Bodie and Jimmy Are Back

Here’s some of the dialogue I plan to include in my talk on Saturday for Mencken Day. Its title is “When America Was Great and Baltimore Knew Better.”

Scene 1:

Bodie: The radio in Philly is different?

Shamrock: N-word, please, you gotta be f-word with me. You ain’t never heard a radio station outside of Baltimore?

Bodie: Man, I ain’t never left Baltimore except that Boys Village s-word, one day, and there wasn’t no radio up in that b-word.

[Shamrock starts to hit the pre-set buttons.]

Bodie: Come on, man, you’re killin’ me.

[Shamrock tunes into Prairie Home Companion and viewers hear Garrison Keillor say, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my home town. It’s been
perfect tomato weather out there. . .]

Bodie: This a Philly station?

Shamrock: How the heck should I know?

Bodie: Why would anyone ever want to leave Baltimore? That’s what I’m askin’.

Scene 2:

McNulty: I feel like I don’t even belong to any world that even bleeping matters.

Greggs: ‘Cause you’re a cop?

McNulty: Nah, it’s not just that. It’s like, I went to meet her once; she was in a hotel room on the top floor. I punched the button on the elevator and it doesn’t even go there. You gotta have some kind of special key to even get to that special f-word floor. So I go to the front desk, some sneering f-word calls upstairs, gives me permission to go and get laid. I listen to the s-word she talks about and it’s the first time in my life I feel like a f-word doormat. Like anyone else with any smarts would do something else with his life, you know? Earn money, or … get elected. Like I’m just a breathing [sex] machine. I’m serious; I’m the smartest a-hole in three districts and she looks at me like I’m some stupid f-word playing some stupid game for stupid penny-ante stakes.

Jimmy and Bodie seem to have the same outlook that led Mencken to write this:

Human relations, in such a place, tend to assume a solid permanence. A man’s circle of friends becomes a sort of extension of his family circle. His contacts are with men and women who are rooted as he is. They are not moving all the time, and so they are not changing their friends all the time. . . . In human relationships that are so casual there is seldom any satisfaction. It is our fellows who make life endurable to us, and give it a purpose and a meaning; . . . What I contend is that in Baltimore, under a slow-moving and cautious social organization, touched by the Southern sun, such contacts are more enduring than elsewhere, and that life in consequence is more agreeable.

By the way, Machen is also part of the talk. Can you believe it?

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When the Gospel (Coalition) Needs Conservatism

At a time when out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing (forty percent in 2013) and straining urban life in major ways, Bethany Jenkins, who writes with the blessing of the Gospel Coalition and who swims the the heady streams of New York City evangelicalism, considers being a single mom:

These days it almost seems passé to talk about needing marriage before having children. Today’s single woman doesn’t need marriage—or even a man.

Single mothers by choice (SMBC)—in contrast to by circumstance or chance—are single women who have chosen to have children through sperm donation (75 percent) or adoption (25 percent). The difference between these women and women like me who choose to remain childless, says Kate Bolick in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is desire:

Again and again, the [SMBC] I spoke with described how they’d wanted to be a mother for as long as they could remember and how the urge to get there became so overpowering, it felt less like a rational decision than a compulsion. This conviction—that no matter what, they would have a child—is, I’ve concluded, the most common denominator uniting all choice moms.

Such women are praised for their courage and confidence. One SMBC, who became a mother through sperm donation, says her friends called her “amazing” and “brave.” Yet she confesses she didn’t feel brave. “It’s not about being brave—it was about wanting to stop feeling like a childless mother, and take the next step before I ran out of time.”

My single friend, Christine, on the other hand, became a mother by adoption. Her journey was less a pursuit of self-actualization or self-fulfillment and more a response to a need—not a need she felt within herself, but a need she saw in someone else.

While working with high schoolers through the faith-based nonprofit Young Life, Christine met Ana, a 15-year-old expectant mother. When Ana’s water broke, her mother refused to take her to the hospital. That’s when Ana called Christine. Christine drove her to the hospital and stayed with her through the birth, holding her hand in the delivery room. Over the next few years, it became apparent that Ana and the birth father couldn’t care for their daughter, María.

