Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Nation in a State of Angst

The nation appears to be in a collective state of angst.  Never before before has one party expressed such unreflective loyalty to a president whose corruption, ineptitude, and mental instability have been on such public display.  Never has the nation’s international reputation been so sullied.  The beloved myth of the United States as the leader of the free world, the paragon of civic virtue, the protector of weaker states, the promised land for immigrants, the shining torch of democracy and respect for rule of law – it all lies tattered in the gutter. 

Trump, who has betrayed wives, girlfriends, associates, friends, employees, creditors and customers over the course of his entire life, has now betrayed allies, befriended foes, and made enemies of competitors.  He’s cozied up to dictators and ridiculed democratically elected leaders.  His most recent betrayal, the betrayal of the Kurds in Syria, is inhumanly cruel, and of it he makes light.

America has been through tough times before.  Our collective behavior has never lived up to our beloved myth of national virtue, but we’ve always aspired to do so.  A brutal civil war nearly destroyed hope for a united nation committed to a federal system defined by a constitution whose enduring stability was guaranteed by a strenuous amendment process.  We more than survived, we made progress toward living more fully into the myth.  We did so even as charlatans were in political leadership, robber barons tried for plutocracy, and America First movements thirsted for fascism.  As destructive as the era of race riots was, the greater number of Americans remained convinced that civil and human rights were not to be reserved to some and withheld from others. 

Through it all, the United States emerged as a sign of democratic and economic hope for the entire world.  Respected by many, feared by some, it became a reluctant imperial super power greater than any other in recorded history.

In less than three years, Trump, Senator McConnell and the Freedom Caucus have eroded enough of its foundation that the nation will never recover its former glory.  It may not be all bad.  A few years ago I wrote a column arguing that we Americans must learn to be one nation among many.  It’s not important that we be first in everything.  We can be content with the good life that is at hand, and not lust after a richer life to the detriment of others.  I thought it was a reasonable argument, but did not expect to achieve it at the cost of ignominy casting Americans as foolish rubes easily led by an imitation Mussolini.  It stuns me that there remains a core of the electorate not simply loyal to him, but convinced he is the savior of all that’s important to them.

We will survive again.  Hopefully, a new administration will be elected next year.  It will not be perfect.  Right wing howling about a dive into socialism may raise emotional hackles, but it’s entirely without merit.  The most liberal of candidates is pretty mainstream, even if the right wing is easily persuaded that anything to their left is dreaded socialism, leaving no room for traditional conservatives.  For hard core libertarians, any form of government is suspect.  May they ever remain a small sect.  Curiously, committed as they are to individualism free from governmental interference, they’re the most likely to opt for autocracy.  But I digress.

A new administration will restore public decorum, adherence to the rule of law, and hesitant trust among other nations that the U.S. will again become a reliable partner in international relations and trade.  In keeping with previous Democratic administrations, it will probably restore fiscal discipline as well, and that should reassure traditional conservatives.  

Should it not happen, we will have more years of digging deeper holes taking longer to get out of when the time comes.  We may even lose our democracy.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Are All Equally Corrupt?

I have a libertarian Trump supporting friend with whom I maintain regular correspondence.  He’s unhappy with Trump’s “character flaws,” but likes his policies because they’ve been dismantling the federal government piece-by-piece, something he’s wanted for a long time.  He’s not persuaded by accusations of Trump’s unethical, perhaps criminal track record because he believes all politicians and corporate leaders are equally corrupt, so what’s the difference? There was a time, he thinks, fifty or sixty years ago when it wasn’t so, but it is now. 

In his view, Trump is no worse than Hillary, Biden or any other politician.  They’re all equally bad.  Regular people, real people, are not as fallen as that, but politicians and corporate leaders are.  Left on their own, regular people, real people, would do very well with limited local governments and smaller family owned businesses.  It’s a romantic ideal prizing the rural life of small towns populated by self sufficient citizens right out of Hallmark Channel movies.  What’s keeping us from it is the evil of big government, socialism, and greedy corporations, all led by corrupt people.  They’re represented by the worst of the darkest of Batman’s Gotham City.

Having spent a good many years working on the edges of public policy at the federal level, and with a wide variety of corporate leaders, I disagree.  I don’t believe politicians and corporate leaders are either more or less ethical than ever.  In fact, I have a generally high regard for most of them, but there have been systemic changes making ethical commitments harder to keep, or, maybe, more costly to keep. 

