Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Can Stones be Sacred?

Can stones be sacred?  The question came up not long ago on Maui.  Contractors have been cleaning up the mess from a flood that destroyed a beloved tourist site in the 'Iao valley adjacent to lands many Hawaiians deem sacred.  A portion of the valley open to tourists is set aside as a state monument commemorating the battle of Kepaniwai in 1790 where Kamehameha's forces defeated those of the king of Maui, thus establishing what would become the unified Kingdom of Hawaii.  It's worth noting that Kamehameha, who had become monarch of a sizable kingdom on the Big Island of Hawaii, had ships and infantry armed with European firepower and trained in the basics of European tactics.  The king of Maui was still using slings and spears.  The slaughter was great.  Dead bodies dammed the stream, which ran red with blood.  Today it is, or was before the flood, a beautiful park dedicated to remembrance, peace, and the cultural diversity that makes Hawaii such a special place.  So, back to the flood.

Flash floods following torrential rains demolished trails, landscaping, parking lots, roadways, and all.  Work has been underway for the last three months to rebuild and restore, where restoration is possible.  Boulders driven from deep in the valley, an area technically off limits to tourists, had to be removed from the stream bed, and that's where the trouble started.  Some Hawaiians protested that the boulders were sacred because they had come from sacred ground, and they should be left where the flood put them.  The mayor responded that there is no such thing as a sacred stone.  The very idea is forbidden by the Ten Commandments.  You can imagine how that went down.  They will work it out somehow.  What interests me is the question, is there such a thing as a sacred stone?

Christian theology generally holds that for something to be sacred it must be set aside to honor and serve God's purposes in a particular way.  The act of making it sacred means articulating what the setting aside means, and consecrating it through acts of blessing prayers, laying on of hands, and anointing with oil.  Sacraments, offices of ordained ministry, holy scripture, and implements of worship are among the sacred.  Some places where the holy is very near are also recognized as signs and symbols of the sacred.  Other religious traditions have their own ideas about what sacred means, but they all share the same basic sense of things set aside, or places recognized, where the holy is made known.  So, can a stone be sacred?

Scripture is filled with them.  Jacob set up one stone, anointing it with oil, to mark the site of the ladder to heaven, and another to mark the place where he wrestled with God the whole night long.  Joshua set up a pile of twelve stones to mark the entrance into the promised land.  God announced to Moses and the Israelites that the all of Mt. Sinai was holy.  In Jerusalem the altar of unhewn stones was consecrated as sacred to God.  There is more, but you get the idea.  Our tradition is rich with sacred stones.  What about boulders washed down from an area deemed sacred by some but not all?  Are there limits to what can be said to be off limits?

Despoiling the sacred has been the tactic of tribal warfare in every place at every time.  Winners celebrated deliberate destruction of the loser's sacred places and symbols to demonstrate the superiority of their gods and symbols.  Missionaries have done the same.  St. Boniface is said to have cut down the sacred oak of Jove (or Thor) to demonstrate that Germanic pagan gods did not exist and things devoted to them were not sacred.  On the other hand, Celtic Christians took over pagan sites of worship, recognizing some of them as thin places where the holy was known to be especially present; they are revered to this day.  Conquest and greed eagerly trample on what gets in their way, sacred or not.  No place in the U.S. was more sacred to the Sioux Nation than the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Once gold was discovered we ignored such superstition, and replaced whatever was sacred with profanity memorialized by Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Deadwood, and the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally.  Preserving and protecting the sacred does not have a robust record.

Can boulders washed down a river bed be sacred?  If they are to some people, should that matter to everyone else?  My Anglican tradition, as expressed in the Episcopal Church, holds that God's spirit rests in all of creation, and thus some measure of the sacred is in all things of nature.  It's a tradition honored more in recent times than centuries past, but it's there just the same.  If we once believed only Christians, and possibly Jews, were able to discern the sacred, we can no longer.  We cannot limit God's freedom to make his Spirit known to whom and through what he desires to make it known, which raises another question.  What measure of background sacredness is needed to make something sacred enough to be set aside as sign and symbol of the holy?   We can, as Christians, discern with generous hearts whether the whom and what of claimed sacredness is consistent with the Good News of God in Christ.  That we can do.  What about measuring it?

