Sunday, July 31, 2016

Liberals, Special Interests, and Gestapo Tactics

A recent letter writer in our local paper asserted that "Oregon is a state run by liberal special interests who bully and use Gestapo tactics to get their way."  The issue had to do with a defeated Nestle plan to open a water bottling plant near the city of Cascade Locks on the Columbia River about three hours west of us.  It's a controversial issue around here because Nestle simply moved east a few hundred miles and is trying again in a rural town not far from us.  In this case, the letter writer was in favor of the Nestle plan, and bitterly disappointed that it was repulsed by opponents whom he accused of being liberals with special interest allies using Gestapo tactics.  Water, water rights, and bottled water are important issues everywhere, but especially important to our area because we live in the high desert where water is dear, and no new water rights are being issued.  As important as the water issue is, I want to focus this essay on something else: the language of labeling liberals, special interests, and Gestapo tactics.

My guess is that the letter writer has only a limited idea of what liberal might mean, but at its core it's about big government, socialism, and limits on individual freedom.  A few weeks ago, another letter writer submitted a list of all the characteristics of liberal she could come up with.  It was long and colorful, but it all boiled down to liberals being the worst of freedom stealing big government socialists who want nothing more than to turn America into a communist waste land.  I suspect water plan letter writer would agree.  

How is it that those who favor the ideals of our liberal democracy have became such a threat?  Some part of it may have to do with the belief that liberals are in cahoots with Wall Street to enslave what used to be the blue collar middle class, and the proof is the outsourcing of all the best jobs to other countries.  You can roll out all the data you want to show that those jobs came to a predictable end through a combination of a growing world economy and  technological changes in manufacturing.  It won't help because you won't be believed.  Why not?  Because experts who know about things are not to be trusted, or so says Paul Ryan, in one of his fund raising letters where he writes that "Democrats and their special interest allies – that so often provide...experts and ideas – have only added to our problems."  Yes indeed, there is nothing worse than an expert who knows something about a problem to make the problem worse.  

It isn't that liberals are liberal, it's that they are seen as elitist.  Those who aspire to acquire as much political power as possible know how to use that image to mobilize grass roots discontent against the elite, especially the intellectual elite, as a means to get it.  Never mind that they, Paul Ryan in this case, are among the economic and political elite.  It's a charade, they know its a charade, but if they can pull it off the power will be theirs.  In a curious twist, Ryan even asserts that, thanks to liberals, “Big Government and Big Business aren’t fighting each other, they’re feeding off each other.”  There is some truth in that, but seeds of the arrangement were planted and nurtured by the politics and politicians of his party acting in the name of conservative free market principles.  Like I said, it’s a charade.  

The repeated accusation at the national level that liberals and special interests are allied in malevolent ways is, I suspect, the reason why local letter writers use the the same language.  I doubt that many give any thought to what a special interest is, or who they are.  If I recall, Democrats used similar language in their propaganda when Reagan and the Bushes were in office.  Special interest is a useful catchall bugaboo precisely because it can mean anything or nothing.  Special interests, like ogres and the Grinch, are bad, and in the current environment they are claimed to be allied with liberals.  

So what about Gestapo tactics?  What are Gestapo tactics?  The record is pretty clear, and whatever the opponents of the Nestle plan in Oregon might have done, they bore no similarity to that record.  Why use such an outlandishly inappropriate term?  Probably because the opponents were an unpleasant nuisance through a variety of protests with yelling, badgering, placard waving, obstructing behavior that easily gets under most anyone’s skin.  Gestapo like it isn’t.  Nuisance it is.  The guy’s letter would have been more effective if he had simply catalogued the behaviors he didn’t like.  On the other hand, maybe he was thinking about how the Gestapo was proficient at fostering divisions among people, herding them into groups labeled as enemies of the state until the only safe place to be was in party’s own group, and even there one had to be alert to traitors.  If that is what he was thinking, he was parroting a consistent line from Republican campaign material that accuses Democrats of using lofty rhetoric of hope and change to divide people against each other.  That could be it. 

In the end I find this kind of propagandizing morally and emotionally discouraging.  Labels are slapped on with little understanding of what they mean.  Words like liberal and conservative are narrowed down to their most extreme manifestations.  Ignorance of political history abounds, as do conspiracy fantasies more suited to super market tabloids.   For some, like the letter writer, it is utterly irresponsible, juvenile behavior that prevents important issues from being worked out in common sense ways.  For more sophisticated political operators it is crass manipulation having no intent other than the acquisition of power and position with little concern for the well being of those whom they are manipulating.



Friday, July 29, 2016

Walla Walla Woolley Reporting

We travel a bit, and wherever we go people we meet want to know about the small city with the silly name where we live.  So this is an article for readers who live far away from Walla Walla.  If you’re a local you can ignore it.  I’ve thought about writing it before, but never did.  It came up again the other night when we were at a picnic sitting on the grass lawn of a local vineyard listening to exquisite chamber music performed by nationally known musicians who had donated their talents to help raise some money for the local free clinic serving those most in need.  There we were, out in the rural west looking up at the mountains, eating out of picnic baskets and listening to Mozart while sipping fine wines.  Maybe I should finally write that article.

The place has been occupied for thousands of years for good reason.  It lies in a broad valley up against a range of small mountains, and is surrounded by the high desert of the intermountain west.  Crisscrossed by dozens of creeks seeking their way to the Columbia River, it’s an oasis in otherwise dry country.  When Europeans began to show up, it became a frontier fort and settlement for pioneers who had arrived on the Oregon Trail to farm land from which the resident Indians had been brutally removed.  It prospered as a staging area for prospectors on their way to the gold fields in Idaho and Montana, selling them all the supplies they would need on their way out.  An abundance of saloons and prostitutes relieved them of their take on the way back.  By the late 19th century the main lines of the transcontinental railroad bypassed Walla Walla in favor of other routes, and the city’s growth came to a halt.  