For instance, in that magical time of fifty or sixty years ago, many of the largest corporations had strong ties to their home communities, the places where they came into being.  Major share holders were often heirs of the founders, or executives with deep roots in the community.  Minority share holders were widely distributed among the local population.  The result was an implied commitment to the well being of the community.  Those connections have faded away.  Major shareholders are more likely to be mutual funds, pension funds, and impersonal hedge fund types.  Computerized algorithms create wild gyrations in the stock market, as technotraders try to eke out profitable margins on the casino tables of the floor, rather than investing in a company’s future.  When connections to communities and their people are severed, so are implied ethical commitments.

Current tax and corporate governance law, as I vaguely understand it, requires CEOs and boards to manage affairs for short term maximum return based on share value.  It means manipulating the business to keep stock prices as high as possible outweighs all other commitments, no matter what the annual report and press releases claim.  Moreover, the seductiveness of super salaries for senior executives can easily subvert good intentions to be ethically responsible decision makers.  Paul warned his student Timothy that ”a love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (I Tim. 6)  I can’t ask the corporate world to adopt Christian values, but I can point out the universal truth of Paul’s warning, and encourage actions that might mitigate the corrupting influence of demands to maximize monetary return to the exclusion of all other forms of return. 

It seems to me that a few minor changes to the law, together with a high marginal rate on super salaries, would do a lot to change things for the better.  Corporate tax incentives for better wages at lower levels, and tax disincentives for excessive stock buybacks and super salaries might work to improve both investment and wage distribution. 

Over the course of many decades, I’ve met and engaged with hundreds of politicians at the local, state and national levels, as well as staff on one hand and corporate lobbyists on the other.  For the most part, they have been people who desired to do what they believed to be right for their constituents, and tried to do it with integrity, keeping in mind that defining integrity is always influenced by the social mores of the time.  There were always exceptions.  They often made the headlines.  Some went to prison.   I think it’s still true.  

Yes, the political life is filled with dangers.  You can’t be a politician and not have an ego that delights in public approbation.  Doing whatever is needed to get it is dangerous.  Being skilled in the give and take of political negotiating with other ego driven politicians is a must.  Losing one’s way by making it a zero sum game is dangerous.  State capitals, and Washington, D.C. to an even greater extent, are filled with people attracted by power, intent on getting as close to it as possible, and competing with each other for position and influence.  It can be very seductive.  There’s a fine line between legitimate influence and bribery paid with money, sex, and insider trading tips.  Moreover, what’s moral and what’s legal are not the same thing.

That’s life in any capital city at any time in human history.  An honest reading of American political history reveals the ebb and flow, push and pull, between political integrity and political opportunism, between corruption and reform, between justice and injustice.  Over time we have made enormous strides toward “a more perfect union”, but we have made them stumbling and lurching.  Popular memory prefers another image of smoother progress combined with reverent patriotism, and faith in the  future.  It’s a wonderful image now torn into polarization that I think came from sources claiming patriotism for themselves while denying it to others.

The rise of extreme libertarianism (tea partiers, freedom caucus, etc.), combined with propaganda machines skilled at using the internet and social media, have undermined respect and support for the institutions of government, and led their followers in an authoritarian direction, all in the name of patriotism.  It’s worked well for a relatively small number of corporate barons (Koch, et al) who have little respect for the libertarian masses, and would prefer Oligarchical control over as thin a veneer of democracy as they can get away with.  But even they have convinced themselves it would be for the good of the  nation, claiming and believing in their own integrity.

Is it cause for despair?  For worry, certainly, but not yet for despair.  Politics remains the art of deciding how we want to live together in community, whether local, state or national.  It is, in that regard, a noble art worthy of our best efforts, and one in which every citizen should play their part.  Our federal system of representative democracy is unique in the democratic world, and it’s lumbered through several centuries to prove itself enduring, flexible, and resistant to being overwhelmed by those who would corrupt it for their own benefit, or push it away from democratic ideals.  We have reached a nadir with the current administration, but House investigations and the 2020 election may yet turn us in a better direction.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Honoring Conservative Values in a Progressive Agenda

The impeachment express is full ahead, and not without justification.  Combine it with Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop blustering about other peoples’ corruption, and we’re all distracted from important issues that must be addressed by the next administration. 

Democrats will nominate a liberal candidate who will be quickly labeled as a radical left wing socialist, in spite of the fact the he or she will be about as mainstream as can be.  We’ve already seen how Trump’s mastery at slapping the socialist label on primary candidates resonates with those who think of themselves as conservatives, even if they dislike Trump.  Consider these talking points currently used by the GOP:
  • Pelosi & Co. are holding hostage Trump’s agenda and the good of the country
  • Democrats will raise taxes (on you), squander resources on free health care and college tuition, open borders to all immigrants, let inmates vote, allow dangerous abortions, and abolish the electoral college.
  • They promote a big government socialist agenda.
  • Big and social media are in their pocket.

