Wednesday, March 20, 2019

What You Need to Know About Trump’s 2020 Budget in 874 Words

The president’s 2020 Budget.  Does anyone remember it?  It was big news a few weeks ago, but you know how this president is.  It’s something new every day, making yesterday’s priorities fade into the myst of forgetfulness.  I started writing this column about the budget almost two weeks ago but got distracted by a family emergency.  Now back to work.  The question is, does anyone care?  I think they should because it telegraphs executive intention.

Once upon a time I poured over my copy of a president’s annual budget, along with detailed summaries and analyses.  They helped me anticipate what Congress might do with it, and how the people I worked for might try to influence appropriations.  The appendix was a treasure trove of historical data that helped explain what was going on with federal programs.  That was a long time ago.  Now, like most everyone else, I rely on media summaries and what I can dig up on the web; it’s mostly out of curiosity.

Presidential budgets are wish lists stretching credulity well beyond any child’s letter to Santa, but they do announce policy direction and priorities along with executive branch assumptions about how the nation’s economy is likely to perform. Moreover, they establish a baseline from which legislators begin the process of working on appropriations.  

As a reminder, the budget comes out early in the calendar year as required by statute, not the Constitution.  With or without an executive budget, Congress is supposed to pass all appropriations by October 1, the start of the federal fiscal year.  It’s not something they’re good at, so in 13 of the last 18 years the nation has had to operate from continuing resolutions extending appropriations at the same level as before.  Every now and then Congress enacts new rules to give some discipline to the process, but they never work.  Adding discipline to the legislative process of passing appropriations runs against the grain of political give and take.  In any case, what comes out in the end seldom bears similarity to the president’s budget. 

This year’s presidential budget is an exception.  It’s not a legislative starting point because it’s so draconian and wildly exaggerated that Congress will pay it little heed, causing Trump to text fuming demands and insults – if he remembers he submitted a budget.  We will likely stumble into the new fiscal year next October with all the political dexterity of a wandering toddler’s temper tantrum in a toy store.  Congress, abetted by presidential meddling, may make Brexit look like a well planned maneuver.  

To refresh your memory, Trump’s budget calls for federal spending of $4.7 trillion with deep cuts to domestic programs and large increases in military spending, plus $8.6 billion for his wall.  Like previous administration budgets, it’s based on ten year projections for spending, revenue, and economic performance, none of which is probable.  That’s especially true of his economic forecast of plus 3% GDP growth, which no reputable economist buys.  Unfortunately, reputable economists have not been that good at prediction either, so the Trump gang is hanging tough.

After innumerable campaign promises to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, he wants cuts of $1.5 trillion over ten years to Medicaid, $25 billion to Social Security, and about $50 billion in cuts to SNAP and other programs benefitting the poorest and neediest.  That’s galling to for many reasons, particularly because Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are financed by dedicated revenues from payroll taxes, not income taxes.  

In place of his vaunted Infrastructure promises there is –– nothing.  Having demanded better forest management to stop wildfires, he would eliminate forest management research.  Because global warming is a hoax, EPA funding would be cut by 31%.  Various housing voucher plans providing rent subsidies for the poor would be cut to the bone.  You get the idea. 

Small government types, and others convinced there is nothing but waste in federal spending, may stand up and cheer, but they’ll be cheering for the end of mythological assumptions that never existed in real life.  Those who believe the federal government does nothing for them will applaud cutting the only programs that do, while keeping in place those favoring the very wealthy.  The holy cow of defense spending will make life good for defense industry jobs, but the sooner we can get the nation off an eternal war footing, the better.  

So what will happen?  Not much.  The House, in which appropriations must originate, will dither, argue, and eventually pass bills to the Senate where the slim GOP majority will mangle them beyond recognition.  As the year end looms, we will see a move to pass continuing resolutions and Trump threats to shut down government if he doesn’t get his way.  

Could it be otherwise?  Yes: it depends on McConnell, a man who’s made it clear he cares not one whit for the welfare of the nation, has no interest in good faith negotiation, and appears to favor Trump’s strong man inclinations.  Is he likely to bend in a new direction?  Your guess is as good as mine.

P.S.  My editor and backup editor remain out of town attending to other things.  My emergency go to is busy grading philosophy papers, so all errors are mine alone.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Psalm 119 & Meditation

Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it, is my favorite Psalm for meditation.  As a reminder it’s divided into 22 eight-line stanzas exploring human engagement with God’s law.  Each stanza begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, working it’s way from ‘aleph’ to ‘taw,’ which is interesting, but loses significance in the English translation.  Long ago I decided it was written by several authors, each contributing a little something about their relationship with God, and God’s word as revealed to them in the Pentateuch.  Some were hopeful, some contrite, others smugly self-righteous,  Some wanted to be taught, some knew it all, and some were confused.

