Sunday, April 29, 2018

Right Wing Libertarians: Let them Squabble with Each Other

PatrickDeneen has written a new book,Why Liberalism Failed. I haven’t read it yet, but did read its review in the April 25 issue of “The Christian Century.”  I’ll look forward to the book itself as soon as I can get it through my local independent book store.  In the  meantime, the review highlighted Deneen’s critique of liberalism as having created “radically autonomous individuals,” and in the process diminishing the value of community as a principle measure of the quality of life.  What follows are my own thoughts, but the review of the book stimulated them because it resonated with several of my recent columns.  Take a look when you can.  Just scroll down. 

Lest liberal friends take offense, liberalism, in its most classic sense, tends toward what today we call libertarianism, with its emphasis on society as a collection of individuals, each persuing the maximization of their personal freedom.  Government, as little as possible, is needed to protect rights associated with personal freedom, and from foreign enemies.  If government can contribute to maximization of personal freedom, so much the better.  Otherwise, it should stay out of peoples’ lives.  That’s a seriously inadequate summary, but it’s sufficient for the purpose of this column.

Classical liberalism is the foundational myth of the rugged individualism of the West, but versions of it are powerful icons in every region because it was a foundational theme in the crafting of our Constitution, and it wasn’t a bad thing.  It emerged out of the long struggle from feudalism, to monarchy, to crude forms of representative democracy, each asserting that political authority moved from the top down.  Until a few hundred years ago, political authority was said to descend from God to monarchs and other lords who exercised their divine right to rule the lives of the people under them.  The people having no inherent rights of their own, but only such revocable privileges as rulers deigned to give.  Luther and the Reformation upended that by asserting that individuals, created in the image of God, had rights of their own, delivered directly to them by God Almighty, and did not need a pope to tell them what to believe or how to behave.  It was a religious statement about worship and church governance, but it opened the door to the birth of a new way of understanding civil politics.  It was slow in coming, but it came.  Political authority, it was held, did not come from the top down, but resided in the people themselves.  They had the right, and authority, to create social contracts through which political powers were delegated up to governments of their choosing.  English parliamentarianism, the American war of independence, and the French revolution became earth shattering examples of how that might work.  Nothing was more revolutionary than asserting that political authority belongs to the people who then create governments to exercise only such power over the people as the people are willing and think best to surrender.  In our mythology of rugged individualism, it’s not the people acting collectively who do this, but the people acting individually, negotiating with each other, eventually coming to agreement on what and how much power they are willing to surrender to the government.  Doing it through assemblies of elected representatives became expedient only when issues became too complex for individuals to handle on their own, remembering that representatives were never to be fully trusted.

The American myth is that each adult person is (by God’s decree?) the supreme ruler of his or her life.  All authority resides with the individual.  In part or in whole it can be voluntarily delegated, negotiated in trade, or coercively taken by a more powerful person, but it is rooted in the individual.  To be more truthful, throughout most of our history it was that each adult white male was the supreme ruler of his life, and had rightful authority over the lives of others in his household or under his control.  If others could be manipulated to surrender rights to them, or if conditions could be manipulated to seize rights from others, it was simply an expression of natural competition.  If not God, then natural law had proclaimed it to be so.  

Taken to its extreme, everyone becomes (borrowing Deneen’s phrase) a “radically autonomous individual,” living reluctantly in a society where his or her rightful freedom is constrained by the rule of law, or the greater power of others.  Survival means defending one’s freedoms as well as one can, while compelling others to surrender theirs to the benefit of one’s self.  It creates conditions under which no one can fully trust anyone else, even when they share mutual interests.  Trusting elected representatives is even more problematic.  It’s only natural to assume that they are intent on manipulating the electorate to create the illusion of protecting individual rights while making the most for themselves of whatever opportunities that power and wealth present.  It’s not the liberalism of the founding fathers, but it is the right wing libertarianism that has infected 21st century American politics.   

Combined with blatant and latent racism, it has divided the nation into us vs. them, liberals vs. conservatives, red states vs. blue states.  On the far right are those who want to maximize individual freedom from governmental oversight, regardless of the effect it would have on the community because community is an abstraction of marginal value.  From their point of view, there can be no one on the left but socialists who believe political power rests with the state as the agency of the collective which does not recognize the rights of individuals. 

