Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Poem: The Kind of Teacher

I was inspired to write a little poem during school today. I'm sure it would have been much better if I hadn't been forced to wait until my prep period to write it down. This certainly is not about any great lesson I taught today, but I wish it were.

The Kind of Teacher

When class begins
I can see the skepticism
The loll of tired heads
Eyes rolling
Maybe a sneer.

At my best,
I can earn a nod
Acknowledgement of time well spent.
Maybe a thoughtful “Huh.”
Occasionally a “Whoa.”

Of course the class ends with
My obligatory thanks for their attention
Wishes for a good day
Reminders about pending assignments

But if I were the kind of teacher I want to be
All the classes would crescendo
With that moment of realization
Where a teenage skepticism is breached
Punctured by some uncool grownup insight.

And I would look them in the eyes
Unrolling eyes
Attentive, expectant eyes
And shout,
“So There!”

Okay, so I know it's not the greatest poem in the world. But then, the greatest song in the world isn't the greatest, either (see below). I guess this poem is a tribute to the poem about teaching I wanted to write. I think teachers will get it, though.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Debate About the Hatred, Intolerance, and Misogyny in the Religious Right

My friend Scott, commenting on my dissemination of an article critical of the role the Religious Right is playing in our country's politics, challenged the assertion that the Religious Right is hateful or intolerant. He acknowledged the zealotry of fringe elements, but challenged the notion that the mainstream of the Religious Right is hateful or intolerant. This is an excellent illustration of a kind of inside-the-bubble thinking that is causing the conservative movement to lose touch with the American mainstream.

I do not believe that right-wing evangelicals, conservative Catholics, conservative Mormons, or conservative Jews hate gay people. I don't think they hate African Americans or Hispanics. I don't think they hate women. But if they can't see that their marriage to the Republican Party and its platform will cause them to be associated with policies that are hurtful to those groups, they will not be able to build a winning coalition on a national level.

Back in the days of slavery, masters did not necessarily hate their slaves. Even in the days of Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws, conservatives who wanted to "preserve traditional marriage" did not necessarily hate black people. Now, I know these examples will immediately infuriate conservatives who don't want to be compared to slaveholders or racists. I'm certainly not saying that opposing gay marriage or immigration reform are one-to-one equivalents to slavery. But the comparison is fair in the sense that modern conservatives look back at that kind of racism and see it as hateful and intolerant, but cannot see their own policies in the way they will be perceived by the effected parties now, or by the way they will be viewed by our grandchildren in generations to come.

To the gay couple who wants to be married, the personal feelings of a right-wing Christian are irrelevant. The policies advocated by the Religious Right are themselves hurtful. Furthermore, because they are based on a view that an important part of a gay person's self-identity is immoral, the policy is hateful.

To the Mexican-American (or any other Latino mistaken for a Mexican American), policies of self-deportation that cause them to be harassed, that cause employers to hesitate when considering them for employment, that cause them to worry that their government is going to be rounding up millions of people who look and speak like them and send them over the border... These concerns are far more relevant than the personal feelings of the religious conservative. The objective fact that vitriol towards Mexican immigrants has led to a dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes directed at Mexican Americans, regardless of their documentation, is far more real and immediate than some distant pastor's hedging from the pulpit about how we should love our brothers and sisters while trying to round some of them up in cattle cars and send them over the border.

To a woman who is told that, if she is raped and decides not to keep that child, God wanted that to happen (or at least allowed it, though it's an unfortunate tragedy), that good can come from that pregnancy, that because someone else believes this she has no choice in the matter, and that her rape probably wasn't really rape since she allowed herself to get pregnant, that right-wing evangelical's love for her is less than meaningful. More insidiously, when she’s told she doesn’t need any legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to assure her a chance to get into the courthouse if she’s discriminated against because she can depend on the goodwill of CEOs, she knows she’s being dismissed. And when she’s told that her desire for birth control makes her a slut, and her desire to have a health clinic nearby which offers affordable medical services is unacceptable if that facility also offers abortions, she knows her concerns are not valued. Finally, when she’s told that the religious affiliation of her employer trumps her own judgment about what healthcare she needs, she knows the party defending some religious board members does not care about her. That’s hurtful. And the notion that she can’t evaluate these things properly because she’s a woman, and a man or a group of men should get to decide is a textbook example of misogyny. (Oh, and then there's this.)

As for intolerance, not only is the religious right intolerant, but it should be. Intolerance is not always wrong, and tolerance is not always a virtue. Religions get to be intolerant. Furthermore, they get to be intolerant regardless of popular opinion. If a religion dictates that abortion in a sin, it should refuse to tolerate it within its own membership. While American Christianity is busy pulling that mote out of its own eye (because there are a lot of Christians who have had abortions) it might also want to take a hard look at Jesus’ teachings about wealth. He wasn’t a big fan. I would be very interested to see how the Religious Right would implement a systematic intolerance of the service of Mammon within its own ranks.

