28 August 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 4

Much of the sturm und drang of modern politics comes from unspoken but fundamental differences about what government is for. What if someone, an imaginary candidate like me, were to say what those differences are. Would that help? As the lady once said about the power of chicken soup, “It couldn’t hurt.”

The real divide in American politics is not democrat and republican or even liberal and conservative, but libertarian and communitarian. Five years ago I wrote about this elsewhere, but in a nutshell (always a dangerous place because a nut lives there) it comes down to this:

Libertarians see individuality as primary and community as secondary and subordinate to it. Communitarians see community as primary and individuality and secondary and subordinate to it.

The more fervently one is about either, the more intensely the belief that individual or community is fundamental. This morning I happened upon Sam Harris’s blog. He is the notorious atheist, about as libertarian as one could imagine, or at least you might think so. But look what happened when he suggested that community has value even to individuals: The Blog : How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying) : Sam Harris

America swings from one to the other, and like a pendulum, when it gets far to one side it begins to be drawn back to the center, swinging off to the other side and so on, back and forth.

Right now, we are swinging past individuality, toward individualism; that is, toward an ideological belief that the individual is “sacred.” The logical end of this thinking is that community is at best immaterial, but at worst is destructive of individuality, making it virtually “demonic.”

America has succeeded, though, by embracing both. The tension between individual and community is not bad but good, and ultimately healthy. Too much of either is what is really demonic. Half a century ago we were coming out of a time of excessive community, which was the springboard of the beats, the hippies, and the sexual revolution. A half century earlier unions and others fought for social welfare in response to the fabled ‘robber barons.’ Look back and roughly every fifty years we are at the far end of one or the other idea of America.

I believe government exists to preserve the healthy tension between libertarian and communitarian ideas of America. The function of government in a democratic society, therefore, is to mitigate volatility and inequity. Too much of either makes for chaos, too little of either makes for tyranny. And a healthy government will consist of people who may prefer one but recognize the need for both.

This was precisely the reason why we have the Constitution and not the original Articles of Confederation. And we should elect people who understand this tension even as they may prefer one or the other notion.

25 August 2011


So I was interviewed today by a local TV station for a 9/11 retrospective.  I actually pitched the story and got three good bites.  Locals can watch the news tomorrow evening, Friday Aug 26.  Tell me what you think.

Because I am not watching.  I am having a little pity party this evening because I was not happy with my interview.  Nothing embarrassing or bad, just not good enough. 

I thought I was pretty good at words – speaking and writing.  Of late, however, I am far less certain.  Written sermons from months back look pretty lame, and judging by my blog readership (check those stats lately?) I lack the zip or snazz or eloquence that makes for major readership. 

What’s really missing is the great phrase, that satisfying burst of words that really captures something.  I see them all the time while reading others in magazines and books (who are published after all, which only proves how ham handed my writing is, right?)

My grownup self knows that this is a common writer/preacher goblin.  And it also knows that eloquence is a false god in the end.  But right now I am willing to sacrifice something to propitiate it  (animal, vegetable, mineral?) on the chance that it might exist and is po’d at me for some reason.

22 August 2011


Me too.  Actually, not scared.  Worried that everyone else is.  Let me pause in my neo-federalist manifesto to make a short observation about our times.

A whole lot of what is making our times tough is the virus of fear.  Stock markets gyrate,  war rages, famines prosper, and that makes us all uncertain about the immediate future.  Who can be blamed for feeling scared? 

But fear is also a fuel to what already frightens us.  As hokey and clichéd as it sounds, FDR was right when he said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. 

Meanwhile, our leaders fall into two groups – those who accuse other leaders of not being leaderly, and those who place blame on others for making us afraid.  In both cases, they abrogate their own leadership because the one sure fact I know about leadership is that all leadership is emotional leadership.  If leaders are afraid or angry, the people they lead will be frightened and angry. 

The only answer to fear is hope. What people are asking for is a reason to hope and a way to act on that hope.  Notice, I did not say ‘hope’ by itself. They need a reason, something more than wishful thinking, to be hopeful. 

There is reason for hope.  Everything we need, as a nation, we already have.  We have the land, the people, the means, the liberty, even the money.  None of our problems are due to something we lack. Except one thing. The commitment to do it. 

Why?  Because we see quite clearly what we would lose personally, but not what we would gain collectively.  And that’s because we have lost our collective vision, our sense of sharing in something worth living and sacrificing for. 

The answer to our fear is a hope so strong that we all willingly sacrifice to make happen;  like parents who sacrifice their own desires for the sake of their children. 

