Thursday, September 26, 2019

Moral Justification for Anti-intellectualism - and a response

Headlines and social media proclaim we’ve entered an age of anti- intellectualism.  It wouldn’t be the first time for us, nor for the world.  There’s a restlessness among those who believe they’ve been ignored and left behind by a ruling elite that cares little about their welfare.  Economic welfare is clearly at the head, but being left behind intellectually is close behind.

The introduction of new technologies, and new fields of knowledge, that demand assertive curiosity and critical thinking skills to be understood, can easily leave many behind.  When they’ve become popularized through application to every day use, indeed when they’ve become essential to every day life, perhaps needed for workaday livelihood itself, they can flood whole populations with overwhelming angst about being left behind intellectually.

It’s not hard for popular forms of anti-intellectualism to grow and prosper when that happens.  There was a time when technological innovations, and new fields of knowledge, arrived in reasonably predictable waves separated by enough years that one could anticipate earning a living based on what one learned in school or apprenticeship.  New developments came, but at a rate most could accommodate.  WWII changed all of that, and the rate of technological and knowledge base change affecting every day life has accelerated ever since.  It’s jarring, disorienting, and frightening.  

No wonder ant-intellectualism found fertile ground, but where did it find moral justification permitting it to accuse an undefined intellectually elite of culpability?  In the bible; more particularly in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, not buried in the middle, but right there at the beginning.   In it Paul wrote that “God made foolish the wisdom of the world.”  The foolishness and weakness of God, he wrote, is wiser and stronger than that of human beings.  In fact, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”  “God chose what is low and despised in the world…to bring to nothing things that are.”  So, Hah!, take that you intellectual snobs who look down on us.  Anti-intellectualism had found its moral justification.

What’s the right response?  I’m not sure.  Anxiety, with its roots in rapidly accelerating technological change, combined with uncomfortable developments in society’s core knowledge base, must be recognized and respected.  There’s no point in being one of Agnew’s (remember him?) nattering nabobs of intellectual superciliousness.  That’s nothing but bait for defensively angry attacks.  Based on my own experience, there’s not much point in trying to change firmly held convictions that have become treasured possessions.  

Jesus’s warned us not to store up treasures on earth where corruption consumes them, but in heaven where there is no corruption. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  We treasure nothing more than holding grievances close to our hearts.  What could be more corrupting than treasured grievances held so close that we can’t-won’t give them up.  The great advantage of a grievance is that it creates an enemy who must be defeated if justice is to be restored. But to declare intellectualism to be the enemy is to smite the potentially best ally one could have. 


Maybe the best we can do is calmly, patiently assert the utilitarian value of intellectual disciplines that help bring order to the apparent chaos of overly rapid change.  There will always be a hard core who refuse to budge, but there will be more who show willingness to learn and adapt, however hesitantly –– if they are acknowledged with respect as worthy peers.   

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Importance of Church & Episcopalians Do It Well.

Why regular worship in church is important is not easy to explain.  Add to it a sense that denominational differences shouldn’t matter, and it get’s more difficult.  I think they do matter.  This column tries to address both, and is a revision of a recent article for a local paper

In a nation where church attendance continues to decline, belief in God retrains an important place for most people.  Recent studies suggest about 80% of Americans believe in God, but only half of them believe in God as described in the bible.  The others are from non-biblical faith traditions, or believe in some kind of higher power.  Among those who believe in God as described in the bible, Christians and Jews have different ways of interpreting the text.  Among Christians there are differences between those who believe God determines what happens in one’s life, and those who understand God as engaging but not micro managing.  Of the nearly 20% who do not believe in God, a healthy subgroup does believe in an undefined higher power. 

So what does that have to do with the people here?  You’re not that different from the population as a whole, and it means there are a lot of folks wandering around in a fog of unknowing who believe in God in some way but don’t know who God is or how to  have a right relationship with God.  Participating in the worship life of a congregation is where they will find answers to their questions, and I encourage them to take the risk to discover for themselves how much richer life can be.  Moreover, as a Christian pastor I boldly proclaim that it will lead to a fuller, more abundant life not for now only, but for all eternity.  Is church really necessary for that?  Can’t you do it on your own?  God says you can’t.  God calls us into community that is the worship life of a congregation. But which one is the right one?