Modern liberals don’t understand that.  They can’t.  They don’t even know where to begin the argument. To speak of government as a tool for the well being of the community, or even of individuals, is antithetical to extreme libertarians.  For them, if doing something for the least of these is an imperative, let it be done voluntarily by individuals to individuals, or maybe by small voluntary associations, but not by rights usurping governments.  Using government to facilitate commerce can be acceptable, as long as it doesn’t regulate the commerce it facilitates.  

Contemporary liberalism is certainly no less concerned with individual rights, but it recognizes that they have not been equitably realized across the length and breadth of society.  It understands government as the appropriate tool for redressing the injustice.  It recognizes that we are not “radically autonomous individuals,” but individuals who are called to live in community, with the community itself having rights.  Community is an essential ingredient of societal well being, civilized life is not possible without it.  Contemporary liberals are willing to use government as a tool for building up community.  

Hobbes, and Golding may have been right about how we would exist in a barbaric state of radical autonomy, but we don’t live in that state.  Human civilization has for thousands of years striven to go away from it.  Even the worst totalitarian regimes have not been able to extinguish the human desire to live into the fullness of their personal freedom, peacefully, in community, with government delivering essential services.  

Let me suggest that we have allowed right wing libertarians to have far more influence than their numbers merit.  The majority of us are liberally minded, in the contemporary sense of the word, including most who identify as conservative.  Trying to change the minds of right wing libertarians is probably pointless.  Letting them have sway over public policy is sinfully unforgivable.  What to do?  To use a military metaphor, a frontal attack is probably a waste of resources.  Better to outflank them, leaving them isolated, squabbling among themselves, and complaining that no one is listening to them, because no one is. 


   

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sexy Talk about Analogues

Analogue thinking is vogue, at least in TED Talks and numerous articles, so I claim no originality in spite of having something to say.  Being old enough to have been an adult in the pre digital world, I can attest that no one then ever thought they were analogue thinkers, or even knew what it might mean.  It didn’t make any sense until computers became popular, which was a good twenty years after they became common.

The analogue world is a place where things are always in a state of becoming in one or more directions through cycles that never quite have a beginning or ending.  Think about something as simple and complicated as walking.  Everything is always in the process of moving from the place it was to the place it needs to be, passing through each moment without stopping.  Or consider  a field of wheat sowed, growing, harvested, plowed, and sowed again in overlapping processes that are always coming or going.  In the analogue world of nature, all things are emerging from somewhere, and shading into what will come next without ever stopping in any one place.  The human world was largely analogue until the digital age.  Even our technologically advanced devices were analogue: vacuum tubes, radio waves, ovens, gasoline engines, airplane wings, records and record players.  You get the idea. 

The binary, or digital world, is a world of ones and zeros, on and off, but never in between.  It has well defined beginnings and endings, but if enough ones and zeroes are strung together fast enough, they can approximate an analogue process.  In fact, they can do it so well that things analogue seem as quaint as Medieval monks copying manuscripts.  By reducing analogue processes to infinitesimal digital steps, we can better understand how they work, so it’s not all bad.  Introduced to the world of ones and zeros in the late ‘60s, I sat through hours of classes about how computers work, along with the basics of COBOL, FORTRAN and systems analysis.  Computers were housed in warehouse like rooms, whirring with magnetic tapes on giant reels, and staffed with Harry Potter elves in the back, keypunch operators in the front, and gargoyle type gate keepers whose job it was to tell clients that a computer couldn’t do what they were asking of it.  

It was all binary, but it didn’t lead to the binary thinking, except for the backroom elves.  Binary thinking that seems to dominate public discourse today didn’t even emerge with the advent of personal computers.  It didn’t happen until digital devices of all kinds began to populate daily lives, perhaps most especially the digital clock and watch.  

So what is binary thinking, and how does it differ from analogue thinking?  Binary thinking is structured with ones and zeros.  Something is either a one or a zero, it can’t be both, and there is nothing in between.  Analogue thinking is never a one or a zero but always somewhere in between, in the process of becoming one or the other without ever being one or the other, and maybe going in some other direction altogether. 