In the meantime, farmers had discovered the valley to be perfect for every kind of produce.  Wheat grew with ease on the slopes of the mountains and surrounding hills.  The introduction of hardy winter wheat proved that the high desert could also produce bountiful crops.  There was plenty of timber in the mountains for all the building supplies one could want.  Seventh Day Adventists started a college (Walla Walla College), so did the Congregational Church (Whitman College), and Catholic nuns established a hospital.  Civilization had arrived.  Twentieth century world wars revived the fort, and the local airport became an Army Air Force base, launching the town in new directions.  About thirty years ago local vineyards and wineries, mostly home hobby operations, began to be noticed for producing some of the best in the Pacific Northwest.   Today there are over 150 wineries producing the nation’s finest premier wines.  Wine tourism arrived.

The little colleges matured into one of the region’s top private universities and one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges.  They were joined by a community college twice named best in the nation.  Two hospitals offering every specialty serve the region.  Downtown is flourishing.  Fine dining abounds.  So do beer and burger joints, and everything in between.  The Walla Walla Symphony, the oldest symphony west of the Mississippi, is widely recognized for the quality of its work.  The Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival brings in nationally known artists each year, as do the dance festival, guitar festival, jazz festival and more.  It’s an odd place.  Cosmopolitan, literate and sophisticated Walla Walla mixes comfortably with rodeos, pickups, farming, ranching, and rural western life Walla Walla.  It’s still off the beaten track.  It isn’t on the way to anywhere else.  The closest Interstate is thirty miles away.  There are three flights a day between here and Seattle.  If you come here it’s because you want to come here.  Well, except for the residents of the state pen just north of town, but that’s another story.

It’s not that we don’t have problems, we do, just like any other place.  Average income tends to be on the low side, and it’s not easy for those at the bottom to find a decent place to live.  The dominant white culture is giving way to a richer diversity in which the Hispanic community plays a major role.  Old time conservatives are making way, reluctantly, for younger more liberal voters. Remnants of wild west behavior are reflected in the occasional dispute resolution with guns between hot tempered youth, often members of local gangs.  The town’s reputation for generosity has begun to attract more homeless transients.  They are issues common to many cities these days, but in Walla Walla the community is working through public and private means to address each of them.  I’ve been impressed by younger generations of leadership taking over from the old boys network, and doing a good job of it.

Not everyone who comes likes it.  It’s the rural west.  The mountain are yours to enjoy, but the roads into them are rough forest service roads.  The wild life up there is not tame.  The high desert is dry.  The sky is big.  The horizon is many miles away.  Whole Foods and Trader Joe are not here.  The Snake and Columbia rivers are, but the marinas and parks along their banks cater to locals, not tourists.  Gated communities exist, but we don’t like them.  Although neighborhoods can seem segregated, the city is too small for integration not to dominate.  Farm and ranch supply operations adorn the highways in and out of town.  Some farmsteads have a lot of junk around them.  If you come to stay, come to live into our way of life.  It’s not the big city. 

We came here sixteen years ago.  I think we’ll stay.



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hosea, quit messing with us. It's not nice.

I don’t know what happened in your congregations this morning.  In my tiny rural congregation there was some difficulty grasping the lessons from Hosea, especially considering they had just spent a few weeks struggling with Amos.  For one thing, there was a general distaste for a bible story about marrying a prostitute.  It just didn’t seem, well, in good taste.  It’s just not, you know, biblical. 

I tried to connect Hosea with Amos by reminding them that while Amos was a prophet who spoke to the leadership of Israel about their unethical behavior that thad oppressed and impoverished the common people of the land, and about their elaborate but meaningless religious rituals, Hosea, doing his work at about the same time, prophesied more about their personal relationship with God, and he did it in a strange way; he acted it out.

We talked about Hosea’s marriage to Gomer as an allegory acted out like a stage play.  Hosea played the part of God while Gomer played the part of the people of Israel.  As God had chosen the Israelites, so Hosea chose Gomer.  As God blessed Israel with a land of milk and honey, so Hosea provided Gomer with all she needed.  As Israel betrayed the covenant with God by going after other gods, so Gomer betrayed Hosea by having sex with other men.  Hosea and Gomer acted out their parts as a demonstration of how Israel had treated God.  Throughout the book God shows anger, frustration, lament because God loves the Israelites even though they have betrayed him.  In the end, God declares that by God’s grace the day will come when, in spite of their sin, they will be restored and returned to him, their sins forgiven.  God’s love will never die even as our love proves undependable.  You’ll notice I switched from past tense to present tense because I think it’s what God is still doing in our own time.  

So, did he really do it?  Hosea did what God told him to do, but did he really marry a prostitute and have children by her, or did he simply write about it as if he had?  It’s an allegory to be sure, but I suggested that their guess is as good as anyone else’s as to whether he wrote about it or actually did it.  Whichever, there are some important lessons for us that we tried to get to.

Through Hosea, God reveals that God is affected by what we do.  God is not only engaged in our lives, but because God is love, and because love, whatever else it might be, is emotional, God can and does feel the emotions you and I feel about those we love.  It’s easy to say that we love God, but how many other gods do we love?  More than a few if we’re honest about it.  Like disobedient children, how often have we told God we would do something, but never took it seriously, never did it, and never intended to do it?  Hosea messes with our ideas about God in very uncomfortable ways, doesn’t he?

Like the people of Israel, how can we expect to live into the fullness of life in abundance that God desires for us, while behaving individually and in community in ways that lead in the opposite direction?  It can’t be done.  That doesn’t keep us from trying.  

