subplots revolve around Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau and her family. She may or may not be a stand-in for the author. (The introduction says she is fictional, but in such a tongue in cheek way that it seems to be a wink and a nod.) The daughter of a drunken abusive  (but thankfully often absent) father and a mother with deformed hands, she is the sole breadwinner for her family. Her sister has moved to Minneapolis, but has disappeared, and Patrice travels to try to find her. Meanwhile, she is being pursued by two men. One is Wood Mountain, a young boxer. The other is “Hay Stack” Barnes, the white math and PE teacher at the high school, who has fallen in love with her. 

Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band. While she did not grow up on the reservation, family members did, and she had access to the many stories that have been the subjects of her books. 

As usual, we had a fascinating book club discussion. A few of us have spent time on reservations, and have seen first hand the neglect and dismissal of native peoples. We have also seen the way that women hold things together, the hard work scraping together a living on the “waste” land that whites didn’t want, and the close extended family networks that are enviable. 

The book itself had some really great parts. The characters are memorable and mostly likeable. Even Patrice’s violent father is human - he was a promising athlete who went off the rails, unfortunately. Thomas is wonderful - he’s the guy I would have wanted to hang out with, just to listen to his stories. Even the minor characters are well drawn, which isn’t always the case in fiction. 

As I mentioned, I really enjoyed the legal/political fight that is the center of the book. The other plots had their moments. My one quibble is that the love triangle lacked real chemistry - Patrice’s heart is never really involved, so it is hard to care whether or not she gets with either or both guys. And that is despite the fact that they both are good, decent people who care about her. 

Erdrich does an excellent job of accurately portraying the social and legal dynamics as well. I care about the legal side, of course, but also about the social assumptions that allowed certain white families to become wealthy as land was “appropriated” from the Native Americans and sold off. Likewise, I loved that Thomas realized that in order to win his fight against tribal termination, he needed to use whatever weapons he could - and that included getting local authorities on his side by pointing out that they would then have to deal with all the displaced tribal members who lacked jobs, housing, and food. Politics is messy, to say the least. 

Speaking of politics, there is a really fantastic line, delivered by Eddy Mink, who is impossible when drunk, but brilliant and witty when sober. 


“Listen up. Government is more like sex than people think. When you are having good sex, you don’t appreciate it enough. When you are having bad sex, it is all you can think about.” 

We are getting a bit of an object lesson in that right now, with what is essentially a leadership vacuum at the top when we most need concerted collective action to battle a pandemic. 

Also perceptive is the realization that Thomas has when he discovers the main proponent of tribal termination is Mormon. It is beyond challenging to deal with those who do evil in the name of good. That’s why theocracy is the worst possible form of government, as C. S. Lewis noted. Thomas is shrewd, though, and comes to a conclusion. 


He definitely was a righteous fellow. How do you fight one of those? 

The only way to fight the righteous was to present an argument that would make giving him what he wanted seem the only righteous thing to do.

Senator Arthur Vivian Watkins was a real person, and not fictionalized for the book. He was Mormon, and his desire to terminate the tribes was based on his religion. Here is the actual quote from him:


“The more I go into this Indian problem the more I am convinced that we have made some terrible mistakes in the past. It seems to me that the time has come for us to correct some of these mistakes and help the Indians stand on their own two feet and become a white and delightsome people as the Book of Mormon prophesied they would become. Of course, I realize that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be the motivating factor, but it is difficult to teach the Gospel when they don't understand the English language and have had no training in caring for themselves. The Gospel should be a great stimulus and I am longing and praying for the time when the Indians will accept it in overwhelming numbers.”

I am sure Watkins felt all righteous in saying that. He got his little orgasm of self-righteousness like other modern “christians” do when calling for the abuse and oppression of other groups. I call it spiritual masturbation. 

But let’s unpack that a bit. “The Indians need to become white.” “They need to convert to our religion.” “They need to speak our language instead.” That’s...something we call Cultural Genocide. (White people like to call it “assimilation” - which is something the Borg do.) Of course, white christians would absolutely freak out if they were told they needed to speak Arabic, pray to Allah, and adopt Middle Eastern culture. It only goes one way. And, sadly, it is indeed the religion that drives this genocidal tendency. 