Binary thinking has always been around, though it was never called that in years gone by.  It exists among those who live in a black and white world where right and wrong, good and bad, this and that, she and he, are always either one or the other with (almost) nothing in between.  Binary thinking is a useful tool for making simple decisions.  All of us use it.  Sane life would be impossible without it, but it’s prone to misuse through prejudice, poor data poorly understood, and unsupported assumptions.  It’s often mistaken for what we absentmindedly call common sense, and it’s a lousy tool for making complex moral decisions.  Yet the language of public discourse has devolved into binary terms where one must be on this side or the other, decisions are either right or wrong, and left and right are believed to exist only at one end or the other.  Preparing the ground for domineering binary thinking was handled, ironically, by Luddite fundamentalists who asserted the inerrant truth of the Protestant bible, along with only one way of understanding how to be a Christian.  Their absolutism fitted nicely with the digital age and its many forms of binary thinking, even though they rejected (and still reject) the science behind the technology they use to produce their radio and television shows.

Analogue thinking has also always been around, equally not called that in years gone by.  It’s the bane of my friend Don, tired of two handed clergy who are always saying, on the one hand this, but on the other hand that.  Analogue thinking doesn’t have ones and zeros.  It’s always a moving process, comfortable with provisional truths of high probability, given what we are capable of knowing and verifying.  When I taught management, I often made the point that effective managers know how to make decisions based on inadequate information giving them the best probability for success.  As a pastor, I was known to proclaim that Jesus is the “Son of God,” all else is provisional.  “Son of God” being in quotes because it’s an inadequate analogue phrase, but the best we can do given the language we have.

Until the digital age subsumed almost everything in its path, public discourse was largely analogue.  Demagogues on the left and right had voices, sometimes strong ones, but decisions were usually in the hands of those wandering to and from the center, looking for workable agreements that each understood to be waypoints on a path to somewhere else.  Public discourse has become binary, or in more popular words, polarized.  It’s not that people have gleaned binary thinking from digital gizmos.  For the most part, they don’t understand how ones and zeros operate to make digital gizmos work.  I certainly don’t.  But their ubiquity makes binary thinking about complex issues seem ordinary, normal, and resolvable only when everything is either a one or a zero.  One side will win, the other will lose.  What other choice is there?


To use a trite phrase, what a dystopian future that would be.  Let’s see what we can do to restore analogue thinking to a place in the public discourse that leads in another direction. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Psychographics and Real Politics

Trump’s most ardent followers will dump him the moment they realize it was a bad bet in the first place, but when will they realize it?  If the history of other wannabe dictators is an indicator, not until defeat is obvious and imminent.  In the ardency of their loyalty, they have adopted for themselves belief in, and commitment to, the fictitious world he made credible.  It’s a world they were already certain existed: a violent world where their personal safety was at risk, a world destroying long held social values, of uncontrolled invasion by unwanted aliens, of an economy intentionally organized to keep them down.  A world in which they get no respect from mythical elites.  It’s a world that had for years been sold to them by talk radio and FOX news, confirmed by the election of a black president, and now authenticated by a new president who, by his office and in his words, has made it real – for them.  

It’s a world they had always lived in but kept private, or shared with only a few others over a beer or backyard BBQ.  Talk radio, FOX and Trump didn’t create it.  They provided the platform and agency for it to be proclaimed publicly, and as a means for the acquisition of money and power for themselves.  The fiction of their imaginary world won’t collapse through informed argument, but only through overwhelming electoral defeat.  But what then?

Those same ardent supporters will no doubt look around for another  right wing fascist oriented fiction into which they can live, aided by the manipulators who are savvy enough to spot a new opportunity to make money and acquire power.  What’s reassuring is that throughout modern history these kinds of movements have not been able to completely squash the human desire for truth, freedom, integrity, and what we broadly call human rights.  The challenge that gives Trumpism type movements their temporary advantage is majority complacency.  In our country, it means low voter turnout, except for extremists.  It also means appalling ignorance of basic civics: American history, government, legislative processes, etc.