Whenever I read portions of Psalm 119 in the context of prayer, I’m led into conversation with the authors, God, and myself, that occasionally becomes a hot argument.  One psalmist claims to seek God with his whole heart, and I say ‘not me; at my best I’m at about 50%, and I think you’re lying.’  More to my liking is the admission of another to being a stranger on earth, more than a little confused, and wondering what’s going on around here.  I can relate to that.  Several stanzas remind me of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in the temple (Luke 18).  One describes being prostrate in the dust hoping for grace.  Another gloats pridefully about how well he follows all of God’s laws.  I don’t think I’m either one, but both at the same time.  An author tells how he hates the double minded.  I think we’re all double minded most of the time, and the most double minded are the ones who think they aren’t. 

The central theme of the Psalm is God’s righteousness revealed through scripture as a dependable guide to a better life. The more one gives it serious thought, and works to live into it, the more fully the better life is realized.  Failure has come, and will come again, but God’s grace abounds – we will not be abandoned.  The very last stanza says it this way: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.”  Isn’t that the truth.  “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love…,” it’s certainly my confession.  Maybe that’s why “Come thou Fount of every blessing” is one of my favorite hymns. 

Psalm 119 is a reminder that God’s word, as expressed in scripture, is a living thing.  It’s not etched on stone tablets.  It doesn’t demand blind obedience; it invites honest conversation in which God honors doubt, confusion, and disagreement.  It’s conversation that opens doors to deeper understanding, and more certain faith that God’s abounding and steadfast love will not turn away.

There is a heresy in Christian thought called Pelagianism (named after Pelagius, a 4th century British monk) that claims humans can choose between good and evil without God’s help, and can lead a sinless life if they want to.  That’s an over simplification, but in condemning it the Church went the other way to say humans are so corrupt that they can do nothing good without God’s help.  Being Episcopalian, I’m always curious about the middle way, and I think the writers of Psalm 119 got it right.  God’s word describes the better way; God’s grace leads us on it; We can choose to follow; Meditating on what it means helps us stay closer to the path; Failure is certain, but it need not be fatal because God will not abandon us.  In other words, I guess I’m a semi-Pelagian tending toward Erasmus.

Lest someone complain I’ve left Jesus out of it, I haven’t.  Jesus, whom I recognize as the Word of God made flesh, is the seal and guarantee of God’s grace that has been there all along. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Socialism, Capitalism & The American Way

Note to readers: my editor is stuck in the Seattle airport, unavailable for editing and proofing.  So here goes anyway

I have great respect for government, especially our forms of constitutionally established representative democracy.  Local, state and federal government in the U.S. provide structure within which civilized society can exist consistent with a maximum of individual freedom.  None of it is set in concrete.  The structure has to be always changing because standards that define civilization and freedom are always changing; fortunately, our system was designed to accommodate change. 

There are other forms of government, and each provides structure for society to exist, but in vastly different ways.  Totalitarian governments, for instance, emphasize control over freedom, centralizing power in the hands of a leader, and those to whom the leader grants a portion of it.  Representative democracies put a heavy emphasis on structure that preserves as much individual freedom as possible, decentralizing power by distributing it among branches, across geography, and limiting how much any one person can exercise.  

The distance between the two is spanned by many variations of governmental types.  We don’t live in a binary political world.  We live in an analog world of innumerable variations where cultures and traditions are reflected in how governments are formed and used.  For instance, the most common form of representative democracy is not the American system, but parliamentary democracy that combines the legislative and executive functions in a way that holds a Prime Minister, who is a member of parliament, more directly accountable to the majority will of parliament, while being closely monitored by the minority.  

Confusing the public debate of today is an assumption common in America that socialism is a form of government existing at the very door to totalitarianism.  It isn’t.  It’s not even a form of government.  It’s an ill defined political philosophy about the role and responsibility of government to address social and economic needs.  Socialism can be very comfortable with capitalism, and strongly protective of individual freedom.  It does not, per se, undermine individual responsibility and self reliance.  It places a high value on economic parity and governmental provision of essential services for the welfare of society as a whole that are beyond the capability of individuals and the private sector.

It got its bad name because Russian and Chinese communism attached the word socialist to their movements, and bequeathed it to other one party dictatorships pretending to be Marxist.  Modern communism, plunging into dictatorship, began poorly and ended worse, dragging anything labeled socialist down with it.  Marxism, not to be confused with Soviet style communism, was and remains a 19th century utopian ideal worthy of study, but of little practical value.  For one thing, Marx underestimated the fallen nature of humanity lusting for power.  In the U.S., Soviet communism and Marx became bogeymen used by right wingers to scare the public, much like monsters under the bed and in the closet, but not without some reason.  The Cold War was real; there was a sustained effort to spread Soviet style communism throughout the world, and to undermine democracy where it existed.  The Russians may have given up communism, but undermining the West remains their passion, and that’s a story for another time.