Lest you think that Watkins was a cookie cutter villain, Erdrich is careful to point out in the epilogue that Watkins was more complicated than that. He was horrible on Native American policy, obviously. But he voted for the first Civil Rights Act in 1957, directly opposing Strom Thurmond’s epic filibuster. (He was no longer in office by the mid-1960s, but probably would have voted for the later acts as well.) He supported legislation that opened borders to refugees. And, he was the chair (and namesake) of the Senate committee that finally took on Joseph McCarthy and stripped him of his powers. So, that’s three things in his favor. While there are some pure villains in our history, a lot of people are, like Watkins, complicated. 

I do want to mention one other scene that stood out and got a lot of discussion in our group. Patrice, like many Native Americans of her generation, grew up on a weird borderline between traditional beliefs and Catholic dogma. (Thanks to French and Spanish conquest.) Because of this, Patrice has some serious gaps in her knowledge about sexuality. She knows the mechanics, obviously, because she is around animals - a friend’s family breeds horses. But there are also a lot of things she isn’t told. So she consults Betty, a coworker at the factory, who has had sex and has some good knowledge of things like orgasms and the like. 

(Side note here: while I received generally excellent sex education from my parents compared to most people I knew, there were gaps. I had to research for myself how female orgasms worked, including the existence of the clitoris. Not that public schoolers of my generation learned any better. In fact, the whole national freakout about female sexuality, dating back 1500 years to Augustine, has so tainted how Americans think and talk about sex and contraception and pleasure that a shocking number of men have no idea what the hell they are doing in bed. Things are perhaps getting better, but a disturbing number of women still say they cannot count on having an orgasm every time they have sex. And that is mostly on men being incompetent lovers.) 

Anyway, the exchange between them is interesting, and enlightening. 


“All the same, sounds like you could try with either guy. The only thing is getting rid of them after, if you don’t like it.”

Patrice looked completely mystified.

“I know. It’s supposed to be you only do the deed if you are planning on forever. Getting married. But my aunt told me that if you are serious try it out first. It’s no good to have to do it with one person all your life if it isn’t any good. This is what my aunt said. Why be stuck with a dud?” 


There is more, of course. Before sex ed was readily available, it was by word of mouth. So Patrice and Betty talk about contraception (pre pill, in this case), oral sex, and pregnancy. 

Going back to the quote, though, this is a rather important point. Our concept of “virginity” has always been about controlling female sexuality. Making sure a man doesn’t have to raise a child that isn’t “his.” Going along with this prioritization of male concerns is a disregard of female sexual needs. It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the way that Augustine and subsequent theologians considered pleasure in sex to be sinful, thus nearly guaranteeing that female satisfaction would be frowned upon. But the whole “wait until you are married” advice seems to me to be particularly risky for women. After all, a man must ejaculate in order to procreate. So, even if his wife isn’t particularly good in bed, he at least gets an orgasm, right? But a woman could literally get married and discover that her husband has zero interest in her pleasure or commitment to make it happen. 

As a divorce attorney, I can testify that this is absolutely a factor in many divorces, particularly the brutally ugly “christian” ones. 

Sexual compatibility is a thing. And many men have been raised with toxic beliefs about gender and sexuality. This isn’t limited to religious men, to be sure, but they are not exempt. I believe a woman would be foolish to assume that her needs will be met and that her husband will be compatible with her. As foolish as couples who wait until after marriage to discuss financial expectations. (And money is far and away the biggest cause of divorce. Which is why it irritates me that christian parents care more about whether their sons marry a virgin than whether they marry a spendthrift.) I’m not saying that everyone’s courtship should be a certain way. But jumping in without extended discussion at minimum is not advisable. 

I should also mention that Patrice finds herself vulnerable to rapists and sex traffickers in part because of her ignorance of sexual dynamics. She escapes both, fortunately, but by the skin of her teeth. In both cases, she probably would have been better served by better education. And perhaps experience as well. Those who have experienced loving, egalitarian sexuality are less likely to think that inconsiderate, patriarchal, or even abusive sex is okay or the normal thing. 

