Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What Is Love and How Do You Do It: a semi-practical guide

Bishop Michael Curry preached at a wedding last May.  It was at Harry and Meghan’s televised wedding watched by millions.   Just to clarify, Bishop Curry is not the royal family’s chaplain, and he’s not an itinerant bishop from New York.  He is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, a part of the World Wide Anglican Communion.  His stirring words on love captured the attention of a global audience that day.  They were strong words, challenging words, words that described love in terms of courage, determination, and life long discipline.  They were not the romantically gooey words so often associated with romantic love, nor were they words of those who believe advocates of loving one another are naive wimpy losers.

Bishop Curry grabbed the attention of the world for a moment.  But words of love are easily forgotten in a world of daily crises that make the future frighteningly uncertain.  Love may be a wonderful sentiment, but how practical is it in the face of real threats and problems?  For that matter, what is love, and how do you do it?

It was a question raised by early Christians in Corinth, and this coming Sunday many will hear read during worship services the familiar verses of the 13th chapter from Paul’s first letter to them.  It’s often read at weddings, sometimes at funerals, and generally pops up whenever love is celebrated one way or another.  It’s a helpful start, but leaves lots of loopholes and too much unexplained.  Paul described love as: rejoicing in truth; patient; kind; and bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring all things.  It conjures up an image of an innocent, gullible, very kind nebbish.

On the other hand, Paul says there are things love is not.  It’s not: envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful.  It doesn’t insist on its own way, nor rejoice in wrong doing.  That adds a little meat to it, but regretfully includes most of the behaviors we’re good at and loath to give up.  It adds up to this, he says, you can have many gifts, skills, and strengths, but without love they count for nothing, you have nothing.  It’s powerful advice, perhaps divinely inspired advice, but in the end it still leaves questions about what love is, and how to live in love.

Jesus answered by commanding, not suggesting but commanding, that we love one another as he has loved us.  So to learn what love is and how to do it, we need to turn to an examination of Jesus’ life as recorded in scripture.  It’s not good biography.  Don’t get hung up on that.  The four accounts don’t agree with each other about too many things.  They need to be examined for revelation about the meaning of love by exploring what Jesus did and said.  For Christians, what Jesus said and did is not simply a good example, it is a demonstration of what love is given by God in person.  That’s what Curry’s famous but quickly forgotten sermon was all about.  Since then, the Episcopal Church has taken on “The Way of Love” preached by Bishop Curry as a work of discipleship to help bring Christ’s commandment to love one another into real everyday lives as real ordinary people live it. 

It’s divided into seven parts that form a whole, making it convenient for a different focus on each day of the week: Learn, Pray, Turn, Go, Bless, Rest, Worship.  
  • Learn: study scripture to see what it reveals about the way Jesus showed love.  
  • Pray: be in conversation with God about all the things Paul says love is and isn’t.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and argue.  
  • Turn: pause, listen, and recommit to following Jesus (which is not the same as accepting/believing in Jesus). 
  • Go: get out there, cross boundaries, engage with others, listen, and try to do it the way Jesus did. 
  • Bless: a prayer of blessing for another is not a request for God to do something.  It’s the very conduit through which God’s blessings flow into the other’s life.  Be the blessing someone else needs.  You don’t have to be wise with words.  The two most powerful ways to be a blessing are to be present and listen.
  • Rest: receive the blessings others bring to you.  Remember the Sabbath and rest.  Lay your ego aside.  Open yourself to allow God’s love to restore your soul.   
  • Worship: it’s not a solo act.  We need each other in too many ways.  Gather with others to hear and reflect on God’s word, to offer up prayers in community, and to be fed with holy food and drink for the journey ahead.


The Episcopal Church has put out study guides on “The Way of Love” to help lead congregations.  For those who are unlikely to pick one up, this short column is intended to be a helpful guide to the possibility of doing better living in the way of love without being sappy about it.  I hope it does.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Fear, Fools, and Elephants



Striking fear into the hearts of the vulnerable has long been an effective device for motivating political movement, if rarely in the best interests of the vulnerable. Cable imitation news programming enhances it through interviews and commentary making fools out of the opposition.  Fools, having been dehumanized, are only good for ridicule and abuse, but they can fight back.  It means important issues are ignored when character assassination takes precedent.  Unattended but important issues become elephants that must be shoved under already over crowded rugs.  Elephants entice fearful people to obsess about them to the exclusion of needed conversation about issues that only sometimes include elephants.  Excluding needed conversation creates more fear, which is useful in motivating more political movement.

