Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Interim Ministry - We're all in it

A friend of mine is an interim pastor by choice and training.  He’s good at it and loves it.  Our conversations often turn toward the dynamics of interim ministry: what it means to arrive, heal what has been hurt, prepare the way for what is to come, and leave, with a certain degree of sadness, a place of welcome for the one who will follow.  Sounds like John the Baptist doesn’t it, except for the brood of vipers part?  What has stuck me is the realization that all pastors, even long term pastors, are interim ministers.  

Congregations never belong to the pastors who serve them, they  are merely stewards of it for a season, however long or short the season may be.  Congregational leaders, especially those of long standing, perhaps generations of long standing, seem to know that, and are quick to let each pastor know that he or she is a temporary fixture who will be replaced in due time.  I’ve run into some, maybe you have too, who take perverse delight in making that clear.  It may be an uncomfortable truth, but it is a truth.  It might be a good idea for every pastor to take interim training.  My guess is that it could relieve more than a little of the angst one feels when one discovers the parish as it is, is not the parish that was described in the profile.  It could also help reduce the nascent disappointment parishioners feel when they discover that the new pastor is not the messiah that had been promised.  Long term pastors might rediscover the delight in knowing they are preparing the way for those who will follow, rather than setting a standard they hope no one will ever surpass.  

But here’s the real news.  All those parishioners, even the ones of long standing, are also interim ministers.  Congregational membership, however defined, turns over surprisingly fast.  People move away, die, go elsewhere, quit altogether.  Others are born, move into the neighborhood, come from other churches, or just pass through out of curiosity.  It’s a moving river.  I wonder why more congregational leaders don’t see that?  I’ve heard, and so have you, a well meaning elder say something like, “We’re so glad you’re here, but of course you are only here for a time while this is our church and we are here forever.  Some day you will go, but we will stay.”  It isn’t true.  

Every pastor is an interim minister leading a congregation of interim ministers in a church that belongs to God and to no one else.  As Christians we know God through the peripatetic life and teaching of Jesus Christ, who, in calling us to follow him, keeps us constantly on the move.  We cannot not be interims and still be followers of Jesus.  You’ve seen what happens when that is ignored.  Congregations slowly die out as fewer and fewer sit stubbornly in their pews unwilling to give up their building or memories of who they once were, while the work of following Jesus is going on somewhere else.  With enough money, a church building and its traditions can be the permanent thing, until the money runs out.  Through it visitors may flow, sometimes staying a few years, sometimes a few minutes.  Museums are like that, even liturgical museums offering worship services.  It can be a way station on the path of following Jesus, or it can be a terminal stop from which following Jesus is no longer important.  Maybe it never was.  Entertaining preaching and terrific music can be a lot more fun than following Jesus. 

So here’s to interim ministry.  We’re all in it.  Or should be.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

America's Shared Cultural Values: Are there any? What are they?

American cultural values, what are they?  Are there some that are essential to understanding what is meant by the American way of life?  Are there some that transcend the many ethnicities, races, and ways of living that make up the American landscape?  People seem to think there are, but defining them is not that easy.  Nevertheless, that is what this brief article will try to do.  But first, What is America?  In one sense we are a nation in which white European immigrants and their descendants conquered land through the use of force and duplicity in ways that are no longer tolerated as morally acceptable, but what an amazing feat it was.  Books, movies, and myths record it in truth, and in romanticized exaggeration.  It is the stuff of childhood dreams and games.  Colonial and pioneer associations exist in every region, and are celebrated at annual fairs and exhibitions.  It’s an odd mixture of pride and shame, with pride overshadowing deeds shamefully half remembered.  

In another sense we are a nation in which loosely regulated entrepreneurial private enterprise is encouraged to prosper in whatever ways are legal.  With luck and hard work, creativity and risk may be richly rewarded, or maybe not.  Finally, we are participants in a national experiment in constitutional, representative democracy that is unique on the world stage.  It shouldn’t work, but it does.  Our national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, One) is aspirational.  Often interpreted to mean out of many people, one people, it was intended to mean out of many states, one nation.  Either way, we are  many.  We are not one.  Not yet.  Moreover, we have not yet come to terms with what government is, or what it should do.  American government is a hodgepodge of a complicated federal system overlaying fifty different versions of provincial government, each with its own sets of rules for local government, a few of which follow laws set for them by monarchs otherwise remembered only in history books.  At its heart is a written constitution, amended twenty-seven times as we try to get it right.