Okay, enough of my soapbox on this. I enjoyed this book, and want to read more by the author. I am happy that our club has read a number of books by female and minority authors this year. We are a diverse book club, and it has been so good to hear the different perspectives, both from the books and from our members. Covid has put a damper on our social lives, so I look forward so much to our monthly Zoom meeting. 


Monday, July 27, 2020

When We Were Young and Unafraid by Sarah Treem (The Empty Space 2020)

With theater venues closed due to Covid-19, our local thespians have had to be creative in order to keep making art. The Empty Space was on the verge of staging this play when the shutdown ended live in person theater for the foreseeable future. After a few months of limbo, they decided that the safest and most feasible way to perform it was to do an audio version. While I missed the wonderful set (which at least made it into the photos) and the visuals of the actors faces, the audio version was good, in the way that the old radio dramas were. Without the benefit of body language and facial expressions, the actors rose to the occasion and made the story come to life.

 Sarah Treem apparently has written a bunch of TV stuff in addition to her plays, although I will confess that as one who rarely watches TV, I wasn’t familiar with her. This 2014 play was a worth selection, in any case, despite a few flaws.

 When We Were Young and Unafraid is set in the early 1970s, somewhere off the coast of Washington State. This was before Roe v. Wade, when abortions were still criminalized, marital rape wasn’t a crime, and victims of domestic violence had far fewer options to support themselves. 
 Agnes, played by the always-delightful Julie Gaines, is the owner of a bed and breakfast that doubles as a shelter for battered women. She lost her nursing license for performing abortions, as we come to find out.
Julie Gaines as Agnes
She has a teen daughter, Penny, played by Elise Esquibel, who has high hopes for college, but is attracted to the football star. 

Elise Esquibel as Penny
Mary Anne (Lindsay Gunn) shows up, with a battered face bad enough that she needs stitches, but is torn between her need for safety and her love for her abuser (who is suffering from PTSD from his military service.)

Lindsay Gunn as Mary Anne
Soon after, radical feminist lesbian Hannah (Claire Rock) essentially breaks in and demands a job and becomes a missionary for the radical group she is in.

Claire Rock as Hannah

Finally, the one male character, Paul (Alex Mitts), is a tourist staying at the B&B, who gets sucked into the drama. 

Alex Mitts as Paul
First, the flaws, which are not at all the fault of the actors. The play starts off strong and focused, but seems to devolve a bit at the end into what almost seem to be teasers for future episodes. Will Paul and Mary Anne end up together? Will Penny forsake her college plans for her worthless boyfriend? Will Hannah seduce Agnes? These are not really resolved at the end, either, with the play finishing abruptly. One wonders if Treem couldn’t decide how to end it, or if she got bored with the project and had to finish it. Although I cannot say how I would have ended it, it seemed like it needed maybe an extra half hour of time to tie things together and return to a sense of theme.

That said, the play did have a lovely nuance in its look at domestic violence. I have assisted victims throughout my practice (often on a volunteer basis), and the relationship dynamics are portrayed accurately and empathetically. This was definitely helped by the excellent acting - all of the characters felt human even when they were written a bit as types.

I also liked the way Treem correctly linked the fight against domestic violence to the fight for female reproductive rights. One of the most eye-opening things of the last decade for me was to actually look at the history of abortion in America, and realize just how dishonest the Anti-Abortion Industrial Complex™ is about it. Pre Roe, it was the same collection of medical workers and women protecting victims of domestic abuse - and a surprising number of clergy - who worked together on both issues, realizing that they are intimately connected. Marital rape, violence against women, and forced pregnancy go together because they all derive from a particular anti-feminist view of the role - and value - of women.

For this particular production, the acting was indeed excellent, and the casting spot on. I have enjoyed a number of the actors previously. Julie Gaines is a local stage veteran, and has been in several productions just this year. She brought gravitas and vulnerability to the role. Claire Rock has long been a favorite of mine, with a particular highlight being her turn as a greaser version of Tybalt. She seems attracted to oddball roles, and this one was no exception. Hannah is the “chaos muppet” in the play, whether it is fixing stuff at the B&B without the knowledge or consent of Agnes, or breaking and entering in the middle of the night, or blithely lecturing Agnes on feminism when Agnes clearly is more of a veteran in that cause than Hannah. If anything, I wish that role had been bigger, because it was fun.