Contrary to conservative fears, governments in large complex societies, with many competing needs, are often, but not always, the appropriate vehicles for underwriting essential social needs that transcend entire populations.  Only governments can raise the funds necessary and see they are used without discrimination, which they do imperfectly because people, and the systems they create, are imperfect.  The U.S. has a long history of socialist programs starting with grants of charter to private corporations to build canals, roads and railways, providing them with substantial subsidies along the way.  The entire American transportation and communication infrastructure is a gigantic socialist program of public-private partnerships underwritten by taxpayers.  The military, including every defense contractor, is socialist.  That it’s socialism funneled through huge corporations doesn’t make it any less so.  In many ways, the same can be said for American agriculture, but why open that can of worms?  

Food and drug safety, job safety, workers’ rights, social security, Medicare, Medicaid and more are socialist programs.  At the local level so are schools, parks, streets, sewers, water, and the like.  Land use planning and zoning are socialist.  What gives American socialist programs their particular character is our preference for public-private partnerships, and a strong commitment to use them to benefit individual freedoms.  That for many years those benefits accrued mainly to whites, especially white men and the middle class, is a subject for discussion elsewhere.  What’s obvious is that extending those benefits to others brings scary warnings about Creeping Socialism.

Right wing friends go apoplectic, claiming that restricting their right to discriminate, to use their property as they choose, to put limits on their behavior, and to force them to pay taxes for things they don’t like, is the very kind of undemocratic socialism they fear will lead to what?  Cuban communism?  Venezuelan collapse?  Chinese takeover?  Who knows, but they’re serious.  

On the one hand, they’re perfectly happy with all things socialist as long as it’s called capitalism and helps them maintain their place in society.  On the other hand, they have a point.  Government is a clumsy tool that can easily be misused.  Governments may be necessary to create structure for civilized society, and are efficient at raising funds needed for the public good, but they have only one effective method of enforcement –coercion.  Governments coerce the payment of taxes.  Persons are coerced to behave in certain approved ways.  Illegal behavior is coercively punished.  Government reserves to itself the right to use lethal force as a means of enforcement.  Because the idea of individual freedoms are especially important to Americans, using the power of government to do things must be approached with caution; not everything deemed for the public good has to be addressed through legislation, and some shouldn’t. 

What conservatives call socialist, and most of the rest of us call progressive, works best at the national level, on issues affecting large numbers of the public across local and state boundaries.  Old standards need updating.  Weak areas need strengthening.  Issues long ignored demand to be addressed.  Environmental protection and infrastructure renewal are obvious needs.  It’s increasingly clear that health care is another.  Some form of universal health care is critical to the long term welfare of the nation.  The ACA was a good start.  Whether a form of Medicare for all is the next step remains to be seen.  Certainly it could be worked out in a public-private way as Medicare now is.  Appropriate regulation of guns is another.  It would restrict individual freedom to own whatever one wants in any way one wants, but the cost of 30,000 plus gun related deaths each year is a cost too high.  You can name your own.

They, and others, are complex issues the solutions to which will require more socialist oriented answers.  Conservatives will resist.  If they resist in good faith, the result will favor workable plans that respect our constitutional values of freedom.  If they resist, throwing up siege works to block all movement, the nation will continue its downward slide toward second tier status.

A closing thought.  If the right wing is deliberately blind to what socialism is, within the context of American history and values, the left wing is deliberately blind to what capitalism is.  Like socialism, it’s not a form of government, but an ill defined political philosophy endorsing private enterprise operating with the least amount of regulation and taxation it can get away with.  It’s amoral, neither good nor bad.  Morality is what society imposes on it through structures established by government.  Capitalism is good at moving money around to discover the best return it can get.  It’s what fuels the engine of economic prosperity.  It needs freedom of movement to work well, but not unlimited, unregulated freedom.  It’s government that sets the rules and limits of freedom.  The political processes of American representative democracy work well at deciding what that means.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Understand Lent

We have entered the season of Lent, known by many as a time for giving something up, although why is a bit of a mystery.  For Christians it’s a forty day time of preparation for the celebration of Easter.  To make sense of it, we need to back up a little.  Almost everyone knows that Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.  It’s followed by the short season of Epiphany when we consider who Jesus is – what does it means to say he is messiah, Son of God?  For whom is he messiah?  For that matter, what is a messiah?  

Lent comes next, starting with Ash Wednesday.  Ash because we are reminded of two difficult realities: we aren’t immortal, made of dust we will return to dust; the dust of which we’re made we share with all other created things, the divine that lives in us is in all of creation.  The important question in Lent is, who are we?  More particularly, who are we, each of us individually, in relation to and with others, creation, and God?  