Playing on the fears of rural and working class Americans, political operatives helped create conditions favorable to the election of Trump, who, had he been reasonably competent, would have been successful in replacing representative democracy with something more like fascism.  It hasn’t worked out well for several reasons.  Trump’s incompetency is one.  Another is the strange alliance of billionaire barons and convicted libertarians that had put its faith in lower taxes and deregulation as first steps in getting government out of the way of free enterprise.  Their tax legislation and forceful moves to deregulate have not worked as planned.  

Lower taxes were a gift to the very wealthy, but offered only a pittance to ordinary people, and did nothing to encourage a stronger domestic economy.  It was a classic supply side sham.  Throw in Trump’s trade wars, and what a mess.  

The demand for deregulation was constructed on the widely held assumption that Americans are over regulated.  Trumps energetic deregulation efforts have done nothing to relieve bureaucratic burdens, but much to endanger the health and safety of the environment and public.  That’s because most regulations turn out to be needed protections.  More important would be a transformation of the regulatory bureaucracy from enforcement cultures to customer service cultures.  It would relieve irritating bureaucratic burdens.  Deregulation per se has turned out to be a smoke screen for certain corporate interests to invade lands and ways of doing business most agree are unethical, harmful to the environment, destructive of human well being,  but very profitable in the short run.

It adds up to multiplying fear and anxieties across a broad political spectrum, creating conditions ripe for finger pointing, scapegoating, and various forms of political fratricide.  What fun for talk radio and cable news networks, and how profitable to boot.  They can pick a side, disregard all contrary evidence, and resolve cognitive dissonance by ridiculing the opposition, making them appear to be nothing but fools.  No one enjoys being made the fool, especially on national media.  The obvious response is to fight back –– I’m not a fool, you are!  Issues become little more than badminton shuttlecocks in a game of fool making.  

It means important issues get shoved under the rug where they become elephants joining others already there.  And as we all know, because the experts have told us so, if you don’t deal  with the elephants you can never make any real progress.  It brings out elephant hunters obsessed with hauling out their favorites.  No matter what else might be on an agenda, they demand their elephant be dealt with first and only.  In other words, elephant hunters and their elephants hijack agendas intended to be solving other matters.  It seldom works.  The elephant goes back under the rug, the elephant hunters are irate, and other matters are ignored.  It’s fertile ground for growing more fear and anxiety laced with anger.

It’s a perpetual motion machine guaranteeing long term employment for political consultants, cable news hosts, and political commentators.  In the middle of the mess Trumpian incompetents rejoice in the attention they’re getting as they issue orders this way and that thinking they’re actually doing something.  Nearby skilled inside political operatives such as McConnell and Pelosi strategically move pieces around in a game Trump doesn’t even know they’re playing.  Hovering around, outside political operatives and lobbyists work to pull strings behind the scenes, manipulating outcomes to their satisfaction.  Wealthy Koch type networks have contempt for all of them, and are certain they’re all for sale at the right price.  The whole miserable machine is kept going by assuring high levels of public fear and anxiety are maintained. 

Who will relieve us of these troublesome oafs?  I suggest an unlikely crowd of humbled liberals, chastened rural activists, and an awakened working class.  Humbled liberals will stop marginalizing the working class and rural rubes.  Chastened rural leaders will stop their coastal elite nonsense.  An awakened working class will take two huge steps.  They’ll recognize that many liberal policies are not the dreaded socialism they were led to believe, but the life savers they need.  They’ll accept a more racially and culturally diverse America as the new norm, one in which they have a respected but not dominant place.  If it happens, fear and anxiety will not disappear, but they will be greatly eased and much less useful to political operatives trying to manipulate electoral outcomes.


Friday, January 25, 2019

Paul’s Conversion and Pat Robertson

Saul’s (Paul) conversion to following Jesus provides an example that doesn’t resonate well with many in modern society.  There’s no altar call, no sinner’s prayer, no accepting Jesus as lord and savior in one giant leap of faith.  