Denominations differ in how they understand and express faith in God, whom we Christians believe is most fully revealed in Christ Jesus.  It can get confusing if we think there can be only one right way.  Let’s face it, not one size fits all, but in our differences there is a size for every person.  Episcopalians proclaim God’s love that heals, restores, nourishes and strengthens.  We dedicate a large portion of our services to hearing the bible read and offering prayers.  Sermons are biblically focussed and short.  We believe Jesus is truly present for us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion that we celebrate each Sunday.  All who would meet and be received by Jesus are invited to participate with us in it.  We work hard at helping each other understand God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) more thoroughly, more deeply, and more personally, but we don’t demand that everyone believe in exactly the same way.  Because we’re a liturgical church with priests and bishops, people often ask whether we’re Protestant or Catholic.  We’re a bit of each.   

Other denominations have other ways of understanding and expressing faith in God.  They’re not wrong, only different.  The idea that there has to be one, and only one right way to be Christian seems odd to me.  We don’t insist on that with anything else.  Is a Ford the only right truck to drive?  Is a Nike the only right sneaker to wear?  We are a nation that treasures differences and the freedom to discover for one’s self what is right and good.  But in all that is right and good, there is one that is highest and best.  It comes to us from God because it is God.  We Christians are certain the highest right and good is revealed in Jesus Christ, and can be fully experienced only through participation in a worshiping community.   

Take a risk.  Find a church that fits you.

(Data from April 2018 Pew report)

Using Conservative Vocabulary to Express Progressive Policies that Fix Potholes

(Note: I was asked to speak to a Democratic group in Washington’s 5th District. This article is a revision of that talk, and repeats themes from previous Country Parson columns.)

For Democrats to win in the fabled heartland, including our own Fifth District, we need to learn how to speak with voters suspicious of anything they think might be from the left.  I don’t mean hard right wingers, tea partiers, and others whose beliefs cannot be challenged.  I mean voters who think of themselves as conservative because they’ve always been conservative, Republican because they’ve always been Republican, and have bought into the small government - low taxes theme without giving it much thought.  I mean non-voters who would turn out if there was a good reason.  I mean Trump voters who are sick of Trumpism, but wary of crossing the border for someone who might be worse, perhaps even a dreaded socialist.

The people with whom we need to speak believe in Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and they want to hear from candidates who speak their language of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  We need to talk with them about progressive ideas in the conservative vocabulary of earthy concerns about everyday life.  It’s a vocabulary surprisingly progressive on social matters, unsurprisingly conservative on fiscal matters, and always colored by the experiences, prejudices and limitations that formed their world view.  I call it pothole language.

Show me you know how to fix the potholes in the street that is my life, and the life of my community, and I’ll listen to you.  The problem with too many Democrats is they don’t know how to speak in pothole language.  The more rabidly liberal they are, the less able they are to express progressive ideas in the vocabulary of potholes. 

We need to translate lofty policy proposals, using conservative vocabulary, into pothole language.  

Millions, who were once dependable Democratic voters, turned away in part because lofty proposals, not expressed in pothole language, were enormous disincentives.  For the most part, they are ordinary people who feel forgotten.  Quick to take umbrage when they feel put down, they enthusiastically engage in reverse snobbery to protect themselves from even snobbier liberal elites, real or imagined.

Trump, who cares not one whit for the average Jane and Joe, understood the importance of using the right vocabulary as he flimflammed them with his second rate steaks, fake university, and tawdry casinos.  He may have failed at each, but they taught him how to woo disaffected voters by picking at their wounds while promising  healing salve at no cost to them.  That he had no salve, and no intention of getting any, was irrelevant.  What he learned from steaks, fake schools and casinos was how to talk about their hopes and dreams in the language of fixing everyday problems, the potholes in their lives.

He learned how to talk convincingly about big national problems as if they were neighborhood potholes that he alone could fix.  Of course he was manipulating the system the whole time to make money for himself.  It’s what he does.  If a pothole or two got fixed along the way, so much the better.

I was reflecting on this phenomena while on hold calling a local business.  Their hold music was Sammy Johns’ 1981 song “Common Man.”  It goes like this:
I’m just a common man, drive a common van
My dog ain’t got a pedigree
If I have my say, it gonna stay that way
‘Cause high-browed people lose their sanity
And a common man is what I’ll be

It’s a thirty-eight year old lyric written in the first year of Reagan’s presidency reflecting the theme Reagan ran on: Democrats were out of touch with the common man, and common man Western Cowboy Reagan would be their own true voice in Washington.  