Before exploring the variety of ways in which the cultural values that define America are expressed, it would be good to say something about the Constitution as an expression of cultural values, especially the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, because they not only outline core cultural values, they set them in foundational law.  They are not values always adhered to, but they set standards we desire for the nation as a whole, even when we have little intention of meeting them.  We are a land that values freedom of speech, the press, and religion, but forbids governments from establishing or favoring any particular religion.  We are a nation that values the role of the citizen soldier, and, therefore, the right of citizens to be armed (in a limited and disciplined way?).  We are a nation that will not tolerate governmental use of private property without due process of law.  We are a nation that prohibits governments from searches and seizures without warrants.  We are a nation that demands fair trials.  We are a nation that recognizes there are other rights, unalienable rights, not recognized in law but given by the Almighty to all persons.  As they are discovered, they will be protected.  We are a nation that intentionally disperses governmental authority between and among different branches in different places.  Following the Civil War, amendments XIII, XIV, and XV clarified these rights by specifically extending them to former slaves, and their descendants.  Amendment XIX extended the right to vote to women.  American Indians, declared full citizens in 1924, are struggling yet for their rightful place in a land where centuries gross injustices have gone unheeded.  

The Constitution is our foundational law, but cultural values that define America go well beyond law.  They are ever changing, often poorly defined myths, standards, and expectations that are generally understood, but in vastly different ways by different people in different parts of the country.  Whatever they are, preserving or restoring them was a rallying cry in the recent presidential campaign, with many people complaining that their access to achieving all that they promise had been closed to them.  Indeed, there has been a strong movement to preserve traditional American cultural values for several decades, with no little controversy over what they are.  In the face of massive immigration from non-European countries, more demands have been made that newcomers must assimilate into American culture, leaving their old behind.  It raises a question.  What would you tell a new immigrant about what the essential American values are, and how to live into the American way of life?

We have an unofficial model assigned to display the ideal of what American cultural values look like.  It’s a white, vaguely Protestant, middle class family living in their own house, surrounded by friendly neighbors who are a lot like them.  It’s not that literature, movies, and the media (whatever that is) haven’t portrayed other ways of American life, but it’s always been clear that those ways fall short of the ideal.  Everything either pointed to the ideal as the way to success, or illuminated the outer edges of society as places of tacky humor, tragedy, or failure.  Even works that exposed and explored injustices assumed, each in their own way, that the depth of injustice was measured by its deviance from the unofficial ideal.  It isn’t working any more.  What would work?  Can we define it?

I asked Facebook friends to write a little something about what they believed to be essential American values, and to do so without snide asides or political hatchet honing.  A few responded.  Some could not resist snideness.  Only two of my several right wing and conservative friends had anything to say.  Maybe the others thought it was a trap of some kind.  Who can say?  Nonetheless, some thoughtful offerings were made.  Everyone agreed that freedom was one of the essentials, but all had difficulty saying what it means.  Before digging into what freedom might mean, what language shall we use?  Is it possible to share cultural values without a common language?  I don’t think so.  

Unlike most other countries, America does not have an official language, but English is our default shared language, and it has worked well for three centuries to help mold what it is to be American.  Strident calls to make it our official language are more about bullying immigrants than anything else and are not helpful, nor are they meant to be helpful.  Mean spirited is about the best one can say for them.  Still, English is the language that binds us together as a people.  Basic competency in it is essential to learning, understanding and adopting America’s shared cultural values.  It is shameful when we deliberately make it hard for non-English speakers to learn it in their own way.  It is even more shameful when we deliberately suppress the use of other languages.  I stand in awe of my Spanish speaking neighbors who can flip back and forth with ease between it and English.  Would that every school child was taught a second or third language from the very start of their education.  Besides, like the increasing ethnic diversity of the American public, American English is a mix of many others as it adopts words and phrases from other cultures, almost without noticing it.  New York City  English is peppered with dozens of Yiddishisms that are ordinary parts of everyday conversation.  Honolulu English contains a wild mix of Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese all mangled together.  Santa Fe can’t be navigated without some knowledge of Spanish.  Oy vey!  Let it be.  Competency in English is what enlarges our Ohana while binding it together.  We don’t need laws to enforce it.  We do need to explore freedom – in English.