Yes, he was blinded by a sudden flash of light, thrown to the ground, and heard Jesus’ voice demanding to know why he was running around persecuting Christians.  It certainly got his attention, but he had to be led for basic instruction and baptism to the house of a stranger who didn’t want him to be there.  Then it took him three years to figure out what it all meant before he was ready to begin his apostolic work, which was itself a work in progress as his understanding evolved with each step. 

What’s more, as his faith matured he didn’t reap today’s promised rewards of a better life.  Instead, he was beaten, jailed, shipwrecked, chased from town to town, and eventually beheaded.  Along the way he founded new congregations, counseled existing ones, and discovered none of them seemed to get it right.  He got into heated arguments with other apostles and some of those he evangelized.  In other words, he was a failure by today’s standards, and by Caesar’s too for that matter.  Still, he rejoiced at being among the most blessed.

Paul’s life isn’t the only example of discipleship, nor is it a model for you and me to follow, though it could be.  For all of us it’s a cautionary tale about what following Jesus can demand as we each travel our own unique paths.  Whatever path we’re on, there are some useful lessons to be learned about becoming a Christian in the Pauline way.  It’s to take the time needed to learn what it means to follow where Jesus is leading.  It’s to surrender one’s ego in exchange for the courage required to go on in the face of threatening odds and uncertain results.  It’s to record for public consumption the evolution of one’s understanding.  It’s to do all of that with no expectation of anything else, because there’s nothing more that could be better. 

It’s not a way of being Christian that appeals to many, nor is it the way that’s sold to many.  This morning at the gym my wife was stuck watching Pat Robertson.  On his show a woman gave her testimony that following her acceptance of Jesus as Lord, her business got more clients, her marriage was restored to health, and she found joy in becoming a subordinate wife and loving mother.  Good for her.  It’s not a path to discipleship one finds in scripture, and it’s certainly not Pauline, but it may be the path for her.  May her life continue to prosper, but may others not be misled into thinking that’s how Christianity works.  The better guide for a Christian life is in scripture, the verifiable stories of “saints” throughout the ages, and most important, in the lives of those closest to us that have reflected what loving others as Christ loves us looks like.  I can think of a handful.  None of them would ever have been invited by Pat Robertson to give their testimony.  A couple of them aren’t even Christian. 






Tuesday, January 22, 2019

MLK, Paul, Jesus & Building Community

For everything there is a time.  A time for building up, and a time for tearing down.  On Sunday next some will hear a reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about how all the many skills and talents people have should be used for building up the community.  He meant the community of the nascent church, but it’s good advice for how we should conduct ourselves in every place.  On the other hand, they will also hear a reading from Luke in which Jesus deliberately tore things down with such vigor that his life long friends and neighbors were said to have wanted to kill him.  Which is it to be?  Maybe both.

Paul was advising a new community that had no tradition on which to build.  Their former religious beliefs, if any, had been left behind.  The surrounding society didn’t have a comfortable way to accommodate their new religion and its ways of living.  It was new construction.  But Jesus was speaking to a community grounded in tradition, a tiny hilltop village that had known him from infancy to adulthood.  He had to deconstruct age old traditions that determined the meaning of scripture, prophecy, ways of life, and personal identity in order to build something new on the underlying foundation.  Retaining what could be used, the rest had to go, and it tore at how the people of Nazareth understood society and their place in it.

Sometimes old ways of believing and living are unable to bear the load of new ways that are necessary for the community to survive and prosper.  Painful as it may be, they have to go.  

These readings from Ephesians and Luke are particularly timely as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. this week.  In his time there were people determined to let nothing change about the roles white society had established for blacks, and others.  There were well meaning folks who wanted something better, building on what was already there, when the time was right, which is wasn’t yet, so be patient.  They were the clean up, paint up types who wanted to make things look better without actually changing anything.  There were others so fed up they wanted to demolish everything, but had no plan for what would come next.  And then there was King.

Starting from the center, he was a cautious radical who examined all that he could, evaluated consequences, and then acted boldly, going for what builders might call a gut rehab.  Strip away everything that couldn’t bear the burden of a more just and equitable society, and rebuild with new construction.  Retaining what of the old would add to building up a renewed community, he antagonized traditionalist who wanted nothing changed, demolishers who wanted it all torn down, and well meaning fixer uppers happy with just a new coat of paint.  