As it turned out, Reagan and Reaganomics set in motion structural changes that began the erosion of the American Dream, the downward slope of middle class income, and the climb toward greater extremes of wealth inequality.  But Reagan was sold as one with the common man, and they loved him for it, they still do.  And I think he believed it too. 

It didn’t flip a switch.  Reliable Democratic voters didn’t flip over night.  It was a slow process that gained acceleration with the election of an intellectually articulate, professorial black president whose presence on the national stage triggered long suppressed racial prejudices.  And Trump knew how to make the most of it.

Mr. Johns’ song remains popular today for a reason.  It’s an anthem of reverse snobbery declaring that high-browed elites (intellectual, liberal, sophisticated, well read, articulate) not only look down with contempt on common people, they’re shallow and corrupt to boot.  Strip away their veneer, and there’s nothing there.  It’s emotional and political self defense for (mostly white) self identifying common men and women.  They clutch it close to the breast.

Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and even Bill Clinton, understood the dynamic well.  They knew how to present the most important issues facing the nation in pothole language, and it wasn’t flimflam.  They intended to do  real work for real people to make their lives better.  Not all their ideas were good, not all worked, but there was genuine intention to do well for ordinary people.  To be sure, the legacy of systemic racism corrupted good intentions, but that’s a subject for another time.

Today’s subject is the need for today’s Democratic party to use the conservative vocabulary of pothole language to talk with, not at, ordinary people about the major issues facing the nation, and our plans for dealing with them.  It has to be authentic because the trumpian GOP has done a superb job of painting Democrats as coastal elites who care nothing for common people.  Even worse, they’re liberal big government socialists who will take away rights and guns.  

My own take is that Bernie’s ranting and raving may raise cheers in some quarters, but he never explains how he’ll fix the potholes.  Warren’s academic erudition nails the issues to perfection, but she never explains how the potholes will get fixed.  Beto dances on table tops, which is entertaining but avoids potholes (Note: his recent forceful stance on border and gun issues marks a change, but probably too late).  Harris is still in prosecutor mode, responding to questions as if cross examining hostile witnesses.  The one who comes closest to getting it right is the young mayor of South Bend with the funny last name.  Mayor Pete takes on national and international issues, speaks about them as if they were South Bend potholes, and makes it clear that he knows how to fix them – and not all by himself.  He speaks respectfully but knowledgeably, without condescension, to the concerns of ordinary people.  It seem unlikely he’ll be the nominee, but he knows how to present progressive ideas with the conservative vocabulary of pot holes.  

It’s Truth, Justice, and the American Way as ordinary people want to hear it.

Stacey Abrams can do the same.  Combine a Georgia legislative leader with a romance novelist, and you’ve got someone who knows how to connect with the common person’s deepest desires.  She’s not running, so learn from her.

So, what exactly is the vocabulary of pot holes?

Pay attention people.  If a dishonest grifter like Trump can fool enough people, and he knows how to do it, he can win again.  Honest opposition can do better by authentically, honestly speaking with quiet confidence in pothole language.  And remember, all modern soap boxes have very good audio systems.  No need to screech and yell.  

If we want to reach across the divide between progressives and the dominant conservative ethos of this region, it will pay to have fluency in the their language.  Liberals, including me, have exhausted themselves with fact checking and rebuttal arguments to no avail, and must change their tactics.  They need to adapt mainline conservative vocabulary to illustrate how progressive agendas will preserve and enhance cherished American values.

The most important vocabulary words honor American individualism, personal freedoms, and economic security.  Democrats don’t believe government is the enemy, but a valued agent helping make good things happen - not perfect.  We can can present progressive policies as enhancing freedom, making life more secure, and opening ways toward a more rewarding life.  To do that, progressive agendas need to be expressed by answering three questions:  why do we need it; how will it work; how will we pay for it?

Focus on national pride.  Celebrate patriotism that believes in the fundamental value of American democratic ideals.  Boldly celebrate how progressive programs will enhance all that has made America a great nation.  Americans who twice voted for Obama, then switched to Trump, want their sense of patriotism to be honored.

Emphasize a tough stance on international trade.  Proclaim intention to reenter multilateral agreements with higher standards for worker rights, environmental protection, intellectual property, and commercial code transparency.