They’re points engineered to raise emotional angst to a high level, and they work very well, partly because they can cite something some Democrat once said that, out of context, lends them credence.  To be sure, Democrats have their own emotional trigger pulling talking points, but right wing Republicans have honed theirs with more skill to better effect. 

On the other hand, the GOP is also raising issues that show concern for:
  • Stagnant wages
  • Soaring deficits
  • Rebuilding infrastructure
  • Fixing health care
  • Adequate funding for Social Security and Medicare
  • Veterans health care
  • Global instability
  • Cyber security

Each of these issues is addressed as a priority in various campaign messages.  They’re also issues of concern to progressives because they’re important to the future of the nation.  In an age of polarization, they cross the divide.  It means a key to wining the election will be how well the candidate and party can truthfully present a progressive agenda appealing to the values of voters who have voted Republican, or who tend to not vote at all.  They will never win over libertarians for whom the federal government is a malevolent creature in need of dismantling.  But they can win over those whose conservative values can be honored by a progressive agenda.

What would such and agenda look like?  Here are a few thoughts that might be worth considering.  Advance warning: there is nothing here about climate change as such, and no grand scheme for health care.

  1. Modest changes to the IRS code to encourage higher rates of wage growth for low and middle income earners.  Use corporate tax credits to create incentives for higher wages at lower levels.  Apply tax penalties for overuse of stock buybacks and excessive executive compensation.
  2. An infrastructure plan focussed on the Interstate, bridges, water & sewer systems, and regional airport improvements.
  3. Demonstration of ability to restore respect for American leadership on the world stage.
  4. Free but fair trade through reengagement with multilateral negotiations emphasizing worker rights, and protection for intellectual property.  Make agriculture a public priority.
  5. Revise the tax code to make it more fair to all, with a significantly higher marginal rate at the top end.
  6. A health care plan expanding the ACA and allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices for all.
  7. An affordable housing program that restores special advantages for tax credit financing to build low and moderate income housing through Housing Authorities and NGOs.  Expand and fully fund the voucher program.  Strengthen HUD enforcement of rules for safe, clean housing financed under its authority.
  8. Offer planning assistance to encourage economic diversification in distressed areas.
  9. Restore regulations protecting health and the environment, but streamline processes, and require federal agencies to adopt customer service practices replacing impersonal bureaucratic enforcement.
  10. Reconfigure FEMA to accommodate greater frequency of severe weather events.  Restrict rebuilding grants to reasonably safe areas.
  11. Restore the integrity of government, particularly in the: FEC, SEC, Inspectors General, CFPB, Consumer Protection Bureau, and federal R&D agencies.
  12. Immigration of course, but keep it simple.  Make it clear, no open borders; simplify and speed up processing asylum seekers; allow higher numbers of legal immigrants; reform CBP; guarantee dreamer protection.
  13. Restore Federal budget integrity: eliminate debt ceiling; commit to getting budgets and appropriations out on time; improve the sequester system to once again initiate deficit reduction without jeopardizing core social programs.  
  14. Celebrate low unemployment numbers as long as they last.
  15. Celebrate military preparedness, but avoid promises of new weapons systems.  Restore funding highjacked for the wall.
  16. Celebrate House passed legislation stopped in the Senate without further consideration.
It’s not a perfect agenda, not even a beautiful one.  The intent is to appeal to conservative minded voters who represent significant numbers of electoral votes, as well as urban voters in traditionally Republican neighborhoods, because we need them. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Welcoming Congregation? Maybe Not.

A recent day long gathering of congregational lay and clergy leaders focussed its attention on conditions that favor and oppose inviting and welcoming newcomers into the fellowship of worship.  The usual menu of all the good things they do to was posted, with everyone nodding that, yes, these were good things.  In addition to coffee hours, greeters at the door, follow up with personal contacts, new signage, and better access, there things like soup kitchens, room for AA and other community groups, and a variety of other social service activities.  Each and every one a good thing indeed.  Yay for us. 

Conditions that were unfavorable to inviting and welcoming were a little harder to come by.  Compliance with ADA standards was a big one.  Poor signage, and lack of good things mentioned above of course.  One brave soul admitted that the matriarchs and patriarchs of her congregation didn’t want any new people because they knew everyone in town, and anyone new would be someone they didn’t want.  She was grateful that none of old leaders were in the meeting with us.  Another admitted that, in spite of the congregation’s financial support of community needs, few knew where they were located, or wether an Episcopal Church was even Christian. 