It wasn’t easy, but Christine stepped up. At one point, she and María shared a 425-square-foot apartment and, since María’s biological familial ties weren’t completely severed, there were some relational challenges, too. But Christine says María is the greatest joy she has ever known—in spite of the obstacles. She also says she didn’t stumble into motherhood: “I longed to become a mom, so I diligently prayed for God to give me a child. When this opportunity arose, I had eyes to see it. If this hadn’t happened, I believe I’d have seen another opportunity. I was on the lookout for it.”

Hasn’t she heard about the importance of fathers in socializing children (especially boys)?

Meanwhile, Gracie Olmstead who writes regularly for American Conservative, puts motherhood in perspective, as in it’s not all about her but about the child:

Motherhood is not easy. It is often painful, frustrating, and difficult. It involves a host of unpleasantries. In our age, in which the self reigns supreme, motherhood runs counter to every society-endorsed impulse and mantra. Motherhood is all about sacrifice—from the moment our bodies begin to reconfigure themselves in order to grow a new human being.

Motherhood means sleepless nights, sore nipples, baby blues, weight gain, aching backs, temper tantrums, frightening doctor’s appointments, endless laundry, constant cleaning, incessant worry, near heart attacks, and lots and lots of money. Motherhood isn’t about self-filling. It’s about self-emptying.

That isn’t to say motherhood can’t be fun and joyous. It truly is and can be. But in order to embrace it, one must believe that all of the pain and hardship involved in motherhood is good, and that the child that results from all our work and hardship is inherently, intrinsically good as well. One must have a moral imagination, a “stable sentiment.” Mothers must have chests.

Olmstead adds that today’s decision to have a child could turn into tomorrow’s regret at giving birth:

As soon as we take away the idea of virtue—the idea that an act, despite the pains and sacrifice it might require, is objectively good and worth pursuing for its own sake—we permanently impede humankind’s ability to pursue selfless action. It does not matter if you tell a woman she should procreate “for the good of the species,” or tell her that she’s biologically predisposed to want children. If there is no overarching moral code related to the bearing and raising of children, then motherhood is subjugated to the wild and changeful whims of human emotion and desire. One second, you might want a baby; the next, you might spurn your child—and there is no law or code that can suggest you should do otherwise. “Instinct” becomes “impulse,” and so we waffle from whim to whim.

What accounts for the difference between an evangelical and conservative outlook on motherhood? Could it be that born-again Protestants really put the mmmmmeeeEEEE in all about mmmeeeeEEEE since personal experience and fulfillment is so important to being an evangelical? In contrast, conservatives (who may also be evangelicals) tend to think about the traditions and webs of social networks that go with marriage and rearing children. If the New York evangelical intelligentsia had given Bethany more instruction in conservatism than the gospel, maybe she’d see the problem with single parenthood.

Cop in the Hood Smoh-Kin

Peter Moskos was on a roll yesterday.

First, he brought up the problem that police fired by one city sometimes acquire jobs in another city. The Department of Justice used to have a database to track cops who lost their jobs, but that’s too expensive:

The Justice Department, which gave the association about $200,000 to start the database in 2009, no longer funds it. The department declined to explain why it had dropped its support, but a spokesman said the goal was “ensuring that our nation’s law enforcement agencies have the necessary resources to identify the best qualified candidates to protect and serve communities.”

If Washington can put a transgender in a bathroom dot dot dot

Second, Moskos linked to a story about the growing rates of heroine additionaddiction and overdoses. He added the insight that the criminal justice system will not fix this (nor should it try):

There’s still the basic and false belief among too many people that somehow, somewhere, there are “programs” to help people. Or that the criminal justice system is a system with so single goal in mind. Like police arrest you, you do time, and you come out better for it. It’s not true. And it never has been true. Sure, sometimes there’s a program here or a grant-funded thing there, but basically, no. There’s nothing. It doesn’t matter what the problem is — crime, drugs, mental illness, poverty (or all of the above) — when somebody calls 911, police will show up. But then what? A lot of people need help. But it’s not the kind of help police officers can give. Especially when police departments themselves need help.