To do that, I suggest the word sacred needs some adjustment.  Identifying and setting something aside for reverence as sign and symbol of the holy should not mean that nothing can be done with it by unauthorized persons.  Boulders tumbling down in a flood from an area deemed sacred, are not, in and of themselves, items that were ever set aside and consecrated as sacred, never to be touched or moved except by the forces of nature.  Moving them to restore safe stream flow and permit rebuilding of another place of "sacred" memorialization is not mistreating them or the tradition that holds them sacred.  But whatever is done must be done with respectful reverence.  The mayor, by his words, didn't do that.  As with the altar stones of the destroyed Jerusalem temple, they could be set aside in an appropriate place, likely to be elsewhere on the property, until the community can come to agreement about what comes next.  I imagine it might come about through a combination of engineering, landscape design, and rites of blessing.  Since the mayor cannot unsay his intemperate remarks, it may take a while.  Nevertheless, it's a process that has begun to work well in other places, including on Maui, where many construction sites must be examined to determine if there is archeological or cultural significance before much can happen.  It's time consuming, adds cost to projects, and is a pain to those who want to get on with it, but it enables due respect to be offered to the sacredness of things and places that are being disturbed.

So here's another question.  How might this local controversy on a small island in the middle of the Pacific inform our understanding of other places and circumstances where claims of sacredness are in conflict with other values and needs?  It was not a question asked when we ran roughshod over the globe, imposing our will without regard for the sacredness present in the lives of others.  We were the conquerors.  They were the losers.  We were superior.  They were inferior.  That's the way it went.  For the most part, we now recognize the inherent immorality of that, but we haven't quite come to terms with what morality might look like if we are to live together in peace and harmony, not as conquerors and subjugated, but as fellow citizens and stewards of creation.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Guide to the DIY Good Life

Does God want us to have lives filled with good things?  It was a question at dinner the other night.  I think the answer is yes.  Scripture, from one end to the other, expresses nothing so much as God's desire that his people's lives be filled with abundance and joy.  God, it seems, is disappointed, sometimes angrily disappointed, when we do the very things that lead the other way.  In spite of it, God's enduring promise is always that no matter how badly we mess it up, there will come a time when God will see every promise fulfilled.  To which God adds that we could try a little harder not to make it so hard on ourselves.  It brings me to Pelagius, of whom I have written before.  He was a third century monk who argued that, as revealed in scripture, God has laid out fairly simple rules for living now into the abundance of life God would have for us, and we are capable of doing it.  That we don't is no excuse.  We are capable.  To over simplify, he was accused of heresy on the grounds that he was displacing the salvific work of Christ by claiming we could do it ourselves.

Did he?  I'm sure a Pelagian scholar could answer that.  I can't.  What I can say is that he wasn't  all wrong.  However fallen we are, even to the utter depravity of extreme Calvinists, there remains God's word as revealed in scripture that calls us to a way of life that leads to fullness of life.  Love God. Love your neighbor, whether an enemy or just an ordinary ass.  Love yourself.  Love each other as Christ loves you.  Nourish, clothe, heal, forgive, reconcile those you encounter in need of nourishment, clothing, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  Let your yes be yes and no be no.  Don't be haughty but make friends with low and high alike.  Give generously.   Deescalate violence.  Strive for justice and righteousness.  You know the rest.  Do these things, and you will find life in abundance.  Pelagius was right, you can do them. They are not beyond your ability.  If you want a life of joyful abundance, this is how to get it.  Paul, even. in prison awaiting his execution, proclaimed the fullness of life that was his in Christ. It was a fullness he would not trade for anything, a fullness prison and execution could not take away.

Is that just a pile of sentimental religious platitudes?   Many think so.  They know abundance of life means wealth, health, and good times.  Nothing in God's promises of abundant life promises those things.  Is there another way?  There must be.  History and scholars say there isn't.  Wealth may cone, not because it's deserved, but because the various changes and chances of life fall that way.  Ambition, hard work and perseverance help, but there are many ambitious, hard working, persevering folk for whom wealth never comes.  If it comes, be grateful to have it.  Enjoy it as a faithful steward knowing that an account must one day be given,  But don't count on it to bring fullness of life.  It doesn't, nor can it.  Health is an even greater matter of chance aided by the accident of birth at the right time, in the right place, to the right family.  We can do what we can to stay healthy, and a healthy life is a more enjoyable life, but as some wag put it, good health is just the slowest way to die.  Good times?  They come and go, they never stay, and it turns out that the best of good times is the fruit of loving relationships with others, not the adrenalin rush of the moment.

