Friday, August 17, 2018

The Path to Wisdom

Some advice I picked up somewhere:

Who among you loves life, and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?
Keep your tongue from evil-speaking, and your lips from lying words.
Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, puts it in less tactful words.  We live in evil times, he wrote, so be wise, not foolish.  Don’t get drunk on wine because that’s debauchery.  Were the Ephesians excessive in their love of wine?  Who knows?  Read in the context of everything else he had to say to them, it’s a stern warning to not let any desire overwhelm a spiritually and physically balanced, healthy life.  It results in destruction of the good things in life for one’s self, and for those near by.  

You don’t have to be an alcoholic or drug addict to live into debauchery.  It happens whenever the impulse to satisfy yourself with what you want when you want it becomes the center of daily living.   We all have those impulses.  It can feel good to act on them, but wisdom calls for us to set and observe boundaries under the guidance of what God teaches is moral and ethical.

So far so good, but the question of what is moral and ethical too easily gets translated into lists of specific behaviors, sins, said to be immoral or unethical, each paired with a set of socially prescribed reprimands.  The lists are endless. No one agrees about what should or shouldn’t be on them.  They’re dictated more by social custom than godly instruction. Scripture is assaulted for proof texts to justify them.  We strain at gnats while letting camels in.  We mistake human precepts for godly precepts.

God, as we understand God in Christ Jesus, takes an entirely different approach more interested in what philosophers call the prior question.  What is it about a particular behavior that is troubling?  What are the socially prescribed reprimands intended to accomplish?  Pay attention to the prior questions that lie behind lists of sins.  Jesus does it all the time.  For that matter, I think the Hebrew prophets do too, but that’s for another time.  Keeping with Jesus’ teaching, I’m constantly driven back to the Sermon on the Mount as the example of how it works.

In it, Jesus pointed in a new direction.   He instructed his followers in ways of living that contribute to a more abundant and godly life without dwelling on no-no prohibitions.  Interpreted for our own time, they might read like this:
  • Be humble in spirit and demeanor
  • Be honest about what Paul calls evil times, and the role you have played in it
  • Hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • Be merciful
  • Be pure (have integrity) in heart
  • Be a peacekeeper
  • Be willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake
  • Be a person worthy of the respect of others
  • Let your behavior illuminate God’s presence in all that you do
  • Understand the spirit and depth of the Ten Commandments, not just their words
  • Seek reconciliation with those whom you’ve injured
  • Let your yes be yes and your no be no
  • Confront violence in radically peaceful ways
  • Give anonymously with generosity
  • Pray in simple words as Jesus has taught you
  • Serve God, not wealth
  • Trust God, and don’t worry so much about this life
  • Don’t be quick to judge others, you’re not good at it anyway
  • Respect the holy in all creation
  • Ask, knock, seek: God will answer
  • Aim for the narrow doorway, not the big one that leads to damnation
  • Beware of false prophets
  • Build your life on the solid rock of God as revealed in Christ Jesus

It’s a curious list the way I’ve presented it.  Unclear about specific behaviors not allowed, it’s disinterested in punishment.  The warning that disregarding it will result in a second rate life and eternal death simply points to the natural consequences.  For the most part it emphasizes what you should do, not what you shouldn’t.  Jesus exercised his disciples in them so they would become habits of the heart when he was gone.  They didn’t get it all, but they got most of it.  That’s what we also are called to do: work at it so that they become habits of the heart.  Perfection is not ours to have, but we can do better tomorrow than we’re doing today.  And that’s the path to wisdom.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Freedom of tfhe Press: an insecure constitutional guarantee

Four freedoms are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble peaceably to petition the government.  The freedom of the press, meaning news media, has been challenged by the administration’s determination to undermine it, labeling it ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the people.’  With well orchestrated ferocity they’ve caused a large portion of the population to believe it.  Pew and Gallup report different levels of trust in the media, but at best it hovers around 50%, and some sectors are as low as 14%.  Television news is often rated lowest, but is the most popular source.  Newspapers typically rate highest, but are the least popular source.  It leaves unscrupulous persons in power to say whatever they want, knowing a cynical public will distrust media reports about truthfulness, or commentary about meaning.  It gives them latitude to do whatever they want, knowing that being called to account for it will likely be unheard and unheeded.

