We’re Laughing With not At You

I imagine that was Peter Sagal’s defense for this bit of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (an episode I heard while driving in New England):

SAGAL: Tom, this week, listeners also wrote in, saying we were way too mean to Mitch McConnell. What was the specific insult our listeners were upset by? Was it A, Mitch McConnell looks like a thumb with glasses…


SAGAL: …B, Mitch McConnell looks like a Mr. Potato Head if the potato had been mashed…


SAGAL: …Or C, as a young man, Mitch McConnell didn’t beat polio. It was that polio left his body because it couldn’t stand being there any more?




BODETT: Oh, you know, I think he did have polio as a child. Is it that one?

SAGAL: No, it was actually a trick question…

BODETT: Oh, thank, God.

SAGAL: …Because it wasn’t any of those.


BURBANK: I feel like we wouldn’t be on the radio this week…

BODETT: I was going to say, you know?

BURBANK: …If it was any of those.

SAGAL: We said Mitch McConnell looks like a chinless owl.


BODETT: Oh, that’s right.

SAGAL: To our credit, we also didn’t say…


SAGAL: No, we didn’t say these, so people had no reason to complain. We didn’t say Mitch McConnell looks like a jack-o’-lantern that was left out on the porch till March.


SAGAL: We certainly didn’t say that Mitch McConnell looks like someone dropped a bunch of facial features into a bowl of butterscotch pudding.


SAGAL: We absolutely did not say…

BODETT: And thank God.

SAGAL: …That – you know when somebody pulls out their belly skin to show you how much weight they lost? – that looks like Mitch McConnell’s face.


SAGAL: And we certainly never stooped to saying that Mitch McConnell’s face was bleeding badly from a face-lift.


SAGAL: We would never do that.

BODETT: That, that…

SAGAL: Too low even for us.

I am sure Senator McConnell chuckled right along with NPR’s quiz show host, panelists, and audience.

And to keep it fair and balanced, here is how Sagal yucked it up with Nancy Pelosi when she was Speaker of the House:

SAGAL: Let’s clarify something right off the bat. How are we to address you? What is the protocol? Speaker Pelosi, in honor of your former position? Leader Pelosi, in honor of your current one?

PELOSI: Because we’re all such good friends here, just say Nancy.

SAGAL: Just say Nancy. Nancy.


SAGAL: It sounds good, though, Nancy. So we’re delighted to have you with us. We found out, and it should be obvious, given your success in politics, that you grew up in a very political family. You were raised in the business.

PELOSI: Right.

SAGAL: Your father was the mayor of Baltimore.

PELOSI: Yes, he was.

SAGAL: Right. So what was it like growing up in a political household?

PELOSI: Well, it was like campaigning, forever campaigns, all the time. There was never a time when we weren’t walking precincts or receiving volunteers at the door to pick up their brochures, their buttons, their bumper stickers, their placards that would be called lawn signs these days. And I learned how to count votes.

SAGAL: Did you really? So, like, other kids were counting blocks, you were like going “one vote, two votes.”


SAGAL: When you were a baby, were you kissing babies?


SAGAL: We were reading about your father’s career and your involvement with him, and we read that one of the jobs that you had working with your father was that you kept his favor file. Is that correct?

PELOSI: No, I didn’t keep it but I worked on it. That is, to say…

SAGAL: What is it exactly?

PELOSI: What it is, is that if somebody – for example, if someone came to the door and said they needed help in some way, if they needed help finding a job or something like that. The idea was, of the favor file was that when that person was on his or her feet then they would extend a helping hand to somebody else. In other words, they passed it on.

SAGAL: Really?

PELOSI: So where would you go to look for help for somebody else is someone that you had helped already.

SAGAL: Right. Or if you needed to have someone killed…

PELOSI: Again, it was a very…

SAGAL: …call upon this person.


PELOSI: Do I detect an ethnic slur there?

SAGAL: No, no.


SAGAL: I wasn’t at all thinking about that scene from “The Godfather.” I really wasn’t.


CHARLIE PIERCE: Leader Pelosi, we have no idea who this guy is doing the interview.


SAGAL: So, eventually you got married, you moved with your husband to San Francisco and you got involved with politics there. You ran for office yourself. You know, when you went into politics, you did it with a splash.

Of course, you rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party in the House, and you became the Speaker of the House. You’re our first Speaker of the House we’ve ever had on the show. We have a lot of questions about that. Primarily, what is it like to sit behind the president during the State of the Union address?


SAGAL: Is it hard to maintain a straight face?


PELOSI: Well, I’m glad you’re getting down to the truly important here…



PELOSI: …Speaker of the House.