We honor his memory now because he chose the wiser path, one that spurred progress, yet continued to shine into the dark places we thought hidden from view.  These last few years have made us realize how well hidden they were, and how ugly they are when allowed to emerge with new energy.  Traditionalists want to return to a way of life no longer in existence, which they hope to do by demolishing what King worked hard to build.  Projected in terms of traditional American family values, it’s voiced in language making clear their desire to retain white (male) hegemony in an otherwise multicultural, multiethnic society.  King’s dream is just fine as long as blacks and others are willing to enter into white society without disturbing it too much.  The new paint crew is OK with that.

They’re in the ascendency at the moment, inspired by Trump’s surprise election to the presidency.  Socially conservative, they’ve found unlikely allies in a few left wing radicals still fulminating with rage, still clueless about building a better community, but willing to help demolish.  What seems to be missing are centrists who wanted to do the right thing but were tentative about how much and how soon.  

According to a fascinating Pew report from October 29, 2017, in 1994 Republican and Democratic voters were not far from each other on the important issues of the day, neither overly liberal nor overly conservative, they debated each other from the center.  That continued in a more of less stable way until the 2014 election when Democrats became significantly more liberal, and Republicans more conservative, but on what?  It’s unclear, and we all have our convicted guesses.  What is clear is that by 2017, whatever the center was, it isn’t any longer.  

King’s letter written from jail to the clergy of Birmingham chastised them for hanging in the center so long that they ended up standing for nothing.  It was something he had to come to terms with in his own life, so he knew whereof he spoke.  He demanded that they come down on the side of justice, not as liberals or conservatives, but as community leaders confronting oppression and racial injustice that undermined the integrity of community itself.  The task was to demolish oppression and racial injustice, not sometime, but now, replacing them with new standards and values in which oppression was not tolerated and justice could be defined only in terms of equality at every level.  

They were strong words then, and they’re strong words now.  The nation listened with half an ear then, and not much more since.  We can do better.  Celebrating King without responding to the wisdom of his counsel is like ignoring Paul’s advice on how to build community, and joining the crowd threatening to toss Jesus off the cliff.  Think about it.




Sunday, January 20, 2019

Counter Cultural John

Turning water into wine will have been the story told in many churches today.  Hiding within it are hints to John’s counter cultural bent that always surprises me when it shows up.  I expect it from Luke, but not from John.  In John, Jesus controls everything that happens, knows what’s in the minds of those around him, and defies the doctrine that he is as fully human as divine.  As someone once said, it seems like the feet of John’s Jesus seldom touch the ground.  So it’s a surprise to discover in John’s gospel a very earthy counter cultural human being challenging almost every social standard of his day.

Take the water into wine story.  In a time when women and men would have celebrated a wedding in separate spaces, allowing no intermingling between sexes, how is it that Mary and Jesus were talking with each other in what appears to have been an extended conversation?  Even stranger, how is it that Mary could talk to servants in somebody else’s house, and they obeyed her instructions?  Such things were simply not allowed.  I imagine John’s early readers were deeply disturbed by a narrative that violated so many social norms.  How could the Son of God behave in such inappropriate ways?  It must have made the water into wine episode extraordinarily challenging.

If that wasn’t enough, John’s next move was to have Jesus upset the temple market place, angrily driving out vendors with a whip.  Religion is one thing, but messing around with business practices was none of his business then, and it certainly isn’t today.  

Then John put Jesus into a long conversation with a Samaritan woman of ill repute that ended with him spending several days in her village.  It was simply beyond the pale of possibility for a Jew, much less one known as rabbi.  Such a thing could never happen,  could never be tolerated.  Barely four chapters into John, and everything deemed good, proper and decent had been thrown out the window.  And it went on.

In John, Jesus healed on the sabbath, declared his flesh and blood to be holy food and drink, forgave a woman caught in adultery, insulted religious leaders, and proclaimed himself to be a shepherd of other sheep “not of this fold.”  If that wasn’t blasphemous enough, he declared himself not simply from God, but one with God.  No wonder they wanted to get rid of him. 