A healthy relationship with life is to become, in my words, a semi-Pelagian.  It's the way to experience more of the fullness of life God would have us enjoy.  I suspect we get nervous about trying because the Church got carried away years ago with heretical talk about acts of supererogation by which one could build up brownie points in heaven to be cashed in at a later time. That excess was met with the equally excessive counter charge that our utter depravity deprived us of any ability to ever do anything that would be good or pleasing in God's sight.  Sinners held in the hand of an angry God.  Both are wrong.

The prophet proclaimed, ""Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe."" (Debut. 30.11ff).

Jesus confirmed, "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell-and great was its fall!" (Matt. 7.24ff)

The promise of life in abundance is ours to grasp now, perhaps not completely, but in good measure.  It is never a promise that excludes rain, floods and winds, but it is a promise that rains, floods and winds cannot destroy abundance of life.  What is it we have to do?  "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micha 6.9).  Is that so hard?

So here's to life in abundance, and here's to old Pelagius who said we can have it if we are willing to walk in God's ways.  Have fun. Enjoy. Do good.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Present Tense of Future Journalism

Important events happen all the time, events the public needs to know about.  Not too many years ago, the only way the public could know was through the press: first newspapers, then radio and television.  The primary role of journalism was to report on what was happening, with an inside page or two devoted to offering informed opinions.  In my youth, the Thursday weekly was our primary source of information about what was going on locally.  As a young adult working on a career, I listened to the 6:00 a.m. radio news, read the morning and evening papers, and caught the evening television newscasts.  Apart from rumors and phone calls, it was how I learned what was going on.  Editorial views varied from one end of the spectrum to the other, but tended to gravitate toward the middle.  Yellow journalism could be relied on to excite the masses – on occasion.  Tabloids provided checkout counter entertainment to most, with a fringe of gullible true believers.  Later on it was the NYT, WSJ, WP and CQ Weekly.  All that has changed.  News of what is going on comes unfiltered at lightning speed from a horde of reliable and unreliable sources.  Journalism is not the same as it had been for nearly a century, and while the change has been building for several decades, it is this election cycle that has brought into focus.  

The epicenter is Trump himself, and he is symbolic of the same thing going on with newsmakers everywhere else.  During the very odd March 16 news conference he labeled the (mainline) media as the enemy of the people.  He didn't need it to report news about the president and his policies.  He could do it himself, in his own words, direct to the people, without biased interpretation from journalists.  And he has.  He doesn't have to answer hard questions if he doesn't want to. He can be rude to reporters.  Who cares?  That's what's different.  Journalists are no longer needed to inform the public about important events.  Anybody with a computer, internet connection, and social media account can do it, and does it.  So if journalists are not needed to inform the public about events as they have been accustomed to doing, what is their role?

At its base, it is to aggregate the available flow of information about events, paring it down to its essentials, and distributing it to an audience that may already know something, but not enough to be well informed.  Being not simply informed, but well informed requires that aggregated information be examined, evaluated and verified.  It can't be easy.  The instantaneous flow of unverified and intentionally distorted information that is easily fed into the world wide net requires constant vigilance from journalists who know their subjects so well they can enter the stream with solid reporting almost as fast as Trump can tweet, or his 400 hundred pound Russian sitting in a basement can type.

It means spending a great deal of time doing research and making connections in an environment where the old currency no longer has much value.  What old currency?  The small coins were demands about the public's right to know.  "If you don't tell me, how will the public know, and the public has a right to know."  There's a hollow threat these days.  The big bills were congenial arrangements to make such and such known if so and so would be available for an interview.  On the record?  Off the record?  Attributed or anonymous?  We can work it out.  Big newsmaker so and so doesn't need that money anymore.  So and so can get his or her message out whenever it's convenient.  When a Sunday talking head host discovered his high powered guest had nothing worthwhile to say, he asked the obvious question: Why are you here?  The unstated answer was obvious.  He was there to demonstrate that the administration does not need Sunday programs or big name papers to get their message out.  They can appear and say nothing if they want to because the Sunday programs and big name papers are no longer important.