The common denominator linking all the discussion was the subconscious assumption that new people, invited and welcomed into the fellowship of worship, would probably have the same cultural values and expectations of church as did the congregation.  They would certainly know who Jesus is.  Even those who desire to open the doors to people not like us tend to think about what would be more welcoming from their own point of view, which includes assumptions about what “those others” would find attractive.  

It’s not our problem only.  It’s the same set of assumptions shared by every organized assembly wherever, in what ever culture.  We, mostly white Episcopalians from the intermountain west, are not unlike a congregation in Nigeria, Lakota lands, suburbs of a big city, or the rural deep South.  It’s human nature.  What we stumble over is our inability to look at the question from the point of view of the other whom we think we want to welcome.  The real question is: what is it about what we offer that the other will find uncomfortable and unwelcoming?  What is it that will make them feel vulnerable, not fit for the likes of those present, embarrassed or humiliated?  They’re hard questions to answer because it requires us to step out of our area of comfort to see things from an alien perspective.  To experience it for yourself, go to church in another denomination in another part of the country where you are a stranger.  Better yet, make it a church attended predominantly by a race other than yours.

The dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Portland, OR was featured in a Whitman College magazine article, in it he described the difficulty of opening the congregation to the others who are a part of the neighborhood.  It’s already an LBGTQ friendly congregation, so how hard could it be?  Very.  The poor, unwashed, and mentally ill – what is it that prevents them from feeling welcome?  What makes non-whites feel uncomfortable?  What makes the never-gone-to-church-know-nothing-about-Christianity feel uncomfortable?  What makes the straight, white newcomer feel uncomfortable?  You can’t know unless you ask them, and you can’t find out from them unless you’re willing to engage with them in listening conversation.  Engaging in listening conversation is an active way to encourage others to open doors from the outside and come in.  It’s not easy, and it can raise anxiety to a high level.  

There’s a more passive way to open doors from the inside, and that’s by losing the anxiety associated with trying too hard.  It means giving up on cultural projections and expectations.  The congregation from which I retired struggled with how to attract some of the growing percentage of Hispanics in the community.  Some suggested adding Spanish prayer books, reading the gospel in two languages, or maybe hosting a popular Mexican saint’s day.  It was all well intended.  No one noticed that the church is in a part of town not frequented by the Hispanic population, nor that what the expected was their easy adaptation to the warmth of our Anglo Episcopalian ways, albeit with a Mexican touch.  It was all well intended, but nothing happened.  

Curiously, with that failure behind them, they became less uptight about who they were, and less anxious about welcoming the other not like them.  They began to discover gay couples among their number, a few Africans (not American), some struggling with behavioral issues, and a number of odds and ends who were definitely not your typical middle class whites.  They even discovered that noisy children, who sometimes wandered around the nave during worship, could be welcome with only an occasional tsk-tsk and tut-tut.  It’s remains a struggle.  A large apartment complex of low income elderly on the same block remains an untapped well.  The twice weekly luncheon for any who are hungry is oversold, except for an invitation to join worship, which remains undersold. 

The point is, we can sometimes allow our anxieties about not being welcoming enough get in the way of being more welcoming congregations.  How about simply opening the doors and welcoming whoever comes in?  What really gets in the way is reluctance to make the open door more well known in the neighborhood.  Maybe it’s fear of looking too evangelical, in the worst sense of what that means.

A final point.  Some, in their desire to welcome all, absentmindedly obscure the special characteristics of our Anglican tradition.  Denominational differences are important.  We Episcopalians have a particular way of expressing our faith within a tradition that has real meaning.  Diminishing what makes Episcopalian polity and worship different demeans what is important in our understanding of what it means to be Christian.  We aren’t more right than others, but our Anglican tradition has value.  We are not just another vanilla variation.  We’re reformed Catholics for a reason. 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Moral Justification for Anti-intellectualism - and a response

Headlines and social media proclaim we’ve entered an age of anti- intellectualism.  It wouldn’t be the first time for us, nor for the world.  There’s a restlessness among those who believe they’ve been ignored and left behind by a ruling elite that cares little about their welfare.  Economic welfare is clearly at the head, but being left behind intellectually is close behind.

The introduction of new technologies, and new fields of knowledge, that demand assertive curiosity and critical thinking skills to be understood, can easily leave many behind.  When they’ve become popularized through application to every day use, indeed when they’ve become essential to every day life, perhaps needed for workaday livelihood itself, they can flood whole populations with overwhelming angst about being left behind intellectually.