SAGAL: No, really, I mean it must – because you know, like the nation is looking at the president and you are looming there over his shoulder. You could wreak havoc with the address if you wanted to, by making faces. Do you have to think about, like…

PELOSI: Well, one could.


PELOSI: Well, here’s the thing…

SAGAL: Yeah.

PELOSI: …the Speaker of the House has awesome power. And so when the joint session is called and the president of the United States is welcomed in a joint session, House and Senate, it is the Speaker of the House who introduces the president. Not that that’s the power part, but it’s a manifestation…

SAGAL: That is power. You could keep him waiting. You could be standing, and he could be waiting outside. And you could be like, “So guys, what’s up?”


SAGAL: See the game last night?

PELOSI: Well, no, but, you know, but you would want to be respectful now wouldn’t you? I mean, under other circumstances you would want to be respectful…

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: I want to ask a little bit about the job. Do you ever talk to the current Speaker, John Boehner? Does he ever call you up and go “I don’t know how I’m going to get this done; these guys are being so obstreperous. What do I do, Nancy?” Does that ever happen?



SAGAL: Really, you don’t…


SAGAL: He doesn’t invite you over, back to your old office just for a get together, have a good cry, you and him and talk about problems.


SAGAL: No, really, I mean…

PELOSI: Girls don’t cry.


SAGAL: No. Well done.


FAITH SALIE: Nancy, I can’t believe I just called you that. Thank you.

PELOSI: Thank you, Faith. I’ll call you Faith; you call me Nancy.

SALIE: That’s a deal. I earnestly want to ask you about an issue that’s dear to my heart and I understand it’s dear to yours, which is chocolate.

PELOSI: Oh, yes.

SAGAL: We’ve read this too that this is your great vice, if you will, you’re big into chocolate.

PELOSI: I don’t consider it a vice. I consider it…

SALIE: A blessing from God.


SAGAL: You consider it…

PELOSI: Very dark chocolate, very dark chocolate.

SAGAL: Very dark. So tell us what you can. Tell us what you’re willing to admit of your chocolate consumption.


BURBANK: Let’s get down to brass tacks. How many pounds of chocolate have you eaten today?


BURBANK: I’ll take that as 20.


You tell me, which is funnier? Peter Sagal laughing his way through the week’s news or Man Getting Hit by Football?

But We Already Have Ethics Experts

Several weeks ago while listening to NPR I heard a phrase I had not encountered before — ethics experts. These were people with expertise to comment on the conflict of interests surrounding the newly elected President Trump (as if the press needs to hind behind such expertise). This is part of the story in particular:

We are continuing our coverage of the Trump administration’s executive orders implementing a permanent ban on those coming from Syria and a temporary ban of citizens coming from six additional Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan.

Now, one aspect of the new policy that has drawn notice are countries that are not on the list, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. And those are the countries of origin of a number of people who carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. starting with September 11, 2001. Those countries also happen to be places where President Trump and his family have business interests.

That’s one reason ethics experts continue to raise questions about how President Trump is addressing potential conflicts or even the appearance of them.

I also noticed that one of the experts to which the reporters turned was — wait for it — formerly in the Obama administration:

One of them, for example, spoke with NPR. That’s Norm Eisen. He’s a former ethics adviser to President Obama, and he’s a fellow now at Brookings Institution. He says that it looks to him like Trump was singling out countries that did not pay him tribute. That was his words.

If Rush Limbaugh brought on ethics experts to comment on Nancy Pelosi, would anyone inside the editorial offices of NPR think such expertise credible?

But we are surrounded now by ethical expertise (though it seems to be fairly easy to come by — a general rather than expert sense).

But ethics experts say the broader conflict between the White House and Nordstrom is more worrisome, raising questions about whether the United States is entering a new environment in which presidents use government to steer money to their inner circles.

Here’s another:

Outside ethics experts say Trump’s conflicts-of-interest plan does almost nothing to clear up problems that could arise during his presidency. Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the plan “meaningless.” Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics attorney under President Obama, told Mother Jones that Trump’s plan “falls short in every respect.”

And yet, just six months ago, according to a Google word search, ethics experts were not so easy to come by (even in the midst of all the allegations swirling around both the Clinton and Trump campaigns). One story wondered about ethical food:

Andrew Chignell, a philosophy professor at Cornell University who teaches an ethics in eating course each spring, had a change of heart when he embraced a vegan diet five years ago. But he still identifies as more of a flexitarian when he’s been invited to someone’s home for a meal.

Another commented on the ethics of a judge:

A controversial Nashville judge who retroactively signed orders committing dozens of people to mental health institutions violated ethics rules by doing so, according to a judicial expert’s opinion.

