Saturday, January 24, 2009

Required Reading

I wish I could make every American read this article about how we can't just blame Bush for everything that happened over the last eight years: Folks, the blame has to be shared by all of us, even those of us in blue states who kept voting for the other guy.

Please read this.

"What the Hell Just Happened? A Look Back at the Last Eight Years" by Tom Junod, from January's Esquire.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Inevitable Disappointment?

Many liberals like me have been cynically admitting that we have set ourselves up for inevitable disappointment because we've elevated our hopes in an Obama presidency to untenable heights. On the Daily Show this is a joke. For some of us, it's a reality we reluctantly acknowledge.

Well, keep that disappointment train in the station, folks, because we have some big victories to be pleased with already. Not only has Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanimo within a year (closing it in a day, as some have asked for, would have been irresponsible) and signing another prohibiting torture, but today he signed one allowing international aid to go to clinics even if they (gasp) provide full reproductive healthcare to women in the third world. Under the Bush administration, if a clinic told a woman she had options like contraception or abortion, anything other than abstinence, then they could risk losing their funding. Well, no more.

And it gets better! The Senate passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which already passed the House, so Obama will soon be signing that into law.

It will be important for us to remember, when something doesn't go our way, that we've already gained a lot in just a few days. Hell, Americans can't legally torture people anymore. As much as that should have been a point of shame for anyone with a patriotic bone in their body, this should be a point of pride.

Inevitable? Probably.
Arrived? Not yet.

Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK2 Day Tradition

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and again on April 4th (the day of his assassination) I try to make a point to listen to one of Dr. King's speeches. You can find recordings of many of them online, and they always make me prouder to be a Christian and an American. This year I decided to re-read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The King Center has a pdf version available on it's site here. Since I've ranted here about some of my disillusion with Chistendom in America, it's so refreshing to read Dr. King struggle with the same thing.

"I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular."

Can't we say the same thing about our elective wars, about the generational poverty in our country, about our disdain for the natural world? And, though churches and clergy can have legitimate discussions about their particular stance on marrying gay couples within their own churches, isn't the legalization of gay marriage an issue of justice which the moderate church should be speaking out about, rather than hiding while the right-wing tries to use the state as a tool for their religious oppression? I'm so grateful to people like Al Sharpton, for his brave stance on the issue of gay rights. But I'm deeply ashamed of the larger, silent church.

Read what Dr. King said about this kind of silent church:

"I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Walleye gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

"Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

"There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

"Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

"But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."

I confess to feeling that outright disgust, even though I am a son and grandson of preachers myself. But Dr. King did not lose hope.

"One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

So if he didn't lose faith, how can I call him one of my heroes and not try to emulate him?

Dr. King finished, "Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." I expect that tomorrow, during the inauguration, some will say all those stars are shining. I still think the moral arc of the universe is a bit longer than that.

But I will still celebrate tomorrow, because it will be another sign that it bends toward justice.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

God bless you, Al Sharpton!

Al Sharpton spoke out against Prop 8 at he Human Rights Ecumenical Service in Atlanta on Sunday. Check this out! He said:

"There is something immoral and sick about using all of that power to not end brutality and poverty, but to break into people's bedrooms and claim that God sent you."

Furthermore, "It amazes me," he said, "when I looked at California and saw churches that had nothing to say about police brutality, nothing to say when a young black boy was shot while he was wearing police handcuffs, nothing to say when they overturned affirmative action, nothing to say when people were being [relegated] into poverty, yet they were organizing and mobilizing to stop consenting adults from choosing their life partners."

"I am tired," he went on, "of seeing ministers who will preach homophobia by day, and then after they're preaching, when the lights are off they go cruising for trade...We know you're not preaching the Bible, because if you were preaching the Bible we would have heard from you. We would have heard from you when people were starving in California--when they deregulated the economy and crashed Wall Street you had nothing to say. When [accused Ponzi scammer] Madoff made off with the money, you had nothing to say. When Bush took us to war chasing weapons of mass destruction that weren't there you had nothing to say."