It’s not hard for popular forms of anti-intellectualism to grow and prosper when that happens.  There was a time when technological innovations, and new fields of knowledge, arrived in reasonably predictable waves separated by enough years that one could anticipate earning a living based on what one learned in school or apprenticeship.  New developments came, but at a rate most could accommodate.  WWII changed all of that, and the rate of technological and knowledge base change affecting every day life has accelerated ever since.  It’s jarring, disorienting, and frightening.  

No wonder ant-intellectualism found fertile ground, but where did it find moral justification permitting it to accuse an undefined intellectually elite of culpability?  In the bible; more particularly in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, not buried in the middle, but right there at the beginning.   In it Paul wrote that “God made foolish the wisdom of the world.”  The foolishness and weakness of God, he wrote, is wiser and stronger than that of human beings.  In fact, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”  “God chose what is low and despised in the world…to bring to nothing things that are.”  So, Hah!, take that you intellectual snobs who look down on us.  Anti-intellectualism had found its moral justification.

What’s the right response?  I’m not sure.  Anxiety, with its roots in rapidly accelerating technological change, combined with uncomfortable developments in society’s core knowledge base, must be recognized and respected.  There’s no point in being one of Agnew’s (remember him?) nattering nabobs of intellectual superciliousness.  That’s nothing but bait for defensively angry attacks.  Based on my own experience, there’s not much point in trying to change firmly held convictions that have become treasured possessions.  

Jesus’s warned us not to store up treasures on earth where corruption consumes them, but in heaven where there is no corruption. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  We treasure nothing more than holding grievances close to our hearts.  What could be more corrupting than treasured grievances held so close that we can’t-won’t give them up.  The great advantage of a grievance is that it creates an enemy who must be defeated if justice is to be restored. But to declare intellectualism to be the enemy is to smite the potentially best ally one could have. 

Maybe the best we can do is calmly, patiently assert the utilitarian value of intellectual disciplines that help bring order to the apparent chaos of overly rapid change.  There will always be a hard core who refuse to budge, but there will be more who show willingness to learn and adapt, however hesitantly –– if they are acknowledged with respect as worthy peers.   

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Importance of Church & Episcopalians Do It Well.

Why regular worship in church is important is not easy to explain.  Add to it a sense that denominational differences shouldn’t matter, and it get’s more difficult.  I think they do matter.  This column tries to address both, and is a revision of a recent article for a local paper

In a nation where church attendance continues to decline, belief in God retrains an important place for most people.  Recent studies suggest about 80% of Americans believe in God, but only half of them believe in God as described in the bible.  The others are from non-biblical faith traditions, or believe in some kind of higher power.  Among those who believe in God as described in the bible, Christians and Jews have different ways of interpreting the text.  Among Christians there are differences between those who believe God determines what happens in one’s life, and those who understand God as engaging but not micro managing.  Of the nearly 20% who do not believe in God, a healthy subgroup does believe in an undefined higher power. 

So what does that have to do with the people here?  You’re not that different from the population as a whole, and it means there are a lot of folks wandering around in a fog of unknowing who believe in God in some way but don’t know who God is or how to  have a right relationship with God.  Participating in the worship life of a congregation is where they will find answers to their questions, and I encourage them to take the risk to discover for themselves how much richer life can be.  Moreover, as a Christian pastor I boldly proclaim that it will lead to a fuller, more abundant life not for now only, but for all eternity.  Is church really necessary for that?  Can’t you do it on your own?  God says you can’t.  God calls us into community that is the worship life of a congregation. But which one is the right one?

Denominations differ in how they understand and express faith in God, whom we Christians believe is most fully revealed in Christ Jesus.  It can get confusing if we think there can be only one right way.  Let’s face it, not one size fits all, but in our differences there is a size for every person.  Episcopalians proclaim God’s love that heals, restores, nourishes and strengthens.  We dedicate a large portion of our services to hearing the bible read and offering prayers.  Sermons are biblically focussed and short.  We believe Jesus is truly present for us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion that we celebrate each Sunday.  All who would meet and be received by Jesus are invited to participate with us in it.  We work hard at helping each other understand God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) more thoroughly, more deeply, and more personally, but we don’t demand that everyone believe in exactly the same way.  Because we’re a liturgical church with priests and bishops, people often ask whether we’re Protestant or Catholic.  We’re a bit of each.   

Other denominations have other ways of understanding and expressing faith in God.  They’re not wrong, only different.  The idea that there has to be one, and only one right way to be Christian seems odd to me.  We don’t insist on that with anything else.  Is a Ford the only right truck to drive?  Is a Nike the only right sneaker to wear?  We are a nation that treasures differences and the freedom to discover for one’s self what is right and good.  But in all that is right and good, there is one that is highest and best.  It comes to us from God because it is God.  We Christians are certain the highest right and good is revealed in Jesus Christ, and can be fully experienced only through participation in a worshiping community.   