Can we believe, as Amos, Hosea, and all the prophets said, that in the end God will still be there for us, creating new life for us, no mater what we are going through now?  Isn’t that what the gospel writers, especially Matthew, meant when they said that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that the prophets had said?  If so, how does it affect the way you live?  Hopefully, it allows you to be bolder in your lives of adventure.  We are children growing toward adulthood.  Go with boldness, grow with boldness.  That’s what nineteen elderly folks in a tiny rural congregation are working on.

How’d it go at your end?


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thucydides speaks to the nation - our nation

Jimmy Carter was famously pilloried for saying that America suffered from national malaise.  What!?  American’s suffering from malaise?  Nonsense!  And so began our experiment with Reaganism, which, by itself, was not much, but it opened the door to so called neocons and neo-liberals (I never have understood the difference between them) who championed the devices of real malaise.

That hadn’t occurred to me until I ran across a citation from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars about the deep cultural malaise that affected the Hellenistic world at that time.  With very little adjustment, it seems to capture our own time.  So with apologies to philosophers and scholars of Greek history who may take justifiable umbrage, here is my interpretation of what he wrote as applied to our own nation in our own time. 

The whole of American society was convulsed with the sufferings inflicted on it through decades of unceasing war and civil unrest.  Words began to change their ordinary meaning.  Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal citizen.  Prudent hesitation became specious cowardice.  Moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness.  Willingness to consider all points of view became unwillingness to act.  Frantic violence became a sign of manliness.  Cautious planning became a target for attack.  Glib platitudes became means to unethical ends.  Thus every form of iniquity took root in the land.  Any thought to working across the aisle was laughed down, and our society was divided into camps in which no person trusted another.

However malaise is understood, the mood of the nation is not a good one.  Public longing for return to better times is always about a time that never existed.  It’s a romanticized ideal, but it is a true longing.  The subtext for many people has to do with a 1950ish time in which social and racial classes were stabilized with white people at the top, and access to the middle class, at least for white males, was almost assured.  Leaving it at that with a smug dismissal would be a mistake.  It also harkens to a time in which representatives of conflicting interests intended to hammer out workable agreements between them.  Not that fringe groups specializing in irrational fear mongering didn’t exist. There were many, and sometimes, like the John Birch Society, they had enough public support to gain a modicum of power.  Nevertheless, those in control of our legislative processes found ways to work out their differences in acceptable ways.  That time began to unravel under Reagan through an intentional movement toward polarized politics engineered by neocon/neo-liberal apparatchiks who were fed up with compromises, and wanted to keep all the marbles for themselves.


Now, I think, we have entered fully into the Hellenistic time of which Thucydides wrote.  The Republican Convention now underway is prime example number one.  I don’t know what this election cycle will bring, but I hope that it is the nadir of our descent, and that at every level of government more rational minds, faithful to the highest values of our national myth, will begin to prevail.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

As Western bars go, it was OK

The writing workshop I attended recently had one unexpected turn.  We were invited to take about forty minutes to write a short, short story.  I don't write fiction.  I am not interested in writing fiction, in spite of what some critics say about my essays.  The muse of blank minds reminded me that Garrison Keillor was about to retire, that I, like him, grew up in Minnesota, and that some places in the inter mountain West, where I live, are not unlike Lake Wobegon.  With plagiarizing political speech writers as my guide, this is what I came up with.  Enjoy; it is my only contribution to the world of fiction.  Like Schubert's 8th, it's unfinished, ever to remain so.



Ralph had little to show for his life, and was satisfied with it.  He had a small place about ten miles out of town, and owned a bar at the end of Main Street, Ralph's Pretty Good Bar, where the beer was not bad and there was nothing on the top shelf.  It was the only bar in town so it was good enough.  His pride possession was his old, somewhat temperamental, Bentley convertible with the top permanently stuck in the down position, which he'd bought years ago at an estate sale.  For companionship he had Olga, his St. Bernard, who was a neutered male but he didn't know that when he got "her" from friends who no longer wanted to pick up after him.  Anyway, it was near time to open the bar, and he was running late.  Olga was trundled into the back seat, not without difficulty, and the two of them headed to town.  There would be the usual gathering of old ranchers waiting for their beer and a bump, but they could wait.  They always did.  Besides, it gave them time to spit their Skoal into the gutter instead of on his floor.  Then it began to rain the kind of straight down and sideways at the same time rain that can happen only in western towns.  The car did not like rain on it's cracked red leather, nor did it care for soggy dog odors mixed with dog slobber and whatever detritus hung under her tail.  Being English, it did not like running in the rain under any circumstance, so it quit, deciding to stay put until better weather came along.

Old ranchers will wait for a while, but the desire for a beer and a bump, and the lack of desire to get soaking wet, were inspirational moments for Karl who knew where Ralph hid the extra key, and figured maybe he was sick or something, so decided to open up on his own, which the others thought was a good idea, especially since Fred, retired  rancher and the town's part time cop, was with them.  They did a pretty good job of it too.  Everyone knew how to run the taps, and where the whiskey and glasses were kept.  That part was easy.  No one knew how to run the cash register, so each one kept his own record on a piece of paper to be left on a spindle near the jars of peanuts and pickled eggs.  When, and if, Ralph ever showed up he could sort it out at his convenience.  The penciled receipts left something to be desired as the drinks continued to be poured in increasingly generous portions.

That's as far as I got.  Here endeth the story.  Now it's time to get back to politics, economics, theology, and the occasional nonsense.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Public Safety - Dallas - Baton Rouge

I deplore unjustifiable police violence, and I deplore those who use it as an excuse to vilify the police.  I’m an old man now, but once in my youth I was a sworn officer.  It didn’t last long.  It wasn’t my calling.  But it made an indelible impression on my life.  For the last fourteen years I have been the fire and police chaplain in our community. 