The revolutionary nature of John’s text is hidden behind long rambling sentences leaving one in doubt about what’s being said, pithy sayings everyone remembers, the other worldliness of Jesus, and sadly, John’s unhelpful condemnation of his own people, the Jews.  It has led to using John to justify anti Jewish violence, and, oddly enough, to buttressing acceptable social standards Jesus would no doubt have thrust aside.  John has become the go to gospel for conservatives who desire preservation of a stable society according to the standards they grew up with.  After all, it’s in John that Jesus says no one can come to the Father except through him.  It’s the corner stone of the demand to accept Jesus as one’s personal savior or burn in hell.  Lest there be any doubt, accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior includes accepting corollary social standards that define what good Christians believe.

On the other hand, believing in and following Jesus as John portrays him is to believe in and follow a counter cultural rebel who turned everything upside down to illuminate a better way, God’s way.  What way would that be?  Jesus said it was defined by loving God, loving neighbor, loving self, and loving others as Jesus loves us.  

That’s all well and good in theory, but let’s face it: it’s not practical in today’s dog eat dog world.  Better to go back to the Sadducees and Pharisees for advice on daily living, leaving Jesus for an hour or two on the weekend.  Except, of course, Jesus in John’s gospel is always a useful resource for condemning others when the need arises. 


     

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

First Thing We Do: Kill all the Coastal Elites

Elites?  Who or what are elites?  The alienated right wing is certain elites are responsible for their alienation.  The alienated left wing is sure elites control everything.  A recent newspaper article harped on the role of coastal elites.  A local conservative friend rejoices that the electoral college makes it possible for sparsely populated rural states of real people to elect presidents who protect them from the ravages of a special brand of coastal elites – liberals.  For him, big city, coastal, liberal and elite are synonyms.  Not to be outdone, a Marxist friend is equally certain that coastal elites are all right wing capitalists who have engineered control of the electoral college to elect predatory presidents.  The two have a lot in common.

Mysteriously evasive to pin down, except they’re usually coastal, elites appear to be the primary malevolent force in society, admired only by the bourgeoisie, and nobody knows who or what they are other than detestable, mostly because anyone labeled with a word so hard to spell or pronounce has to be detestable.  But they’re not the deplorables, whom we now know to be good, ordinary, real people who are not elite.

The dictionary defines elites as being small groups holding disproportionate amounts of wealth, privilege, political power, etc., or who are known to be the best in their fields of endeavor (Wikipedia).  I first ran into the term in C. Wright Mills’ 1956 book, The Power Elite, in which political and economic power was said to be located in a few organizations led by “men” who networked to make decisions controlling almost everything else affecting the entire nation.  

The idea of elites just begs for conspiracies, and two of the most popular are the Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati.  The Trilateral Commission is real, a non-secret society of mostly academics from many nations who meet from time to time to discuss world affairs.  Founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller, it’s been accused of having secret control of government policies world wide.  The Illuminati, on the other hand, was an 18th century secret society of European academics that exists today only in the imagination of those who believe its unknown members are puppeteers pulling the strings of government throughout the world.  Neither live up to the threat of today’s coastal elite.

It appears to me that right wingers, having run out of politically correct scape goats of the usual kind, have settled on elites as an acceptable substitute, especially coastal elites, who by definition are extreme liberals.  Borrowing from conspiracies past and present, they can be blamed for almost anything without having to be specific about who they are, except that Nancy Pelosi is one of them.  Left wingers are left nonplussed, having had their favorite category of scapegoat taken from them.  However, their elites tend to be corporate moguls and Republican so it works out OK.  They each get to have their elites to blame.

Are elites really that bad?  Should we exterminate them?  No.  Elites are a natural phenomena of human society, and they have important roles to play in making human society work –– for weal or for woe.

Every community or organization I’ve worked with has had several sets of elites.  Some hold more wealth and economic power than others.  Some hold more political power, some more social standing, some more intellectual standing, some control more means and content of communication, and some have power that’s less obvious.  For instance, there are thought and opinion leaders no one would call elite.  Having little obvious power in the usual sense, their words, judgement, and networks of friendship have enormous influence over decisions made by others. 

Among these elites, some are known for humility and some for arrogance, some for generosity and some for meanness, some for the common touch and some for being snobs.  Being among the elite is not a measure of one’s moral character.  But membership in an elite group carries obligations.  Elites have real power in their areas of influence, which means that there are moral consequences to how it’s used and the results of using it.  Elites, maybe more than anyone else, need wise counsel reminding them of it.  From where, from whom?  From clergy and teachers.  Of course there are others, but clergy and teachers stand at the forefront.  Among thought and opinion leaders, clergy and teachers are the least recognized and most influential.