I have no idea why a predictable percentage of the American population lives in a world where authoritarian rulers are looked for and followed, in spite of the obvious fictions they proclaim.  In the early 1980s, when psychographics were emerging as tools for understanding group behavior, there were several studies suggesting that around 10% of the population could be relied on to favor authoritarian leaders and leadership, and that around 60% could be relied upon to be complacently malleable.  By now, new research and better data have no doubt resulted in a more sophisticated understanding of how that works.  Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Google, Amazon and others certainly think so.


The point is that trying to change world views of the 10% is probably unproductive, although it would be helpful to know who they are, and offer reassurance that their fears and anxieties will be acknowledged.  Productive change has to be aimed at the 60% who are complacently malleable.  First, by knocking the complacency out of them, at least for a while.  Second, by providing an abundance of easily understood, verifiable information that speaks directly to their conditions in life.  It’s exactly what Cambridge Analytica offered to do for right wing causes, using every despicable tactic they could dream up.  The same thing can be done with integrity and transparency by moderates and progressives, should they choose to do so.  If they do, do it in plain, public sight.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The City as Art Gallery: Lessons from Kelowna

Not long ago my wife and I viewed artist Dylan Ranney’s installation, “The Artist’s Garden” at the Kelowna (B.C.) Art Gallery.  His statement about the work explained that he considered the city itself to be a gallery depicting itself as art revealing the values of the community to itself and to visitors.  Kelowna is a city dependent on tourism, so understanding the gallery metaphor, and taking it seriously is important to their economic well being.

But what a great metaphor for any city.  Building designs, transportation systems, and neighborhood appearances are artistic statements that reveal the values of the community, and open doors to partial understandings of how they are lived into.  Demographic and economic data have their place, but the community itself paints revealing pictures of who it really is.  The gallery that is the town itself has much to say that economic developers and chambers of commerce never mention, perhaps have never noticed, and frequently prefer visitors to overlook.

American cities are not without awareness of art and architecture as symbols of public pride, but they tend to concentrate that awareness in intentional gathering places downtown and in public parks.  The gallery that is the city has other rooms that display other art.  They too must be visited with open eyes and minds.  Some of it is unattractive, dysfunctional, representing values lived, but not always with pride.  Those rooms are neighborhoods, industrial areas, commercial corners, strip malls, and back alleys that display wealth and poverty, inclusiveness and exclusiveness, social values and economic hierarchies.  City entrances, exits, and industrial areas have much to say about how the city makes its living, and what value appearance has for how it presents itself.  What gets displayed in shop windows says something about cultural and social values of potential customers, whether locals or visitors.  

Perfection is not the goal.  Awareness is the goal.  To be made aware of who we really are revealed in the art displayed in the gallery that is the city contributes to better community decisions.  The other day I saw a video of a machine in the Baltimore harbor that is used to scoop up tons of trash littering the waterway.  They’re very proud of it.  Good for them.  On a recent trip to Australia I learned that their port cities also had trash problems, not only in the water, but all over.  That was a few decades ago.  The cleanup began with campaigns to change public behavior.  Today there’s no need for a Baltimore type machine because there is no trash in the harbor, nor on the streets, nor in old industrial areas.  They became aware of the art they were displaying and decided to make the changes needed to take it down and put up something else.


If community leaders could be made more aware of the city as an art gallery displaying itself to itself as well as to visitors, I believe they would make better decisions.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Need for a New Populism

Populism has gained the attention of the voting public, even if it’s poorly understood.  Trump’s campaign rhetoric pulls out every propaganda cliché associated with populist appeals, and it has worked to capture the loyalty of what is loosely referred to as the tea party movement and fellow travelers.  At the core of its many manifestations, populism lifts up the interests of alienated members of society through political organization to attack whatever is believed to prevent them from enjoying the benefits of social and economic success.  The political face of populism has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, usually forcing the nation to recognize serious problems of equity and justice, and influencing changes in public policy.  Populist movements have often been able to elect small cadres of representatives to congress where they become thorns in the side of congressional leadership, but they’ve never been more than a vocal minority.  Not since Andrew Jackson has a president openly identified with them.  Populist leaders, subsumed under Trump’s more fascist version (Trumpism), have veered in a different direction from its predecessors.  They've become the foundation for a real and present danger to our democracy, oddly destructive of working class issues they claim to defend.  Nevertheless, the alienation to which they give voice is real, and moderate and progressive political forces need to recognize and respond to it in pragmatic, understandable ways.