Are they no longer important?  Not if investigative reporting remains a valid pursuit.  What about the such and such that so and so does not want the public to know, or understand, but that is truly important for a well informed public to know and understand?  It may be that big name newsmakers will weasel, obfuscate, or just sit there.  Maybe they won't show up at all.  The programs and papers need to go on addressing the issues using the most qualified sources available, even if they are unknown outside their areas of expertise.

Well, so much for Sunday morning television and big name papers.  What about the rest of traditional print media?  It's not a happy time out there in the newsrooms.  Print subscriptions and related ad revenue are declining.  Staff has been laid off.  What can they do?  The days of 'Extra, Extra, Read All About It' are long gone.   The world already knows about it.  What the world needs to know is what it means, how is it connected to other things, where will it lead?  The world needs to know it as instantaneously as possible because verification and speed are the antidotes to rumor, intentional distortion, and propaganda.  Print will never die, but the electronic version of it is not the future, it is the present!  Moreover, what the public is so quickly made aware of tends toward the sensational and titillating.  Truly important moments in the life of the world, or the local community, may be happening in obscure places or lack any titillating appeal, but skilled journalists scanning the horizon know differently, and it's their job to tell us.  It's an expensive proposition.  If ad revenues continue to be the primary source of financing it, I hope they can do better than the sleazy mix before us now.  My toe fungus in fine, I can pee without assistance, I don't need that medication, I'm not dating, and I don't want to see the secret photos of Marilyn Monroe.

What about the rest of radio and television.  What a mess!  The greater part of it seems to be the electronic version of checkout tabloids, and a huge portion of the public eats it up.  It's cheap entertainment, not inexpensive, cheap.  Competent journalism sneaks in here and there.  The three broadcast networks do a decent job of digesting and capsulizing the day's news each evening.  The international 24 hour news channels do well.  The domestic ones do when something really big happens, otherwise banality on a loop becomes the fodder that fills up the clock.  One channel is up front about being a televised editorial page rather than a news outlet.  Another pretends otherwise.   Maybe competing for the largest mass audience is not what serious radio and t.v. should be doing.  Maybe they should be aiming with intentionality at thought and opinion leaders.  It's their natural audience anyway, but I wonder if they too blithely assume it, not bothering to aim with intentionality?  Who knows, aiming with intentionality could lead out into a broader audience.

OK, that's it for now.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Love, Neighbors, Prejudice & Lent

Love your enemy, and love your neighbor as yourself has been a recurrent theme among many Facebook friends from different parts of the political spectrum.  It's good to see.  Quite a change from incessant name calling.  Perhaps it's only coincidental that liturgical churches have for several weeks been hearing a portion of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's gospel in which Jesus makes it a major point.  I'd like to think the gospel message has had something to do with it.  In any case, for Christians, loving neighbors and enemies dominates the liturgical entry into Lent, bringing up my own lenten discipline.  It's the same one I've had for several years, and is likely to continue for all my Lents to come.  Regular readers might recall that it goes something like this: Loving my enemies is not difficult because I don't have any I can think of.  Not real enemies, personal enemies who want to do me harm.  What's hard is loving the people I don't like, some of whom are literally my neighbors.  That's what I work on each Lent, and intend to keep working on.  Not that I don't work on it the rest of the year, but Lent is a time of special, prayerful intentionality.

How hard is it to love people I don't like?  Consider this example.  We're on vacation right now, which, for a retired person is something of an oxymoron, but what else can you call it?  Anyway, the beach condo we've rented is of an age and design where private conversations are not easy to have.  Our neighbors on one side are owners living here each winter before returning to the mainland.  What they say and how they say it is often ours to hear whether we want to or not.  What have we heard?  A husband who in public is a loud hale fellow well met.  In private he's loudly, abusively mean spirited toward his wife, if he says anything at all.  Normal conversation appears to be absent.  Their politics are Trumpian.  They can't let go of their disgusted distaste of Obama.  It overflows into vigorous defense of all the wonderful things they expect from Trump.  The media is so unfair to him.  In the presence of guests, he requires only a few drinks to launch into assertions brooking no contradiction, the verity of which is establish in pugnacious decibels.  It's not conversation.  It's a sermon expecting only acquiescent amens.  Is it any threat to me?  No.  Does it interfere with my life in any substantive way?  No.  I know them only in passing, and only during the six weeks we are here.  Why should I care?  I don't know.  I only know that I don't like them, and especially don't like him.  But, and it's a huge but, they are my neighbors, and I am theirs.