The constitutional guarantee of press freedom has always been subject to interpretation.  In America the debate began with the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger that introduced a legal foundation for press freedom in the colonies.  I have vague memories of the 1953 television play “The Trial of John Peter Zenger,” a film of which was shown in my high school class.  We were a bit misled.  It wasn’t about the right to report on misbehaving government officials, but about the intricacies of colonial libel laws.  Zenger got off on a technicality.  It helped that the jury didn’t like the judge.  Just the same, it encouraged newspaper publishers to hold governments accountable.  The cork had been popped.  The genie was out. 

Politicians and governments don’t like being held accountable in the harsh light of news media exposure.  The importance of press freedom to provide public accountability was essential to the survival of the new American democratic republic.  It was a key reason for its inclusion in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Nevertheless, the young American government passed a sedition law in 1798 making it a crime to say bad things about the government in times of war.  Some newspaper publishers ignored it, and some went to jail.  Its authorization expired early the 1800s, but the nation did it again with another sedition law in1918 during WWI.  Same results.  Repealed a few years later, it’s never been tried again.  Today we have more effective substitutes involving information labeled secret for reasons of national security and executive privilege.  We also have public relations professionals skilled at manipulating what and how information gets to the public.  

Sparring with them are reporters and commentators equally skilled at ferreting out what the public really needs to know. 

All of that’s been true for decades.  What makes the present different is an administration intent on destroying the public’s trust in the integrity of a free press, thus removing it as a means by which they can be held accountable.  If the president and his minions call the press ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the people’ often enough, loud enough, they believe they will persuade a critical mass to disbelieve whatever the press puts out.  Then they can substitute their own propaganda machines for legitimate news media.  Who needs sedition laws? Why worry about First Amendment guarantees when disabling legitimate news media is so easy to do?

They’ve had some success.  I hear it in comments from Trump supporters demanding to know what makes the legitimate media, legitimate.  They’re all liberals, they say, biased against anything that doesn’t lean left.  They have no more right, they say, to claim truth than the faux news sources littering the internet, talk radio, and some cable networks.  Verifiable truthfulness and well informed, balanced commentary are easily lost in the melee.  

They can do what they want.  A responsible free press, dedicated to its own public accountability, will continue to do its job of informing the public about issues and policies important to the well being of our society, the preservation of our constitutional freedoms, and our civil rights.   The Constitution guarantees it.  The American ethos demands it.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Trump and The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, urged them to “let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need...” (Eph 4.29ff).  I thought about that while watching the run up to the mid term elections, reflecting on the behavior of Congress over the last decade, and their relationship to the polarization we’ve heard so much about.  

Political polarization has been a hot topic for books, articles, and columns, including mine, but understanding it may be missing an important element.  Maybe it’s not polarization at all, but a virulent game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Educators and trainers in group dynamics have long relied on variations of an old game called The Prisoner’s Dilemma developed in 1950 by Flood and Dresher at the RAND Corp.  There are many versions, but the basic idea is that two people, or teams, who cooperate with each other will always out perform the same who betray each other.  However, the way society offers rewards and punishment irresistibly entices them into tactical betrayals intended to benefit one at the cost of loss to the other.  The inevitable result is, at best, poor performance for both, and more likely, defeat for both.  These days we hear it talked about as zero sum games in which there are only winners and losers.  The truth is, zero sum games produce losers and losers. 

Congress likes to play the game.  It always has.  But for much of the last 100 years, competent leadership has found a way to bring competing sides together for something that approximated a partial win for most everyone.  That ended some time ago.  Blame it on whomever you want.  I take special aim at the tea party movement and its congressional freedom caucus whose strategy is to win by causing others to lose everything.  Failing that, no one gets to win anything.  They’ve been aided and abetted in the senate by Mitch McConnell, for reasons that elude me.  Former leadership who figured that ‘we can work this out’ have been replaced by zero sum politicians producing losers and losers.  

The game has not been played out of public view.  It’s been under the floodlights of media calling the play by play and offering color commentary, but since 2016 the floodlights have been replaced by a spotlight on one person who proudly claims to be the world heavy weight champion of The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  No teams for him.  He plays it alone, one on one with everybody and anybody: his wives, business associates, opponents in the presidential primaries, the general election, with congress, world leaders, everybody.  He has only two moves in his repertoire: first, feign cooperation; second, betray and defeat.  If not successful in round one, repeat until the other gives up.  I’ve thrown in a lot of sports analogies so might as well go for one more.  For him, life is a version of the game best defined by pro wrestling, of which he is said to be a fan.  Fighting to win by defeating the other is the whole purpose of life.  It’s the only game there is.  There is no other.  Rigging the fight in advance is in one’s best interest.  Extravagant ring strutting behavior enhances fan support, and creates fear in the hearts of would be opponents.  Compromise is never an option.  Never apologize.  Never give in.