"[Social conservatives] will start with the gays but they will end with everybody else," he said. "If you give the Pat Robertsons of the world the theological right to condemn some, then you give them the right to condemn others."

Amen, Al, and thank you for giving me a bit of renewed faith in American Christianity.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Serious Question

One of the newest conservative talking points I've heard from various right-wing pundits is that, despite their landslide electoral losses, this is still a "center-right country". At the same time, a fellow named Wakefield Tolbert has been carrying on something of an argument with @bdul muHib on the comments section of the post about homeschooling. I say "something of an argument" because it's very difficult to track what exactly Wakefield is talking about. I challenge someone to summarize his arguments for him into some concise, coherent form. Anyway, when challenged about the impenetrability of his writing he dismissed @bdul and myself by associating us with the "liberal chimpanzees" over at I will freely admit to being a liberal, and this isn't the first time my opinions have been wholly discounted for it, but in the context of this new talking point about this being a center-right country, I want to know what "liberal" means to conservatives, what conservatism means in the wake of the Bush presidency, and where this notion of center-right comes from.

This is a genuine question. Bill Bishop, in his excellent blog during the election titled "The Big Sort", explained very convincingly that we choose our politics as a consequence of our lifestyles, and, more and more, we are moving to live near people like us; hence the political and geographical polarization in our country. Bishop referenced some study that showed that conservatives are better at understanding where liberals are coming from than vice-versa. At first I frowned at that. We're liberals. We're touchy-feely. We like to understand other points of view. So how is it we can't understand our conservative neighbors as well as they understand us? But the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that it's true, at least in my case. I just can't wrap my mind around the apparent contradictions I see coming from the conservative side, and I fail to see those same contradictions on my own side of the fence. So I'm asking for help.

To keep things relatively simple, let's see if we can even agree on definitions. Conservatives, going back to Buckley, figured out that they needed to distill their vision down to ten words. Those were:

Strong Defense
Free Markets
Lower Taxes
Smaller Government
Family Values

George Lakoff proposed these ten words as the progressive values:

Stronger America
Broad Prosperity
Better Future
Effective Government
Mutual Responsibility

I think those are both pretty decent summaries of the values upon which conservatives and liberals base their policy proposals, but I'm sure we could quibble about the wording, and I'd have no problem with that, because these small, nuance difference have huge consequences. Think this is just semantics? Think about the difference in opinion when you ask people what they think about estate taxes on the wealthy vs. death taxes on business owners. Or torture vs. enhanced interrogation techniques.

When I look at the list of values, I can see why liberals like me are so pissed off at Bush. He has not made America stronger in the world by any measure. Prosperity has grown only among the tiniest sliver at the top. Our future looks much bleaker than it did eight years ago. Our government has proven itself to be woefully incompetent on a number of fronts. And some Americans are paying very heavy tolls for all Bush's mistakes (too many have paid the ultimate price) while others have only been asked to do a bit more shopping. For a liberal, his record is dismal.

But how do conservatives see it? Bush, according to every military expert I've read, has stretched our military to the breaking point, all the while ratcheting up our need for military strength in the world, making us that much more vulnerable. His emphasis on free markets not only showed the dangers of deregulation, but then he abandoned those principles to bail out the banking industry. He lowered taxes on the wealthy, but did so while growing the federal deficit to such a degree that it's not really a tax cut but a differed tax increase on the next generation that will put every tax increase ever proposed by any other president to shame by comparison. He created the single largest bureaucracy in the history of the federal government in the form of Homeland Security, and oversaw that greatest expansion in the size of the federal government of any president. He appears to have stuck to his guns on issues of family values, but this has shown in stark relief that these family values are focused almost exclusively on limiting gay rights and protecting the unborn: Even Bush's greatest accomplishment in office, his increase in aid to Africa, is mitigated by the fact that he stipulated that none of the money could go to clinics which provided abortion or even contraception. For those of us who think decisions like these are best made between a woman, her doctor, and her God, Bush's insertion of his own agenda into women's health decisions in the third world means his definition of family values is very... focused. Add to this an elective war where as many as a million Americans and Iraqis have died, a million members of families lost in a war that didn't need to happen, and this definition of family values strikes us liberals as completely vacuous. But what do conservatives think?