Episcopalians are invited to observe a holy Lent through prayers, fasting, self denial, and reading and meditating on scripture as a way of making a right beginning of repentance.  It begins with an Ash Wednesday service in which we do our best to be more honest with ourselves, and each other, about how we’ve failed to love ourselves and one another as we should; allowed pride, hypocrisy, and impatience to get in the way; are self indulgent and envious of others; are intemperate in our love of things and comfort; are inconsistent in worship; have made many false judgments; and contributed too much to waste and pollution.  

In an age when we’re told to be self affirming through the power of positive thinking, and where many suffer from inappropriately low self esteem, it can seem like an oppressive anachronism, but wait.  Sometimes we need to be honest about not being the paragons of virtue we like to think we are.  It’s not for the purpose of self condemnation, but for hitting the reset button to get started again in a new and better way.  And nothing helps to make a new beginning possible more than God’s own words of forgiveness and promise of new life in spite of our weaknesses and failures.  It’s all part of a holy Lent.

A renewed right beginning of repentance is not a call for moping in guilt while trying to turn one’s life around.  It’s about being more honest with ourselves about who we are, recognizing more fully that Jesus is with us, for us, loves us, and will lead us into a better life.  It means making mid-course corrections to more faithfully follow where Jesus leads. There is a kind of liberating joy in making an honest confession, accepting the saving hand Jesus extends to lift us up, brush us off, and walk with us on the way.  

I’m deeply saddened for those raised in traditions where sin and damnation were pounded into them along with faint hope that they might be saved from hell if only they believe the right way in the right words.   It’s not what  Christ is about, and it trivializes the restorative power of a holy Lent.  In like manner, I’m saddened by those who’ve put their faith in various self help gurus and therapy made into religion.  They are missing out on the power of Almighty God made known to us in Jesus Christ through whom there is sure and certain hope.

The ancient church made Lent a time of welcome and learning for those who wanted to know more.  It was also a time when those whose way of life had separated them from fellowship were invited to make a new beginning in renewed fellowship.  We’ve gotten away from that in recent centuries.  It’s time to get it back in ways that make sense for times and places in which we now live.  

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Crazy Man Tactics and All You Need To Know

It seems the nation’s attention is absorbed by Cohen’s testimony, what Trump may be doing with Kim in Vietnam, whether India and Pakistan are going to war, what Brexit means, and the increasingly vague hopes for Chinese trade negotiations.  The Wall?  Who even remembers the Wall?  I, on the other hand, am a slow thinker, so I’m still reflecting on an article in the Washington Post from yesterday, which seems like ages ago in the current way of news cycles.

James Hohmann, and others, reviewed Trump’s Mad Man tactic borrowed from Nixon.  By pretending to be an unpredictable out of control head of state capable of doing anything, it’s claimed he’s forced Europeans to up the ante for their own defense, brought Kim to heel, made the Chinese blink, and buffaloed congressional Republicans into dazed submission.  

Hohmann went on to note that Nixon’s Mad Man tactic didn’t work out as he hoped it would.  While some claim it brought about the end of the Viet Nam War, the same could have been achieved at any earlier time without Kissinger’s manipulative “Realpolitik,” and without so much additional loss of life.  It was supposed to save political face for Nixon, and it did for a few days, but history hasn’t been kind to it. 

Trump isn’t Nixon.  That’s obvious even to a small town commentator looking on from afar, trying to make sense of what can be known through reporting from others.  

What I observe is this: Nixon used the Mad Man tactic as one tool among many in his large tool shed.  Whatever genuine madness he slid into, it  shouldn’t be confused with his mastery of many political tools, including the Mad Man tactic.  Trump’s adolescent bullying version is not so much a tool as normal behavior.  He appears to approach every engagement as a win-lose transaction in which he wins and the other loses.  The only other tool in his small bag is an ability to feign kindness and generosity when it’s in his interest to do so, and then for limited duration.  When he doesn’t win, he never admits defeat, he just quits the field of play as if he was never serious about winning.  I suspect he compensates by collecting grudges the way some people collect commemorative coins, expecting a payback at the right time.  

Relationships with those who’ve surrendered loyalty to him are another matter.  From the outside they look like master-servant arrangements where obsequiousness is rewarded by avoiding the master’s wrath.

He may be an unwilling student of limited intelligence, but he’s schemingly clever in his ability to use the few tools he has to get what he wants, so should never be underestimated.  Moreover, since he plays by his own rules, it’s a mistake to assume that established norms and standards have any value to him.  He may be amoral, but he’s not without his own closely held standards.  Don’t buy into the idea that he’s unpredictable and might do anything.  He’d like everyone to think that, but it’s not true.  He may play by his own rules, but they are rules, he plays by them, and seldom deviates.  The press and political leadership are slowly learning, but they need to study harder and learn quicker.  A few pundits claim he learned everything he needed to know by watching Godfather movies.  Maybe that tells us everything we need to know about Trump.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Questionable Headlines

I dislike headlines that end in question marks.  A year ago it seemed that few were without them.  Things have improved, but there’re still too many in teasers for television news, local papers, and the national media.  Today there were national headlines asking whether Trump would mess up with North Korean negotiations, if reporting on Klobuchar’s treatment of subordinates was fair, why Kim only travels by train, and whether dark forces are messing with the cosmos?