Alex Mitts is another versatile actor - and singer, as he gets some airtime in that role as well. He made Paul likeable and believable, despite a role that didn’t get much time to develop. Mitts also did the sound design, which I thought was good. I particularly appreciated the clear sound and balanced volumes, which must have been a challenge under the circumstances. Likewise, Brian Purcell, who kind of does everything behind the scenes in addition to his stage work, was fine as narrator filling in the gaps when visuals were needed to tell the story.

I wasn’t that familiar with the other two actors before this production. Elise Esquibel is pretty young, which worked well for Penny for obvious reasons, but she brought a lot of personality to the role as well. The one thing not in her favor is that the script calls for her to act against her seeming personality by going from a “all set on college and study all the time” girl to someone willing to throw it away on “love.” Not Esquibel’s fault, of course, that the script doesn’t really set the stage for the transformation. She was believable enough in both personas, but I felt they were disconnected, basically two different people.

I also enjoyed Lindsay Gunn as Mary Anne. This was a tough role in that she had to portray so many facets of a character, from the scared victim to the determined woman to the giddy girl advising Penny about love, to the wife desperate to fix her broken husband, and so on. Gunn navigated the changes well. Now if only Treem had let us know how it all worked out for Mary Anne! 
Plot issues aside, this was an excellent and thoughtful performance, and well worth the super-low cost. It runs through the next two weekends, and is available online, of course, so anyone can experience it. Support local arts!

More information is on esonline.org, or The Empty Space on Facebook.  

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I try to read a number of books in translation every year. I believe it is important to hear other perspectives, experience other artistic values, and generally be a citizen of the world. To that end, I follow a number of literature-related sites, most notably NPR’s book reviews and Lithub, both of which have helped me discover outstanding books that I would not otherwise have experienced. The Vegetarian was on Lithub’s list of best books in translation from the last decade. Korean author Han Kang wrote it in 2007, but it was not translated into English until 2016, by Deborah Smith. 

My foreign literature reading project has been interrupted a bit this year by library closures, unfortunately. Last month, at long last, the libraries have reopened for curbside, at least, and I was able to get this book. 


It is really hard to describe this book. It could be considered horror, or perhaps psychological horror. It is decidedly literary fiction, and deserving of the Man Booker award it won in 2016 for the English translation. It is realistic yet fantastic. It occurs both in the world at large and in the mind. And, ultimately, it ends in a really dark place, and with an impossible question: since humans are violent and horrid, can one continue to live as a human without doing violence to one’s self? 

The book is in three sections, each from a different perspective. What is unusual is that the subject of the book, Yeong-hye, is never given her voice. She barely speaks in the book, and the perspectives are those of others. She is, as Ilana Masad noted in her Guardian review, an object more than a subject. It is her actions which speak most, however, and in fact constitute both the core of the book and its central theme. 

In the first section, told from the first-person perspective of Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, she has a dream in which she has a vision of human violence and the horror of flesh. She responds by throwing away all animal products, and becoming a vegan. And not a healthy one, as she restricts her diet to the point of starvation. During a visit with her family, her violent father strikes her and tries to force meat down her throat. She grabs a knife and slits her wrist, which lands her first in the hospital, then in a mental ward. 

The second section, in contrast, is in the third person, but from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband (who never gets a name.) He is a video artist, and when he checks on the now-discharged Yeong-hye, finds her unabashedly naked. He has the idea of taking a flower-shaped birthmark on her butt and expanding it into a flower-themed body painting. She consents to this, and he makes a video of it. He then becomes sexually obsessed with her, leading to both art and a really disturbing sex scene. 

In-hye, Yeong-hye’s older sister, is the focus of the third and final part. The events of the first to parts have led to two divorces, and she is left to care for her young son and for Yeong-hye, who has deteriorated further physically and mentally, and is now starving herself to death in a mental hospital. By the end of the book, In-hye appears to be suffering from a mental breakdown as well, while she comes to understand her sister for the first time. 