This fall, my church will again ask for pledges to fund its ministry.  For the fourth year in a row I will lower my compensation and raise my pledge.  Not the Ayn Rand sort of thing to do.  But I do it because these are my people, and their strength and health are as important to me as my own.  Is there a vision of America that can do that for you? 

Tell me.  If we wait for our leaders we will wait a very long time.  The president said “we really are the people we have been waiting for.”  Perhaps we should take him up on that.

20 August 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 3

Money. The mother’s milk of politics, the real third rail of politicians.  Without it a politician is powerless, and the more one has the more power one has as well.  Sort of.

By now it is obvious that inflation is rising, at least in political campaigns.  The price only gets higher with each election.  And so does the need to raise more money.  Inevitably this means asking for big checks from big people, who (business people that the are, regardless of their formal business) expect something in return.  The politician in turn pays a double price – the promise made to the giver and the betrayal of the actual voters whose interests are not served by the politician who elected him/her.

Money is also the lifeblood of government, which is why it is so important to both liberals and conservatives.  Liberals want government to do things, and that requires money.  Conservatives want government to stop doing things, and that requires depriving it of money.  Ironically, each confirms the dread of the other.  Any wonder we are stuck?

How to get unstuck then?  Here are three ideas.

1. Take the money out of campaigns, or at least make it less powerful.  I mentioned this last time, suggesting that we limit campaign length and the amount of media time it consumes. 

Wait!  Doesn’t that constrain free speech?  Yes, but so does Robert’s Rules or just raising your hand in school.  When groups deliberate, and an election is a deliberation, there need to be ground rules like taking turns and sharing time and answering questions and so on.  The right to speak does not extend to the right to do all the speaking, or even a majority of it, or to speak anonymously or unaccountably.  Whenever the president makes a speech, be it a Saturday radio address or the State of the Union, the other party gets to respond.  That’s fair.  Why should campaigns to win those offices be any less fair?

2. Publish tax returns of all federal and state elected officials, including the year they first run for that office.  Those who ask for the people’s confidence should be will to show they are worthy of it.  We think it acceptable to poke around in their sex lives, but in reality their financial lives are more germane. 

Peter Parker’s uncle famously said, “With great power power comes great responsibility,” and that means being held responsible.  Between elections how shall the citizens know their officials are being honest?  Showing their stake, their relative wealth and poverty, is part of being accountable for their actions.  If you can’t explain your tax return to the voters, chances are that you are not someone they would elect if they knew. 

3. Make all advocacy groups and other PAC-like objects reveal who supports them and how much.  No anonymous politicking.  Democracy requires sunlight to live.  When campaigns are being funded and aided by groups with innocuous names (Americans for Progress, for example) that conceal both their mission and their supporters, democracy becomes impossible. 

Texas Governor Perry has made much of his Boy Scout experience, which I celebrate as a former Boy Scout and the father of two scouts including an Eagle Scout.  The first word of the Scout Law is ‘Trustworthy.’  American politicians have lost the trust of the people.  To regain it requires making amends by being more accountable, more transparent. 

These are three easy steps.  Let’s see a show of hands.

17 August 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 2


If, as we so often hear, insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then the American voter is insane because every two years we hold elections and think things will be different. 

As I said last time, until we do politics differently we will have the same old politics.  And if we think those in office now will make those changes we are truly insane, because those in power now got there because of the current ‘system.’  Nobody voted themselves out of power.

That means the problem is not ‘in the stars’ as Shakespeare said, but in ourselves, we the voters.  And only we can change the system.  It is we who approve of the current political mess by colluding with it.  Why?

Because we have forgotten how to be citizens.  The only effective and lasting way to change politics and politicians is to change the citizenry.  That’s what I would stake my candidacy on, for without an informed, engaged, and committed citizenry we are not a democracy. 

But how? 

1.  Make civics and history as important as reading and mathematics.  Schools are not primarily vocational schools to train us for work.  They are foremost citizenship schools to prepare us for taking part in our a democracy.  That’s why we have publicly funded schools in the first place. 

I remember learning about the Constitution – even memorizing the Preamble (which I assert is the mission statement of the federal government).  How many even know there is a Preamble, or that the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation (which a lot of Tea Party folks would approve in principle but which was a failure as effective government)? 

Lack of knowledge about our government means people honestly think the President passes bills and declares war, which are congressional tasks.  Lack of knowledge therefore means voters make uninformed decisions, unable as they are to tell fact and from opinion and polls from truths. 

NCLB “No Child Left Behind” should yield NCLB, “No Citizen Left Behind.” 