Take a risk.  Find a church that fits you.

(Data from April 2018 Pew report)

Using Conservative Vocabulary to Express Progressive Policies that Fix Potholes

(Note: I was asked to speak to a Democratic group in Washington’s 5th District. This article is a revision of that talk, and repeats themes from previous Country Parson columns.)

For Democrats to win in the fabled heartland, including our own Fifth District, we need to learn how to speak with voters suspicious of anything they think might be from the left.  I don’t mean hard right wingers, tea partiers, and others whose beliefs cannot be challenged.  I mean voters who think of themselves as conservative because they’ve always been conservative, Republican because they’ve always been Republican, and have bought into the small government - low taxes theme without giving it much thought.  I mean non-voters who would turn out if there was a good reason.  I mean Trump voters who are sick of Trumpism, but wary of crossing the border for someone who might be worse, perhaps even a dreaded socialist.

The people with whom we need to speak believe in Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and they want to hear from candidates who speak their language of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  We need to talk with them about progressive ideas in the conservative vocabulary of earthy concerns about everyday life.  It’s a vocabulary surprisingly progressive on social matters, unsurprisingly conservative on fiscal matters, and always colored by the experiences, prejudices and limitations that formed their world view.  I call it pothole language.

Show me you know how to fix the potholes in the street that is my life, and the life of my community, and I’ll listen to you.  The problem with too many Democrats is they don’t know how to speak in pothole language.  The more rabidly liberal they are, the less able they are to express progressive ideas in the vocabulary of potholes. 

We need to translate lofty policy proposals, using conservative vocabulary, into pothole language.  

Millions, who were once dependable Democratic voters, turned away in part because lofty proposals, not expressed in pothole language, were enormous disincentives.  For the most part, they are ordinary people who feel forgotten.  Quick to take umbrage when they feel put down, they enthusiastically engage in reverse snobbery to protect themselves from even snobbier liberal elites, real or imagined.

Trump, who cares not one whit for the average Jane and Joe, understood the importance of using the right vocabulary as he flimflammed them with his second rate steaks, fake university, and tawdry casinos.  He may have failed at each, but they taught him how to woo disaffected voters by picking at their wounds while promising  healing salve at no cost to them.  That he had no salve, and no intention of getting any, was irrelevant.  What he learned from steaks, fake schools and casinos was how to talk about their hopes and dreams in the language of fixing everyday problems, the potholes in their lives.

He learned how to talk convincingly about big national problems as if they were neighborhood potholes that he alone could fix.  Of course he was manipulating the system the whole time to make money for himself.  It’s what he does.  If a pothole or two got fixed along the way, so much the better.

I was reflecting on this phenomena while on hold calling a local business.  Their hold music was Sammy Johns’ 1981 song “Common Man.”  It goes like this:
I’m just a common man, drive a common van
My dog ain’t got a pedigree
If I have my say, it gonna stay that way
‘Cause high-browed people lose their sanity
And a common man is what I’ll be

It’s a thirty-eight year old lyric written in the first year of Reagan’s presidency reflecting the theme Reagan ran on: Democrats were out of touch with the common man, and common man Western Cowboy Reagan would be their own true voice in Washington.  

As it turned out, Reagan and Reaganomics set in motion structural changes that began the erosion of the American Dream, the downward slope of middle class income, and the climb toward greater extremes of wealth inequality.  But Reagan was sold as one with the common man, and they loved him for it, they still do.  And I think he believed it too. 

It didn’t flip a switch.  Reliable Democratic voters didn’t flip over night.  It was a slow process that gained acceleration with the election of an intellectually articulate, professorial black president whose presence on the national stage triggered long suppressed racial prejudices.  And Trump knew how to make the most of it.

Mr. Johns’ song remains popular today for a reason.  It’s an anthem of reverse snobbery declaring that high-browed elites (intellectual, liberal, sophisticated, well read, articulate) not only look down with contempt on common people, they’re shallow and corrupt to boot.  Strip away their veneer, and there’s nothing there.  It’s emotional and political self defense for (mostly white) self identifying common men and women.  They clutch it close to the breast.

Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and even Bill Clinton, understood the dynamic well.  They knew how to present the most important issues facing the nation in pothole language, and it wasn’t flimflam.  They intended to do  real work for real people to make their lives better.  Not all their ideas were good, not all worked, but there was genuine intention to do well for ordinary people.  To be sure, the legacy of systemic racism corrupted good intentions, but that’s a subject for another time.