Last, he recognized the growing interest in American hillbillies and pondered why murder rates among poor whites in Columbiana County, Ohio don’t reach the level of urban blacks in places like Baltimore. It’s not the economy, stupid, but the culture (and we’re not talking Shakespeare or Beethoven):

Baltimore City has more unemployment (7.4 percent vs. 5.3 percent). Yeah, sure. And there’s more poverty and extreme poverty in Baltimore. I’m not saying that doesn’t matter. But deep down, no. Poverty is a red herring. Culture matters. Columbiana County’s unemployment could be 20 percent and the murder rate would still be lower that Baltimore City.

There’s something else going on. The nexus of violence is not poverty and racism but public drug dealing and drug prohibition. I suspect addicts in Columbiana County buy their heroin from friends and family and coworkers. Not from Yo-Boys on the corner. Push drug dealers inside and violence plummets. But when police try and do that in Baltimore, the DOJ complains about systemic racism.

Turns out Bunny‘s problem wasn’t creating Hamsterdam but not moving drug dealers inside to the vacant houses.

Full and Unequivocal Equality for Calvinists

Should Calvinists also demand transdenominational bathrooms?

That’s one question that I pondered after reading David Gushee’s simplistic brief for LBGT (via Alan Jacobs). Why Gushee felt he could leave off Q from LBGT suggests that he is himself opposed to full and equal treatment for Queers. But that’s not the point.

Gushee is an ethicist so political philosophy may not be his strong suit. It’s not mine. But when he celebrates prohibitions against discrimination you begin to wonder if he has thought through a society where government is reluctant to throw its authority around, where civil society functions as a buffer between citizens and government, and what federalism might mean. In other words, Gushee seems to have in view a society unlike the United States — where many divisive matters become either-or, winner take all policies. We used to call that Communist Russia.

But most visible institutions of American life had abandoned discrimination against LGBT people before that. Today, these same groups are increasingly intolerant of any remaining discrimination, or even any effort to stay in a neutral middle ground. As with the fight against racial discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s, sexual-orientation and gender-identity discrimination is rapidly being rejected by society.

Institutions where full LGBT equality is mandatory now include any entity associated with the federal government, including the military and the civil service.

What I (mmmeeeEEE) don’t understand is why sexual orientation needs to be the basis for the identity of citizens. Why cannot a person claim their rights by virtue of being a person and let other attributes dangle (as Tom Regan put it).

The same goes for my identity as a Reformed Protestant. If I apply for a job at a university, a government contract, or a mortgage and identify myself exclusively as a Calvinist, I know there’s a good chance I’ll get turned down for at least two of those applications. In fact, one recent writer, a criminology professor no less, blamed America’s rates of incarceration and punitive criminal justice system on Calvinism. Imagine what Gushee would say if anyone blamed LBGTs for anything. To attribute blame is discrimination.

Which is also life. People discriminate all the time. Breaking Bad stinks compared to The Wire. Wilt Chamberlain was way better than Bill Russell. Harvard University is better than Liberty University.

What Gushee might do instead is be discriminating about discrimination. When is it appropriate? When isn’t it? He might even want to think about ways that all of us can resist foregrounding those parts of our identity that are the most objectionable to others. Some things we do have something wrong with them (and there is something wrong with that). So we make adjustments. Civility rarely comes with getting up in someone’s grill.

If Department of Justice Had only Watched “The Wire”

Peter Moskos continues to dissect the Department of Justice’s report on the Baltimore Police Department. It sounds just like the HBO series:

The system has several key deficiencies. First, BPD sets thresholds of activity that trigger “alerts” to supervisors about potentially problematic conduct that are too high. Because of these high thresholds, BPD supervisors often are not made aware of troubling behavioral patterns until after officers commit egregious misconduct. Second, even where alerts are triggered, we found that BPD supervisors do not consistently take appropriate action to counsel the officer, consider additional training, or otherwise intervene in a way that will correct the behavior before an adverse event occurs. Third, critical information is omitted or expunged from the EIS that could help address officer training or support needs or help prevent future misconduct.