It takes a while for all of the background to come out - Han delays revelations up until near the end in some cases. Yeong-hye and In-hye’s father turns out to have been abusive for decades, and Yeong-hye took the brunt of it. She wanted to escape, but couldn’t. She did not want her marriage, and Mr. Cheong is pretty much a dick who isn’t attracted to his wife but expects her to feed and service him without complaint or expectation of reciprocal affection. 

In response to being stripped of her personhood, Yeong-hye leans into it, by essentially de-personing herself. As she seeks to become a tree, a plant, something that can live without the need to consume other organisms to survive, she is essentially rejecting her own humanity. 

I can’t really say which section is the most disturbing. The first is disturbing because of Mr. Cheong’s self-centered and egotistical response to his wife’s changes, as well as the violence that he and her father inflict on her. There is never any real consideration of her feelings, or attempt to understand her perspective. She is an embarrassment because she refuses to conform to societal expectations, and they have to fix that. 

The second section is disturbing for rather different reasons. The unnamed brother-in-law comes by his sexual attraction honestly, more or less, and his artistic idea seems both creative and sexy. But once he crosses the line to actually make it into sex between them, it gets psychologically disturbing on multiple levels. The issue of consent is there, because she is pretty clearly mentally ill, and it is not at all clear that she has that capacity. But also, she does become aroused, first by the brother-in-law’s colleague, who also agrees to be painted, but declines to have sex on video, and then by the brother-in-law once he has been painted to match her. It is the swapping of the skin from human to plant, so to speak, that makes her sexually respond. The third level of discomfort and horror comes, in my opinion, because of the way the book makes the whole messed-up psychosexual drama into a genuinely sexual and arousing scene. You want to be horrified, you want to hate it, but it is shockingly erotic, and you also want them to fuck and find yourself identifying with either or both of them in an unhealthy way. It’s fantastic writing, but I really had to clear my head afterward. 

The third part is existentially disturbing more than anything. That question of how to live as a human, when our existence requires violence to other organisms, is not a comfortable one. It is a stripped-down version of the question of how to be a decent human when our very institutions and social structures are based on violence of one group toward another. Can one embrace humanity while we bomb the shit out of each other, deprive minority groups of basic necessities, and hate each other for religious differences? There is no easy answer to that one, and not even suicide has a final (if horrible) resolution. Yeong-hye’s disintegration (that seems the best word for it) hasn’t solved anything either, but has reverberated through her family in a way that has destroyed everyone else along the way. 

What will probably remain with me the most from this book is the epiphany that the brother-in-law has at about the midpoint of the book, when he has finished filming himself painting Yeong-hye’s body with flowers. 

Only then did he realize what it was that had shocked him when he’d first seen her lying prone on the sheet. This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her--rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented. 

There is an echo here of the “saints” of the past in my own religious tradition, who “mortified the flesh” in hopes of transcending their humanity. It is not something I myself understand - that’s definitely not my reaction to my body and my embodiment. Which is, perhaps, one reason this book is as disturbing as it is. 

I should probably say a few words about the translation. I do not know Korean at all, so reading the original is out of the question. What I can confirm is that the English version is beautifully written. The language itself is compelling, and it was difficult to put the book down, even as my emotions forced me to step away at several points. What Deborah Smith did with the book is pure art. 

Apparently, however, it is not exactly true to the original. And this is where things get complicated. Smith worked closely with Han throughout the process, and Han has publicly defended the translation. Other Korean critics, however, having read both books, has said that it is more of an adaptation than a translation, and that there are significant changes. What to make of this? I have no idea. Perhaps the best analogy is that of a book and a movie in which each is a work of art, even though they differ. 

In any event, this is a worthwhile book, as disturbing and beautiful as it is. 


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

100 Year History of the Tule River Mountain Country by Jeff Edwards

Source of book: Borrowed from my in-laws

With hotel based travel risky right now, we have pretty much stuck to camping and outdoor recreation. One exception is our trips to my in-laws’ mountain cabin in the Southern Sierra, where my wife lived for much of her youth. There is a rather eclectic collection of books there right now. They took most of their stuff with them when they moved north, but left behind a motley selection, including weird stuff from their Fundie Cult days, extra copies of outdoor identification guides, some random Wodehouse, Elsie Dinsmore, and classic children’s books. More specific to the house, however, are a number of books about local history, including this one. 