Maybe they’re intended to entice as in: Wow! What a great question; I can hardly wait to hear the answer.  More often I think they imply an opinionated answer disguised as reporting.  It causes me to suspect the writer has manipulated facts to fit an answer already implied by the headline question.  On the other hand, have publishers handed off headline writing to the marketing staff?  Would that be a good idea?

As a commentator commenting on inappropriate commenting, reporters need to report before they do any analysis, and analysis must stay as far away from opinion as it can, which is not always easy, I understand that.  But let there be no questionable headlines that suggest judgment before the what, where, how, when, who is even known.  

As long as I’m on a minor rant, although the NYT is one of my favorite go to papers (the others are WPO, WSJ, and the Guardian), they allow important news articles to be embedded with opinion in ways the others do less often.  And it’s not a recent thing.  I griped about it thirty years ago.  Add that to competition to be out there with breaking news as quickly as cable does it, and they too often jump the gun without adequate due diligence.  For example, they, along with others, were a little too quick to judgmentally report on Sen. Feinstein’s meeting with young Green New Deal advocates, and on Sen. Klobuchar’s management practices.   To be fair, they usually follow up with more detailed reporting a few days later, but it’s lousy timing.  Will Trump screw up in talks with Kim?  Given his track record, it’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, but first let’s see what actually happens, and not play games guessing about outcomes.  Leave that to pundits, who, like Wall Street Analysts, are right by chance more than anything else.

Still, and contrary to Trump’s many complaints and accusations, the Times is an important and necessary source of well written news articles long enough to cover more than cable news basics.  When they err, amendments are quickly made.  Besides, they can be checked against the other sources, with Reuters added in as a pretty good backup.  

One other complaint before I bring this nonsense to a close.  It has to do with Rachel Maddow, whom I used to watch several times a week.  She may be “the smartest person on television,” but dang she’s repetitive.  How many times can she say the same thing, sometimes word for word, but usually with minor mutations, before moving on to her main point, or any point?  Sometimes she goes on so long I get distracted by the crossword, or something the dog wants, and miss it altogether.  I doubt she’s yet found the upper limit for repetition.  Yes, she does her research, is not often caught with a Pinocchio, does investigate important issues, but when I watch I find myself yelling at the t.v. for her to get to the point already!   

Maybe the whole lot of them should take a master class from my friend Sheila Hagar, a pro in the old way, a do it all reporter for the little Walla Walla Union Bulletin.  No Pulitzer in her future, no book writing fortune either, just solid reporting on whatever needs reporting.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

American Individualism, Socialism, Community & Balance (II)

As recent columns attest, I’ve been struggling with the balance between individual freedom and the need for a healthy community that limits freedom while creating conditions needed to have freedom.  It’s a complicated balance that turns on questions of which rights, which freedoms, for whom, under what conditions?  Community exists in many ways, and my immediate concern is about communities organized as governments: national, state and local.  How the community is organized and what rules it sets are made collectively in our tradition, but activist individuals are potent forces influencing them.  That’s as it should be.

American individualism, with its emphasis on self reliance, is a part of how the balance gets worked out in our communities, but it has a tendency to treat government as a barely tolerable evil always threatening to take away individual rights and freedom.  In its extreme forms it shows contempt for the role of community, yet relies on community for its ability to exist.  The most strident defenders of individual freedoms assert the right to define their freedoms for themselves, and are quick to use every power of government to protect them by limiting the rights and freedoms of others.  In a curiously disturbing way, they can happily march toward authoritarianism in the name of liberty.

On the other hand, liberals, tagged as left wing Socialists who are said to be intent on government control of the means of production, have been the most outspoken defenders of democracy and civil and human rights, demanding that government adopt policies and provide resources needed to expand and maintain them for future generations.

The particular topic for today’s column continues a theme from a few days ago: some tagged as liberal want the community to surrender to their demands that their unique world view and personal identity be acknowledged and respected as valid as the price for their agreement to participate in community.  While they may be revealing genuine issues requiring community response, it’s often expressed in ways nearly identical to those of open carry tea partiers and right wing white libertarians.  Their demands for community recognition of unique rights and freedoms heads toward the same authoritarian path. 

What I mean is that it seems popular to assert that one’s unique self defined reality be honored by society because it’s the right of each person to proclaim for themselves who they are within the reality they define.  They have a right to not be forced by the community into some other identity or reality.  So far so good, but they go on to claim the community is obligated to give their unique reality the same credibility as any other.  It’s not the same thing as authenticity, genuineness, or Jungian individuation which generally mean a healthy personal wholeness able to live in a workable relationship with others in community, even when acting as an agent of dramatic change on behalf of others.  What makes it different is the claim of uniqueness, the proclamation of a community of one to which all others must do obeisance.  They assert for themselves the right to be judge and jury of those who violate the rules they set for others to follow.