People discover themselves to be members of an elite group mostly by dumb luck, the passing of time, or while they were busy doing something else.  They come to it having been equipped, or not, by clergy and teachers with the moral habits and critical thinking skills needed to guide them.   Ambitious politicians, for instance, may aspire to high office, but I think they’re unprepared for how influential high office can be, not in their lives only, but even more in the lives of others.  The worst among them don’t care.  The mediocre are aware but stumble in their incompetence.  The best struggle daily to do what is right for others while not damaging their own standing.  The same might be said for leaders of business and in the church, each in their own way.  

Clergy and teachers, ordinary rank and file clergy and teachers, carry the burden of doing what they can to prepare a new generation for the burden of leadership, counseling the elite whom they can reach, and confronting the abuse of elite status wherever it is found.   Clergy and teachers are obligated to inform persons that they are elite, and that being elite has consequences for which they must be held accountable. 

So, this column has drifted from elites as handy scapegoats to the reality of elites as worthy of recognition and guidance, ending with an observation about the importance of clergy and teachers as essential tools in the formation of elite morality.



  

Friday, January 11, 2019

Fear Mongering Socialism - An American Pastime

Fear mongering about Communist plots to take over the world was a dominant theme of conservative politics in the decade following the end of WWII, and not without cause.  The Soviet Union had violated almost every term of post war agreements between East and West;  Stalin’s cruelty was fully revealed; an “iron curtain” fell into place; newly independent nations were being forced to choose between one or the other, and there really was an American Communist Party.  It didn’t help that Communist parties were actively engaged as powerful players in Italy, Greece, France and other Western countries.

But fear mongering, as always, got out of hand.  Between Representative Martin Dies (D, TX) who headed the House Un-American Activities Committee, and senator Joe McCarthy (R, WI), commies, socialists and anyone pink were looked for under every rock, everyone was a suspect, reputations and lives were destroyed, nothing helpful was achieved, and Congress used tactics to stifle personal freedom that echoed Stalin himself.

The nation was littered with pamphlets warning about the dangers of creeping socialism.  They were all over the place – in offices and factories, schools and churches, living rooms and kitchen tables.  Socialism was never well defined, but whatever it was there were two things to know about it.  First, the New Deal of FDR, the Fair Deal of HST, and all things progressive were instruments of creeping socialism that would bring ruin to America.  Second, the Soviet Union knew how to take advantage of them to hasten the take over of the world.  Communists were behind it all.  Less clearly voiced was a warning that (uppity, naive) blacks agitating for equal rights were being taken advantage of by socialist provocateurs.

It was all a long time ago, so why rehearse it here?  It’s because people now in their 60s and 70s were heavily influenced by it, retaining a deep, fearful suspicion of anything labeled socialist, vaguely understood as anything liberal or progressive.  Moreover, they share their fearful suspicions wherever they can in ways that help strengthen extremists tea party libertarianism.  They’re good at it.  It works.  

A recent letter to the editor is a case in point.  The writer believes progressives are socialists who, given the chance,  will lead the nation to bankruptcy.  He would disagree that socialism is vaguely understood.  For him it means one thing: “…dependency on the government to provide all our needs.”  Isn’t that clear enough?  It would be pointless to answer with an argument based on the history and philosophies of the many forms of self described socialist movements that value private enterprise, individual freedom, personal accountability, and democratic government.  It would be gobbledygook double talk to him, obviously a cover up for what he already knows to be true. 

It would be possible, but not easy, to argue for a progressive approach to issues, problems, and needs grounded on how they would enhance economic opportunity, restore pathways to the American Dream, and remove unnecessary dangers to life and limb.  The argument would have to be framed in language appealing to the value of private enterprise, individual freedom, personal accountability, and democratic government.  But it would have to overcome big obstacles.  

That the federal government is likely the best tool to provide resources and make things happen, is repugnant to them.  Never mind that everything making prosperity possible in rural America depends on federal policies and investment.  Never mind that urban America pays for it.  It’s a deeply rooted shibboleth that the government is trying to regulate everything in one’s life.  It’s a given, an article of faith.  It doesn’t have to be proved, but if you want proof just look at the people who want to regulate guns.