2.  Make news organizations non-profits.  The era of newspapers is ending, we all know, and now our news comes largely from entertainment corporations who are primarily interested in making money by getting readers and watchers to whom they can advertise.  They are innately compromised because their purpose (to make money) is at odds with their mission (to inform the public). 

I believe news organizations, print or electronic, ought to be non-profit corporations that serve the mission of a free press first and the need to make money second.  We already have two examples in NPR and PBS.  Their news systems are superior to every other network in breadth, length, and depth.  Despite what some say, they are scrupulously non-partisan.  But there is nothing like it on the local level. 

The press alone has the power to call government to account, but if the press abrogates that task because it is not profitable, then government goes unchallenged.  Inevitably government becomes corrupt, and ultimately can become tyrannical.  Laws will not prevent it, not even constitutions.  Only a press that champions the whole truth no matter who it offends or what it costs, can do this.

3. Campaigns must be shorter and fairer.  I know that this rankles libertarians, but the market is not the forum.  The candidate with the deepest pockets wins because he/she can buy more ads and the other fellow.  If you go to a debate, we don’t allow the candidate with more money more time to speak?  Why?  Because voters need to hear from all sides equally.  How can we make a sound decision if one side dominates the election? 

But this is the way things are, so parties and candidates raise enormous sums from very deep pockets so they can dominate the airwaves.  To raise that money they make promises to those who can write large checks, further compromising their integrity.  But that’s the price of politics.

Only if we let it continue.  the SCOTUS ruling called ‘Citizens United’ is not immutable.  We can say, ‘only a month before the elections,’ ‘only 20% of advertising time,’ ‘no more than 50% for any candidate or party,’ ‘all donors made public.’  These are all possible.

4.  National Service.  If I fought for any one thing this would be it.  We have lost a sense of common cause and common good, replaced with a wild west individualism that makes any notion of civic responsibility naïve.  But a free society utterly depends on the citizens taking responsibility for the common good, by voting, paying taxes, obeying the law, and taking part in the larger service of country.

I say everyone owes their country 2 years of service.  In the past it has been military, and should still be but not only that.  Americorps and Peace Corps, and Teach For America also produce people who have sacrificed for the common good.  They are better people and better citizens.

If everyone, no exceptions now, gave the nation 2 years of service we would have an immensely richer country in many ways.  First, we would be better informed.  Experience is a great teacher. We would be more connected, as meeting new people expands our circle of involvement.  We would be more competent, as the skills we acquired then, often life skills like patience fortitude and other ‘lions,’ last a lifetime.  We would be more grounded, as serving others keeps us humble. 

Youth is a great time to do this, but what if we could also do it later?  Retired people have wisdom to share.  How better than in service to one’s nation.  And imagine the benefit of CEOs and garbage collectors working side by side as cafeteria aids in a school. 

That’s my vision of what I would try to do if I were a candidate for Congress, and if for some reason I actually got elected.  Put simply, I would focus on forming “a more perfect union.”  We have not been so disunited since the years before the Civil War.  The sense of common cause and common hope and common commitment is getting smaller every day.  Without this nothing else can be done. 

That’s what I think at least.  What do you think?

(Next time: Follow the Money)

Waiting for Mr. Obama - We Need a Jobs Agenda - NYTimes.com

14 August 2011

Imagine That I Am Running For Congress


Now, imagine that I am an idiot.  But I repeat myself.

Paraphrasing Twain is important, dear reader, because this is a truly imaginary exercise. I am going to pretend I am a candidate because what I want to hear from a candidate is not remotely likely to emerge. 

That’s because these days no one in politics is anywhere near honest or sensible when it comes to the task of governing.  They do, say, whatever it takes to win, because It is all a game, a very expensive game, and the prize is power. 

It is also an industry.  Like baseball, politics may be a game, but in the end it is a for profit industry and we, the citizens are at most means to the power not an end in ourselves.  And that’s precisely the problem.  The usual suspects are engaged in a perpetual boxing match, which we the citizens watch and yell about.  In this prizefight, though, when they hit each other we bleed.

Do I sound angry?  Well, who isn’t these days?  Anger is a great motivator, of course, as the Tea Party proves.  But it is not wholly owned by conservatives or libertarians.  These days, everyone is angry at politics and politicians.  What I also know is that anger may get you moving, but hope keeps you going.  Right now, there is no vision of hope out there that makes people want to do the hard work – and I mean citizens not politicians.  For this much I am sure about: we get the leaders we earn, and for some time we the people have been phoning it in when it comes to doing our civic duty. 

