30 August 2010

Still Breathing?

Martin Luther Beck has come and gone. Still trying to get the taste out of my mouth.

Let me say instantly that the anger of people who follow Beck is real, especially the idea that something is not working right. What's bothering me is that what bothers them is not actually Muslims and Mexicans and Gays. It isn't even "government."

This is all a giant case of bait and switch.

Here's how I see it: What makes people angry and fearful is the sense that their lives are being changed without their knowledge or permission. We want society to be fair and open, for the rules to be fair and to know that they are applied fairly, that we can depend on certain things.

That has changed, and there is no lack of powerful people to tell you about it. That's the bait. They (Beck and company) want you to think that it is because of outsiders like Muslims and Mexicans, or minorities like gays and liberals, or conniving government flunkies. That's the switch.

They are not the problem.

What is?

At the risk of becoming a demagogue, I defer to those who know more than me and so you can blame them instead.

Let's start with Frank Rich, who speaks softly and carries a big anger.

He refers to Jean Meyer, whose article Rich references.

For something less pointed, try this article by Michael Hirsch, found in Newsweek.

If all of that fails to grab you where it matters, I leave it ultimately to the man who pulled no punches ever, may he rest in peace. (R rated language here folks, so be warned.)

27 August 2010

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Conspiracy literally means, to breathe together. I am not sure what I am writing exposes a conspiracy or is one, but here goes:

Muslims, Mexicans and Gays are enemies of America. If the news says anything, a fair portion of the country believes our security and liberty are under assault from Muslims, Mexicans and Gays.

Is this true? I don't think so, but what each of these issues has in common is that it arouses strong feelings that seem to me rooted in a fear that these things threaten our 'way of life.' Making them appear to be organized threats is what seems to be happening.

Based on a very quick comparison of three four major news organizations, one of them spends far more time and effort reporting on these issues than the others. Way more.

Here's my half hour of research, and take it for just that much.

Fox News has 29561 items tagged with 'ground zero mosque.' CBS has not even 300, unless you enter the term 'mosque' alone, which yields 2506 . PBS news hour lists less than 100, but it grows to 475 if likewise limited to 'mosque.'

Fox has 20242 items tagged 'illegal immigration.' CBS has 2767 if you limit it to immigration.

Fox has 13269 items tagged 'gay marriage.' CBS has 1951. PBS 324.

Now, I understand that Fox is bigger in market share than both, and runs news all day. So let me compare that to CNN:

'Ground zero mosque' results in 270. 'Mosque' alone 2939. 'Illegal immigration' gets 3213. 'immigration' alone 8446. And 'gay marriage' gets 1098.

In other words, Fox was generated between ten and twenty times as many items on these issues as any other type of broadcast network (network, public, cable).

Now, add in the News Corp's revealed support for the Republican Party, the mother of Fox News, and it makes this normally fair open minded fellow wonder whether there is more than news gathering at work here.

I am lousy at data based analysis, so do not take this as some sort of 'proof.' But I do know that the more you repeat something, the more people are going to think about it. Staying on message is a basic principle of political life. These topics at Fox News far outnumber the deficit (8694), taxes (9408) and even 'liberal' (8611). I cannot help but wonder why.

Lest you think I might be leaving out some other topic that gets more attention that even Muslims, Mexicans and Gays. There is at least one. It gets 43457 items.


22 August 2010

Cookie Insights

Well, it is Sunday evening, not long before my bed time. I've taken part in worship, finished the last volume of Gary Dorrien's trilogy on the History of Liberal Theology in America, driven to East Lansing and back, picked a dozen tomatoes, taken out the recycling, and read most of the Sunday Times.

(That sounds like more than it felt like. I might feel better about my productivity if I made more lists!)

Anyway, my splendid spouse made up a batch of cookies just a while ago, from some refrigerated dough that has been lingering about. They came to twelve. Three of us are home.

All these facts are part of the shameful insight I had not ten minutes ago, which is prompting this post.

She, lovely woman in every sense, brought a small plate of cookies into my office to announce their availability. I thought they were for me, but she was carrying hers. Mine were still on the tray.

Same number, but distinctly smaller. That I noticed bothers me, that I care shames me. Where did this come from?