Freedom.  Everyone agreed that freedom is an essential cultural value, but what is it?  The light of freedom had been snuffed out all over Europe in the last years of the ‘30s, flickering only in Britain.  It looked like it too would be extinguished soon, and our own was under threat.  Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union speech articulated Four Freedoms that should be universal, are treasured by Americans, and are worth fighting for.  They were: Freedom of Speech; Freedom to Worship as one desires; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear.  Might they also include freedom to work at whatever one is capable of doing, or studying whatever one wants to study, or live wherever one wants and travel without restriction?  Commentator Dennis Prager says that American freedoms are unique because they are not based on race or ethnicity.  Would that it were so.  It’s wishful thinking, but he has a point.  We want our freedoms to be prejudice free.  We may not live up to our highest standards of freedom that have no place for racial prejudice, but they are still our standards.  

Although many countries proclaim freedom of speech, it is America that embeds it in the Constitution, and protects even vile forms of speech so that the freedom to express one’s self is not jeopardized.  When powerful political forces arise to limit freedom of speech, equally powerful forces arise to defend it.  It may be our most important freedom.  Freedom to worship as one pleases frames the value Americans place on worship, and on the value of not prescribing what worship is or should be.  If “in God we trust,” we do not presume to say who God is or isn’t.  

Freedom from Want has generally been understood as freedom to work for one’s bread in the assurance that there is work to be had and that it pays enough to live comfortably.  Can it mean more than that?  Roosevelt’s speech came as the nation was finally coming out of the Great Depression when work was not to be had, or could not be had a wages sufficient enough for food and shelter.  What was the responsibility of the community to create conditions under which well paid work is available to all who can work?  That was the question then.  It is still the question.  
Freedom from fear of what?  Fear of destitution?  Fear of domestic violence?  Fear of crime?  Fear of war?  Fear of terrorism?  There is a lot to be afraid of, yet with few exceptions those of us privileged to have been born into and live the life of the American dream do not know fear the way others do.  If all are to live free of fear, what has to be done?  Freedom for fear means a certain level of security of life and property.  It’s not a value unique to America, but it is the promise of security that draws many from other nations where there is little of it.  Freedom from fear also implies courage in the face of threats, and there is an American ideal of courage that is a cultural value idealized in images such as the Minutemen, cowboys, Marines, and armies of one.  It may be more hype than reality, but it is an important cultural value just the same. 

Freedom is not the only cultural value that transcends the length and breadth of America.  Consider self control – responsibility – accountability.  An American hymn declares that freedoms are “confirmed by self control, liberty by law.”  The cultural value of self control and liberty protected by and accountable to the law are important elements of the American character.  From colonial days to now, American cultural values have included accountability to others, and the responsibility one has for one’s own choices and actions.  American culture also values self control that eschews extravagant displays of emotion one way or the other, and can withstand temptations to act outside the boundaries of what is socially and morally acceptable.  They are cultural values that, while celebrated, rub up against each other in uncomfortable ways depending on where one stands in relation to two significant strands of American political tradition: Libertarian and Puritan. Libertarians celebrate responsibility for their own actions and freedom from government oversight.  They reserve the right to establish their own standards of what is right and wrong, desirable and undesirable.  If they are not hurting anyone else, leave them alone.  Those from a more Puritan perspective celebrate freedom, responsibility, and accountability within the context of community.  It is the community that is free to do as it likes, and that sets the standards for those who are members of the community.  Individuals are free to join or leave the community, but they are not free to live as they please within the community.  When the community gets defined as the city, state, or nation, the conflict between Puritans and Libertarians can be unresolvable.  It’s not that Libertarians don’t believe in accountability, they just have a problem saying to whom.  While Libertarians are well known in today’s politics, Puritans can be dismissed as stuffy New England pilgrims from long ago who are barely remembered.  It’s not true.  Their political and ethical standards are with us still in hundreds of ways, underwriting our constitutions and laws, and buried deep in the American consciousness.  