That’s why my imaginary campaign begins with a call to citizenship.  If we want better politicians we need better citizens.  Sure, we could elect new folks, and we will, but until we expect more and better from those we elect, we will just be drinking the same political kool-aid from different color cups.  Real change in DC or Lansing requires real change from us.

Step One:  End the Game.  Politics is a business, an industry, which does not care who is elected and long as the operatives, advisors, pollsters, media consultants, and so on get work. 

Joe Nocera shared an idea from his column recently, not his own.  Howard Schultz says we the people ought to sign a pledge – no more campaign contributions.  Great idea, I have my doubts.  Those who leave the field leave it to whoever remains.  It amounts to resignation. 

Find people worth supporting.  America Elect is another idea, that seeks to nominate a president without parties at all.  This has a flaw, too,  Even if it worked, a president without a party would be even more powerless than the current president, as I have noted before.  Like it or not parties are how votes are gathered and laws made. 

What we need are people willing to run for congress and legislature who are worth supporting with our money because they are not packaged by the election industry.  But to that means they do not stand a chance of winning.

Exactly my point.  We need people who reject the horse race, prizefight, sports industry culture of politics.  Such people are not interested in winning but in serving. 

That’s why I am doing this.  I am such a person.  The idea of actually being elected gives me the willies.  But the idea of campaigning for ideas, for visions, for hope, in honest words not massaged by pollsters or scripted by consultants, just telling people what you think and hope, that appeals to me.

I did some research.  The game is rigged in many ways.  Getting onto a ballot takes money and work, like gathering signatures. What sort of person has that kind of time and money on his/her own?  You could run for one of the smaller parties.  That takes less personal work, but they have lots of baggage, often being rather marginal and weird.  That means working within the two major parties, who helped create the game. 

We need people who are willing to stand for hopeless races – political Don Quixotes, St. Judes, Jonathan Kennedy O’Tooles – to be candidates for positions the other party has locked up (which is how the game works, remember) and then refuse to play by the rules.

A mentor of mine (via his writings) Edwin Friedman, said that the best way to change a stuck system was to ‘defect in place.’  That is, be part of the system but refuse to collaborate with it. 

That’s what we need.  We need Democrats who are fiscally sensible and Republicans who are genuinely compassionate, people who know the other side is not the adversary but the other partner, who know that democracy presumes that no ideology is perfect and no party is infallible, who see elections are choices people make about America and not about who is right or wrong.

That’s not all we need to do to end the game of course, but without that nothing else will happen. 

Next time: creating a nation of citizens not customers or even taxpayers. 

12 August 2011

Mirror, Mirror

Dear Reader,

Were you pretty?  I mean back in high school when how you looked began to matter?  I wasn’t.  Still not for that matter.  Not that it does matter, but this morning as I was walking back from the gym, my glasses down my nose so I can read as I go, I see a remarkably pretty woman coming the other way.  She did not see me. 

After she passed, I thought, “She’s pretty and she knows it.”  Her clothes, face, attitude radiated the knowledge that she was attractive, very attractive.  And I wondered what that felt like.

To explain why I wondered. I was very aware of my unattractiveness.  At best I could be called rugged. At best, means if the light was right and I did not smile too widely. if I spoke, my broken glass voice would ruin any hint of visual appeal. 

Forty years later, I have not changed all that much.  Thanks to years of healthy living, mostly, I am thinner than I was then.  Since most of the good looking boys then have added a few pounds, lost some fair or otherwise decayed, this means I am more attractive for my age than some originally handsomer fellows. That feels good, and I get some moral advantage, because whatever appeal I have now is the result of effort not nature.  My ultimate goal is to have the coroner look down and say “best looking 100 man you’ll ever see.”

But youth lingers in the mind long after it vanishes in body.  I can readily decay into self pitiful adolescent pouting.  How about you?

So humor my neurosis and tell me: Does knowing you are attractive (male or female) affect you the way knowing you are unattractive affects you?  Yes, I know that some of you who are attractive did not know it or believe it.  But some of you did.  You seemed so confident, so sure, so powerful. 

Tell me what it was or is like to have people attracted to you and that you can or could choose from an array of romantic or personal or sexual partners.  Tell me truly,  was it, is it cool? 

Because now, forty years later, when I see pictures from my youth, I still cringe.  And I wonder what it would be like not to feel that way.

08 August 2011

What Ocean Is This?

Dear Reader,

If a rising ride lifts all boats, an ebbing tide should lower all boats. But despite a very ragged economic week it seems that the larger boats are still afloat while the smaller ones are swamped and tipping.