Conservatives often associate this sort of self centered hyper individualism with the young whom they assume to be left wing liberals.  It’s a label stuck especially on college students said to be selfish, lazy, and entitled brats who are being indoctrinated by socialist faculty.  Scorned by conservatives as they may be, I think the relative few like that aren’t liberal, but tea partiers in the making.  It’s a version of the old saying that today’s radicals are tomorrow’s stuffed shirts.  After all, where did all the aging tea partiers at Trump rallies come from?  Weren’t they of the selfish, lazy, entitled ‘me’ generation from not too many decades ago?

In fact, Trump may be the most public example of the demand that the community, the nation in this case, conform to his unique reality, his community of one.  He’s not a right wing ideologue; he just uses them as convenient tools.  He doesn’t appear to have any deeply held political ideology.  He only has a narcissistic disposition toward autocracy, and is willing to court whomever is most likely to loyally honor his unique claim to reality.  In business they were toadies and greedy speculators eager to use him as much as he used them.  He was the Bobby Riggs of real estate: a lucky amateur, second rate pro, and full time hustler.  That was then.  It’s a more dangerous game today. 

When governments become servants of hyper individualism, the fabric of community is shredded, and autocratic rule is the likely outcome.  When governments smother self reliance and individual freedom to engage in entrepreneurial initiative, community becomes a prison from which there is no escape.  Western representative democracy seeks to find a reasonable balance between the two.  For America, Trump is a clear and present danger to that balance.   College students are not.  They’re just intellectually immature.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Woe to the Prideful Rich

Most people have heard of the Sermon on the Mount, even if they have no idea where to find it or what it says.  Fewer have heard of the Sermon on the Plain, which is like the former, but different.  The first is in Matthew’s gospel, and the second in Luke’s.  It’s a good bet that Jesus gave a bang up speech to a large crowd sometime during his time on earth, and these two “sermons” capture at least some of what was said – they read like hurriedly jotted down classroom notes, so don’t expect more.

Some church goers will hear a portion of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain read out loud this Sunday, but if you want to get a preview take a look at Luke, chapter 6.  Sunday’s reading includes a number of blessings followed by several woes.  Woe to those who are rich, have all they want to eat, are happy with life, and of whom others speak well.  What’s with that? Isn’t it good to have enough money to not worry about it, to have enough to eat at all times, to enjoy life, and be well thought of by others?  Add a three bedroom house and a couple of newish cars, and it’s the American dream.  So why all the woes?

When someone says “Woe is me,” we generally take it to mean that unexpected bad things have come into their life, making them feel sad, incompetent, and unsure of a way out.  When someone says “Woe are you,” it usually means that a person has made dumb decisions and is about to make more, reaping consequences that should have been obvious to them.  So Woes are not curses, but observations and warnings about unpleasant conditions in life. 

The woes Jesus proclaims, it seems to me, are warnings to those who are enjoying the good life, and assuming an air of well earned superiority over those who have less.  They’ve placed their confidence in things of transient value that cannot not endure.  It’s an offense against divine justice when it’s combined with belief that the good life is there for the taking if one is willing to work hard enough for it; others are missing out only because they’re too lazy to do the work, expecting others to make life easy for them.  Still, where is the woe in that?  It’s a popular conservative creed adhered to by many Christians.

The woe is that each of us will be held accountable for our life of stewardship, because no one really owns anything.  We’re temporary stewards of whatever we have.  As the psalmist wrote, you can heap all the riches in the world, but when you die they won’t be yours anymore, so don’t take any pride in them (Ps 49).  The cars we drive, the houses we own, the stuff they’re filled with, they all come and go, they’re in our hands temporarily, even if we have bills of sale and paid off mortgages.  There are all kinds of pride, but the deadly sin of pride is to measure human value by what we possess. 

As stewards accountable to God it’s not about pursuing a better life in the hereafter.  We take that as a given.  Jesus said he came to give life in abundance here and now, and gave instructions for how to live into it in these two “sermons.”  It might be that someone’s life is filled with enough: enough money, enough food, enough enjoyment, and a good reputation, but those for whom that’s so don’t assume it came by merit,  don’t lust for more than enough, make no claim of superiority, and recognize their role as stewards accountable to God.  Accountable stewardship is to do what one can with what one has to cultivate conditions where all can have enough, and none have more at the expense of those having less. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Individualism & Community: A difficult balance

I don’t know if the value Americans place on individualism is greater than in other countries, but suspect it is.  I read a piece a few days ago that I can’t find again.  The author made a point out of praising his own self reliance, ridiculed those who, in his words, want to make life easy for everyone, lauded personal charity giving a hand to those who deserve a hand, and praised unfettered private enterprise.  I’d be more upset about not citing him correctly, but it’s the same generic theme preached by many others in almost identical words.  Another version of it came from a highly paid executive who complained that no one ever helped him, he did it all himself, so don’t lay any of that (white) privilege crap on him.  Maybe like you, I read articles, make a mental note of something said, realize only later how much I’d like to cite it, but can’t find it again.  I need a better system of taking notes for future reference.  In fact, I need any system.  It’s something to work on, but I digress.  