His business career and personal life should illuminate the fragility of his playing credibility and championship claims.  While he has defeated and destroyed other lives, he can claim few victories of substance.  All he has is illusory.  It may be gold plated, but the veneer is thin.  Underneath is base metal offering no enduring integrity.  Bankruptcies, divorces, betrayals, unpaid bills, and exaggerations of wealth are all he has to offer.  Bluster and intimidation are his only weapons.

It may be faint hope, but I hope for a new congress with new leadership, on both sides of the aisle, more aware of how easy it is to slip into the game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and more willing to do what they can to avoid it.  Above all, I hope for a new president determined not to play the game at home or on the world stage.  Until then, the best strategy for dealing with Trump and current congressional leadership is to not play the game with them.  But how?

Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice.  In short, do not return betrayal with betrayal.  Return betrayal with good.

I have a few Trump supporting friends who, if they read this, will no doubt say that I have filled a column with bitterness, anger and slander intended to tear down, not build up.  I think they’re simply observations about the obviously pernicious forces undermining the integrity of our nation.  Evil is not thwarted by pretending it doesn’t exist.


Monday, August 6, 2018

Fake News & CNN

A recent correspondent complained about CNN’s fake news, saying it wouldn’t bother him so much if they’d report all the facts instead of only those favoring CNN’s anti Trump bias.  For him, all the facts include whatever might shine a positive light on Trump policies, and he’s an ardent Trump supporter.

It’s a decent point. Facts are important and must be as fully reported as possible.  But first they must be verified.  Merely stating something as a fact doesn’t make it so.  Verifying an alleged fact is not always easy to do, but it’s what’s expected of responsible reporters.  A single fact, or even a few, never paint the whole picture.  It takes many, some of them conflicting, but getting all the facts isn’t possible.  Getting enough is.  Enough can present a reasonably accurate representation of what happened.  What is enough?  Facts are like atoms; the more you take one apart, the more parts you find, and there’s never an end to them.  Taken together, facts are like molecules in a cup of water, including whatever else might be in it.  Trying to count them all doesn’t make sense.  Sooner or later enough has to be enough.  The question is, what's enough to present as full and accurate a picture of reality as possible?  It’s not easy, but that’s the reporter’s job within the constraints of a deadline to be met. 

I’m reminded of a training exercise I was involved in many years ago.  During a routine staff meeting of fourteen well trained observers, four men burst in, started a fight, and left as quickly as they entered.  It took less than a minute.  Everyone was asked to write down what happened.  Fourteen well trained observers gave fourteen different accounts, each of them generally right and exactly wrong.  Like I said, it’s not easy, but it’s the reporter’s job.

Another question remains: what do the facts mean?  Facts, by themselves, have no meaning.  It’s raining may be a fact, but what does it mean?  Someone has to give it meaning.  My high school text book explained the meaning of rain in the context of the water cycle.  Rained out picnickers give it a different meaning, and a drought burdened farmer yet another, all from the same fact.  What meaning is the right meaning?

Responsible reporters try to give meaning as best they can without editorializing.  Editorializing is what I do.  The difference is subtle, but looks a little like this: reporters try to gather enough facts to tell an accurate story of what happened, giving it their best shot at unbiased meaning in the form of: What does it mean for…?; What does it mean about…?.  Editorial commentators focus on meaning from their point of view, and use available facts to give it weight.  For instance, I write as a progressive Christian and center-left political observer.  

Reporters try not to make moral judgments.  Editorial commentators intend to make moral judgments.  Responsible editorial commentators are careful to use available facts to make their point so that it will stand up to scrutiny by others, especially those who disagree.  

Newspapers do both, but the news and editorial staffs are separate, and so are the pages on which they’re featured.