Almost as universal as freedom are the values of equality – equity – tolerance.  Proclaimed, if not practiced, equality under the law is an essential American cultural value.  If nothing else, we want to believe that everyone is equal under the law.  We also want to believe that everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed in life.  If it isn’t true, we agree that it should be, although in different ways to make it happen.  Recent publicity about the reality of white privilege has been ill received by many, especially by those who think that whatever privilege had been theirs has been taken away and given to someone else who has not put in the hard work to deserve it.  It’s created a strain on another essential element of American cultural vlaues, tolerance of those who look different, think different, act different.  We celebrate our tolerance of others more than we practice it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an essential cultural value, one that we insist new immigrants adopt as quickly as possible.  In fact, we want immigrants to go one step farther.  We want them to respect and honor the cultural values that have already been woven into the American fabric, leaving their own behind. Tolerance of differences is not the same as respecting and honoring differences.  It seems to be where Americans want to go, but we want immigrants to go first.  In the meantime, their cultural baggage will be grudgingly tolerated as long as it doesn’t interfere with established ways.  

Related American cultural values are perseverance and hope.  Sustaining Americans through ups and downs have been shared cultural values of perseverance and hope.  We may not like what’s going on, but Americans value determined perseverance to get through it.  Generic Protestantism, the de facto civic religion for three centuries, bequeathed hope to our shared values.  No matter how bad things might seem there is always hope for a better future, perhaps not now, but soon.  The Social Gospel of the late 19th and early 20th centuries may have sputtered in the wake of wars, depression, and social upheaval, but it will not be put out.  There is always hope.  

Is there more to be said?  Of course there is.  For instance, I believe that tax supported free public schools are not just important but essential to preserving and enhancing everything that is America.  We may need to reenergize the principle of subsidiarity in public policy and programs.  Some conservatives have a handle on it, and progressives need to do the same.  You may have your own thoughts to add, but this article is long enough for now. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy

Two friends recommended J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy (Harper Collins).  One started an online group to discuss it.  The other left a copy in my car just to make sure I had it.  So I read it.  Here’s my short take.  The final chapters reveal it as an extended apology for and about "hillbilly" culture as the refiner's cauldron from which some are able to emerge, bringing with them the gold and silver of individual fortitude without the dross of behaviors that are destructive of lives and societies. It's an essay on learned helplessness and the ways, or at least his way, of unlearning it.  In it are echoes of behaviors many others have experienced in their own lives, regardless of where they grew up. Finally, it is a commentary on how cultural heritage is baggage, both good and bad, that is not easily discarded, no matter how far away one gets from its epicenter. 

Vance uses hillbilly as a label for the cultural attitudes and behaviors of the Kentucky town from which generations of his family came, and the cultural baggage they took with them when they migrated for a hoped for better life elsewhere.  Although he escaped the cycle of ignorance, abuse, poverty, and addiction that infected most of the people he knew, the culture that formed him came with him into his new life far away from Kentucky and Ohio.

His personal story aside, there are more than a few subtexts in the book.  Primary among them is his attempt to explain right wing populism as an extension of “hillbilly” culture that exists in many forms throughout industrial and rural America where decent job prospects are scarce and the people are deeply suspicious of those whom they identify as effete, yet powerful, upper class manipulators of their misfortunes.  Another is a predictable reverse snobbishness that celebrates the hardscrabble endurance of “hillbillies” who know how to survive under conditions that would kill upper class softies who have never had to do hard work with their hands.  It’s the subtexts that interest my friends, although both of them are familiar with life experiences that share similarities with his.  Most of us do, I suspect.  The subtexts offer attractive generalities because there is some truth in them, but like all generalities , they bite off too much.  They can only be tightly focussed beams illuminating a small portion of a more complex reality.  Anything more is too much, and I think Vance knows that.  The problem comes when readers have their “aha moment” and declare that it explains everything. 

The culture described in Hillbilly Elegy may honor family loyalty, hard work, and Jesus, but it’s also a culture that habitually undermines the foundations of family loyalty, works hard sporadically, and proclaims religion without practicing it.  It’s a culture that opens doors to addiction, tolerates abuse as normal, belittles higher education, and assumes a knowledge of how the world works that extends no farther than the next “holler.”  It despises government welfare, and takes every penny it can get.  It’s not a culture on which a successful democratic society could be built or sustained, but it is a culture that can be turned easily to fascism offered to them as a bulwark protecting their rights and freedom.  Vance, I think, would like to see a way for them to assimilate more successfully into an America that will never again provide the economic opportunity they imagined was theirs for the taking in the mines and mills.  It’s a more complicated America that requires different skill sets, but has yet to understand the economic value of critical jobs that are chronically underpaid.  The hillbilly culture he describes works against it, but there is alway hope.