It was Noon today.  From across the region, fifty police officers, deputies, and fire fighters stood at attention in the plaza at First and Main to remember and honor those slain in Dallas and Baton Rouge.  I was asked to offer an invocation.  This is what I said.

We live in conflicted times in which we are too easily tempted to turn on each other, distrustful of each other, afraid to give of ourselves for the well being of others not like us.  It is not what the Almighty has called us to be.

St. Paul, having learned his own lesson as an agent of persecution, came to understand that in God there are no longer those who are privileged and those who are not, no longer those who are in bondage and those who are free, no longer male or female, but all are one in God’s presence.

We too often stand apart, making excuses for why we are entitled to make exceptions.  There are no excuses.  There are no exceptions.  It is time to put away falsehoods.  Let us speak truth in love, not to our neighbors, but with our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 

Today we pause in the busyness of our own lives to remember in our hearts, and before the Almighty, eight of our members who have become victims of the violent, hate filled distrust that has infected our world.  They were working peacefully among peaceful protesters, black, brown, and white, when violent hatred took their lives.  They were on routine patrol when an assassin took their lives:
  • Patrick Zamarripa
  • Brent Thompson
  • Michael Krol
  • Lorne Ahrens
  • Michael Smith
  • Montreal Jackson
  • Matthew Gerald
  • Brad Garafola

O God, you made us in your own image.  Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that the time may not be far off when all nations and races may serve each other in harmony.  And let all say,

Amen.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Distracted by too many things

"Martha, you are distracted by too many things.  Mary has chosen the better part."  So said Jesus in the familiar story of Mary and Martha.  How can we not be distracted?  There are too many things going wrong in our world not to be.  Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Texas.  As I write it's Nice, France.  Too many mass shootings.  Too many unnecessary deaths at the hands of those on whom we rely to protect and serve.  Too many assassinations of our finest and bravest at the hands of the vengeful.  In the background are the daily stories of refugees fleeing unspeakable terrors, willing to risk death at sea or life penned up in camps as the better choice.  How can we not be distracted?  In the midst of it, in our own communities, we are surrounded by voices of contempt, suspicion, conspiracy, and bigotry, each justifying itself on nothing more than rumor, hearsay, and the irresponsible trash talk that has become the source of "news" for many.  

We desperately need the better part chosen by Mary, but what is it?  The old hymn says it well, "This is my Father's world."  It is not ours.  We are merely the stewards of it, and each of us only for a short time at that.  For those of us who claim to be Christian, we have our instructions.  We have been told what stewardship entails.  Love God with all our being.  Love our neighbors as ourselves (remember the Good Samaritan?).  Love each other as Christ has loved us.  Everything comes after that.  It is the better part.  Amidst our distractions, let us strive to be agents of Christ's love in a world so desperate for it.  No more dodging the question or making facile excuses.  These were commandments, not suggestions.  It isn't just the better part, it's the only part. 



A Note of Caution to my Friends on the Right

Three recent columns implored my progressive and liberal friends to listen to and respect the deeper concerns of those on the right.  This brief essay is implores my conservative friends to refrain from being taken in by Trumpian propaganda. 

I’m on a couple of Republican mailing lists.  It’s probably because I faithfully respond to their “surveys”, which are riddled with questions implying the horrors of continued Democratic control of the White House over issues that don’t exist and economic conditions so distorted they bear only the faintest whiff of reality.  Anyway, yesterday’s mail brought the first fund raising letter from Donald J. Trump himself, and it was a propaganda gem.  

Hilary, Crooked Hillary to be specific, was said to be allied with liberal special interests, and nothing could be worse than allies that are both liberal and have special interests.  Nothing has to be said about what liberal meant, or what the special interests might be, because we know that the words themselves tell all.  However, simply calling something liberal was not enough; it quickly became “ultraliberal” backed by Democratic leaders called ‘Bleeding-Heart” and “Hatchet-Man”, the allies of “Crooked Hillary.”  What strikes me is how easily these transfer to the every day vocabulary of Trump supporters.  Not long ago when talking with a group of my Trump supporting friends (yes, I do have them and they are my friends), I stopped the conversation and said no more labels. If you think she is crooked then tell me exactly what you are accusing her of.  After a painful silence there was a weak attempt to rehash old issues long resolved as unfounded or immaterial, and then the admission that “I just don’t like her.”  Thats fair enough, she’s done a lot of things not to like, but no more labels, and especially labels that haven’t been personally evaluated for accuracy, using a reliable source, which does not include Fox News or talk radio.  

Well, back to the letter.  It went on to accuse Obama’s leftist legacy of being responsible for America’s downward spiral.  What leftist policies might be in that legacy?  What downward spiral would that be?  Terms were never defined, but a gifted propagandist knows they not only don’t need to be, they shouldn’t be.  Of course ObamaCare was high on the suspect list, charged with a list of specious accusations easily accepted by those who have not examined them.  Then there was the liberal plan to pass blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants instead of securing our borders.  What plan would that be?  Has anyone ever seen or heard of such a plan?  No!  But there’s the Wall again, to be paid for by Mexico.  Amazing!

Trump crowed about the assertion that more Americans are out of work since Carter’s administration.   It’s one of those smidgen of truth things.  In the face of eight years of all time record job growth, it is true that between retirements and persons who have dropped out of the job market, there are a lot of  people still out of work, but that begs the question because it’s a phenomenon in the face of unprecedented job growth that could have been even better had Congress showed any inclination to cooperate with the administration.  He also complained about the slow growth of the economy with no awareness that it is at its maximum rate given the constraints of world economic conditions.