Can I learn to love a person I don't like?  Wouldn't that mean getting to know him when I don't want to know him any better than I do?  If I have to love my neighbor as myself, can I pick another neighbor?  Can I learn to love him as Jesus no doubt does?  What would that be like?  These are serious questions, one's I've been struggling with for any number of Lents.  Would it require a sense of warm affection for the image of God in which he was created?  It's in there somewhere, but I don't see any evidence of it.  Of course I'm not looking very hard.  Does my dislike of a person I don't even know that well diminish God's Spirit within me?  Would I think differently if I knew the story of his life?  God certainly knows it.  Maybe I could assign him to a dark corner of soon forgotten moments.  Forget about it.  Who cares?  Why make it an issue at all?  Since my annual Lenten discipline is to learn how to love the people I don't like, and we are approaching Lent, this particular neighbor and his wife seem particularly well placed.  Is this another one of God's little jokes?  As the years have gone by progress has been elusive, but the questions remain.

Maybe you are better at it.  How's it coming along?  Loving those who love you is easy.  As Jesus said, anyone can do it.  You get no credit for doing that.  Loving the idea of enemies is a snap because, as long as they remain abstractions, you can love them abstractly, knowing that real intimacy is unlikely.  Loving real enemies might be another story.  Loving neighbors requires a little more effort.  It too remains an abstraction as long as walls and doors are thick enough.  The sliver of concreteness that comes across the backyard fence can be kept at arms length.  If it turns out that you like them, so much the better.  What about loving those you don't like?  Who do I know that is able to do that?  From what I hear, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama seem to, but I don't personally know them.  A retired priest friend does, but with a naive ability to be completely unaware of the aura of moral dislikability that surrounds some people.  There doesn't appear to be anybody he doesn't like.  Maybe he's right.  Being unaware of what is unlikeable opens the door to loving the other.  Chauncey Gardiner's ("Being There")  naive innocence was the key to simple straight forward love of the other without prejudice.  Me? Prejudice and I know each other well.

So here we are.  Lent is nearly here, and it's time to get started once again. They guy next door is providing all the fodder I need to chew on for now.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Retirement from Retirement

Retirement from retirement is a time of life that mixes loss, freedom, and self in a blender of advancing age to confront the question of how much being useful and busy is essential to one's sense of identity and self worth.  Nine years ago this month I retired as the rector of a mid-sized congregation, with only a vague idea of what retirement might bring.  It followed a previous career in government and business overfilled with sidelines in education and community involvement, along with the usual menu of personal difficulties in any life.  Retirement, we expected, would mean relief from the demands of the scheduled work week, and greater opportunity to travel more frequently for longer periods in far away places, and so it has.  But being usefully, successfully busy was also important.  It was how I had spent my life.  So with enthusiasm for new challenges, I dove into into the community work of boards and committees, increased the frequency of serving a small rural church thirty miles distant, and gave as much time as possible to serving as chaplain to our fire department, coroner, and police.  Specializing in emotional trauma, I responded to scenes where it was present, and led critical incident debriefings for first responders.  It wasn't hard to work in teaching introductory courses on leadership for aspiring fire service officers.  I loved it.  It was a filled, challenging, rewarding nine years that fed my ego.  Oddly enough, it didn't keep me from getting older, and it didn't stop me from utter surprise at discovering the onset of diminished physical abilities accompanied by enhanced vulnerability to organ dysfunction. The person in the mirror was not the person I imagined myself to be.  Shocked, I tell you, shocked, even though my wife had tried to tell me.