I know too well. As one of four children, the parceling of sweetmeats was fraught. In my childish mind, febrile with longing for whatever treat was in store, who had the larger portion was the favored child. Needless to say, mother and father were scrupulous in being fair. But "one cuts, the other chooses" does not satisfy the underlying problem. The mere fact of having to share the gustatory prize was what I found hard to swallow.

Every two years after I was born another child came home, and with each my horde of blessings was diluted. The juvenile zero sum game ran like an adding machine in my head. My net worth rose and sank according to the measure of cookies, cake, bed time privileges, and other measures of approval.

Though I have been out of my parent's home for forty years now, more than 2/3 of my life in fact, that childish imprimatur of value has never completely vanished. Nowadays I do not act on such puerile feelings, but they are still there.

Am I alone? Probably not. Truly, I am more neurotic than most, but is that because I still want the bigger cookies or because I am aware that I do and worry about it? (Just posing that question proves how neurotic I am. What can I say, it's a gift.) That we kids elbowed for the marginally bigger slice or portion tells me that at least they shared some notion of competing for the prize. That people seek fancy cars and large houses and other tokens of success tells me I am more typical than exceptional.

My point, though, is not how childish we all are but that if Socrates is right about the unexamined life being not worth living, we need to realize that the examined life does not consist of the serene contemplation of great thoughts. It is being ready to feel like a toddler, notice your the inner brat, stay in touch with all the now outgrown bits of the soul we formed in the messy world of childhood.

Like the appendix in our gut, they have no role to play in adult life, but if they get inflamed (by cookies or whatever might set you off) they can start a nasty spiritual infection.

Glad I nipped that one in the bud. Besides, my inner adult says, I can always buy more cookies!

21 August 2010


Well, my last rant arrived in the nick of time, it seemed. Within days (if not hours) others chimed in - notably John Stewart - and wiser (and funnier) voices were raised in response to the craven demagoguery that made me fulminate a few days ago.

Thanks, those of you who chimed in here and on FB, sharing your own outrage along with mine. I doubt we turned the tide, but oceans are made of zillions of drops of which we were a few. It feels good to be on the side of the angels, especially when they prevail.

Since then, I was at a garden wedding where I met a man who some years ago urged me to share 'my outrage' in my preaching. I remembered that moment, and how when I did share my outrage at close range - meaning my outrage at churches and liberal religion as well as national politics and policies - he stopped coming to church.

Bad advice, I chuckled, as my outrage is deep and people in church do not want to be scolded. "Beware of what you ask for," someone famously said, "for you just might get it."

There's my dilemma, to be honest and passionate but also kind and hopeful.

Individuals need kindness and hope. Everyone, no matter how fortunate compared to others, feels vulnerable and fearful from time to time. Religion is supposed to offer strength in the face of those feelings.

But religion must also be about the world at large, about matters of right and wrong, justice and injustice. These are, by nature, discomfiting things that make us feel 'vulnerable and fearful' when we face them head on.

An old saw about journalism is that it should 'comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.' Here is one provenance of it, from my friends at Wikipedia:

As a journalist in the age of "muckraking journalism", (Finley Peter Dunne) was aware of the power of institutions, including his own. Writing as Dooley, Dunne once wrote the following passage cautioning against the power of the newspapers themselves: "Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward".
The expression has been borrowed and altered in many ways over the years:
Clare Booth Luce employed a variation of it in a memorable tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Several religious leaders (including one Archbishop of Canterbury) have called it the goal of religion.
Social activist "Mother" Mary Jones was once quoted as saying "My business is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
A version showed up in a memorable line delivered by Gene Kelly in a great newspaper movie, Stanley Kramer's 1960 film, Inherit the Wind. Kelly (E.K. Hornbeck) says, "Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".

I was told that was the preacher's mission as well. What my teachers did not tell me is that the people in the pew are both afflicted and comfortable. They are both guilty and innocent, in need of love and judgment.

I see no way to get around this paradox, as a person or as a preacher. It may be the essential matrix of honest spiritual life. My only hope is that some of those I serve and lead come to see this paradox as well.

17 August 2010

Double, Double Toil and Trouble...