Trump’s response is an imaginary restoration of a steel and coal fueled industrial economy, unencumbered by regulation, that once existed in the make believe world of nostalgia, even if it means hurting other, more important, sectors of the economy from high tech to agriculture.  He threatens easily fought and won trade wars to protect dying industries of marginal importance to the economic future of the country.  For those of us in more rural areas, he's invited trading partner retaliation aimed at the heart of agricultural America.  Vague promises to protect farmers with federal welfare dollars have all the credulity of a Trump wedding vow.  His education secretary is intent on undermining public education, the very source of hope for the future of ordinary people.  His EPA administrator is trying to dismantle regulations protecting the most vulnerable elements of the environment, endangering the most vulnerable members of society.  His treasury secretary wants to return banking to robber baron status, and his HUD secretary has no idea what’s going on.  "Making America Great Again" has become a recipe for making America a second rate floundering has been of a once great country wondering why other nations no longer take it seriously as a world leader.

Curiously, Trump managed to tag his preposterous ideas (no one could call them an agenda) to a legitimate concern: the growing alienation of large sectors of the population epitomized by, but not limited to, the white working class who live in towns and cities across the heartland: a mythical place somewhere west of the Appalachians and east of the Cascades.  It may not be a place, but it is a presence in the minds of people who feel alienated from economic well being and denigrated by educated elites.  They can be anywhere, even in liberal cities on the coasts.  

It’s not simply a matter of decades of growing economic inequality, or the fears of working class whites that they’re soon to become just one more minority among a nation of minorities.  People of color have long endured what working class whites fear is happening to them, and one cannot avoid the truth that tea party Trumpism caters to white anxieties with little regard for for the historical record of systemic racism affecting others.  It can be tempting to react to that by working harder to tackle the problem of racism, but as important as that is, meeting Trumpism head on requires a different strategy.

A moderate/progressive alternative to Trumpism must focus on the reality that the value of labor is no longer respected by corporate and economic policy leaders; therefore they no longer recognize the dignity of laborers as persons worthy of respect.  People of color have known that for a long time, but it’s a new thing for whites.  Moreover, white collar labor, well into middle management, is also sliding into that pit.  

Progressives and moderates must find ways to restore the value of labor and dignity of laborers.  But first, how did we get to such a place?

The nation was lulled into complacency by thirty years of American economic hegemony following WWII that gave us undisputed world economic leadership, and created an expectation that each generation (of white men) would be better off than the one before it, and that any (white male) person could pull himself into the middle class through honest hard work.  It was an era unique in American history.  It wasn’t always that way, and we are slipping back to a modern version of former prevailing conditions closer to the historic norm.

During the industrial revolution, and for decades after, human labor was a mere commodity.  No one laborer was worth much.  The supply was abundant, so treating humans as easily replaceable parts to the machine was the norm.  The Homestead Acts opened millions of newly "liberated" land to anyone who could prove up an operating farm.  It gave opportunity to many, but it was also a way to turn surplus people clogging up the machinery of business into potential customers and suppliers.  For good or for ill, people were still replaceable parts, in the factory or on the farm.  

It wasn’t only greedy robber barons who had that view.  Consider the “scientific management” of Taylorism, the work of Fredrick W. Taylor (1856-1915) who, more or less, invented industrial engineering to maximize production efficiency by treating labor as one more cog in an impersonal machine.  Yes, workers were expected to know what they were doing and work hard, but working efficiently was better yet, and efficiency ruled.  Never mind social and emotional needs; time and motion studies would reveal the most efficient way to get the most out of labor by treating them as just another part of the machinery.  If psychology was an applicable tool, B.F. Skinner could explain how to use it to engineer the right kind of obediently efficient worker.

Liberal thinkers, the social gospel, the growing power of unions were forces that demanded more respect for the dignity of human labor, but it took a couple of world wars for them to get enough leverage to bring real social and economic opportunity to the working class.  It didn’t mean giving up on efficiency, for which we are grateful, since technological advancements have brought us the good things we enjoy today.  In the post WWII era, labor was highly valued, even if only as the enemy of management.  But in time big unions overplayed their hands, new technologies reduced the need for workers,  and right to work laws contributed to the decline of union membership and power.  Combined with parallel declines in the importance and number of small family farms, and the small towns they supported, the social value and dignity of labor as a whole declined.  In recent years it has been a decline extending far into white collar jobs that used to be a way out of the blue collar working class.