It is clear that the Department has been unable to interrupt serious patterns of misconduct. Our investigation found that numerous officers had recurring patterns of misconduct that were not adequately addressed. Similarly, we note that, in the past five years, 25 BPD officers were separately sued four or more times for Fourth Amendment violations.

Minus the sex, of course:

Officers suffer from being supplied with outdated, broken, or in some cases, no equipment. As one officer noted to the Fraternal Order of Police in a focus group, “How am I supposed to pull someone over for having a taillight out when my car has two?”

Officers have no computers in their cars, forcing them to return to the district station to type reports, and even those computers are often not working…. Taking officers off the street to type reports at the district takes away from time that could be spent on law enforcement or community building activities. It also creates inefficiencies for officers who often must write reports on paper in the field while their memories of incidents are fresh, and then type the same information into computer databases after arriving at the district station at the end of their shift.

Jimmy and Freamon Never Had It This Good

Back then they needed a search warrant. Not now:

Shemar Taylor was charged with robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint. The police got a warrant to search his home and arrested him after learning that the cell phone used to order the pizza was located in his house. How the police tracked down the location of that cell phone is what Taylor’s attorney wanted to know.

The Baltimore police detective called to the stand in Taylor’s trial was evasive. “There’s equipment we would use that I’m not going to discuss,” he said. When Judge Barry Williams ordered him to discuss it, he still refused, insisting that his department had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI.

“You don’t have a nondisclosure agreement with the court,” replied the judge, threatening to hold the detective in contempt if he did not answer. And yet he refused again. In the end, rather than reveal the technology that had located Taylor’s cell phone to the court, prosecutors decided to withdraw the evidence, jeopardizing their case.

And don’t imagine that this courtroom scene was unique or even out of the ordinary these days. In fact, it was just one sign of a striking nationwide attempt to keep an invasive, constitutionally questionable technology from being scrutinized, whether by courts or communities.

The technology at issue is known as a “Stingray,” a brand name for what’s generically called a cell site simulator or IMSI catcher. By mimicking a cell phone tower, this device, developed for overseas battlefields, gets nearby cell phones to connect to it. It operates a bit like the children’s game Marco Polo. “Marco,” the cell-site simulator shouts out and every cell phone on that network in the vicinity replies, “Polo, and here’s my ID!”

Thanks to this call-and-response process, the Stingray knows both what cell phones are in the area and where they are. In other words, it gathers information not only about a specific suspect, but any bystanders in the area as well.

And they wouldn’t even need Pryzbylewski to break the code.

No peace, no justice.

Sixty Hours I’ll Never Recover

But at least no naked actresses.

That is the general reaction in the Hart household to the completion of Mad Men, a tv series perhaps a tad better than Breaking Bad, but miles behind — wait for it — The Wire. (The atmospherics of Mad Men inch the series just barely ahead of Breaking Bad.) I had to go through 90 episodes to see Don practicing transcendental meditation, Peggy finding love, Joan being torn between love and career, Roger finding love appropriate to his age, and Pete landing in Witchita? Yes, it was uncomfortable to see Betty get sick, but not so much that you see a different side of her.

The morning after I read Louis Menand (who is emerging as someone worthy of a man-crush) on Charles Duhigg’s book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life. Menand can’t quite understand why self-help books for business people sell. They are so obvious:

There is not much to disagree with here, and that is one of the intriguing things about the genre this book belongs to. Not dozens or hundreds but thousands of titles like “Smarter Faster Better” are published every year, and they account for a disproportionate percentage of total book sales. Yet they mainly reiterate common sense.