My Republican friends are determined to mix a caustic and destructive brew of inventive and innuendo, according to Carl Hulse in today's' NYTimes.

This is actually the original campaign theory of the Republican Party, which invoked the Civil War in campaigns a generation or more later. It came to be called 'waving the bloody shirt' and was often successful.

I call it demagoguery, which is to inflame the emotions of the people to manipulate them to your aims. The most successful exponents are those of the 1930s, Soviet or Fascist or Falangist or Nazi. By playing on fears and hatreds, leaders convince people in tough times that this or that group (Jews, Capitalists, Catholics, Mexicans, Muslims, Gays, Liberals) is dangerous and must be stopped.

I do not fear the ultimate paroxysms that Europe experienced. But as one whose faith community has been hounded in the past - a leader firebombed out of his house in England, another carted to Dachau, one or two burned at the stake - I know how easy it is to demonize a group that leaders label as 'different,' or 'foreign,' or 'degenerate,' or 'dangerous.'

What really galls me is that this whole mosque thing has been trumped up from the beginning and no one seems to notice. Except perhaps Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. Please, please, read his retrospective on how this 'issue' began as a non issue and was literally blown into one by outsiders.

Yes, outside agitators really did it, and no one is calling them on it. Not CNN, not ABC or NBS or CBS or PBS. Fox is not worth asking as the "Pravda," of the Republican Party. But that is the role of the press, isn't it? To call people to account when they play fast and loose with the truth.

Only when a 'disinterested party,' one without skin in the game to use a more modern term, speaks up will people listen. Where is Emile Zola now? Where is Edward R. Murrow? Where is Woodward or Bernstein?

Am I the only one to say "J'acccuse," to the rank and disgusting demagoguery and hate mongering of the Conservative powers that be? And you, the two score of so who read this little diatribe, what good can you do?

Trust me, the path of Martin Neimoller is very easy to tread.

14 August 2010

Discuss Amongst Yourselves

Just got home last night and am still cleaning up from travels. Weeded a bunch, picked some no-kidding good looking tomatoes, repaired my porch door, cleaned up my basement a little, read the newspaper, and rejoiced in my president's principled remarks about the (erroneously described) 'mosque at Ground Zero.'

Not only is it not "at" the site, but several blocks away, it is not a mosque but a community center, like the JCC or the YMCA. And for those who do not know, or choose not to remember, the dead whom this center will dishonor included Muslims, in fact a bunch of them. In my case, one of those I buried from the catastrophe was a non religious man who was married to a Muslim. The recitation of Al Fatihah, the 'lord's prayer' of Islam was never more moving than that day.

So I am deeply proud of my president for standing up for American values and not political points, unlike Long Island Representative Peter King (R) who said the president was giving in to 'political correctness. I am constantly dumbfounded that those on the right accuse the left of being something they are themselves. What is more 'politically correct' right now than mosque bashing.

I found a good article on the rise of Islamophobia by a religion prof at Reed College. You can read it here, on Religion Dispatches. (One of my newest go-to sites.)

Now, I have to go and find a particular screw (now be nice!) to finish the repair my back door. Gut Shabbes and Ramadan Kerim!

10 August 2010

"Situation Hopeless, But Not Serious"

Anyone remember the movie by that name? It was a dark comedy about two GIs captured by civilians and held prisoner in a private home in Germany during the war. The premise was that the jailor did not release them after the war, in fact not even telling them the war was over. Thus the title.

The title is cute because we sometimes say a situation is 'serious but not hopeless.' That describes my sense of the nation precisely. Over the last few weeks I have observed more and more disturbing things in our society:

- anger toward 'illegal immigrants' that is like that visited on Chinese workers in the 19th century.
- anti Islamism very like the vitriol directed at Roman Catholics in the same period.
- nullification efforts toward health reform like those in the slave holding south.

If you see a pattern here, as do I, you see a potential return to pre- Civil War America, and see that as serious and deeply wrong. Aat the moment, given the atmosphere, I am not very optimistic. Chances are things will get worse long before they get better. Worse, there is no guarantee they will get better.