Celebrate the economy.  It’s progressive policies that have enabled our decade long period of economic growth. Claim it.  But claim it with recognition that Trump has run it out onto thin ice through ill advised tax cuts, surging deficits, and failed tariff wars.  

Admit we have an immigration problem, and poor control of our borders.  Voters want simple solutions, so keep it simple.  Streamline asylum and refugee admissions that keep families intact.  Help Central Americans understand that the U.S. may not offer the land of hope they’ve been led to believe it will.  Create a form of immigration admissions similar to the Ellis Island system.

Conservatives favor a strong military well poised to fight the previous big war.  Progressives can use the vocabulary of national defense to promote preparation for emerging threats, while illuminating the systematic erosion of current readiness through fund transfers to Trump’s latest whims.

Promote revitalized public education for all.  Make rural areas and inner cities the priority.  Emphasize state-federal partnerships.

Commit to infrastructure with a real plan that begins with bridges, highways, water & sewer, and other utilities.  They are the things of every day use.  Then go on to broadband, air traffic, mass transit, etc.  Never promise shovel ready projects.  There aren’t any.

Affordable housing is an issue in every city and town.  Talk about practical ways to make progress that a person making less than $100k can easily understand will benefit her or him. 

Face the obvious.  The federal bureaucracy gets a bad rap because they’re lousy at customer service.  There is a huge difference between enforcing regulations and customer service that facilitates user adaptation to them.  

Health care.  Don’t over promise.  Keep it simple.  Nothing is free.  How will it be paid for?

It’s a simple vocabulary of ordinary life that expresses the value of freedom, economic opportunity, pride in nation, and governmental restraint.

Not the End





   

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Travel as Pilgrimage Unintended

I haven’t been writing as Country Parson for a while.  We were able to spend some time in Europe, with writing time devoted to keeping a daily journal of our adventures.  We’re back home, a day earlier than we had planned.  For reasons known only to our subconscious, my wife and I were convinced we had another day in Amsterdam, but Delta sternly informed us that we didn’t.  We made the plane.  But I digress.

What struck me on this trip was the reality of travel as pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage is usually thought of as a trek to a holy site, a spiritual quest for a holy grail of one kind or another.  The historic Camino de Santiago de Compostela (a system of trails leading to the shrine of St. James) may be the most well known pilgrimage these days.  Many of us remember reading at least a portion of Canterbury Tales, the 14th century story of pilgrims on their way to Britain’s Canterbury Cathedral.  Our own century is rife with church sponsored pilgrimages to the holy sites in Israel that have attracted pilgrims for millennia.  

They all have a religious or spiritual purpose, but the kind of pilgrimage I have in mind is different.  Travel can sometime be a form of pilgrimage without the expectation of a spiritual experience, without the goal of reaching a holy site.  God’s spiritual presence comes unbidden.  A sense that one has stumbled on holy ground where it was not expected to be. 

I experienced some of that in our visits to the museums of Paris, a river cruise down the Seine to the Normandy beaches, and time in the museums of Amsterdam.  Not unexpectedly, the great cathedrals visited along the way were breathtaking, but not spiritually uplifting.  On the other hand, visits to smaller, uncrowded churches, where a worshiping community was still present, provided opportunity for quite time in prayer where God’s presence was unexpectedly and deeply felt. 

Churches, as holy places consecrated by centuries of prayer, are one thing, but being overwhelmed by God’s presence in more secular settings is where pilgrimage comes in surprising ways.

It was The Good War, perhaps the only good war, but evil saturated it. The D Day beaches and American cemetery were emotionally overwhelming for nearly everyone with us.  Unexpectedly, God’s Holy Spirit came as a gale of outrage over the slaughter of her children brought on by the immoral hubris of evil, and all those who served it willingly.  The thousands buried here, the thousand buried elsewhere, the thousands whose bodies were never found, they were teenagers and young adults.  Some who opposed them were unwilling conscripts taken from among prisoners of war captured on the Eastern Front.  The villages around, destroyed, their people dead or wounded.  Milton and Dante could not describe hell more vividly.  There are other memorials to other battles against other evils, but this is where we were.  In its aftermath the dead were cared for, the land liberated, villages rebuilt, farms again fruitful.  Forces of darkness could not overcome the light.  It was a sign of hope as the world teeters once more on the brink of conflict brought on by human avarice, hubris and ignorance.