It’s also important for readers of the book to remember that it is not the only culture around, nor is it the only one that burdens its people with baggage they haul with them into future generations and far away places.  We all carry something with us.  I’ve never lived in Kansas, and haven’t seen my Kansas relatives in almost fifty years, but there is something of the Kansas prairie that is an important part of who I am.  You have your own story too.  The old shibboleth that we were a melting pot nation was a sixth grade text book dream in which everyone eventually became a white middle class Protestant.  It gave way to being a stew pot nation, which is still not a very good metaphor, but at least it gets at an important point.  Assimilation of cultures into the American way of life means learning how to live together sharing important transcultural values while remembering and honoring the best of whence we came.  The dominant cultural standard has been the white suburban middle class, and it’s been a good one, but it cannot stand.  It’s evolving, as it always has been, into something less white and more colorful with norms that accommodate more than a suburban house and two children who grow up to go to college.  It will become a better thing, if we let it. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Hey Jesus, let's stop here. This looks like a good place to stay.

I’m part of a Tuesday morning ecumenical study group, and the other day we spent time with Isaiah 2.2-5: 
2:2    In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’S house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. 
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Laying plowshares and pruning hooks aside, what struck us were words like come and walk.  You can’t come to some place unless you leave the place you are in.  You can’t live in faith by resting in it.  You have to walk in it.  Walking always means leaving the place where you were as you go to the place at which you have not yet arrived.  Each step brings you to a new place along the way where you will remain for only a moment because it is not the place where you are going.  The psalmist begs us to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46).  In a curious way, we can be still only by walking – leaving, arriving, and leaving again – in the stillness of quiet confidence that we are waking in the way of the LORD. 

It’s frustrating.  My confidence that I am walking in the way of the LORD is not all that great.  For me, stillness is a call to stop walking.  Just sit and be.  Let the world go by.  Get out of the parade.  If I have to move, I want to look around for a moving sidewalk, escalator, taxi, whatever, anything to take the work out of it.  On the whole, I’d rather stay put.  I mean, it’s one thing to enjoy traveling to foreign lands and exotic places, always knowing that I will return home.  It’s another thing to walk in the way of the LORD knowing that I can’t stop walking, will never return to where I started, and have no idea when I will get to wherever I am going, which, I am told, is my true home, but I have to trust that it is so.  Prayerful meditation is not a big help.  It always ends up with me being somewhere other that where I started.  God, it seems, has a puckish sense of humor so that even when I remain anchored in the reading chair of my study, where I thought I was when I began prayerful meditation is not where I am when I rise to go out to the kitchen.  

When Jesus said “follow me,” he meant get up, start walking, and leave where you are behind.  A number of people I know don’t like that at all.  The world is unpredictable enough as it is.  They want a Christian faith that is set, doesn’t change, doesn’t further upset the tenuous balance of life they have to live with anyway.  If there is a difference, maybe it’s the difference between believers and disciples.  Believers are content to sit where they are, acknowledge Jesus as he passes by, and hope he comes back again soon.  In the meantime, they’re not moving.  Disciples follow Jesus, never staying in one place for long, unsure of where they are going, but certain that by following Jesus they are going in the right way.  Some days I’m a believer.  Some days I’m a disciple.  Mostly I wish Jesus had handed out AAA Triptiks.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Taking the country for Christ

A young man in our community said that he hoped we were going in a more conservative direction, and that we would see the nation reflect more of our Christian values.  I wonder.  I would rather see Christians offer words and live lives more reflective of Christian values without suggesting that they should be imposed on civil society.  It would be something to witness millions who claim to be Christian proclaim by word and deed what it means to follow Jesus by being like Jesus in their daily lives.  Of course it would be imperfect, but the intentionality of loving one's neighbors in healing ways would be dramatic, particularly if one's neighbor is whoever one encounters no matter where or how.

Think of it.  Millions of people would go through the day making decisions prefaced by questions.  How will this affect the poor, both spiritually and physically?  How will this affect those mourning, or rejoicing?  How will this affect those burdened by oppressive conditions?  How will this affect those struggling for justice?  How will this affect the balance between justice and mercy?  How will this affect standards of integrity and honesty?  How will this resolve conflict and deescalate violence in constructive ways?  How courageous can I be in the face of evil?