Does anybody think it’s unwise to be lean, nimble, and innovative? Who needs a book to know that rote behavior and fear of uncertainty are not going to take us very far? It’s not startling to learn that organizations that nurture a “culture of commitment” are more productive than organizations that don’t, or that setting ambitious objectives can jump-start innovation. “People who know how to self-motivate, according to studies, earn more money than their peers, report higher levels of happiness, and say they are more satisfied with their families, jobs, and lives.” I can believe that. “Determined and focused people . . . often have higher paying jobs.” I won’t argue. “An instinct for decisiveness is great—until it’s not.” An impregnable assertion.

In an uncanny way, Menand also explains the logic of Mad Men:

If you owned an advertising agency fifty years ago, on the other hand, you wouldn’t care how much pig iron your workers could carry in an hour. You would want your account executives to have winning personalities, to be able to bond easily with other people, to be likable. You would want them to have manners tailored to attract the patronage and retain the loyalty of your customers. Their task would be to persuade, not to push. You would therefore want them to be able to conceal, maybe even from themselves, the manipulative and possibly mercenary nature of their relationship with clients, and to transform a business transaction into a friendly quid pro quo. You would reward the most successful account executives with lavish expense accounts.

The series never goes beyond this (except when Don is being Don).

Imagine If Stringer Bell Had Won

The missus and I are three episodes into High Profits, a reality tv show about the legal business of producing and selling marijuana in Breckenridge, Colorado. It’s not great. But setting the drug trade — which is illegal and aggressive where illegal — on the right side of the law gives this show way more interest than most reality shows. You get to see city council members who have Chamber-of-Commerce outlooks and want to preserve a family-friendly ski resort town figure out what to do with a venture with which they have some experience in their youth. It’s like Walter and Schuyler White finding out there meth business is legit and trying to gain a business license to sell meth in one of the storefronts on Lomas Blvd. in Albuquerque. Or, it’s like Stringer Bell outwitting Avon Barksdale and eliminating the gangster element from slinging cocaine and heroin. The big question is whether drug business can be respectable. Of course, we all know it can. Can you say alcohol? But how do you take a drug that has all the not so attractive aspects of illegality and stoner culture and make it normal, even Chamber-of-Commerce promotable?

As I say we’re only three episodes in and the city council is debating the fate of the only in-town marijuana store. But in light of what I just read about David Bowie, I think I know which way the vote is going to go:

The media is portraying Bowie as a mainstream saint—one whose life and death are worthy of emulation. The Huffington Post ran articles entitled, “What Would David Bowie Do?” and “David Bowie—Our Hero.” In a piece that I first thought was a joke, Morgan Shanahan of BuzzFeed.com advises parents on “16 Ways to Teach Your Kids About David Bowie (And the World).” BuzzFeed may not be a serious journalistic enterprise, but it has its finger on the pulse of society and is the primary news source of many young adults. Shanahan treats them to profundities such as, “Teach them how he was never anything less than his authentic self;” “Show them there are endless ways to reinvent yourself while staying true to who you are;” “Help them see there’s beauty in being different, the way he helped so many of us;” and “Show them the way he saw the world. Teach them to be superhuman.”

How is it that a man who was a drug addict, was extremely promiscuous, and flagrantly flouted all sexual boundaries is being held up as an example for our children to emulate?

Wire View (not W-w)

In addition to listening to NPR’s reports on the Confederate Flag controversy, we also listened to the Diane Rehm show for part of the drive across Ohio. Her guest on Monday was Evan Thomas, the author of the new biography of Richard M. Nixon. This was a great interview and sounds like a brilliant book. The reason is that Thomas doesn’t flinch from Nixon’s despicable side. But he also finds Nixon to be a fascinating and a remarkable political figure. In which case, Nixon’s wickedness doesn’t put Thomas off. In fact, it’s the mix of bad and good that makes Nixon such an intriguing character. In other words, Thomas is not too good for this world.