How might we go about restoring value to labor and dignity to laborers?  It won’t be easy.  As one who long championed right to work laws, I now believe they need to go.  There is a role for unions – that don’t overplay their hands.  As one union buff has put it, if you think being forced to pay union dues is unfair, how do you feel about being forced to take whatever management dictates?  As reports begin to surface, it appears that the loudly touted tax reform bill has not resulted in higher pay for workers, but in stock buybacks, small one time bonuses for the masses, a few scholarship programs in lieu of higher pay, and more cash in the pockets of top management.  Unions can be an effective counteracting force, but not when right to work laws emasculate them.

Restoring a high marginal rate on the top income brackets would eliminate the incentive to pay super salaries in the tens of millions.  Combined with other changes, a high marginal rate could stimulate higher wages at lower levels, and it would certainly reverse the current trend toward increasing income inequality.   

Generous funding for public education from preschool through at least two years of community college is essential.  Longer school years, teaching to educate not to test, placing equal value on liberal arts and technology, highly valuing vocational education, and making civics, including history, a requirement, are steps requiring federal leadership and broad state support.  We need to be educating a nation, not a town or neighborhood.  If private schools have a role, they have to engage cooperatively with national expectations, not as an excuse for sectarian indoctrination.  Otherwise, they could exist as auxiliaries to public education, but not as replacements. 


That’s a start.  You might have some ideas of your own.  My more conservative friends, of course, are likely to begin singing verses of “Anything but Socialism,” to which I say, learn another song.  We need policies to lead our democratic constitutional republic through the 21st century (not the 19th) toward greater fulfillment of the American Dream we have all cherished.    

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Dave and his Jaguar: Idols with nothing to offer

I’ve been thinking about Dave and his Jaguar.  Dave grew up in a disordered home, and lived a disordered life.  Drugs, life on the streets, a few crimes, and time in prison brought him at last to sobriety, at least as sober as he could keep it.  In Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Hand,” home was said to be the place where when you went there they had to take you in.  Dave came to his sister’s house, the only place where he knew he would be taken in.  He did not come well.  His kidneys were failing.  He had to be clean long enough to get on a transplant list, and hope his turn would come up before it was too late.  It was already too late, but he hung in there for a good four or five years.  

I got to know him well.  We talked a lot about life, his life, his hopes, and his desire to live with dignity as a normal person in a normal middle class way, accepted as one of them by other normal middle class people.  He was never quite able to pull it off.  Bits of the streetwise con artist bubbled to the surface as he worked to fit in.  Nevertheless, he tried, and he had a clear idea of the middle class symbols he needed to create the right image.  He needed a cool but dignified car.  He needed a boat and trailer.  He needed the clothes that looked normal in our community.  

Clothes were easy. Goodwill is a popular place to shop for the best in gently used, up to date clothing, some of highest quality.  The boat wasn’t too hard either.  The old seventeen foot aluminum runabout may have needed a little paint.  It leaked but could be patched. The old outboard could be made to run.  The trailer it sat on was OK for short distances.  Dave loved to fish. What could be better?  The right car, that’s what. 

One day he showed up in a twenty year old Jaguar sedan.  Classic lines, paint still in good condition, and it ran, more or less.  It was the perfect car.  Maybe it was old, but classic designs like that never go out of style.  The name Jaguar alone spelled class, dignity, and having made it status.  With these symbols parked at his sister’s house, how could he not be accepted as a normal middle class person?  He had a lot to say about that.  With symbols like these in hand, maybe it wouldn’t matter that he had no career, no work experience in which to take pride, a less than admirable record, no savings, and little income.  He had the clothes, boat and car that he knew were the marks of middle class success.  The facade never convinced anyone.  But he was happy to pretend they did during the few years left to him.