For all our human weaknesses, there is a indomitable spirit in human kind, perhaps a remnant of being created in the image of God.  In the extravagant glory of Chartres’ cathedral, there are faint outlines of finger labyrinths traced in the wall where the blind had found a way to experience their own version of a prayerful path to experience the light of Christ.  In the village churchyard at Giverny there is a grave for seven British airmen who were shot down not far away.  The villagers, bombed, hungry, scared, respectfully cared for their remains in spite of danger from all sides, and care for them still.  Love, as deeds done in God’s name for   strangers who come uninvited, is stronger and more enduring than evil.

In the Musee d’Orsay is an exhibit of the art of Berthe Morisot, a woman of the last half of the 19th century who was among those ushering in the age of impressionism.  Her art, and recognition a century late in coming, are memorials to the courage and perseverance of talented women who were rejected, ignored and ridiculed.  It’s one thing to canonize women long dead whose deeds  have drifted into legend.  It’s another to witness the living work of those who were present at the dawn of our own age.  Coleridge said the image of God in us is most evident in our power to create something new out of our imagination, manifesting it through art.  Prophecy is not limited to Hebrew scriptures and crusading preachers.

And so to the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt.  What made him the greatest of all Dutch Masters was his grasp of light, light that darkness cannot overcome.  Sometimes it illuminates blessings, sometimes our brokenness.  In Rembrandt, the human condition is never hidden, our attention is always drawn to questions left for us to ponder.  The canon of what is holy scripture remains open –– it may contain more than printed words.  

What is a pilgrimage may be more than intentional treks filled with spiritual anticipation.  It may come unbidden in bits and pieces, in odd places and at odd times.  Travel can get us out of our places of too much comfort, opening the door for pilgrimage to enter.



Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Observations on Trump’s Negotiating Style

Political news is breaking so quickly it’s hard to know how to think about what’s happening, much less make sense of it.  What made some sense yesterday is highly questionable today.  I wanted to reflect on Trump’s style of negotiation, only to be interrupted by Iran’s arrival in Paris for important talks that bypass Washington, German elections keeping Merkel off balance, and Johnson’s loss of a parliamentary majority further undermining his already flimsy claim to national leadership.  What’s next is anyone’s guess.  Oh yeah, for America there remains a truly dangerous hurricane, the Amazon is still on fire, and there’s rioting in Hong Kong.  Among it all, my gun toting friends are slowly waking up to the fact that most of us are sick of their NRA talking points. 

So, what the heck, back to Trump’s negotiating style.  He has one, and it’s very predictable.  It’s manifested in two parts.  Part one is relatively simple: after a little Trumpish glad-handing, he makes an offer.  When the other party counters, he amplifies his original offer with intimidating threats, making it clear the only acceptable agreement is the one he’s proposed.  Sometimes he wins, but in the presence of those who can’t be intimidated, he folds.  

Part two is more complex.  He can’t abide the success of others, especially predecessors, and revels in portraying himself as the only person who can solve difficult problems.  When he enters an arena of negotiation where another has prepared the ground for progress, he is compelled to demolish it as incompetently done so he can promote himself as the only reliable source of a way forward.  We’ve seen it reported in the media as his penchant to create controversy where there was none so he can be seen as the one who resolves it.  Having thus created a state of negotiating chaos, he unpacks the few tools he’s accustomed to using, which is to demand agreement with him or face retaliation.  As a private citizen he was not taken seriously by most people of power and means who felt free to ignore his bloviating.  Lesser folk sometimes endured his wrath.  As some have noted, his is the track record of a bully who always punches down, but turns coward in the face of real power and money.  Unfortunately, as president he has substantial means of retaliation to employ, and many perceived challenges to his competency to avenge.  Instead of representing the interests and dignity of the nation, he uses the power of the presidency to indulge his ego and satisfy personal whims. 

It’s made worse by the ease with which sycophants and political axe wielders have been able to infiltrate the White House, each gaining momentary influence that whipsaws chaotic presidential decisions.   They always settle down to those satisfying his narcissistic needs of the moment.  It means no one can last long.  It creates an environment of predictable instability in national and international affairs, with other world leaders biding their time hoping to ride out the last two years of his term. 

How the nation will recover remains to be seen.