Cable news outlets also do both, but without much separation between reporting and editorializing.  It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference because they have another problem.  They have to keep their audience and advertisers involved 24 hours, day after day.  So the tendency is to rely on anything that can be called breaking news before it can be fully vetted; they sensationalize events more worthy of a dispassionate mention; the trivial is made to appear important; and they feature commentators eager to dig for instant meaning into that which requires patient study and time for reflection.  

It’s one reason why I prefer print media, and broadcasters such as PBS, NPR, and BBC.  But calling CNN fake news, the enemy of the people, is morally wrong, factually incorrect, and dangerous to our democracy.  It needs to stop.  Given the world of cable news, they report as well as anybody.  Even Fox, on the reporting side, does a decent job of it.  The editorial side is another matter.  MSNBC is in a separate category.  They make no pretense at being news reporters.  They’re editorial commentators speaking from center left.  

There is another world of propagandists and provocateurs who imitate authentic providers of news and editorials.  They’re all over the internet, talk radio, and some television.  I have no respect for them and regret that others, seduced by their calculated deviousness, give them legitimacy.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Genderless Thoughts in a Gendered Age

My understanding of the dynamics of social interaction in small groups was formed many decades ago by the work of Robert F. Bales.  He observed, among other things, that each of those present had to work out a rough idea of the role they intended to play, how much control or influence they wanted to have, how their personal needs related to the issues at hand, and how much acceptance or intimacy they wanted from others.  I believe it’s still a valid observation, but with some dramatic changes.

In those days there were men’s groups, women’s groups, and mixed groups.  Men ran theirs according to a range of predictable male rules.  All business groups, civic groups, and most political groups were run by men.  Women ran their groups by their own rules.  In mixed groups, men were dominant, women subordinate.  All the rules existed within the context of white middle classes that defined the American way of doing things.  All others were marginalized, no offense intended, they just didn’t count.

Times have changed in many ways, and this short essay’s focus is on gender as one of the most significant changes.  The work place, civic organizations, and social gatherings are no longer the province of male domination.  Women arrived a long time ago, but until recently some men seem not to have noticed.  The #Metoo movement has been a bucket of ice water waking them to the startling revelation of, “Oh! We had no idea.”  From business meetings through casual conversations, women are no longer willing to be ignored, diminished, neglected, exploited or rejected.  Their voices will be heard, with the expectation that they will be respected.  But changing cultural patterns takes time, and it comes with side effects.  One of them is the temptation to assign gender to the way thoughts are given voice, indeed to assign gender to the thoughts themselves.  The frequent accusation of “mansplaining” is but one example. 

Small group conversations can elicit strongly held opinions often expressed with equally strong emotions.  Where men and women gather to converse about matters great and small there can be wariness that entrenched patterns of male dominance have not been left behind, or that new patterns of female assertiveness have derailed the agenda.  Add to the mix anxieties about political correctness (whatever that is), and the occasional presence of a “just kidding” jackass, and gender issues can boil over.

It leads to a problem.  In the heat of debate it’s not uncommon to make assumptions that the other is speaking from the perspective of their gender, on behalf of their gender, and what they have to say is so gender loaded that whatever other value it may have cannot be heard.  It’s the natural outcome of recognition that women’s voices have been ignored or denigrated as a matter of course for the last few thousand years, and they are unwilling to let it continue.  If women’s voices are to be heard, then men’s voices have to make room for them.  It raises two questions.  If a woman speaks, is she speaking as a woman on behalf of women?  If a man speaks, is he speaking as a man on behalf of men?  What it they’re each just speaking, expressing thoughts worthy of being entered into the conversation?

If that was all, we might be able to work it out, but gender isn’t limited to male and female.  We have the whole LGBTQ community to consider, which creates complicated subsets of male and female voices.  Is what they have to say always about LGBTQishness, or might they simply be saying something about the weather, state of the economy, or a new way to sell toothpaste?  For that matter, I’m an old, upper middle class white man.  Should that automatically paint whatever I have to say with an old white man brush?

What about the expression of genderless thoughts?  Let the expression of a thought stand on its own merits without leaping to gender assignment.  Starting with the assumption that one’s contribution to the conversation is made in good faith will open the door to a more free exchange of useful information to be debated with vigor.  Stupid, silly, ignorant, and prejudiced thoughts will still make themselves known, as will those who cannot be relied on to act in good faith.  Dealing with them in appropriate ways may be tough and decisive, but it doesn’t have to include gender bashing generalizations.  

Here's to the expression of genderless thoughts. May they flow in abundance.