Now it's time for retirement from retirement, and it's a bit uncomfortable.  I guess recognition that it was coming began to take shape a few years ago when I argued with peers that it was time for a new generation to assume leadership roles those of a certain age had acquired and kept as if they were a birthright, and I was among those of a certain age.  I suppose it's always been that way.  Not so many years ago, senior board members of one organization harrumphed that if we wanted the best in financial advice we needed to talk to Al and Pete.  Pete was dead, Al was in a memory care facility, and none of them were aware of the competency of young experts abounding on every side.  It was time for me to step down and make way, not because I had nothing left to give, but because others were ready, and able.  It can be a bit unsettling to encounter important things happening in the community knowing that younger leadership is capable of handling them without my counsel.  So much adult identity is built around careers and the illusion that we are essential to the smooth running of things.  It isn't so, and it's humbling to find that out.  Who wants to be humbled?  We clergy talk about the importance of humility all the time.  It doesn't mean we want to be humbled.  At least I don't.  "I can get along without you very well" is not a song I want to hear echoing through the communities that have been so much a part of my life.

On the other hand, my interest in submitting to the demands of doing a job we'll when it interferes with my play time and nap time has waned.  Doing a job well is the only way to do a job.  So retirement from retirement has arrived, and with it new opportunities.  We are more free to explore all those places in the world that have enticed us since youth.  We can relax, and let others do the heavy lifting.  No curfews, no demands from bosses, no expectations to excel, no tests to pass.  It's, as one cartoon put it, a teenager's dream come true, albeit with somewhat less energy and agility.  It's a freedom not earned but encountered, so it might as well be encountered with joy and thanksgiving.  One way to do that is to make younger friends, as one of my mentors told me many years ago.  And so I have.  There is something invigorating about being with younger people excited about the promise of life unfolding.  It's comforting to be valued for what you may be able to offer.  Its a time for learning new things, exploring new places, trying new things.  But there is also something invigorating about nourishing long standing acquaintances into friendships that delight in long hours of conversation.  Retirement from retirement makes time for both.

We, my wife and I, are fortunate to have physical and mental health, and sufficient resources to be comfortable in life.  Not everyone does, we know that, but for the time being we do and intend to get the most out of them.  Her art, my writing, and our travels may not contribute to the utility of the market place, but they delight us.  It pays to be prudent and we are, but hunkering down in fear that we might not have enough so let's do and spend as little as possible seems a miserly, ungrateful way to live the next ten or twenty years.  Being grateful and living generously generates its own rewards in the most unexpected ways.  Who knows what can happen next?  We shall find out.  It's an adventure into unknown territory.  Here we go.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Baby Showers and Parole

A very brief article of no importance.  Maybe it's unusual, but as a man advanced in years with daughters and granddaughters, I had never been to a baby shower until yesterday.  Ken and I went because our wives went.  It was held right after church in the preschool rooms of Holy Innocents for their vicar, who is due to deliver momentarily.  We, Ken and I, were outnumbered, our presence tolerated with good humor, and initiated into a ritual with norms enforced by those looks only mothers can give.  The first, we discovered, is that you can't leave until its over, not that we didn't try.  The second, you are required to coo oooh after each gift is opened.  I cannot remember the last time I coo'd oooh.  It was not something taught in seminary.  The third, you are expected to comment on and remember the particular designs and uses of each item, especially the blankets, of which there are many.  A nodding head and Mona Lisa smile are the acceptable poses to be maintained while sitting on chairs of dubious heritage.  It goes on for a long time in order to accommodate all the requisite comments shared in a rather haphazard way with the expectant mom, the persons sitting near you, and somebody on the other side of the room near whom you should have been sitting.  We were grateful for our eventual release, and learned on the walk to lunch with our parole officers that it could have included songs and games, so quit complaining.        

Friday, February 10, 2017

Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment

Freedom of speech has been on my mind lately.  Maybe it's been on yours too.  The First Amendment to the Constitution reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  With that said, freedom of speech does have limits well established in law.  Libel for instance, or yelling fire in a crowded theater, but on the whole, freedom of speech, combined with freedom of the press, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and the freedom to petition the government are the American holy of holies.  The religion question is for another time.

What has brought it to my mind is a series of recent incidents.  Students at several universities have made it impossible for speakers they don't like to be heard, or even appear.  The Senate's tradition of not allowing senators to say nasty things about each other on the floor is enshrined in Rule 19, which was invoked to prohibit Senator Warren from reading unkind things about Senator Sessions from a letter written by Correta Scott King; indeed, she was prevented from saying anything at all during floor debate over his nomination to become Attorney General.  The president continues to speak and tweet outrageous untruths and fuzzy half truths, declaring his "alternative facts" without fear of contradiction in the face of a clamorous contradicting.