I don't think they would be conscious of asking questions like these of themselves.  They would be habits of the heart, just the ordinary way of going through the day doing things. No doubt some would snicker at all those goody-two-shoes whom they would suspect of having no backbone.  They would be wrong.  Living that kind of life would require strong determination, an ability to know the difference between sentimentality and reality, and the maturity to live with others without being superior or subordinate.  It would recognize the dignity of differing gifts, and highly value each of them.  It would require tremendous courage in the face of the greater number intent on manipulation of conditions in pursuit of power, prestige, and wealth.  It would require perseverance in the face of those who just don't care.  It would require patience with those whose habits of the heart were destructive of life.  Their normal way of things would accommodate imperfection in self and others with honesty, and without excuse.  It would tolerate differences between persons and peoples without trying to force uniformity.  Christian tradition has name for that kind of life.  It's called the way of the cross, which is none other than the way of life and peace for those who follow Jesus.

You might rightfully ask if it is the kind of life I lead?  Let's just say that I'm a beginner.  Some days I get it right.  Many days I don't.  Most days are a bit of each.  However, if you are among those who call themselves Christian, why not walk along with me and we'll figure it out together.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

How to Play Trump the Game

A new president puts lobbying interests into supercharged four wheel wheel drive.  What are those interests?  Congressional leadership, corporate lobbyists, unions, public interest groups, egos angling for high office appointments, other egos desiring a plumb ambassadorship.  You name it.  The process is more or less the same with each new president regardless of party.  Who do they know that has access?  What is the best way  to approach new White House staff, and through them, the president?  How well do they know cabinet designees?  What are their most important issues?  How will they make decisions?  Where will they connect with Congress?  What do they like to eat and drink?  Where did they play golf?  What old school connections might lend a hand?  Then comes the hard work of making opening moves, establishing relationships, making or faking friendships.  It's all about getting one's pound, or ounce, of influence, and maybe a little direct access.  It's a power game where egos are made and broken by how well the game is played.  It's always worked in some fashion because no matter who the president elect might be, it was understood that 'he' knew how all of this worked, and, at some level, really did intend to be a good president for the nation.  The unwritten norms of D.C. politics could be relied on to function the way they usually did.  Of course there were winners and losers, but the rules of the game were reasonably well known to the pros that run things.

We have a new president elect.  Following the normal pattern, supplicants crowd the escalators and elevators of Trump Tower, each fawning in the usual way over the newly elected, and those closest to him, in hopes of establishing a little traction.  What's different is that Trump doesn't play by the usual rules.  He doesn't doesn't know what they are, and doesn't care.  The old game is not his game.  He has his own.  For him, it's one enormous, endless episode of The Apprentice.  He's lapping up all the attention, loves every minute of it, and has no intention of honoring anything that is not in whatever he thinks is his best interest, which can change from moment to moment.  To him, whatever is on a supplicant's agenda has no intrinsic value in itself.  It has value only if it benefits him.  He may have paid to have someone write The Art of the Deal in his name, but he's not a good faith negotiator, he's a sociopathic manipulator.  Each supplicant will go away thinking they have gained a foothold, that he is someone they can work with.  They will be wrong.  If they presume say out loud that they have an in with Trump, the only words from him they will hear is "You're Fired!"

Trump doesn't play the traditional game by the traditional rules.  We learned that in the campaign.  Business partners learned it years ago, and tried to tell us.  He plays his own game by his own rules, making them up as he goes along.  If he wants something, he uses every juvenile trick of manipulation to get it.  What other people want or need is of little interest to him, unless he can use it to his own advantage.  Otherwise, who cares?  To what might we compare him?  Not to other presidents, though Nixon might come close.  Perhaps Henry VIII of England, or maybe Louis XIV of France, as they might have been portrayed in a Mel Brooks movie.  That would have been funny, but this is real life, and it's not funny.

What is a workable way to engage with him and his staff?  Stick to the issues.  Use only verifiable information.  Avoid the usual exaggeration of facts to suit political ends.  Avoid all contests of wit or personality caricatures.  In fact, ignore him altogether.  Deal with the office of the president as a thing, not a person.  If he wants to play his game, let him come to you.  Let him play it with zeal.  But do not respond.  Stick to the issues.  One of Clinton's mistakes was to play his game with him by continually comparing herself to him by name while criticizing his positions.  All it did was give him added publicity on her dime, raising his name as one worthy of validity by virtue of frequent mention.  Let he who must not be named, not be named.