This particular book, which does indeed start the title with a number in digits in violation of convention, tells of the predominantly white history of the area, starting in the late 1800s. I mention “white history” because the story essentially starts with the eviction of the Native Americans from most of the land, and their placement on the reservation in the area. From then on, the various stories about the towns past and present are all about the white settlors whose families were important back in the day. The book was written in 1986, which explains a bit about the viewpoint presented. I wouldn’t say it is particularly racist, because it isn’t, but it is dated, if that makes sense. We don’t use “Indians” now, for example. And the book mentions the “Indian Wars” from the perspective of inevitability, even though the author is sympathetic. 

While Jeff Edwards is the author, the stories themselves aren’t his. He draws from and extensively quotes older sources, including newspaper articles from the different decades, and interviews with those whose memories reach back to the people described. That too explains some dated views. When people born in the 1910s, for example, tell their stories, they have certain perspectives, and their knowledge is limited to people like them. 

I don’t want to create a negative impression here, but I do want to describe the book’s limitations. It is from a certain perspective, and other voices are not heard, just due to the nature of the book. 

The history itself is quite fascinating. The Tule River area was first settled by a combination of miners, loggers, and ranchers, although mining turned out to be a dud for the most part. Things like log flumes, railroads, wagon roads, and camps fascinate me anyway, and knowing the area fairly well made it an interesting read. 

The best part, by far, however, are the hundred or so old photos that the author collected. The hours that Edwards had to have put in on the interviews and photos must have been incredible. The quality of the reproduction is excellent, as is the book itself. He didn’t cut corners.

The stories themselves are a bit dry. I attribute that mostly to the fact that the people involved assume that the reader knows the descendents of the old folks and cares about how they all intermarried. Which makes sense if you have roots way back in a community. It’s a bit less interesting for someone like me, who is essentially the third generation of an unrooted branch of our family. (My grandfather left his hometown, and, after a couple decades overseas, settled in the Los Angeles area. My dad moved us around a bit, before my brother and I eventually settled in Bakersfield. The closest we have to place roots are the branch of my dad’s family that still farms and ranches in eastern Montana, where my immigrant ancestors settled.) Without knowledge of the old families, I had a hard time caring enough to keep the branches straight. 

On the other hand, there are definitely compelling stories in the book, many humorous, like the time a planned dance was cancelled after a deacon showed up with a shotgun to protest. The slice of life in the past is fascinating too. The days with a communal telephone in the post office, the horrifying infant mortality rate, the way buildings regularly burned to the ground, and so on. There were plenty of ornery women in this book, belying the fantasy that in the past women were somehow submissive. There were the jealousies and murders, the pranks and jokes, the brief obsession with tennis, and the constant search for reliable water sources. 

I browsed this book over about a month, and it was a nice change from the other stuff I have been reading. 


Monday, July 20, 2020

How Ideology Works - and Why You Cannot Have a Rational Discussion with an Ideologue

Solzhenitsyn once noted that, while greed and revenge can fuel the killing of a few people, to kill millions, you need an ideology. While definitions for “ideology” vary, and the concept is a bit slippery, here is my version, for use in this post. 

Ideology: a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

In addition to this, I believe that for ideas to become a true ideology, they must be believed to be absolutely true, in all circumstances, and against all evidence. 

Let me give an example. My worldview is in significant part derived from Christ’s command - the greatest commandment regarding fellow humans: Love Your Neighbor As Yourself. While that guides my life and my political vision, it is not a true ideology, because it isn’t specific enough when it comes to policy, it could manifest differently depending on the circumstances, and the specifics of implementation could easily change based on evidence. You could convince me, using evidence, that a particular policy is or is not loving toward my neighbor. 

In contrast, here is an ideology I recently ran up against:

“Government is bad, private sector is good. Thus, we should fight against the public sector and regulation.” 

In context, here is the discussion. A friend was noting that the best treatment we have for Covid-19 is expected to cost thousands of dollars for each patient, despite being an existing drug developed years ago. Predictably, those with the above ideology jumped into make some ludicrous claims:

(1) The cost is high because US healthcare is too regulated. 