Of course he trotted out the $8.5 trillion growth in debt over the last eight years without acknowledging that half of it is due to accounting for war costs kept off the books by the previous administration, and that the annual deficit has been reduced faster and farther than under any previous president other than Clinton.  For a deal maker whose entire empire is based on debt (and getting out of it through bankruptcy), he seems to have no idea how national debt works, but that’s another issue.  He probably does know, but those who follow him don’t, and it’s easy to scare them with big scary numbers.  

In the end, his fund raising letter, like the surveys I respond to, was a masterpiece of old time propaganda.  What troubles me is that old time propaganda works, and it works well.  



Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Third and Final Lecture to Progressives about Right Wing Values – so pay attention!

Two previous articles encouraged centrist progressives and left wing liberals to pay more attention to what right wing tea party types and Trump supporters are saying, at a level deeper than bumper sticker soundbites, to better understanding what is going on among a significant portion of our population.  I’m particularly interested in our own little corner of the nation, the rural intermountain West, where anti-government candidates are elected and reelected with ease, even though the policies they endorse weaken the social and physical infrastructure of the quality of life their supporters desire to have.  

For more centrist candidates (both left and right) to win elections and stay elected, their supporters need more empathy (I detest that word, but it’s useful here) for what the right wing base wants and is worried about.  When you get past the ill informed and often deeply prejudiced soundbites they’ve picked up from talk radio and Fox News, there can be something worth listening to.  That’s going to take some doing.  Left of center activists in our region are so used to being vastly outnumbered that they tend to isolate themselves behind walls of supercilious contempt for the unenlightened masses.  Moreover, they are content to blast away at far right soundbites with gobs of undigestible data the right has learned to dismiss as mere propaganda.  It has all the dignity of a middle school food fight.  What progressives need to do is dig deeper to find out what’s down there. 

This article is an attempt to push a little harder in that direction, and is based on conversations with a half dozen friends who are on the tea party side of things, including their intention to vote for Trump.  All are men.  For the most part they are sons of families who have been in the region for generations, and they are deeply rooted in the land and the culture of the pioneer myth.  All have some college education, each is in a profession requiring substantial formal education and advanced technical training.  In other words, they are smart, capable, and proficient in their fields.  Moreover, because I know them as friends I know that they have deep desire for the good of the community.  They are men who were raised to believe in personal responsibility, independence, and pride about making it in life without the need of government handouts, at least not handouts in the form of welfare payments.  

Forget about the candidates now running, I said, and tell me about what you want in a president.  What are the characteristics of a president you could support.  Hight on the list is a president who is not owned by corporate  lobbyists and big money donors.  They want someone (preferably a white man) who is in debt to no one but the people who elect him.

They want someone who believes in the primacy of personal responsibility, who will cut off those who “ride the welfare system.”  They don’t mind a helping hand to get someone out of a hole, but they don’t believe in making it a source of permanent income.  They don’t know how much of that is going on, but they’ve been told it’s a  lot, and they believe the dominant ethos of the country has changed from responsibility for self to dependency on others.

Recent presidents, they say, have a history of going off half-cocked taking the country into places it does not belong, against the better counsel of qualified advisors.  They want a president who will listen to the experts who know about war, foreign alliances, trade and the like.  Maybe presidents should be required to have had military service.

Speaking of the military, veterans have been abused by a system and nation that doesn’t care enough to care for them when they come home.  The nation needs a president who will make proper care for veterans one of his highest priorities.  

Immigration reform must be taken seriously.  They’ve had enough of illegal immigrants living their dream on the backs of tax paying Americans.  Yes, they understand and have sympathy for those who want a better life here, but we have to be in control of our borders.

In like manner, they want a president who will favor law enforcement over criminals, and justice for all rather than justice just for Blacks and other minorities.

God, in a generic Christian way, is important to them, and they want God to be important to the president also.  That means a president who will favor public expressions of faith such as school prayer, prayer before public assemblies, and presidential celebration of traditional religious holidays as religious.

Yes, they want a president who will honor the Second Amendment, and who believes as they do that armed law abiding citizens protect themselves, each other, and the nation against the possibility of tyranny.  Moreover, the Second Amendment stands for all their liberties that are threatened by the intrusion into their lives of government power in particular ways.  For some it’s being forced to buy health insurance, for others it’s over regulation of farming and forestry practices, for others it’s mandates about education, and so on.  It depends on how they make their living, or what part of community life they are a part of. 

That means they want a president who will not tolerate entrenched bureaucracies, who will eliminate the inefficiency of overlapping, contradictory regulations enforced by paper pushers who know little about the businesses they are regulating, and don’t care about customer service.

They are keenly aware that the place of the white male as the ideal representative of the true American citizen is fading, that his place as the principal decider and provider is eroding, and they don’t like it.  Men like them have led the country for almost 250 years.  We are the great nation that we are because of men like them.  Men like them have brought us through two world wars and kept us safe.  But men like them were from previous generations.  Their generation has not done as well, and they know it.  It’s galling, humiliating, and damnit, they don’t want to lose any more than has already been lost to others who have so little claim to the heritage that should be theirs.  You work hard.  You do the right thing.  And what do you get?  Kicked in the gut by people who don’t do the right thing and haven’t done the hard work.  

When you get past the right wing talk radio inspired trash talk, and ignore the distorted information on which they rely, what they want out of a presidential candidate, indeed out of any major office candidate, has real value.  In fact there is an entire menu of values that are either shared with more progressive candidates, or for which progressive candidates can have respect if not share in the same way.  Articulating that in simple, understandable terms is the only way progressive candidates are ever going to begin wining elections around here.  And winning progressive candidates, whether leaning left or leaning right, are the only way our region and nation can begin the process of seeking a new path to middle class opportunity and stability that will include my right wing friends.  