It troubles me that freedom of speech is used to justify shutting down the free speech of others, especially in the halls of government and education.  It troubles me that freedom of speech is used by persons in power to justify declaring in the public arena stray thoughts, ill conceived opinions, and outright lies as if they were truth.  It troubles me that the freedom of the press, thanks to radio, television, and social media, has become the playground of demagogues whose blatant abuse of "news" has demeaned and diminished the whole of the Fourth Estate by a Fifth Estate having no accountability, something of which I am a part. It troubles me that the right of the people to petition government is blockaded by a heavily armed phalanx of paid lobbyists surrounding the legislature,  a praetorian guard of staffers limiting access to those who have paid for it, and communication channels shut down to keep the pests away.  Like others, I donate to organizations employing lobbyists to represent me, but I'd like my voice to be heard as something other than a modest donation.  As much as I hate admitting it, the tea party gangs did a good job of making their voices heard, and shame on us for not doing the same.

What about the right of peaceable assembly?  Protests.  Marches.  Massing at town hall events, etc.  Sending groups of like minded persons to state capitals or D.C..  Might we now add organized forms of electronic communication?  It seems that the right of peaceable assembly is frequently dismissed as insignificant rabble rousing, influential only because of the size or emotional intensity of the crowd, or undermined by violence (opportunistic or planned).  Whatever its weaknesses, it remains a powerful tool to influence public policy, a right in need of constitutional protection.  Yet, legislation was introduced in my state of Washington to make it a felony to engage in non permitted assemblies in public places.

First Amendment freedoms are first because its authors understood that on them rested the success of their experiment in representative democracy formed by a union of quasi independent states united as a nation by a written, binding constitution.  However, ratifying them did not remove them from public debate.  We've always had problems with how much freedom of speech should be allowed.  The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 are eerily similar to executive and legislative moves in our own time.  They prefaced similar efforts limiting freedom of speech during times of war, which have been many.  Each time, the limits were overturned, eventually, but not until they had achieved their purposes couched in terms of keeping us safer, more secure, and united in effort.  Public fear, it seems, can override constitutional freedoms without much effort, and stoking public fear has become efficiently easy to do.

Social media has changed the arena of free speech by making possible and encouraging the instantaneous spread to a world wide public of unverified, unverifiable assertions on the grounds that it is protected free speech.  Consider a local example of no great importance to the world at large.  A conversation stream on a community news site included declarations that the city was paying to import homeless people to populate our homeless camp.  When challenged about veracity, the author claimed freedom of speech.  I'm not sure why, but it unleashed other assertions about why the community does not have a Costco, and several other stores some people want.  Decisions by a corrupt, incompetent city council of course: no citation required.  Other issues followed, each of them uninformed and unverified, but confidently made on the grounds of free speech, to which was added the claim that their opinions about what is true are as valid as anyone else's.  A corollary is the claim of fake news used by a tea party friend of mine to label anything that conflicts with his liking.  The conversation stream was a little thing of local interest, but it took only seconds to be spread throughout the community, and made available as corroboration for like minded persons elsewhere about discontent in their own towns.  The template is the same for truly important issues at national and international levels.

Here's the 'so what?'.  It is the First Amendment, not the Second, on which rest all our other rights.  It must be protected.  The content of speech has remained much the same over the centuries.  Misinformation, intentional or otherwise, hate speech, fear mongering, and ordinary gossip compete with well verified information and informed opinion, as they always have.  What has changed is the ability of persons to efficiently, effectively manipulate the public through the tools of protected free speech, thanks in part to the combination of electronic mass communication and social media.  Unlike the NRA's claim of the Second Amendment as an unlimited individual right, free speech has always been understood to have limits, but what they are is permeable, flexible, and uncertain.  But one thing is certain: the right and tools of free speech must be employed widely to confront unverified and unverifiable assertions whenever and wherever they appear.  Informed opinion must challenge uninformed opinion, not that it is wrong, but that it is uninformed.  Finally, liberal education from pre-school through graduate school remains the rock on which verified, informed communication among and between us can be built.  There isn't any other.  OK, that's not really final, but it's as far as this essay goes.