(2) Regulation would make things worse

(3) Single Payer or other universal healthcare would be a catastrophe

(4) If we would just get the government out of healthcare, all our problems would be solved. 

And, of course, he had to give a bunch of talking points, such as “do you want healthcare to be like the DMV,” which pretty clearly indicates he has never in his live had to dispute a claim with an insurance company - something I do as part of my legal practice - or he would have realized how logical the DMV is by comparison. 

It’s pretty obvious that this is an ideology. It is believed to be true, and dictate policy in all situations, regardless of the evidence. 

I jumped in a bit to point out some indisputable facts:

(1) The entire rest of the first world (and some of the third) does in fact have universal (and often single payer) healthcare. 

(2) The US pays twice as much per capita for healthcare, despite failing to cover tens of millions of people. 

(3) Most outcomes are statistically similar in the US and the rest of the first world, however:

(4) For some significant outcomes, such as maternal and infant mortality, our outcomes are significantly worse than the rest of the first world. Furthermore, bad outcomes are tied to poverty, and outcomes have gotten worse during my lifetime, despite the cost of healthcare skyrocketing during that time.

(5) The US has less regulated healthcare than the rest of the first world, so it can’t be too much regulation driving the fact that we pay so much more. 

(6) We already have Medicare, which is more popular and less wasteful than the privatized sector of our healthcare system - why not expand that to cover everyone?

Before said commenter bailed out, he (and it’s usually a male) stated that he was “highly suspicious” of all my points, despite the fact that I supported them with evidence. (And he was clearly completely uninformed He was literally highly suspicious that healthcare costs less elsewhere (that’s factually indisputable), or that outcomes are the same or better elsewhere (again, not factually disputable). 

The reason he had to do this is that the facts - the very reality as it exists in the world - conflicted with his ideology, and he couldn’t take the cognitive dissonance. 

That’s how ideology works.



Ideology isn’t the same thing as religion, but there can be some overlap. My example of my own religion, above, is non-ideological religion. Ultimately, my political views hinge on what accomplishes my goal, which is the common good. But how we get there is not a matter of ideology. There are different ways to get there, and circumstances change. What worked in agrarian 1500s is unlikely to work in an industrialized 21st Century. Ideology believes in the dogma, not the goal. 

That said, the overlap can be troubling. Ideology, whether it is Communism, Fascism, or Social Darwinist economics (which is, in practice, what the guy was arguing for), is usually believed with the same fervor as religion. In fact, it becomes a person’s religion. 

Peter Enns recently pointed out white Evangelicals do not actually get their views from the Bible. Rather, the Bible functions as a weapon to baptize Evangelical political ideology. Bits of the Bible are twisted to support Social Darwinist economic policies like the one above - they are used to justify denying basic benefits of society to the poor and various minorities. 

And that is kind of at the root of this. 

Ideology functions to eliminate the need to think critically, morally, or empathetically. 

It ends the conversation by stating an ideology that may not be questioned. Government bad, profit good. No matter what. End of conversation. Those who cannot afford healthcare can go ahead and die, because my ideology says so. Facts be damned. Reality be damned. 

It isn’t just healthcare, of course. It is so many other things, from climate change to mass incarceration to wearing masks to prevent Covid transmission. 

On all of these issues, I have presented evidence - peer reviewed evidence, duplicated studies, examples of how other countries do things - none of it matters. Ideology wins for so many people.

Here in America, in the 21st Century, this isn’t equal across the political spectrum. Because we do not have a functional Left, the few true leftists we have don’t have much of a platform. Thus, the really crazy far left is pretty obscure. I mean, I guess Natural News? But by global and historical standards, what we call the “Left” in the US is really Center Right to Center. I mean, even the pretty Right Wing guys in the rest of the first world, like Boris Johnson, are fully in favor of universal healthcare as infrastructure, and affordable higher education. 

What we have in the US really breaks down like this: Mainstream Democrats - Center Right; “leftist” Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - Center; Republican Mainstream before Trump - Far Right; Trumpian Republicans - full on Fascism

And that is why most of the time you find ideology that is impervious to facts, you find it on the Right. 

This is also why, as Stephen Colbert pithily noted: “The facts have a well-known liberal bias.” 