There is only one desire they are going to have to cede.  The days of white male supremacy are over.  For power and position they will have to compete on a playing field less tilted in their favor.  That’s going to be a hard one because, raised as they were in the culture of the rural intermountain West, they are unaware of, and cannot conceive of, a playing field that has ever been tilted in their favor.   


Monday, July 11, 2016

We need more good jobs, but is any job a good job?

This brief essay begins with questions and ends with questions.  There should be answers, but I don’t know what they are, at least not yet.  The questions are about jobs that enable a basic middle class lifestyle.  The long term systemic solution depends on significant top down policy changes, but today I wonder about a few questions closer to home towns.  Home towns across the nation are thirsting for jobs that pay well and offer entry into the middle class and beyond.  Job growth numbers are robust, but many of them are low paying, part time, without benefits, dead end jobs offering no hope for a middle class lifestyle.  Moreover, those robust job growth numbers have largely bypassed the hinterlands of the country.

Is any well paying job a good job?  Americans tend to disapprove of people whose lives depend on welfare, or who have government make-work jobs that don’t really need to be done.  How does that intersect with solid high paying skilled jobs making tanks (Abrams) the military doesn’t want, or fighter planes (F-35) grossly over budget and of doubtful future use?  In what sense are they welfare jobs, make-work jobs? They prop up the economies of entire communities that depend on them.  For those communities, and the politicians elected from them, it’s the jobs that count, and not the waste of taxpayer dollars.  What if we quit throwing federal money in their direction, let them figure out their future on their own like real Americans are supposed to do.  Then we could invest those funds in ways that might underwrite more jobs, doing work that actually needs to be done in more places, providing a higher standard of living for more people?  Rebuilding the infrastructure might be a possibility.  I like that idea.

Defense contractors are always the easy target, and for good reason, but there are others.  There are jobs that pay well in profitable industries, but are they jobs we want even if we desperately need jobs?  Here in the Pacific Northwest it was proposed to build coal and oil terminals in some of our ports that would be fed by pipelines and mile long trains.  With timber on the decline, these would be great jobs for a lot of people, but what about the environmental cost?  Is it a price worth paying?  What about the rapidly diminishing returns on coal shipments as demand for coal plummets?  Even oil is a commodity whose long term price is on shaky ground.  Is the public investment required to get them on line worth the long term risk?  What would these jobs mean for our quality of life?  For that matter, what is quality of life?  It’s hard to have quality of life when jobs for ordinary people pay little and offer no future.  Maybe a short term bet is worth it.

The North Dakota oil field towns made their short term bet.  Whether it paid off or not depends on the long term environmental cost of production, and whether they invested their windfall or spent it.  Wyoming coal towns made the same bet decades ago.  How have they fared?

The economy of our valley is based on agriculture, higher education, health care,  and government.  In the last decade, wine based tourism has become another leg supporting our economic stool.  Job and population growth has been steady but slow.  The local port authority keeps talking about working with businesses to create more “family wage jobs,” meaning jobs that pay enough for an ordinary family to live with some degree of security in a home, with a car, enough food to eat, and adequate clothing for all.  Even in our rural area, that demands an annual family income of around $50,000, or $25 per hour.  New jobs in our area pay around $10 to $15 per hour depending on skill and experience.  Average income in 2014 was around $38,000 a year with professional jobs averaging closer to $60,000 and retail/service jobs in the low $20,000 range (I don’t know what the 2016 numbers might be).  Unless you are in the professional class, it’s unlikely that you will find a job that will offer entry into the middle class.  You may even find it hard to rent a home you can afford, much less buy.  The free food pantry will undoubtedly become a regular stop for your family.

What are we to do?  Not everyone is equipped to join the ranks of professionals.  Would we be happy to build unneeded tanks or overpriced fighters?  Probably.  If Portland doesn’t want a coal and oil terminal, would we be happy to have it at our end of the Columbia River?  Maybe.  Jobs that pay well are very enticing.

The issue is complicated, and there will be no going back to high paid union jobs where all you have to do is put in the hours to get paid.  There has to be a different, better way to approach the issue.  For instance, retail and restaurants tend to be low paying operations, but consider the difference between a few local businesses.  The local Macy’s employs staff on the floor who are little more than checkout clerks at the register.  That’s about it.  Whatever additional help they might give is incidental and infrequent.  Another local clothing store employs staff who are responsible for seeing that ‘clients’ have a successful shopping experience buying just the right things that work for them.  Their staff can make a living in retail.  Servers at low end restaurants take orders and process payment.  If they do it well, they get a modest tip.  Servers at the best places in town, including some popular breakfast joints, establish relationships with diners with the intent of making their experience more than just eating.  They may not enter the middle class on a servers wage and tips, but they get close, and in the process they learn what it takes to run a successful business.    

With that modest observation in mind, I suggest that one key to better paying jobs may be customer service,  especially with tourism playing a greater role in our economy.  It’s something that doesn’t require a high degree of technical skill or professional education.  It does require an owner with an attitude of generosity.  It’s a bottom up approach.  It may not have much impact on national economic policy, but it could make a big local difference.  Would it work?  Maybe.  It couldn’t hurt to try.

Like I said, I don’t have any real answers, just questions.



Friday, July 8, 2016

Reflections on the Last Three Days

Tears, anguish, anger, frustration.  As with many others, they are my feelings this morning.  Feelings like that can inform thinking, but they are not a substitute for thinking.  Thinking requires time for reflection in which feelings can be checked against available evidence, and possible decisions can be evaluated against likely consequences.  Thinking is what enables us to deescalate violence, to refrain from acts of revenge, and to consider how the good of others might be served by what we say and do.  Thinking is what opens the door to the possibility that the others, whose good we seek, can be, perhaps should be, others who are not like us.  Thinking is what enables us to know when it’s time for action, what that action should be, and how it contributes to building up the community in justice. 