The virtue of self reliant individualism is deeply rooted in the American myth, and it’s not without value.  Self reliance is a real virtue, and so is the American ideal that every person should be able to explore the fullness of their authentic self to the best of their ability.  But self reliance can’t exist outside the context of community, whether local or national.  It’s only in a healthy, supportive community that self reliance and living into one’s full potential can be experienced to its fullest.  

Unhealthy, oppressive communities place barriers to both, sometimes to the point of destroying them.  Exceptional persons can overcome the barriers.  Their occasional triumph is often met with claims that anyone can do it if they try.  It’s not true.  Exceptional people are exceptional.  Creating unbreachable barriers was the intent of slavery, and the Jim Crow era assured that for blacks self reliance and personal authenticity was made as difficult as possible (Lest we forget, the same was true for other ethnicities as well).  

In a strange way, a society can produce a healthy, supportive community for some, that is also an unhealthy, oppressive community for others.  The point is, individualism, self reliance and self actualization, can’t exist outside the environment created for it by community.  Community is more than important, it’s essential.  Weakening the bonds of community is the most powerful tool of despots for gaining and maintaining control.  In states of greatly weakened community, persons become things to be manipulated, each one against his neighbor and each one finding security only through loyalty to a leader. 

In American history, the blame for breaking down communities at levels larger than neighborhoods gets laid at the foot of right wing movements and acquiescent conservatives.  It leaves progressives as the good guys who have claimed the title of community builders.  But it doesn’t always work that way because the myth of individualism is as strong on the left as it is on the right.  It’s expressed in the form of each person’s right to be treated as a unique individual in which the community must adjust to accommodate their uniqueness.  It begins with good intent such as requiring the community to accommodate various disabilities or ways of learning.  But if each person claims the right to define a universe of one, it can end with each requiring others to accommodate their unique requirements, thus creating a gathering of unique persons competing to force other unique persons to act as if they were a community that will bend to the particular demands of each individual.  While needs may be real, it can take on a kind of egocentricity that expects the world to cater to one’s personal desires.

I’m struggling right now with a question about claims of individualism originating on the left in which each person feels entitled to demand of the community that it acknowledge and respect their particular, unique, individual reality as the price of their willingness to engage in community life.  It can look like a fight against oppression, a demand for equity, but it’s missing a key ingredient.  Genuine struggles for rights are often led by courageous persons on behalf of entire populations within communities.  They are not demands by individuals that entire communities bend to their unique, individual desires.  When such demands become a force consuming community decision making, they suggest the kind of social atomization that makes Trumpian style politics possible.  Or, as Hannah Arendt would put it, when every individual becomes his or her own self contained community, then every other person is a potential enemy, no other person can be a trusted friend, and society becomes a dangerous place to live in. 

From where would such a convoluted question arise?  Is it real, or imagined?  It’s real, but the source is not world shattering, nor does it create an imminent danger to democracy, but it is infused with highly emotional content.    

A recent movement in institutional communities such as classrooms and corporate offices has to do with how the institution, as community, is supposed to respond to claims that each person is entitled to a personal pronoun by which they want to be known when a personal pronoun is used in a sentence referring to them.  Not everyone self identifies as he or she, so it’s only right to ask what pronoun would be acceptable to them, and then use it, and only it.  Failing to use the correct word has been said to be an offense justifying high dudgeon, and worthy of judicial review.

It’s a clumsy way to deal with a problem in the English language, indeed in most languages.  We have no gender neutral singular pronoun.  ‘It’ doesn’t work because an ‘it’ is an object; ‘it’ renders a life to be unimportant.  ‘They’ is sometimes chosen, but it’s a word meaning not only plural persons, it’s also widely misused in ways making it hard to know what ‘they’ refers to.  One solution is for each person to adopt a made up pronoun, leaving others to wonder how much new vocabulary needs to be memorized and affixed to each person about whom they may sometimes need to use a pronoun.  To be fair, English does need a generally accepted non gender specific pronoun that implies human intimacy, and maybe one will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, pronouns appear to have become gateways for expectations that each person also has a right to one’s own reality, which is not the same as one’s own opinion.  These unique realities seem to be related to unpleasant life experiences causing some form of emotional trauma – where trauma is broadly defined.  The institution, as community, is expected to accommodate them for fear of creating unpleasant emotional reactions resulting in litigation or bad press.  It requires limitations on subjects or conversation that might cause heightened anxieties or trigger post traumatic stress.  While traumatic emotional stress is a real thing, not to be trivialized, pandering to it leaves victims ill equipped with coping skills adequate to maintain emotional health when unpleasant events confront them outside the confines of the institutional community.