The trouble with analogies is that they rarely work under all circumstances. Yes, we 'recovered' from the Great Recession, technically, but most of that recovery landed on those who were already employed (including me) and those with abundant resources beyond employment (less true of me).

Such an uneven, lopsided recovery meant that when the tide went out again, as it has done this past week, it turns out we actually had two oceans - one for big boats and another for small ones. The big boats were in a deeper ocean; they dipped but did not go aground. The smaller ones were in the shallower ocean; when the tide fled again they landed on the mudflats.

The cost for the latest market contraction will mean more unemployment. True, those who have much will lose much, but it is unlikely they will lose it all. For those, however, whose $30k job is all they have, losing a job means losing everything. The good news, as only a cynic would call it, is that they won't be lonely.

At some point, if nothing changes for a while, the folks in the smaller boats will climb onto the big boats. They will not be "asking" for help.

So you guys in the big boats, think hard about what would be worse: sharing the tide, or losing the boat.

06 August 2011

Count Your Tomatoes

Yes, Dear Reader...

More from the lazy garden. Neglected the weeds all week, being quite humid and having a lot of work to do. The first week of every month some church folk go down and lift a few signs for marital justice. Our new "honk if you support gay marriage" got some honks, too. More than one from a garbage truck, which must mean something but I am not sure what.

Attacked weeds this morning before the rains came, and harvested some tomatoes and lettuce and a respectable green pepper. Not bad for doing almost nothing. Truly, nature does most of the work. The trick is working out exactly how much I need to add.

This helps stave off the easy despair of a wretched political week. It would be easy for most of us to just give up. And perhaps that is what some would wish. The less likely ordinary people are to exercise their role and power, the more likely the few with intense agendas will exercise theirs.

Therefore I conclude I must be involved. But compassed about as I am by so great a cloud political gnats, each one buzzing their story or analysis or agenda or platform, it is hard both to stand it or to get one's bearings.

Amid all the posturing and posing and blaming I have come to believe that anger and fear are powerful forces but not lasting ones. We don't like feeling that way and so we cannot sustain them long term. Hope lasts, but is less powerful.

The first is like weeding, quick and violent and brutal. In one hour I can undo a week's growth. But even I have to sleep. Hope is like nature, slow, even weak, but relentless. I do not see the grass growing in the hour I am out there, but it is growing and never stops.

Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called "God Bless The Grass," which helps me at times like these. Here they are and may they strengthen your soul for the work we have to do:

God bless the grass that grows through the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It's green and it's tender and it's easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that's gentle and low,
Its roots they are deep and its will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man's door,
And God bless the grass.

01 August 2011

Time For Another Episode...

of The Lazy Gardener!

Dear Reader,

Things are growing well in my goofy garden. Not because I am so attentive, as you well know. I visit my patch only now and then, because it has been quite reliably hot this summer. And guess what? That seems to be the new normal.

( Though conservative pols say it ain't so, it's officially warmer now. Yes, our own West Michigan Weather Service has revised normal temps upward. Not based on biased vice presidential opinion though, but on local facts. The whole climate change thing reminds me of a story about a state legislature that officially made 'pi' 3.14. I suppose the lesson of King Canute must be learned over and over.)

Anyway, my neighbors are away for the weekend, and they asked us to water their flowers and vegetables, and to help ourselves as well. Which I did a little while ago.

I am humbled. Their beets have leaves like palm fronds, as does their chard. Good thing I don't like them, but still it is impressive. They have two varieties of basil that are all but quivering with growth - glossy green and black/purple leaves. Tomatoes are growing above the 6 foot tall cages so that they loomed over me. While down below the broccoli and squash spread in fat abandon.

I thought of my little yard, identical to theirs in size, and how we have one determined basil, some half-hearted peas, a sprawly lazy tomato that refuses to climb the trellis I set out. You can tell I am jealous.

What is it about us that we so readily compare and compete? Of course, they would have a better garden. They work at it more. (And they use plant food which we don't)

If I had beets I wouldn't eat them anyway, and what little we have is plenty for us in our whirlwind life of pressing indolence. But even so I felt the twinge of competition.

I know that in the purity of a free market defined world everything is a market and everything is competitive. But I just don't like it. It reminds me of a friend our elder son had 20 years ago when they were little boys. He made everything a competition, even boasting that his bowl of chicken noodle soup had more noodles and that he could eat his faster.

Who said that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Fundamentalisms of all kinds tell us everything can be reduced to one thing - Bible, Constitution, Markets, Oppression, Sex. Even if one of them is right, which seems very unlikely, it would make for a very unhappy life I think.

Kind of like a vegetable garden that only had beets.