Today’s subject is the need for today’s Democratic party to use the conservative vocabulary of pothole language to talk with, not at, ordinary people about the major issues facing the nation, and our plans for dealing with them.  It has to be authentic because the trumpian GOP has done a superb job of painting Democrats as coastal elites who care nothing for common people.  Even worse, they’re liberal big government socialists who will take away rights and guns.  

My own take is that Bernie’s ranting and raving may raise cheers in some quarters, but he never explains how he’ll fix the potholes.  Warren’s academic erudition nails the issues to perfection, but she never explains how the potholes will get fixed.  Beto dances on table tops, which is entertaining but avoids potholes (Note: his recent forceful stance on border and gun issues marks a change, but probably too late).  Harris is still in prosecutor mode, responding to questions as if cross examining hostile witnesses.  The one who comes closest to getting it right is the young mayor of South Bend with the funny last name.  Mayor Pete takes on national and international issues, speaks about them as if they were South Bend potholes, and makes it clear that he knows how to fix them – and not all by himself.  He speaks respectfully but knowledgeably, without condescension, to the concerns of ordinary people.  It seem unlikely he’ll be the nominee, but he knows how to present progressive ideas with the conservative vocabulary of pot holes.  

It’s Truth, Justice, and the American Way as ordinary people want to hear it.

Stacey Abrams can do the same.  Combine a Georgia legislative leader with a romance novelist, and you’ve got someone who knows how to connect with the common person’s deepest desires.  She’s not running, so learn from her.

So, what exactly is the vocabulary of pot holes?

Pay attention people.  If a dishonest grifter like Trump can fool enough people, and he knows how to do it, he can win again.  Honest opposition can do better by authentically, honestly speaking with quiet confidence in pothole language.  And remember, all modern soap boxes have very good audio systems.  No need to screech and yell.  

If we want to reach across the divide between progressives and the dominant conservative ethos of this region, it will pay to have fluency in the their language.  Liberals, including me, have exhausted themselves with fact checking and rebuttal arguments to no avail, and must change their tactics.  They need to adapt mainline conservative vocabulary to illustrate how progressive agendas will preserve and enhance cherished American values.

The most important vocabulary words honor American individualism, personal freedoms, and economic security.  Democrats don’t believe government is the enemy, but a valued agent helping make good things happen - not perfect.  We can can present progressive policies as enhancing freedom, making life more secure, and opening ways toward a more rewarding life.  To do that, progressive agendas need to be expressed by answering three questions:  why do we need it; how will it work; how will we pay for it?

Focus on national pride.  Celebrate patriotism that believes in the fundamental value of American democratic ideals.  Boldly celebrate how progressive programs will enhance all that has made America a great nation.  Americans who twice voted for Obama, then switched to Trump, want their sense of patriotism to be honored.

Emphasize a tough stance on international trade.  Proclaim intention to reenter multilateral agreements with higher standards for worker rights, environmental protection, intellectual property, and commercial code transparency.

Celebrate the economy.  It’s progressive policies that have enabled our decade long period of economic growth. Claim it.  But claim it with recognition that Trump has run it out onto thin ice through ill advised tax cuts, surging deficits, and failed tariff wars.  

Admit we have an immigration problem, and poor control of our borders.  Voters want simple solutions, so keep it simple.  Streamline asylum and refugee admissions that keep families intact.  Help Central Americans understand that the U.S. may not offer the land of hope they’ve been led to believe it will.  Create a form of immigration admissions similar to the Ellis Island system.

Conservatives favor a strong military well poised to fight the previous big war.  Progressives can use the vocabulary of national defense to promote preparation for emerging threats, while illuminating the systematic erosion of current readiness through fund transfers to Trump’s latest whims.

Promote revitalized public education for all.  Make rural areas and inner cities the priority.  Emphasize state-federal partnerships.

Commit to infrastructure with a real plan that begins with bridges, highways, water & sewer, and other utilities.  They are the things of every day use.  Then go on to broadband, air traffic, mass transit, etc.  Never promise shovel ready projects.  There aren’t any.

Affordable housing is an issue in every city and town.  Talk about practical ways to make progress that a person making less than $100k can easily understand will benefit her or him. 

Face the obvious.  The federal bureaucracy gets a bad rap because they’re lousy at customer service.  There is a huge difference between enforcing regulations and customer service that facilitates user adaptation to them.  

Health care.  Don’t over promise.  Keep it simple.  Nothing is free.  How will it be paid for?