These expressions of individualism’s demands on the community come from the left, not the right, but it has an eerie similarity to right wingers who demand that the community accommodate their right to live and act according to their unique realities without regulation or interference. That they may be overtly oppressive of others, well armed, racist, and violent is clothed in words of Constitutional patriotism, and they take offense at any challenge to the realities they have set for themselves.

If individualism’s claims to supremacy over the community win out, the only way to enforce them is with the iron hand of autocracy.  It seems all wrong, counter intuitive, but there it is, and once applied it eliminates all individual rights, centering them in the exclusive rights of the autocrat.  

In institutional communities such as schools, it restricts the academic freedom of teachers by placing it under firmer control of administrations.  What may look like a win for individualism quickly turns to shackles for both teachers and students.  In the broader community of local and national politics, the demands of extreme individualism corrode movement toward a more just society, and shove the state in an autocratic direction where individual rights are surrendered to the leader.

It’s a question of balance – never an easy question.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Reflections On Political Harvests

The State of the Union speech is over.  Right wingers are thrilled with network snap polls of those who watched it.  They show approval ratings over 70%.  Never mind that network snap polls are the love child of ill informed marketing types.  Pundits and other commentators shrug it off, labeling the speech as adolescent, trite, a dud.  Fact checkers list the exaggerations, lies, and mostly true statements.  Congressional body language is studied far beyond credibility.  So here are a few related thoughts, not so much about the speech, but about Trump’s ability to create and maintain a loyal base.

Not long ago there was a five second news clip of someone saying he likes Trump because he is a “stand up guy who tells it like it is.”   His five seconds echo what many local folks say, and aren’t shy about taking up a lot more than five seconds.  It’s confusing to me because I think of stand up guys as men and women whose integrity and personal courage give them the confidence to proclaim and defend what they believe to be right, even in the face of overwhelming opposition, and to do it without deception.  Trump, as a stand up guy, has all the integrity of an infomercial huckster, and demonstrates courage only when backed by a mob willing to do his bidding.  Whether Tump intends to deceive is another matter.  He may have bought so deeply into his make believe world that it’s real to him.  He may be deceived about how deceptive it is.

On the other hand, Trump does tell it like it is in the sense that he gives public voice to real and imagined complaints some have about how they’re ignored, disrespected, and cut out of decision making by elites, people of color, feminists, and immigrants, all of whom, to avoid being labeled as prejudiced, are lumped together as socialists out to destroy the American Way.  He does it with the consummate skill of a Robespierre like provocateur demanding that heads roll.  

The source of all the complaints has been thoroughly explored, so it only remains to say it’s a combination of declining hope for economic well being, isolation from the centers of society as depicted on television, increasing political power of women and minorities, and an unwavering commitment to the myth of rugged individualism that takes perverse pride in belittling government.

Among the harvest reaped from seeds sown by tea partiers, and brought to maturity by trumpism, are very odd fruits.  
  • Anti-science fundamentalism that often imitates the forms and language of Christianity.
  • Combative politics in which nothing is ever ceded and negotiation is impossible.  It’s win or lose, live or die, do as much damage as possible to the other.
  • Gullible susceptibility to threatening conspiracy stories wedded with resistance to verifiable contrary information.
  • Fear of imminent harm from low probability incidents.
  • Disregard of harm from high probability incidents.
  • Revealed ignorance of basic American civics.
  • Distrust and disrespect for government, including the very programs providing them with needed services and quality of life.

It adds up to a kind of determined Trump supporter: one unwilling to be an independent thinker, and who has bought trumpian ideology in toto.  They remind me of pie eyed erstwhile American Communists in the 1920s and 30s who had been convinced there really was a Bolshevik paradise.  They adhere to the party line without deviation, and are convinced it’s all the others who are not thinking.

But there is another kind of Trump supporter: one who is knowledgable, conniving, calculating, power hungry, and decidedly anti-democratic.  It’s been said before that they are disturbingly fascist like.  And they are, no matter how hard they try to look like good conservative patriots.  Curiously, they hold the first type of Trump supporter in utter contempt, easily manipulated, needed only as the means to get and keep political control that will benefit their own interests.   

In between are others unwilling to believe a sitting president could be both incompetent and malevolent, so are willing to give him every benefit of doubt as they seek ways to work constructively with him.  There aren’t any.  Occasional outcomes of good turn out to be coincidences, a lucky roll of the dice, or the product of actions from other sources.  They never offer a foundation to build on.  

We live in perilous times.