Another link led to the defense of such a thing as an ethics expert:

Within my sub-genre of philosophy – practical ethics – the suspicion of public engagement has a more specific cause. It’s often asserted that moral philosophers can’t claim expertize in ethics in the same way a chemist, for example, can be an expert on a molecule.

That’s a concern that puzzles me. Certainly there’s some evidence – from the UC Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel – that those who write about and teach courses in ethics are no more ethical than anybody else. And it’s true that specializing and so commanding authority in trichloro-2-methyl-2-propanol is disanalogous in various ways to being an authority in some corner of practical ethics – not least in how this expertize can be tested.

Still, I want to defend the expertize of moral philosophers, to maintain that their views in their chosen field merit respect and at least a degree of deference.

But now, after the Trump victory, ethics experts are easy to find.

So when John Fea says that times such as these call for the special work of historians, I’m left wondering what ethical work is left to do once every journalist and editor and academic and Hollywood celebrity has already taken a number to condemn Trump again:

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals. Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now. History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions. They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

Is the argument for not living like Trump based on evidence or on ethics? Were historians worried about Trump before becoming president? Did they condemn billionaires, real estate developers, adulterers, divorcees, outer borough New Yorkers? Now, when some of the coarser aspects of American society attach themselves to the presidency — as if for the first time — we need historians to teach us how not to be like Trump?

I get it. My friend John finds Donald Trump repellent. (Is that ethical for a Christian who is called to love his enemy? Think Jesus and Zacchaeus.) But again, why gussy it up in the aura of academic expertise? Speak truth to power as a citizen. Do it as a Christian. But as a historian do remember that ethics is a different academic discipline that seldom leaves history as an unfamiliar territory. Moral indignation renders the past something to be condemned for not meeting now’s standards.

Journalists and Saints Together

Push back on questioning David Daleiden’s explanation of his Planned Parenthood videos got me thinking — it sometimes happens — about the ethics of journalism. One of the strongest pushes came from those who say that Daleiden is only doing what journalists do. Which is sort of like saying that journalists don’t have to tell the truth to gain a story, and why would believers argue that way? Sounds antinomian.

In point of fact, journalists have ethical standards that require honesty. Here’s part of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics:

– Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

– Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

– Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.

– Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant. . . .

– Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

Daleiden was vigilant and courageous (though he might have been even more courageous if he had been truthful with his interviewees). But didn’t he fail on all the other measures? In which case, can anyone really say that this is par for the course with journalists?

Here are a few excerpts from NPR’s Ethics Handbook:

Journalists who conduct themselves honestly prove themselves worthy of trust. In the course of our work, we are genuine and candid. We attribute information we receive from others, making perfectly clear to our audience what information comes from which source. We avoid hyperbole and sensational conjecture. We may sometimes construct hypotheticals to help explain issues and events, but we reveal any fabrication, and do not otherwise mix fiction with our news reporting. We edit and present information honestly, without deception, and we identify ourselves as NPR journalists when we report. Only in the rarest of instances – such as when public safety is at issue, or when lives are at stake – might we disguise our identity or intent when reporting. Before we take such a step, we engage in rigorous deliberation and consider all alternatives. Then, when we tell the story, we fully disclose what we did and why. . . .

Our experiences and perspectives are valuable assets to our journalism. We enjoy the right to robust personal lives, yet we accept some unique professional obligations and limitations. Because our words and actions can damage the public’s opinion of NPR, we comport ourselves in ways that honor our professional impartiality. We have opinions, like all people. But the public deserves factual reporting and informed analysis without our opinions influencing what they hear or see. So we strive to report and produce stories that transcend our biases and treat all views fairly. We aggressively challenge our own perspectives and pursue a diverse range of others, aiming always to present the truth as completely as we can tell it.

To inspire confidence in our journalism, it is critical that we give the public the tools to evaluate our work. We reveal as much as we practically can about how we discover and verify the facts we present. We strive to make our decision-making process clear to the public, especially when we find ourselves wrestling with tough choices. We disclose any relationships, whether with partners or funders, that might appear to influence our coverage.

Christians and conservatives should be careful about snickering too much here. If we want our side not to be snickered at, . . .

And on each of NPR’s criteria you could said that Daleiden was an epic fail.

But here’s the worst part of the journalistic-ethics defense of Daleiden. If a journalist went to a Roman Catholic archbishop and presented himself as a member of the church and in need of sacramental grace as part of a way of doing an expose of clerical sexual misconduct, what would the social conservatives say? Is that the way journalists behave? How loud would the outcry be over such dishonesty?

Or how about a reporter who while doing an interview with Mitt Romney to gain better access to insider information, what if that reporter presented himself as a fellow Mormon (when he wasn’t) and a regular donor to the GOP (which he didn’t)? Would anyone possibly take that “reporter” seriously as a journalist? Would Romney or his staff?