In all honesty, we could truly find ourselves back in the 1820's with its financial panics, class conflicts, regional factions, and political gridlock. (See, I told you there was a pattern!) Not until the 1860s did it end, and then only through a terrible and destructive civil war. Yes, it could happen here again.

But I am not hopeless. Because I know history, I am not its prisoner. At its center, America is a place of hope - hope for individual liberty, social justice, and national virtue. We veer from our essential hope when we focus on one at the expense of the others.

Right now, we are enthralled with individual liberty, I think to excess. Modern conservatism is propelled by the attractive purity of perfect personal freedom. Ironically, the counter culture of the 1960s was a liberal movement focused on individualism too, and so many a young rocker is now a conservative, like Ted Nugent for example.

But America is more than that, and we all know it. That's why my liberal friends are mounting the ramparts for social justice, with as much conviction of its primacy as the conservative commitment to individualism. And like them they, or at least some of them, see this as a a binary conflict - for me to be right you must be wrong. That's why we need the third part, national virtue.

This is what gives me hope amid the storm. History teaches me that when America acted nobly it was at its best. And it has done do. The Marshall Plan was one such moment. The Peace Corps was another. Land Grant Colleges, the GI Bill, Brown vs Board of Education, all of these were moments when America did the right thing because it was the right thing. These things were for something more than personal profit or social engineering. This is my America.

Long long ago, the writer of the book of Hebrews encouraged the infant Christian community by writing about Abraham and Moses and others who lived by faith even when the reward of that faith never came. Turning to those living then, the writer essentially told them to have hope even if their own hopes do not come true. The author then exhorted them to continue saying, "compassed about as we are by such a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race that is before us."

Hope is believing in and living for the goodness of the cause, in goodness itself, not in one's reward for being good.

Thus I am hopeful because America is worth believing in even when it is not living up its its hope. I am no summer soldier, no sunshine patriot, as Thomas Paine put it. The words of the Declaration will not let me, nor the preamble to the Constitution, nor the words of Webster, Lincoln, Emma Lazarus, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. They make me hope even now, perhaps especially now.

Enough preachingm though. Time for dinner.

08 August 2010

I Am Touched

So the giga-wealthy are getting virtuous. According to CNN, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are recruiting their fellow uber-rich to commit at least half their wealth to charity.

I am touched. It is, after all, and according to our former president and the current Ayn Rand devotees on the right, "your money." What magnanimity! What generosity! What nobility!

Yes, I am being sarcastic.

In my little mind, pinched as it is by my small dreams and limited ambitions, half of 1.2 trillion dollars still leaves half a trillion dollars in private hands. So among the questions I am still asking is' "Why just half?"

If you spent $1000 a day, that's $365,000 a year, it would take you 2000 years, that's two-zero-zero-zero, years to spend it all. And thanks to the miracle of compound interest, if you could limit yourself to that amount it would never end. You would end up with more money not less. In fact, a billionaire would have to spend over $40,000,000 a year to overcome the compound interest effect.

Most people live on about one tenth of $365,000 annually, as the average American family earns about $45,000 a year. A conservative spending billionaire thus exerts an effect greater than 1000 people.

One person is as powerful as 1000. Is this good for a democracy? And let's remember, that presumes only $1 billion. Gates and Buffett and their friends have way more than that. And they are making more every year.

Is it healthy for a democratic society to have so much power invested in so few? My conservative friends rightly question the unchecked power of government. But they seem far less worried about the unchecked power of wealth. If my faith in the goodness of government is naive, would not theirs in wealth be equally gullible?

So do be grateful for the moral initiative of our giga-wealthy, but don't applaud too loudly. The gap between those that have much and the have a lot less is still enormous. IMHO it is dangerously wide, and even the good will of the wealthiest does not close it enough for a democratic society to thrive.

Just Saying...

02 August 2010

Apologies in Order

I am holding hat in hand this morning because I re-read my post from yesterday and found several misspellings. Actually, they were not mispellings, they were actual words that were missing some 's's to make subject and predicate agree. I assure you I know how to parse my verbs, mostly. All I can say is that I was in a hurry (on my way to preach yesterday) and using a different keyboard than usual. A recipe for stumbles.

Yes, I could go back and correct them, but rather than do that and make you wounder if you were remembering in error, it seemed more honorable to point out my mistakes as publicly as I state my opinions.