I’ve been thinking about the assassination of cops in Dallas who were doing their work peacefully among those at a peaceful rally.  Yes, as a nation we have a problem with what is called police violence, but too much of the protest has not been about solutions.  It’s been about making cops, all cops, the enemy.  Making enemies is what leads to what happened in Dallas.  It’s an inexcusable outrage. I work with cops. I like cops.  Around here they work for the community and with the community, and they do it well in spite of the danger of being in harm’s way at any moment.  As our chief said today, “All of us are part of this community, have family and friends who are part of the community, and have well established relationships in the community. It’s not an us vs. them, it’s just us. Now is the time to work at strengthening the relationships we have and making new ones.” — Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber

I’ve been thinking about the killing of black men and women, and whether “Black Lives Matter.”  You bet they do, but they haven’t mattered much for a very long time.  We have to be honest about that, and there are way too many of us for whom they still don’t matter.  We have to be honest about that too.  The Civil War ended officially in 1865, but it’s not over, not really.  The civil rights acts of the mid 1960s were signs that the end might be near; that was fifty years ago and we’re not there yet.  Until we can say Black lives matter, it’s a delusion to say all lives matter.  It’s nothing more than a way to avoid hard truths, avoid responsibility.  I wrote this a few days ago, but it bears repeating that some of us must be reminded that the nation is not going back to some mythical (whiter) better time.  If we are to be true to our American Dream we can only go forward into a future that embraces a more diverse population that is less divided, offering more equitable opportunities, and from which new social values will emerge that will strengthen the fabric of society in new ways.  Moreover, we, and and that includes me, whose birthright has given us precedence over all others for access to the rewards of the American Dream can no longer claim it be ours alone.  The biggest obstacle confronting us is that we are not inclined to share.  

Who’s to blame?  Social media was flowing with angry words of blame this morning.  Blame is the coward’s way out.  Blame is an excuse to avoid responsibility.  Blame is a tool for putting our guilt on the heads of others.  Blame has been the weapon of choice for self aggrandizement by national leaders who are leading us toward self destruction, the so called Freedom Caucus and friends chief among them.  If we want to be a community at peace, each of us must take the responsibility to be honest about how our own beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors contribute toward building up or tearing down. As Jesus said, …”how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”



Thursday, July 7, 2016

Taking Delight in that which Delights the Other

Take delight in that which delights the other.  I wrote a piece on that some years ago, and it’s time for it to come up again because it came up in a conversation with a young friend of mine who has been married almost ten years, and has discovered that his wife really enjoys doing certain things in which he has absolutely no interest.  To his surprise, the reverse is equally true.  She’s not really into some of his favorite sports.  Are they growing apart?  What should he do about it?

The healthiest and happiest marriages I know of are characterized by flexibility, forgiveness, trust, and delight in that which delights the other.  By flexibility I mean that while they never lose touch with each other, they also have significant degrees of freedom to explore and experience new things, each on their own.  It also means that there is no place for fundamentalist ideas about the man being the ruler of the household, or that being made “one flesh” implies a melding of two personalities into one entity dominated by one of them.

Forgiveness, of course, has to do with the reality that married people fail each other from time to time in all kinds of ways, sometimes intentionally, but usually not.  Forgiveness is about reconciliation, and reconciliation is about confession, acceptance of responsibility, and amendment of life.  Think of it as a continuing series of mostly small mid-course corrections that are made throughout life together.  Forgiveness also means something else.  We talk about the characteristic of forgiveness in something that can accommodate an inexperienced or not very competent user.  A friend has a horse who is forgiving of inexperienced riders.  Another friend flies a small plane he says is forgiving of pilots who are good enough but not experts.  You get the idea.  Forgiveness and flexibility have a lot to do with each other.

Trust means that each partner has faith that the other will not betray or hurt them, at least not intentionally, and certainly not in any life shattering way.  My friends Ernie and Margaret have been married for over sixty years; they each say that trust means they know the other will be there for them and with them.  Trust means being dedicated to the integrity of the relationship.  Trust is never a one way street.  For trust to be present, it must go in both directions.  Trust also encompasses the venial sins of which we are all guilty, embracing them in forgiveness (as understood above).  “I trust that you love me even if I am not very lovable today.”

So that brings us to the main event: take delight in that which delights the other.  It’s not unusual for lovers in their courtship days to crow about how much they like the same things, and it’s true.  But a maturing relationship soon reveals that each has his or her own interests not shared by the other.  There are new things to learn, experience, try, and work at that may have little appeal for the other.  For some that means growing apart.  It can mean the end of the marriage, but it shouldn’t.  The key is to take delight in that which delights the other.  Here are some personal examples.  My wife was a competitive runner.  Running as sport is of zero interest to me, but I was delighted (found happiness) in the delight that running gave to her.  I love to snorkel and have enjoyed free diving.  She is not comfortable snorkeling, and worries about any free diving I still try to do, but she takes delight in how happy it makes me feel.  She’s an artist.  I’m a writer.  We work in separate spaces, and keep them far apart.  But we each take delight in the delight that other has in the work they do.  Those who learn to take delight in that which delights the other are the ones who stand before their friends on their fiftieth or sixtieth wedding anniversary as a couple still passionately in love with each other, even though one is into quilting and the other plays golf every day.  