None of this means that Daleiden doesn’t deserve some credit for exposing a truly despicable aspect of American society. But if he is going to claim either the mantle of journalistic ethics or Christian morality, can’t we/I question that?

Straights You can Live With

Since I’m on the road I am (all about meEEEE!) listening to more national public media than to sports talk radio. That means I have heard a lot about how the United States took three big steps forward this past week. The Confederate Flag is now a disgrace. Government health insurance survived and millions of Americans are on the way to better lives. And gay marriage is now legal everywhere in the United States. I wonder if those who think all this shows the United States is headed in the right direction know where this progressive road is going. A world free of prejudice and filled with equality and justice? Isn’t that kind of like heaven? Meanwhile, the most vociferous opponents think at least Friday’s decision about gay marriage proves the United States is on the road to hell (which of course it is and always has been since only the redeemed are on the road to heaven).

Meanwhile (as a different Dan) pointed out, Islamists yesterday pulled off three different attacks. The most gruesome may have been the assault in France that left a man beheaded.

I wonder how far the proponents of progress are willing to go. Do they really think that the folks who wave the Confederate Flag or those who worship in churches that won’t marry gays are as threatening to progress as Islamic terrorists? Or would they rather live with Crackers and Bible-Thumpers who may bark a lot but seldom bite? And when Jihad comes to the United States, are the married gay couples going to fight? Or might they need some help from their straight opponents?

Conversely, do the Christians who do cartwheels of terror over the news of militant Islam view gay activists as as threatening as married gay couples? Or might Christians not recognize certain shared civil assumptions among the proponents of gay marriage?

Either way, some Christian voices can be heard on NPR who are not shrill but defend the freedoms of Christians to follow their consciences.

The sky may be falling, but it’s only a drizzle in the United States.

Without Lines, When I Listen to J.S. Bach Am I Listening to Jay Z (whoever he is)?

NPR did some religion reporting recently to fit the mood of a holiday season that left Jewish believers awkwardly behind in early Advent (for the liturgically gifted). One story was about the Mark Driscoll of the mainline Protestant world, Nadio Nadia Bolz-Weber, the woman who started out Church of Christ and is currently “orthodox Lutheran” by NPR’s reporter’s account:

The congregation here resembles the crowd at a downtown bookshop — hipsters and college professors, gay couples and Democratic grandmas. But even in this crowd, the congregation’s pastor, with her short, moussed hair and armloads of religious tattoos, stands out as she launches into a sermon about Jesus on the cross.

“In our win-lose way of understanding things, it would have made a lot more sense for Jesus to have come and been a superhero — kicking ass and taking names, showing everyone how strong God is by winning at our game,” she tells the congregation.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a bit of a Lutheran rock star at the moment, although the term makes her cringe. Her new book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, recently hit the New York Times best-seller list.

What she and her church are trying to do, she says, is simple and radical: create an authentic Christian experience without the pretension that can come with church.

“I think people’s tolerance for bullshit is at an all-time low,” she says.

I was glad to see that the story irked even one of the bloggers who writes for the CRC-RCA blog, The 12 (though challenges from readers prompted the irked one to take it back).

The story on Jane (why call her Nadia or pastor since we want to be transgressive and draw outside the lines), came the day before Christmas. The day after NPR featured a Christian musician who according to Wikipedia is part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. He is Josh Garrells. And one of the story‘s sources said this about Garrells’ music:

“There are movements within postmodern Christianity that are saying these lines between sacred and secular are false constructs,” says Christian Piatt, a blogger and author in Portland who writes about faith and pop culture. “They don’t really exist. And, therefore, we don’t have to choose whether or not we’re going to listen to U2 or Amy Grant, or Josh Garrels or The Avett Brothers. I can have them all on the same rotation in my music and not consider myself an apostate or a heretic or anything like that.”

Amy Grant!!??

Christian Piatt needs to say hello to two-kingdom theology, which may be post-postmodern or popomo. 2k keeps the lines. The sacred is different from the secular. Nadia is different from Jane. Church is different from coffee house. Baroque is different from punk. Sunday is not Monday. Lines matter, as any wearer of tattoos should know.

Christians may and do walk on both sides of the line. But they know what is appropriate on each side. What Piatt and Bolz-Weber don’t seem to understand — along with the rest of the world dominated by boomers who still don’t want to color inside the lines — is that if you remove the lines, everything is the same and nothing is special (or set apart or sacred). Finding a place that is unique, where truth abides no matter whether Amy Grant or Bono or Vaughn Williams or Josh Garrells flourishes, is the source of real comfort and genuine liberty.

How long? How long, O Lord, will it take for the line-transgressors to see how liberating the lines are?