At its core, the modern American Right isn’t so much conservative as reactionary - that is, it is trying to return to a mythological past that never really existed.

That, inherently, is a reality-denying exercise. Which is why ideology is necessary to sustain it. 

Sadly, this is why Evangelicalism is in the state it is in. It is why I pretty much cannot discuss anything political or religious with the overwhelming majority of Evangelicals anymore. (Including a lot of extended family.) Reality doesn’t matter. The obvious cruelty inherent in their policies doesn’t matter. Facts don’t matter. Empathy doesn’t matter. Nothing I can say or show them will convince them to reconsider their ideology. Because that is the core of their religion. Not Christ, not ethics, not traditionally religious concerns. Rather, it is the embrace of a certain reactionary political ideology that is the core of their beliefs. And they cannot deal with the cognitive dissonance when that political ideology is challenged, so they have to fall back on repeating platitudes and slogans and talking points. And they wonder why young people are leaving the faith in ever-increasing numbers? 

I think that, when the history books are written, Covid-19 will be recognized as a turning point in a number of ways. It will be, for example, the point at which global leadership pivoted away from the United States. From now on, most of the world will ignore us and our opinion. After all, we couldn’t even deal with a pandemic in a remotely constructive way - we are far worse at this point than most of the rest of the world. At the Federal level, the Trump Administration seems content to just ignore things and rush to open everything back up in the hope the stock market gets Trump re-elected. At the ground level, belief in science seems to have split on partisan lines, with the Right mostly in denial, and many refusing to even wear masks. Again, reality has a strong “leftist” bias here, because “leftist” in a pandemic is nothing more or less than a willingness to take action based on the best scientific information we have, and adapt the plan as better information becomes available. The Right, in contrast, has broken down into a cesspit of conspiracy theories (most of which require that medical professionals like my wife are intentionally committing fraud in order to boost hospital revenues - in reality, they are being run ragged by the explosion of Covid patients, which are on the verge of blowing past normal capacity.) And, again, this goes back to ideology. When you believe that science is a conspiracy, that disease is something that comes from “those people,” that leaving a large portion of the population without health coverage and paid sick leave is necessary or economic catastrophe will ensue, well, you end up with the shitshow we have. 

Ultimately, neither viruses nor our atmosphere give one flying fuck about ideology. Reality doesn’t care about your ideology. Denial of reality will bite you in the butt, as we are just beginning to see on a global scale. I wish I could say I have hope that people enslaved by their ideologies will see the light. Maybe some will. But most will probably go to their graves chanting slogans and platitudes and talking points. And that is because abandoning their ideologies would require them to look inward at the way their cruelty, greed, ignorance, and hypocrisy have damaged everyone else. And so, it is more comfortable to believe that the world itself is wrong, and they are right.


The sad thing is, look what the ideology is trying to protect: a system that leaves tens of millions without coverage, leads to thousands of bankruptcies for medical bills, has the same or worse outcomes, and costs twice as much. That’s worth it? We have to settle for that? We can’t do better?

And that’s before you get to the history. We have the fucked up health system we do because it was designed to be racist. We refused to go to universal coverage back in the 1940s because the all-white American Medical Association didn’t want to have to treat people of color. Full stop. 

And this still colors our debate. Most middle-class white people do not want to have to put up with the shitty care available to poor minority neighborhoods, where hospitals are few and grossly underfunded, doctors are rare and have waiting lists, and medical outcomes are poor.

I am still astounded, however, that so many are so eager to defend the idea that our society should just let a significant percentage of the population go without meaningful access to medical care. “I got mine, sucks to be you” is the motto of the American Right. 

The point of the post is this, however: you can’t really have a meaningful discussion with someone in the thrall of ideology. You can’t counter with facts and evidence, and you can’t appeal to empathy. Nothing pierces the defenses built around the ideology, which must be protected at all costs. 


For a good perspective on the political machine that created this ideology, Doug Muder has a good discussion here

For just one of many stories of how it is in other countries, here is a quick and accurate one. I have friends and relatives who have lived overseas, and the idea that the rest of the first world is worse off than the US is so laughable as to be hilarious if it weren’t just sad. We could do so much better, and for less money.