That the full measure of opportunities these values represent would be open to every race and ethnicity no matter what, and that assistance would be given to those who have previously been discriminated against, makes some conservatives very nervous.  Bizarre as it may be, it looks to them like others are getting a better shot at the good things in life than they are.  Iowa representative King may be too blunt, but not altogether wrong from their point of view.  After all, the white middle class defined what it is to be American, why should that not continue to be the standard for all others to meet?

That some people who don’t or won’t work as hard as they do will get something for nothing is appalling.  If they won’t work, make them.  That hard working folks might be forced to pay taxes for something they don’t want or need is wrong, and what they don’t want or need is welfare going to the undeserving. 

Obstacles such as these are not impenetrable Great Big Beautiful Walls.  Well framed arguments demonstrating how conservative values can be enhanced through progressive policies will not convince the hard core right wing, but they will deprive them of their best ammunition.  In like manner, they will reduce the likelihood that the whackier ideas of far left wing enthusiasts will sway voters to stay home or vote conservative. 

Speaking only for myself, I would like to see a legislative agenda that aggressively moves us toward universal health care, reinvests in transportation and communication infrastructure, reforms immigration to open broad pathways for new arrivals, protects the environment, and makes taxes more progressive at the high end.



Sunday, January 6, 2019

Discouraging Letters to Editors

The letters to the editor page of our local paper provide an abundance of fodder for these columns, but sometimes I find them overly discouraging.  For instance, we have two regulars who are certain global warming is a hoax contrived by out of control liberals.  Or, if it is warming, humans have nothing to do with it.  Or climate change may be happening but CO2 has nothing to do with it.  As one wrote in today’s paper, “if someone believes the liberal nonsense…please support it with scientific facts.”  What he means is that the mountain of scientific study that has convinced nearly all climate scientists is nothing more than conjecture about which there is no proof.  

Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but the regularity of these two on the editorial pages is discouraging because they appeal to the dominant conservative political ethos of the region that prides itself in being suspicious of the educated elite, anything that smacks of government regulation, and is certain the mainstream media is misleading them.  

Right behind the climate deniers are a couple of others who’ve taken up the cause of The Wall.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning for TANF, Medicaid, CHIP, Food Stamps, Section 8 Housing, SSI, and more free stuff.”  That was the opening salvo from one of them.  Coming across the southern border he sees only drugs, human traffickers, and assorted criminals.  They’re “storming” the borders.  He cites a statistic: “63% of noncitizen households access welfare programs, compared to 35% of native households.”  

Those are figures provided by the Center for Immigration Studies based on 2016 data.  The Center, known as CIS, advertises itself as anti immigration, which should be a clue that their reports may be biased.  With joyful abandon, the numbers have since been repeated ad nauseam under many banners by every anti immigration website there is.  A more critical examination of the data, and of their report, from other sources, for instance the internet’s StackExchange, reveals how distorted the CIS report is. But more critical examinations of the data don’t count because they’re the product of intellectual elites who look down on ordinary hard working people.  Yet there is a germ of truth, and germs are all one needs to get an “Aha, I told you so”: immigrant persons (legal) have about the same rate of using programs such as SNAP, CHIP, and other family oriented benefits as do so called native persons.  Illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal aid, but may receive certain state or local benefits in the way of basic humanitarian assistance. 

Aside from citing misleading studies, this morning’s writer assumed that “liberals” want open borders.  I have no idea what that means, but hear it often.  Moreover, he rested his case on the notion that God created nations and borders because it says so in Acts 17.  It’s where Paul, speaking to the Athenians, tried to explain who the unknown God is and why they should listen to him talk about Jesus.  For the writer, Trump’s Big Beautiful Wall is the very thing meant when Paul talked metaphorically about nations and borders established by God.  Never mind that Paul was speaking in an age when nations were peoples, not states, and borders were vaguely marked, seldom guarded, and the world was free to wander at will.

Letters such as these are feats of legerdemain no less impressive than Lou Costello’s mathematical proof that 7x13=28.  Look it up.  It’s on YouTube.  When Costello is done, it’s hard to believe he didn’t prove it, and the same goes for my letter writers.   