Of course, the mix of bad and good is also what makes The Wire arguably the best motion-picture production ever made. Every character is honorable and selfish, commendable and despicable. That mix is what is characteristic of human existence. And I would also argue that it even characterizes the lives of saints; I don’t say this as an excuse for Christians to do evil; I say it to prevent saints from pride. (And let me be clear that I don’t recommend The Wire to all people; if you have trouble with nudity and crudity — you may want to lay off Shakespeare, opera, and the Bible — stay away from The Wire.)

This is a way to raise questions about Matt Tuininga’s piece (where comments are closed) about the forgiveness offered to Dylann Roof by the families of his victims. I am not sure why anyone would feel compelled to comment on those tragic deaths. Unless one of us has insight into Roof’s character or the African Methodist Episcopal Church or black Protestantism, it seems to me that white Reformed Protestants should simply pass by and let others do the conversing. But Matt did not make that call:

These brave Christian men and women of Charleston are enacting Jesus’ life and death in the most breathtaking way. Pray for them. Learn from them. This is the Gospel in action. This is Christian ethics in its purest form.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

For one thing, I’m not sure that the gospel and ethics should be so closely identified. I believe the gospel is about what God does in Christ for sinners and ethics has something to do with the way the redeemed respond to God’s grace in their lives by following God’s law. So granting forgiveness to Roof is analogous to what God does in the gospel, but taking up the cross and losing our life is a form of what we do. Which is it? Forgiveness or ethics?

For another, I’m not sure that Matt can make a case that the self-denial taught by Christ should take the form of the forgiveness granted by the AME families. I can well imagine a Christian not granting forgiveness (especially if not requested) and arguing that the lex talionis still applies — an eye for an eye, a life for a life. That rule doesn’t give Christians permission to practice vigilante justice. But it does allow a believer to hope that the criminal justice system will convict and punish a murderer. That’s not vindictive if God himself is going to judge all people by their works on judgment day.

And so I wonder if Matt had a better sense of the conflicted nature of human existence — the Wire View — maybe he would have been less prone to tidy up this tragedy with such a happy ending. This is an event with repercussions yet to come and it seems to be very dangerous to take away from it reassurances about how good Christians are (not to mention no consideration of differences between Calvinists and Wesleyans about sanctification, though, perhaps, this is not the time to bring those up).

Ben Carson vs. Martin O'Malley — Please

This story about the faith of presidential candidates leads me to propose an alternative. First, a glimpse of the article:

This season’s crop of presidential candidates reflects this country’s many contradictions in faith. A minority of them have stuck with their first church. Hillary Clinton has always been a devout Methodist—her only conversion was from Goldwater Girl to ’60s liberal under the tutelage of her suburban Chicago pastor, Don Jones, who took his youth group to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and minister, has never strayed from his Baptist roots—his latest book is called God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. Santorum has always been Catholic; he tells Newsweek his faith was invigorated while he was in the Senate, owing to factors like his parish priest in Northern Virginia, his experiences of fellowship in the Bible Study Group in the Senate and his wife’s deep faith.

Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon, hews closely to Seventh-day Adventist teachings, which include observing the Sabbath on Saturday and a literal belief in creationism. (He allows that Earth may have been formed over six “periods,” but insists that however long it took, it was God and not a Darwinian struggle that made us who we are.) Carson says his faith strengthened when he had an epiphany as a teenager that took him off a path he believed was headed to prison and onto one that made him the pride of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (He’s famous for pioneering an operation to separate twins joined at the back of the head.)

The alternative is an all The-Wire 2016 presidential contest. Many know that Martin O’Malley, the basis for Tommy Carcetti, the white mayor elected in the fourth season, announced his entrance into the Democratic primaries. If only because I hope O’Malley’s presidency might inspire David Simon to do a The-Wire version of West Wing, I am going to vote for O’Malley should he gain the nomination. But I also will be pulling for Ben Carson. The reason is that the African-American public school students featured in season four — which my wife and I just finished for the ?? time — mention Carson at least twice as the person they want to be when they grow up. And that was a decade ago.

Plus, could the timing be any better for the release of a religious biography of Baltimore’s greatest writer?