And here's the thing; while the conservative talking heads keep saying this is a center-right country, on almost every issue I can think of, the polling data doesn't back them up. Most Americans believe a woman should have a right to make her own reproductive health choices. Most Americans think this war was wrong. Most Americans think the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina showed them to be inept. Most Americans think that the government should be doing more to help people suffering during this economic downturn (pro-Broad Prosperity) but are infuriated by the way it bailed out Wall Street (showing they're also pro-Free Markets, with limits). Most Americans want their government to provide more oversight of the financial sector.

Jon Stewart challenged a conservative guest on just this point (I think it was Mike Huckabee), arguing that the history of the United States has been one of slow but inexorable progress away from bigotry and aristocracy toward pluralism and inclusiveness. When conservatives say this is still a center-right country, are they just referencing our tendency to move toward social progress at a very slow pace? If so, then isn't conservatism just associating itself with every kind of prejudice and backward attitude we've had to struggle so hard to put behind us? What am I not seeing which will help me understand conservatism?

And what is it I don't see about liberalism which dictates that a conservative can apply that label to me and dismiss everything I have to say? What can a conservative see, that I can't, which would explain such antipathy toward liberalism?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

And... Exhale.

This will sound schizophrenic, but after staying quiet about some depression for weeks, I'm currently listening to Barack Obama in a podcast of Stephonopolus' "This Week", and I'm already feeling better. I don't think Obama is some kind of messiah, and I know he will disappoint me many times over the next four years, but just having a president who can speak articulately and intelligently about his policy proposals is such a dramatic change from the last eight years of "Bring it on", "Stay the course", Heckuva'-job-ruining-the-country style of leadership, it's such a relief to know things will be better, not perfect, not ideal, but better, that my spirits are lifted.

Depression Confession

I'm writing this in church, but later I'll post it to the blog; the traditional place of confession meets the modern, the holy meets the tacky.

I've been depressed since Christmas. The pneumonia probably didn't set a great tone for the year, and the outbreak of new fighting in Gaza hardly lifts the spirits. Frankly, missing worship at my own church on Christmas Eve due to an ice storm didn't help. But some time has passed, and these explanations aren't enough to justify my depression.

So let me confess: In two areas of my life, the better I'm getting, the further I get from good enough. The calendar year has turned over, I've finished another revolution around the sun, and these artificial goalposts I've chosen are now just a bit further from my fingertips.

One of these goals is the publication of the novels I write. Why should that be so important to me? I wonder if anyone has done any research on the relationship between the ages at which we choose our arbitrary, external goals and the power they hold over us. I'd bet that part of the reason publishing has such a hold on me is precisely because I started so young, writing my first full length novel at 14. Sure, it was crappy, but the experience provided space to fabricate this elaborate fantasy of how my life would be when people were finally reading books I'd written. As I've grown the fantasy has eroded, except for the hard pit at its center; I would be happy and fulfilled. Now, both as a hobbyist and as a teacher of creative writing, I have the time and means to work on my craft. My writing improves with every revision. I'm getting better. But every set-back, every rejection, every second guess of each word in that ineffective query letter pushes that goal off just a bit further. This becomes my dream deferred.

