Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fear and Ignorance

The current debate over the debt ceiling has left me stunned at the bullheaded self confidence of so called conservatives whose idea of a future America takes the form of a free wheeling laissez faire society in which all enjoy the totality of freedom from an intrusive government that would otherwise rule their lives. It's a facade behind which lies the reality of poverty for most, wealth for the few, the loss of civil rights and the probability of near dictatorial control of some over the lives of many.

The rallying cry is for small government as if smallness in and of itself is a good thing, and with no discernible interest in effective government. Sophisticated political operatives capitalize on a combination of fear and ignorance to manipulate the acquisition of power for their own benefit and the benefit of their employers.

One friend, an otherwise sensible person, expressed his growing fear over the idea of deficit spending and raising the debt ceiling based on nothing other than a gut response to what he heard on television and radio. Another acquaintance posted a note railing against the percentage of GDP absorbed by federal government revenues as if they were a subtraction from productivity rather than a component of productivity. He also got his numbers wrong, but that's another matter. He is one of those who wants federal revenues to be capped at 18% of GDP. What the magic of 18% is escapes me, and the whole idea of a revenue cap makes no sense at all. My guess is that he is also among those who believe that lower taxes are always and everywhere better than higher taxes. That only makes sense if you don't think about it.

A conservative commentator on CNN or PBS, can't remember which, kept echoing the old shibboleth that we were saddling future generations with nothing but government debt. It makes sense if you don't think about it. And, it would probably be true if the conservatives get their way on national economic policy. Deficit spending and national debt are important, and we must do better reining in both. Having said that, I would remind readers that the same "saddling the future with debt" argument has been around for a long time with not much to back it up. Consider, for instance, the debt incurred in WWII and Korea. It was enormous for the time, and it was said that it would impoverish the children of that era as they grew up. I was one of those children. My parent's generation, my generation and my children's generation have not been saddled with the payment of that debt. The economy grew to absorb it and also provide us with an opportunity to enjoy a comfortable style and quality of life.

That does not mean that a nation can be profligate with spending and debt. It does mean that effective government and policies that contribute to economic health are more important than hysterical fear mongering.

My own member of Congress, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, has consistently voted along the Tea Party lines. I used to accuse her of being a Boehner puppet, but given the last few days, I'm not so sure. Maybe Cantor pulls the strings. In any case, she first ran for Congress as an evangelical Christian. That claim has dropped into the background to be replaced by a double claim of quiet but consistent voting with the extreme right wing while mumbling kind and gentle bromides about veterans and farmers.

In short, it's not a happy time for the nation, and not a happy time for me personally as day after day I watch with stunned amazement at the growing political power of an oligarchy that is skillfully manipulating the ignorance of a frightened public. Reminds me of some of the French revolutions of the 19th century that always seemed to end up with another dictator of one kind or another.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Road Trips

Road trips are not a part of our ordinary way of getting around, but we are on one. Along with my sister and brother-in-law, who flew in from Honolulu just for the privilege of this adventure, we drove from Walla Walla, WA to Minneapolis, MN for the triple purpose of going to my first ever high school reunion, visiting our youngest sister and family at their "lake cabin up north," and seeing a couple of national parks along the way.

It's easy to forget just how big our nation is when one never travels, or flies, as we usually do, from point A to point B. Glacier and Teddy Roosevelt National Parks were our two must see stops along the way. Glacier is overpoweringly awesome in it's grandeur, but it was also crowded enough that all the short day hiking trails were overwhelmed with people and not a parking place was to be had. Although, to be fair, the east side just outside the park was all but deserted. By the time we got there it was also time to move on. Teddy Roosevelt, in far western North Dakota, was another story. This enormous combination of badlands, canyons and ranch land along the Little Missouri River was wide open and begging for exploration.

Having said that, it's the land in between that inspires wonder. A thousand miles of open prairie, small towns and huge farms and ranches interspersed with open pit coal mines, oil and gas development, and the railroad. The wealth it creates benefits the locals at the most modest of levels, the bulk of it flowing to the coasts and to the relative few at the top of the economic food chain. A little over a hundred years ago, as immigration flowed into the Great Plains, local progressives formed the Grange and other organizations to fight for a fair share of the profits from their labor. Now the region is losing population, and what political energy there is has been largely seduced by the paranoia of the far right wing so that its followers have become the agents of policies that enrich others at the cost of their own impoverishment. Go figure.