Thinking about Dave reminded me of Ralph (my all purpose pseudonym), a young man whom I knew many years ago.  He came from a family of local prominence, but struggled to make it through college with gentlemen’s Cs.  His dad was in P.R., so Ralph knew what the symbols of success looked like.  The right clothes, the right car, and even a boat.  In his case, it also included the right briefcase.  Get the symbols, and don’t worry too much about the rest.  With the right name and a few connections, Ralph got jobs that had sufficient cachet, which he managed to hold onto by virtue of the same connections.  With a few credit cards, he got the clothes, boat, and car too.  It was an old Thunderbird that leaked oil, only one window could be rolled down, but it was a Thunderbird.  Most important, he got the briefcase.   Sooner or later symbols have to give way to reality, and for him reality was too much to bear.  He died too young.

I’ve counseled a few young man (no women) who were obsessed with getting the right symbols of success, and envious of others who had more of them.  That authentic success comes from competency in one’s field of endeavor, and the integrity of one’s relationships, was not easy to sell.  Others may not have been obsessed in the same way, but they were in debt over their heads with things they didn’t need, but wanted to have because “everyone else” had them.  They were burdened by debt, and it was not an easy burden to bear.

Why?  Is it the power of advertising?  You know the ads where drinking the right beer is sure to lead to a great party on a tropical beach, and who could resist owning the car that delivers you, and a beautiful date, to  an exclusive event?  If family values are more your thing, a different right car will deliver the right spouse, adorable children, a happy dog, and trouble free road trip vacations.  Depending, of course, on using the right toothpaste, deodorant, and laundry detergent.  I would like to think we know it’s all make believe, but maybe we don’t.  I also wonder if there’s a more subtle self reinforcing cultural thing going on.  

Ralph, whom I knew so many years ago, believed that all successful executives carried the right briefcase, so if he got one, he too would be seen as a successful executive as he walked down the street.  To be seen for what he wanted to be was everything.  The quality of his work was never a part of the equation.  Dave hoped his car and boat would give him a respected place in society.  It didn’t.  It seems that for many in our small city, the right 4x4 pickup has replaced the right briefcase and car.  How different is that from high school when wearing the right sneakers was the symbol of record?  Without them, all was lost.  Oh the shame of it.  My sociologist friends no doubt have shelves of research explaining it all.  As for me, I wonder how what they explain might be made useful to teachers, pastors and counselors as ammunition to fight back. 


There’s nothing wrong with having fine clothing, owning a cool car, truck or boat, or even an expensive briefcase.  If you can afford it, go for it.  It’s wrong for them to become idols worshiped, held in esteem for the worthiness they bestow on their owners.  What does the psalmist say?  “They have mouths, but don’t speak; eyes, but can’t see; ears, but can’t hear; and there’s no breath in them (Ps. 135).  They can’t deliver, so don’t ask them to do what they can’t do.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Retirement: What’s it all about?

Retirement has taken on new dimensions.  Eligibility for full Social Security benefits is inching upward.  Defined benefit pension plans are history.  Many retirement age boomers are discovering they have to keep working to cover expenses.  Dreams of the easy life are put on hold.  Younger generations are being warned, but data suggest they’re not listening.  Saving rates are low; debt burdens are high; low and middle incomes still lag behind overall economic growth.  

On the other hand, retirement is financially possible for many others, but recent articles have observed that the easy life doesn’t work for everyone.  Psychologists and sociologists have long known that work is its own reward for most of us.  Effort, accomplishment, ego compensation, with something good coming out of it, make work a better choice than non-stop leisure.  A little added money is a nice bonus. 

We make jokes about the drudgery of work, the bit and bridle of long days and tyrannical bosses.  Jokes though they may be, humor always carries a portion of truth, so one of the benefits of retirement is to redefine work in more favorable terms.  For the fortunate, it means working at what one finds rewarding in itself, and under conditions that one sets according to personal needs and desires.  There is a lot of freedom in that.  Some friends have continued paid employment in their fields of professional expertise, but others have chosen to clerk at local stores,  drive tractors or school buses, remodel old houses, play lounge pianos, and whatever else gives them pleasure, or has been something they’ve always wanted to do.  It also means reserving time for leisure, with more freedom to decide on how much and when. 