Yes, it’s wonderful to discover how much you and your loved one have in common, and to celebrate it as often as possible.  But it’s never too early to begin the process of learning how to take delight in that which delights the other.  In the end it will take your romance to ever higher, more enduring levels.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Another Reality Check for Progressives

It should not be hard to understand why at least some Brexit voters did what they did, and are not sorry about it even after being told about the disastrous effects it would have, and is having, on the British economy and the stability of world order.  Let's say you are someone living in the Midlands on barely enough to get by, and with little prospect for anything better.  Or suppose you are living in a tiny, overcrowded apartment in a big city with little hope of joining the ranks of the well off.  So what if the British economy tanks?  You are already in recession, if not depression.  How much worse could it get?  Not much.  Maybe it would do some good for the high living swells in London to find out what it's like to hurt a little. So what if the stock market takes a dive?  You don't have any stocks to worry about.  If imports become more expensive, what does it matter?  You can't afford them anyway.  If it's more difficult to export, so what?  How can that hurt you?  If the Pound sinks to rock bottom, well, you don't have many in your pocket as it is.  Who cares?  World order?  What the heck is that?  Just read the papers or watch t.v., there doesn't seem to be much order in the world as it is.  What you want is protection, security, and a better chance at a better life.

The politicians who run the country have never cared one way or the other about you, and you don't care about them either.  Conservative, Liberal, Labour, some goofy Green Party, what difference does it make?

Pay attention American political leaders.  That same attitude infects a very large segment of the American population as well.  It's one reason Trump is doing as well as he is.  If nothing else, he's sticking it to the political elite, and blasting away with atrocious political incorrectness that echoes the underlying prejudices of a public that knows how morally disreputable they are, but they feel that way anyway.  They know they should change, but they don't want to, and they aren't going to.

I read the Facebook entries of people I know well as otherwise decent people, but their posts are filled with unrestrained vitriol for President Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Why?  Because Obama is the visible sign that their place at the top of the race and power pyramid is collapsing under them right in front of their eyes, and because Hillary represents everything they hate and distrust about the political establishment, regardless of party.  Since these Facebook friends have never expressed any outrage over, or knowledge about, real and egregious crimes and misdemeanors by officials in previous governments, it suggests that something else is at play.  What might that be?  It's classical scapegoating related to a profound disconnect between the conditions of their lives in the communities where they live from the parts of the economy that are doing well for a select few.  That's combined with a deep distrust of elected representatives whom they believe are bought an paid for by big money interests.  Oddly enough, the part of the country in which I live has a history of electing representatives who run as conservatives on social values, but whose legislative records do serious damage to the economic issues most important to the people who are being elbowed out of the American Dream.  Yet they get reelected by large margins.  It is a disconnect of stunning proportions.  Even odder, they are aided and abetted by substantial numbers of relatively wealthy folks who have done quite well these last few years, but who, I suspect, are disappointed that they are poor millionaires instead of rich millionaires.  They are also angry at the prospect of no longer being recognized as having the legitimate, rightful power and position that they believe is their birthright.  It's a strange business.  Some will vote against their own best interests because they don't understand the consequences of their actions, or because they figure they can't be hurt much more, and besides, maybe it's time to take the corporate and political elite down a few notches.  Others will vote to protect their place on the top of the pile.  There are scapegoats in abundance to justify it.

What to do?  More than anything, I believe that centrist candidates must be willing to talk with them, not to them; respect them as important members of the community; and demonstrate that informed constituents can have genuine access to the legislative process with real influence.  That, at  least, has to be a start.  The next part is harder.  With calm words of certainty, thought leaders need to be forthright about taxes as investments by the community in the community, and it's time for serious talk about what we want to and need to invest in.  We have to get over the delusion that taxes are bad, lower taxes are better, and no taxes are best.

With equally calm words of certainty, thought leaders must make it clear that the nation is not going back to some mythical (whiter) better time.  If we are to be true to our American Dream we can only go forward into a future that embraces a more diverse population that is less divided, offering more equitable opportunities, and from which new social values will emerge that will strengthen the fabric of society in new ways.  That's a hard sell. It won't be easy.

What about the folks whose birthright gave them precedence over all others for access to the rewards of the American Dream?  It will no longer be theirs alone, and they are not inclined to want to share.  That's an even harder sell.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Amos and Us.

Liturgical congregations will hear from the prophet Amos over the next several Sundays.  He’s always been my favorite of the ethical prophets.  More than others, he enumerated the sins not only of Israel, but also of the surrounding nations.  They are worthy of our attention because they are the sins of our modern world as well.  Moreover, they imply the characteristics of a political agenda that might find favor in God’s sight, and they offer some simple words of guidance for those of us who profess faith in God.  I’ll leave it to you to read Amos for yourself to see what you think, but here  is what I think such an agenda might look like.

  1. Even for enemies do not use the food of the people as a weapon.
  2. Refrain from ethnic cleansing.
  3. Maintain integrity in international negotiations and relations.
  4. Foster civil harmony.
  5. Provide for security of persons and possessions.
  6. Show respect for legitimate civil authority.
  7. Establish economic policies and practices that are fair to all, with an emphasis on the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.
  8. Be fair and honest in all areas of trade, commerce, and personal relations.
  9. Prohibit confiscatory interest rates on loans.
  10. In fairness and with honesty, show no partiality in any application of justice.
  11. Establish policies and practices that remove barriers to success in life, especially barriers that have been erected against the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.
  12. Establish policies and practices that encourage constructive work for all and respect for all work.
  13. Establish policies and practices that encourage fair taxation, and discourage inequitable patterns of income and wealth.
  14. Refrain from arrogant, undue pride of nation or family.
  15. Establish policies and practices that show generosity and compassion for the suffering, needy, oppressed, and marginalized.

  1. Show awed respect for God’s holy places (including nature).
  2. Have holy respect for all acts of intimacy, especially sexual intimacy.
  3. Engage life in sobriety.
  4. Allow God’s servants to speak freely as God inspires them.
  5. Worship God honestly, intentionally, in heart, soul, and mind.
  6. Refrain from the presumption of God's grace for one's self while oppressing others.