But I digress, I'm inclined to think it would do everyone good to take a road trip or two across the land. I don't imagine it would matter what route, as long as it took in the great expanse of the plains and prairie. It's too easy to become so locally parochial that we lose perspective on what it means to be a nation of united states. It's not just a matter of isolated big city folks wondering if 'O' states such as Oklahoma, Ohio and Oregon are lumped together somewhere "out there." A local guy of my acquaintance once told me that he was planning a trip "back east." I asked him where and he said Nebraska, which to him was more or less somewhere near New Jersey.

Geography is important. Knowledge and experience of it is how we put perspective into our ideas about who we are and who we want to be. Sadly, I know more than a few who travel a great deal by car all over the country and never learn a thing about the history, culture or economics of the places through which they drive. I marvel at their lack of curiosity about almost everything but where to get the best deal on an all you can eat buffet, or who are obsessed with knowing the numbers of highways but are disinterested in the knowing about the people who live along them. Maybe it's always been that way. Sad.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Retired Rectors/Pastors as Members?

This last Saturday and Sunday I celebrated at the parish from which I retired three and a half years ago.  The rector was away at camp, and his normal sources of backup were  otherwise engaged.  I imagine it took some courage on his part to even ask me.  To tell the truth, I was a little nervous about it too.  Things are done differently now.  The Saturday night service is a variation on a eucharistic prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.  Beautiful, but unfamiliar to me.  Sunday always includes a children’s sermon, something at which I am truly lousy.  
It’s not like we’ve been totally absent.  When we are in town and I’m not preaching elsewhere, that’s where we worship, so we are still well connected, but as parishioners, not clergy.  As it turned out, everything went well.  It felt good to be leading worship in a familiar place among (mostly) familiar people.  Selfishly, it also felt good to know that I did not have to open up, double check every arrangement, resolve a few last minute issues, and then hang around to turn out the lights and lock up.  I could just relax and be the visiting clergy.
St. Paul’s is a bit unusual among congregations of almost any denominations in that it has two former rectors in the congregation, both me and my predecessor.  It seems to work OK.  I think that is because each of us is comfortable in our roles and supportive of one another as good friends.  Most important, we retired rectors are very intentional about avoiding even the appearance of second guessing the current rector.  To top it off, the congregation also includes two other retired priests from nearby communities.  A rector who as not confident in his or her abilities might have some difficulty with that.  I wonder if any readers have had their own experiences with retired rectors/pastors remaining as members of the congregation?

The Right Direction or Wrong? Wrong of course!

I’ve been getting solicitation mailings for years from various Republican organizations.  Most often they include a survey purporting to show how responsive they are to what the public really wants.  The questions are of the “When did you stop beating your wife?” variety.  It’s been great sport responding to them, especially if they include a self addressed stamped envelop.  I get plenty of fund solicitations from the Democrats but fewer surveys, and the ones they do send tend to be less obviously tilted toward the preferred answers.  There is one question on every one, regardless of party: Do you think the country is going in the right direction or the wrong direction?
I hear that same inane question almost daily on radio and television.  Newspaper polls often report on it, and today a League of Women Voters survey arrived with the very same question embedded.  What, pray tell, is a direction as it applies to the policies, current conditions and possible future conditions of a nation?  Is it north, east, west or south?  Is it left or right, up or down?  Is it this way or that?
My own guess is that it’s a measure of fear and anxiety that may have no basis in fact and little likelihood of a future reality.  Moreover, we can all claim that the nation is going in the wrong direction for many, different and opposite reasons.  So knowing that some percentage of us believe we are headed in the wrong direction tells us exactly nothing, except, perhaps, as a rough measure of undifferentiated public anxiety.  Parenthetically, we hardly ever report that the nation is going in the right direction.  What fun is that?  
For instance, my conservative friend Don is fearful that we are headed toward European style socialism.  He’s been sure of that for decades, and it’s the wrong direction.  I, however, am fearful that we are headed toward corporate driven plutocracy masquerading as democracy, and it is also the wrong direction.  We’re probably both wrong, but that doesn’t keep us from giving the same answer to those idiotic surveys.   We are joined in our answer by those fearful of being overrun by Sharia law, illegal immigrants, ecological disaster, gay marriage, the EPA, whale hunting and the Rapture.
The whole thing is capped off by semi-hysterical television newscasters breathlessly reporting on the latest numbers.  If it wasn’t such a serious matter it would make a great Saturday Night Live routine.