It’s a simple vocabulary of ordinary life that expresses the value of freedom, economic opportunity, pride in nation, and governmental restraint.

Not the End


Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Travel as Pilgrimage Unintended

I haven’t been writing as Country Parson for a while.  We were able to spend some time in Europe, with writing time devoted to keeping a daily journal of our adventures.  We’re back home, a day earlier than we had planned.  For reasons known only to our subconscious, my wife and I were convinced we had another day in Amsterdam, but Delta sternly informed us that we didn’t.  We made the plane.  But I digress.

What struck me on this trip was the reality of travel as pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage is usually thought of as a trek to a holy site, a spiritual quest for a holy grail of one kind or another.  The historic Camino de Santiago de Compostela (a system of trails leading to the shrine of St. James) may be the most well known pilgrimage these days.  Many of us remember reading at least a portion of Canterbury Tales, the 14th century story of pilgrims on their way to Britain’s Canterbury Cathedral.  Our own century is rife with church sponsored pilgrimages to the holy sites in Israel that have attracted pilgrims for millennia.  

They all have a religious or spiritual purpose, but the kind of pilgrimage I have in mind is different.  Travel can sometime be a form of pilgrimage without the expectation of a spiritual experience, without the goal of reaching a holy site.  God’s spiritual presence comes unbidden.  A sense that one has stumbled on holy ground where it was not expected to be. 

I experienced some of that in our visits to the museums of Paris, a river cruise down the Seine to the Normandy beaches, and time in the museums of Amsterdam.  Not unexpectedly, the great cathedrals visited along the way were breathtaking, but not spiritually uplifting.  On the other hand, visits to smaller, uncrowded churches, where a worshiping community was still present, provided opportunity for quite time in prayer where God’s presence was unexpectedly and deeply felt. 

Churches, as holy places consecrated by centuries of prayer, are one thing, but being overwhelmed by God’s presence in more secular settings is where pilgrimage comes in surprising ways.

It was The Good War, perhaps the only good war, but evil saturated it. The D Day beaches and American cemetery were emotionally overwhelming for nearly everyone with us.  Unexpectedly, God’s Holy Spirit came as a gale of outrage over the slaughter of her children brought on by the immoral hubris of evil, and all those who served it willingly.  The thousands buried here, the thousand buried elsewhere, the thousands whose bodies were never found, they were teenagers and young adults.  Some who opposed them were unwilling conscripts taken from among prisoners of war captured on the Eastern Front.  The villages around, destroyed, their people dead or wounded.  Milton and Dante could not describe hell more vividly.  There are other memorials to other battles against other evils, but this is where we were.  In its aftermath the dead were cared for, the land liberated, villages rebuilt, farms again fruitful.  Forces of darkness could not overcome the light.  It was a sign of hope as the world teeters once more on the brink of conflict brought on by human avarice, hubris and ignorance.

For all our human weaknesses, there is a indomitable spirit in human kind, perhaps a remnant of being created in the image of God.  In the extravagant glory of Chartres’ cathedral, there are faint outlines of finger labyrinths traced in the wall where the blind had found a way to experience their own version of a prayerful path to experience the light of Christ.  In the village churchyard at Giverny there is a grave for seven British airmen who were shot down not far away.  The villagers, bombed, hungry, scared, respectfully cared for their remains in spite of danger from all sides, and care for them still.  Love, as deeds done in God’s name for   strangers who come uninvited, is stronger and more enduring than evil.

In the Musee d’Orsay is an exhibit of the art of Berthe Morisot, a woman of the last half of the 19th century who was among those ushering in the age of impressionism.  Her art, and recognition a century late in coming, are memorials to the courage and perseverance of talented women who were rejected, ignored and ridiculed.  It’s one thing to canonize women long dead whose deeds  have drifted into legend.  It’s another to witness the living work of those who were present at the dawn of our own age.  Coleridge said the image of God in us is most evident in our power to create something new out of our imagination, manifesting it through art.  Prophecy is not limited to Hebrew scriptures and crusading preachers.

And so to the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt.  What made him the greatest of all Dutch Masters was his grasp of light, light that darkness cannot overcome.  Sometimes it illuminates blessings, sometimes our brokenness.  In Rembrandt, the human condition is never hidden, our attention is always drawn to questions left for us to ponder.  The canon of what is holy scripture remains open –– it may contain more than printed words.  

What is a pilgrimage may be more than intentional treks filled with spiritual anticipation.  It may come unbidden in bits and pieces, in odd places and at odd times.  Travel can get us out of our places of too much comfort, opening the door for pilgrimage to enter.