I suppose one could argue that getting discouraged by a couple of small city letter writers makes little sense, except that regulars such as they are present in every city and town, making sure their views are made as persuasively public as they can, and they’re backed by well financed propaganda outfits masquerading as genuine think tanks.  Are they something new?  Did Trump’s election give birth to them?  No.  They’ve always been there, but they now have more freedom to act out in public with little fear of repercussion.  

Popular movements skeptical and fearful of what science reveals have been around since the time of Pythagoras.  Americans have seen virulent outbreaks in the years following Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species”, and they have not yet abated.  Various forms of xenophobic nativism have an equally long pedigree.  Remember the Know Nothings of the mid 19th century?  Violently opposed to the immigration of Irish and southern Europeans, they blended right in with other racists, and found common ground with those suspicious of science. 


Both are alive and well in the Trumpian era.  Forced into the closet following WWII, they been let out, led by their favorite president.  The curious thing is they talk like libertarians opposed to government interference in their lives, but think and act like fascists favoring authoritarian rule that will purify the nation, removing contagion of others not like themselves.  And that I find very discouraging.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On the 10th Day of Christmas: Walls, Immigration & Leaping Lords

On the 10th day of Christmas Ten Lords are Leaping, which seems an appropriate metaphor for the first day of the new Congress with its change in House leadership.  

The government is shut down, the result of a bullying power play by a childish president who wants his Wall no matter how much damage his ploy causes for the nation.  This three year old’s temper tantrum has been confronted by Democratic opposition determined not to give in to such behavior.  Reasonable Republicans, if there are any, stand on the sidelines going Tsk-Tsk, but offering no help.  We’ve all seen something like this played out in the candy aisle of the local grocery store, where there is always someone who shares their wisdom about the right way to handle it. 

Well, here I am.  Think of me as the fourth wise man heading to Bethlehem but distracted by the hubbub in the candy aisle, which is why only three made it.

Being seduced by the tantrum is to ignore legitimate issues.  Southern border security needs attention.  But there is no invasion of bad hombres.  Drugs and human trafficking have many ways to avoid fences and walls.  Illegal immigration is on a downward trajectory, and illegal immigrants are largely the product of unworkable laws and regulations.  (Source: Pew Research Center, June 2018). 

Members of Congress have long howled about the broken immigration system.  Except for the Freedom Caucus and friends, they know perfectly well what needs to be done, but have preferred rhetorical posturing over serious legislative work.  We need a relatively simple immigration system that allows quick and easy admission to the United States under terms and conditions anyone can understand and follow.  Xenophobes of one kind or another will try to mess it up, claiming to want only highly skilled or well educated immigrants, and refugees under circumstance almost impossible to meet.  It’s thinly veiled racism, as has been the case for nearly all past and present immigration laws.  Not giving them the headlines would be a good idea, but pressure to gin up controversy for the sake of reader and viewership is likely to prevail. 

Just a reminder that immigration laws in the modern sense began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not finally repealed until 1943. All those legal immigrants through Ellis Island so many are proud to claim?  They were permitted under another 1882 law.  Most immigrants entered before that by getting off the ship and walking down the street, some freely, some as slaves.  Under the new law all were admitted, if not welcome, as long as they weren’t “lunatics” or carrying an infectious disease.  Literacy was added in 1917.  It required new arrivals to read a sentence or two in their own language.  It also added restrictions on immigration from other parts of Asia.  More ethnic quotas came in 1921 and were expanded in 1924.  The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 revised the ethnic quota system, which always gave preference to northern Europeans, even when it pretended not to.  It got replaced in 1965 by legislation giving quotas to needed skills and family reunification rather than ethnicity.  Then things got complicated.  

All these legislative changes were racially motivated, encouraged by fears that undesirables would take jobs from real Americans while undermining the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture that dominated American politics, established social standards others were expected to emulate, and dictated what it meant to be American.


Immigration is one thing.  Border security is another, even though the current argument tangles them into a snarled wad.  Southern border security has its own special needs, and some form of barrier more extensive than what we already have may be needed in some places.  So be it.  Fund border security to meet performance standards, and leave the means to do it to competent experts with on the ground experience.  Fund it not to satisfy racially motivated fear mongering about imaginary invasions of bad people, but about the need to secure a very porous border that yet demands easy, controlled access to accommodate huge flows of traffic in both directions.