As challenging as that might be, sitting in secret in front of my computer on a Friday night, it only punctuates a week where I wade in these deferred dreams. Just as I hone my writing craft, as a teacher I'm polishing my courses, tweaking my lessons, refining my delivery. But it seems my students are less and less motivated. I try to tell myself this is a product of my own age; the human impulse toward conservatism and despair that compels us to dismiss the next generation as lazy, immoral, in every way inferior to our own. I won't buy into that. I'm too liberal, I suppose, adhering too much to Kennedy's axiom that "We have come too far, we have sacrificed too much, to disdain the future now." I refuse to blame the kids completely, but I do think they've been inundated by a consumerist culture that tells them their futures will be provided, shrink wrapped and deeply discounted, by the local big-box store. It's my job, in part, to teach them that they will have to work harder and yearn for greater things, or they will find themselves trapped in a kind a caste misery they can't yet appreciate. But I can't seem to manage. Now, as our economy slips into the full depths of the Bush Depression, I'm so fearful for these kids. In years past I worried because they incorrectly expected that they could achieve their parents' lifestyle with only their parents' level of education. Now it's going to be so much worse for them. I don't know how to convey that to them. And if I despair because of my ambition toward a fantasy, am I fit to push them to dream?

And now the next stage of a confession: The guilt. What right do I have to feel depressed? My marriage is happy, my son is wonderful, I have a roof over my head, my belly is full... How presumptuous to even allow myself these feelings. On an intellectual level, I know one doesn't earn the right to an irrational state. Paige, who is getting her masters in counseling, assures me there's no reason to feel guilty about feeling depressed. Still, just as I developed a neurotic sense that publishing would make me feel fulfilled, I also learned that one should not complain of hunger when children are starving in Africa, and, by extension, that one shouldn't complain of depression when the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.

Of course, I'm not catholic, so I wasn't taught to keep it in the confessional booth, and my parents weren't Nostradamus, so I wasn't taught not to blog about it. So I have the guilt, but I still broadcast the confession.

And Paige is right about this, too; it does feel good to get it out.

Nine days left of the Bush administration. Maybe my depression will lift soon.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Don't blame "Religion"

I haven't blogged in a bit because I've been sick. I didn't realize how sick, but it turns out I have pneumonia. It is unpleasant.

I thought about complaining about my condition, but considering what's going on in the world, my pneumonia seems a bit paltry.

Then I received an email today from someone on one of the various Obama list-serves I got onto during the election, claiming that the situation was intractable, but simple to understand. Muslims, Christians, and Jews all want to live in Isreal and won't move away, so they will fight about it forever because, this person claimed, religion causes all the wars in the world. Moreover, without religion this person said there would be no war.

That, I felt, demanded a response.

I'm sorry, but that's just one of the most patently ridiculous things I've ever heard. Without religion there would be no war? Really? You know, Stalin was an atheist. Hitler specifically wrote that his issues with Jews did not have to do with their religion but with what he considered to be something deficient in them as detected by the rational science of his day. I'm not going to defend all world religions, or any of them, for that matter. Many are expressly violent, and many others are used as a pretext by powerful people to motivate followers to carry out violence. But people find lots of reasons to fight; scarcity of land, of water, of goods, old-fashioned human rage. It's insulting when religious people condescend to non-religious people, judging their behavior based on religious schema the non-religious person does not hold. But it's also insulting when non-religious people condescend to religious people, treating them all as ignorant yahoos or worse, responsible for all the wars in the world. So let's avoid both kinds of ignorant rhetoric, if possible.

The situation between Palestine and Israel is incredibly complex. The countries aren't religiously homogeneous. The people of both countries do not have universal feelings about their governments' actions. These Muslims, Christians, and Jews the writer mentioned already all do live in Israel, and already all do live in Palestine. This is not a clear-cut religious war. The internal political realities inside both Israel and Palestine should not be ignored by our media, who like to talk about the conflict as though it's a two-sided sports match. There are wheels within wheels here. One interesting example: I heard a tidbit that the rockets Hamas has been launching were nearing the range to hit Israel's nuclear reactor where they have been making their nukes (unofficially) for decades. To what degree is the defense of civilians a pretext to defend a military instillation against future attack should those rockets gain greater range and accuracy? We'll never know, nor will the parents of the people who die on both sides of the conflict. So if the war is so complicated the Israelis and Palestinians don't fully know why they are fighting, we shouldn't try to dismiss the whole explanation with a single word: "Religion."

We oversimplify at our own expense.