Through a bit of planning, a lot of dumb luck, and God’s grace, my wife and I retired with adequate resources for daily needs at the old normal of 65.  It didn’t mean work stopped.  It allowed us to redefine what work meant.  I continued serving as priest and pastor for a small rural congregation, went deeper into first responder chaplaincy, and served on a variety of boards and commissions.  I even reached back into my earlier career to do some teaching on management and leadership.  Writing became a passion rather than a task.  My wife’s path took her from being a gifted amateur artist to a highly respected professional, while she too served on a number of local boards.  At the same time, we reset our clocks to run on a less structured schedule so we could travel where we wanted, as we wanted, when we wanted.

There does come a time to slow down.  It differs from person to person, but one’s body and mind let you know.  Now in my mid seventies, I’m not so much slowing as changing how my time is invested.  I’m down to two boards.  Chaplaincy has eased back to occasional counseling sessions.  On most days I get up when I feel like it.  We travel as much as we desire, filling each trip with as many adventures as we can handle.  Writing has become more important.  Socializing with friends in quiet conversation over a drink or meal has become more important.  Supporting community events and organizations through gifts, without having to attend every dinner and auction, has become more important.  Keeping up an exercise routine has become more important. 


Retirement for folks like us used to mean one of two things:  golf or fishing everyday; or sitting around in the old age home being treated like an inmate.  It was never true, but it was the stereotype.  Sally Bowles wanted to go like Elsie from Chelsea who died of too much, too fast, too hard.  My goal is to follow my friend Ernie (who’s not from anyplace that rhymes).  He finally retired from retirement at 90, but remains engaged in the life of the community for the good of the community.  We shall see.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Easter

I didn’t want to leave this series of brief columns hanging on Good Friday.  So, Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!  Easter has arrived at last, and isn’t it good to get our Alleluias back.

Christians celebrate Easter in such a variety of ways that’s it’s hard to know exactly how each understands it.  For me, Lent and Holy Week are important prefaces to the joy of Easter.  It’s hard to imagine how it can be celebrated without them.  Yet, in other traditions Easter pops out of thin air, set apart from other Sundays as special, but disappearing quickly within a week or two.  I don’t know how to understand that.  Does it really matter?  Probably not, except to me.

The other day I saw a meme (who came up with that horrible word?), anyway, I saw a meme that said if you wanted a truly authentic Easter service, it should be held at sunrise with only women allowed to attend.  It’s a good point.  The gospel records agree that it was women, and only women, who were the first witnesses and bearers to others of the good news.  Maybe men should not be allowed to say anything on Easter Sunday until two or three women in the congregation have announced the Resurrection.  

This year marks an unusual confluence of Passover and Easter, at least in Western Christian tradition, which has resulted in news articles about how they are alike but different.  It always seems a bit of a stretch to me, although both celebrate deliverance and new life.  One remembers what it means to be slaves, wanderers, aliens in strange lands, yet delivered from bondage to freedom by God’s power and grace.  The other remembers what it means that in death life is not ended but changed, and that God’s power to deliver extends not only to Jews, but to all humanity.  The binding link between them for Christians is the Holy Eucharist, but there’s a large chunk of the Church that rarely celebrates Communion, so I don’t know that the link means much to them.   

Some congregations try to hold ersatz seders as an illustration.  Can it work without being faithfully embedded in thousands of years of Jewish history and practice?  I doubt it.  Having been a guest at several family seders, I have witnessed the depth of connectedness with those ancient Hebrews, and every generation between.  It’s something Christians gathering in a church hall for a dinner that’s not a part of their heritage cannot apprehend, especially when they don’t understand their own traditions very well. Add that to knowing little of the anti-Jewish fervor the Church tolerated for centuries, sometimes inciting to fever pitch.

Having said that, I sometimes laid out a model seder table on Maundy Thursday, and spent time explaining what a seder is, means, and how it may have been understood by the disciples, but without pretending to equate it with the meal we were about to share.  I tried that with the youth group once, and it did not go well.  They just didn’t get it, nor should they have. 


Passover and Easter.  They each celebrate deliverance. What God has done, God continues to do still.  For us, Easter is now.  It is always now.  Resurrection is ours anew with each new day.  Because Christ is risen, we can rise.  New life awaits, and  Alleluias abound!