What will be the result?  You will lose most of the time.  You might win a few.  You will retain your dignity.  You will not fall victim to his game playing, looking like a fool in the end.  You might even gain his grudging respect as someone he will give into when it won't cost him too much, and otherwise avoid as too dangerous to play with because you know the game.  The most important thing you will gain is public trust in what you have to say when the next election rolls around.  Not the public at large, they will remain as ignorantly uninvolved as usual.  I mean the public that has influence and actually votes.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Home invading illegal immigrants and racism

A recent internet posting declared that it’s not about being against immigrants.  It is about doing things legally.  Illegal immigrants are as if someone sneaked into your house through a basement window, crept up the stairs into the kitchen, and yelled FEED ME!  It went on to demand that others stop distorting the facts.  All the writer wanted is for the government to enforce existing laws.

It sounds perfectly reasonable to some, and racist to others.  Why?  The key is in its construction.  It’s a parable bracketed by two reasonable statements: Do things legally; Enforce existing laws.  That makes a lot of sense, and all the more to those who believe that law and order, as a fundament condition of a stable prosperous society, has been severely weakened.  In between is the parable about a home invader sneaking up on a home owner and demanding loudly to be fed.  The request to stop distorting facts implies that the parable accurately describes what the facts are.  Does it?  In certain places and circumstances it might, but not in the full scheme of things where study after study demonstrates that immigrants, legal and illegal, add to the economy without burdening it. Those macro findings are not believable to people living in communities where immediate conditions say otherwise.  Nor are they believable to a large number of the population who choose to disbelieve them because they have heard stories about the hordes of illegals filling hospitals, schools, and jails, demanding welfare, not paying taxes, and they believe them to be the greater truth.  No amount of proving otherwise is likely to change their minds.

Is the post racist?  The parable sounds very racist to many of us.  Why?  It shows no regard for circumstances and conditions that lead people to escape in hope of a better life elsewhere.  It shows no regard for the complicated, nearly unworkable, processes for legal immigration.  It shows no awareness of the reality of undocumented family members for whom this is the only homeland they have every known.  It shows no awareness that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for government aid programs, yet are required to pay income and social security taxes – unless they work for unscrupulous employers who keep them off the books.  In that case it is the employer cheating all of us.  It shows no attempt at any humanitarian compassion. It appears to open the door to indiscriminate acts of discrimination against anyone suspected of having the wrong name, wrong color, wrong accent.

Is it racist to agree with the post?  Not necessarily.  But it does indicate a blindness to the systemic racism tightly woven into the fabric of American life.  The immigration issue gets further complicated by the violent corruption infecting too many of the nations to our south.  Our temptation is to want to address complicated problems with overly simple explanations of them.  That doesn’t mean simple solutions are not in order, only that simple explanations lead to wrong solutions.   However, I’m digressing.  There is something in us that resists charges of personal racism, and that does not want to face the reality of systemic racism.  In the first instance, unless one is an unrepentant supremacist proud of one’s racism, even the suggestion that one might be racist be is like being scolded by some self righteous jerk demanding confession of a guilt that can never be forgiven or erased.  Who wants that?  In the second instance, an examination of systemic racism forces us to exam the uncomfortable historical truths of a system rigged in favor of white people (men in particular) over all others.  It’s a truth that has been hidden behind treasured myths about who we are as Americans, and some of us don’t want to give up those myths.  It’s painful to admit that our ancestors were wrong in some of what they did.  It isn’t helped by those who appear to want the current generation to magically change the past.  We certainly don’t want to repeat the past, but neither can we change it.  Confronting it with honesty is important, but we can only go forward, we can’t go backward.

Here are two suggestions.  First, stop scolding.  It doesn’t do any good.  It just makes stubborn people more stubborn, malleable people more malleable, and the rest of us angrily muddled.  Second, let the marginalized and losers in history books correct the record without half of us taking umbrage and the other half moralizing with finger pointing contempt.  Then we have a chance to set a new course together.  No doubt future generations will chastise us for getting it wrong, but it will be the best we can do with what we have.