Those in power never apologize because some adversary will exploit it for another purpose. (Not to name names, but one is spelled B-e-c-k)

We hear all too often about moral decline, but if we want mere citizens to take responsibility for their errors, our leaders have to do that too, and without calculating the political cost or advantage. Of course, we mere citizens have to 'man up' and ignore the chattering classes who depend on us to salivate when they ring their bells of innuendo.

I am not holding my breath.

01 August 2010

A Brief Tour Of Grief

After three days of attending meetings for the National Urban League, I took a day in this hot town to visit three poignant places on the National Mall - The Viet Nam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Second World War Memorial. They are clustered around the Reflecting Pool that connects the Lincoln and Washington Memorials.

Being a Saturday in summer, the crowds were abundant despite the 90 degree heat. Getting there, visiting, and returning took over three hours. This was no quick sweet stroll. My visit went in reverse order of their creation. The first was the oldest, though for the most recent of the wars, Viet Nam. It is also the most well known.

Hard to believe it was so reviled and protested when it was proposed and built, but I vividly remember a sermon I delivered on that controversy. Seeing it in person for the first time, which is hard to believe, I noticed something for the first time. It inverts the usual formula for a public memorial.

Most memorials present a stylized image, a statue 0f soldiers mostly, that represent no one in particular because they cannot. Like the Tomb of the unknowns, each is present in the generalized image. Ms. Lin's design chose to honor every single individual, but at the price of a single recognizable image. Its existence is literally based on the engraving of every name, which, because of its being built into the earth not upon it, make it seem as though these names were engraved on the earth itself. Its power is that of carving one's initials on a rock to claim a shred of immortality. I was literally weighted down by all these names, so many they cannot be taken in, and the even greater weight of the stories they lived that should have been much longer. The sense of loss, tragic loss to them and the country, is inescapable.

Opposite the Reflecting Pool is the newer Korean War memorial, which combines elements of the Viet Nam memorial, favoring the stylized soldiers but with slabs of stone and a pool of water. The effect is more complicated, as attention is drawn to several objects. But the center is a larger than life patrol of soldiers in rain gear. The edges of this memorial include a list of all the nations involved in the conflict, though that is so subtle one can easily overlook it.

Long overdue, it being the truly "Forgotten War" without a clean end, I was ultimately less impressed because the oversized statues loomed up, almost like phantoms. They so dominate the memorial that the images overwhelm the purpose. Far from inviting me in to contemplate the lives of those who died, I found myself pondering the intended message of the memorial itself. Politics was on my mind, far more than poignance.

Lastly, I visited the Second World War memorial, dramatically situated at the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool, dramatically larger and grander than the other two, and the newest yet. This one frankly claims a more monumental role, not only in its size and location but also in its style which strive for an Olympian aspect.

Large steles pierced with bronze wreaths form an enormous oval surrounding an oval pool with a low continuous spraying fountain. Each of these steles signify a state or territory in the US, arranged in a curious fashion that is not self evident. Two large pavilion like towers anchor the longer axis of the oval representing the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. A massive bronze sculpture is inside each, attached to the ceilings and walls and not to the floors.

It is as grandiose as the Viet Nam Memorial is solemn. And that is part of why I felt unsatisfied by it. The intended purpose, judging by its form and mass and style, is not to memorialize but to glorify. It succeeds too well, in my opinion. I almost hear crowds cheering, trumpets playing, laurels being placed on heads. And the people there sense the difference.

Those at the Viet Nam memorial moved slowly, as though in a cemetery. Which it is in a sense. Those at the Korean War Memorial explored it, trying to find its center and meaning. Apt for a war that remains undefined and unfinished. Those at the Second World War memorial put their feet in the water, chatted on the wide plaza, looked more self involved than thoughtful. While the intent may be to glorify, the response is ironically informal. Only at the edges, outside the memorial itself, did I find a touch of poignance, in the old man in a wheelchair whose blue cap said Pearl Harbor Survivor, and the line of blue frocked white bonnetted Mennonite pondering it all.
Three wars, the monuments, and in three hours three different nations as well. I could go on, but this is already too long.