The problem with the Religious Right's intolerance isn’t that it’s drawing lines in the sand and deciding to take a stand based on its particular interpretation of scripture. That’s the prerogative, if not the responsibility, of religions. The problem is where they’ve drawn those lines. Nations states also have a responsibility to be intolerant to some degree, but they must look to a different authority than a religion. While people of faith can look to a text or a religious leader to tell them what or who to tolerate and what or who not to tolerate, democratic governments must look to their voters. In this country, that means the government will be responsive to Christianity in proportion to the voting habits of Christians and non-Christians. But the Religious Right has so wedded itself to the Republican Party that it dictates the party’s platform. Even that is fine. If a large enough constituency of any party draws its lines based on a shared religion or principles which join the members of its party, that party’s platform should reflect those principles. The problem pointed out by the article is that the Religious Right’s principles are out of step with Biblical Christianity and the American electorate.

Now, since I’m no longer a Christian, I can’t really weigh in on the debate about the principles of the Republican Party and their relationship to Biblical Christianity. When I was a Christian, they didn’t seem to fit the Bible I was reading. I’d hear the claims made by religious figures speaking in the name of the religion I claimed, and, no matter what translation they cited, I felt like they were reading a completely different book. I kept on trying to redefine Christianity, pushing back against the right-wing version I couldn’t square with the version of Jesus I found in the Gospels. More and more, I felt like I was saying, “I claim the label X, but I redefine it as Y. X means something completely different for me, but I hold on to it and believe all those who don’t accept Y are wrong.” People who do this are either dynamic leaders who move organizations to their positions, or they are crazy people. I felt overwhelmed, and it pushed me out of a feeling of brotherhood with the larger Church, or at least the American variety. I stuck around because I attended a wonderful church (shout out to the greatest congregation and greatest pastoral staff in the world at Newberg Friends). Eventually I abandoned the claim to the label for theological reasons. (To be more precise, it was for epistemological reasons.) The loss of a firm belief in an all-mighty deity and in an afterlife, and my reluctant embrace of agnosticism, was quite a blow. The loss of my congregation still hurts. But losing the broader American church? No skin off my nose. They kicked me out. Or maybe I pulled away. Ultimately, that’s six of one or a half a dozen of the other. If the church would recognize the kind of loving, tolerant Christianity described by Frank Schaeffer in the article in question, I think that would be great for our country. That’s why I posted a link to the piece in the first place. Whether it would be good for Christianity is now a debate from which I have recused myself.

But Schaeffer’s second point, that the Religious Right’s positions are out of touch with the American mainstream, is clearly true. When polled, Americans do favor comprehensive immigration reform over policies of forced or self-deportation. We have come around when it comes to gay marriage. And we want to leave reproductive choices up to individual women, especially in cases of incest and rape, which means the Republican Party’s stated platform (not just some fringe kooks’ poorly worded statements in debates) is out of touch. And while the conservatives convince themselves that they are not in the thrall of the Religious Right because they nominated a (conservative) Mormon, their willful ignorance of the way their policies will be received by the American mainstream aren’t just a lesson for religious leaders who want to be politically relevant, but for the whole conservative movement. Conservatism, according to William F. Buckley, is the political philosophy that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop[.]” Unfortunately, in marrying itself to right wing Christianity, it’s held hands with people who demanded that it stop in a place where the majority of the country does not want to be. It can stand there and reject the idea that it’s hateful and intolerant all it wants, but if the majority of the country says that’s a hateful and intolerant stand to take, the conservative movement will soon find itself standing on the fringe, trying to redefine the term “American” as the vast majority of Americans wander off toward progress, shaking their heads and shrugging about the crazy guys they are leaving behind. Trust me. I know how that feels.

William F. Buckley also warned that, “Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” As a progressive liberal who wants a great deal of change, I firmly believe in the value of conservatives. We need the intellectual counterweight to make us stop and consider and we push toward progress, even if it means we push more slowly. But, as they protect the status quo, if the conservative movement can’t recognize that its intransigence will open itself up to charges of hatefulness, intolerance, and misogyny until the day when we achieve a society devoid of systematic injustice, that’s a kind of intellectual sloth that will prevent them from doing the job this country needs them to do. The degree to which those charges of hatefulness, intolerance, and misogyny stick relates to the movement’s willingness to shift its priorities and focus, but ultimately it’s just not up to them. When America wants to move, it will move.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Please Abandon the Myth of the Center-Right Nation

Over the next few days, if you pay attention to the election post-game show, you will inevitably hear them use the phrase “Center-Right Nation.” They will use it to explain why Obama won. They will use it to explain why Romney lost. They will use it to explain that Obama won in spite of this fact. They will use it to explain that Romney lost in spite of this fact.

But it’s not a fact. It’s not even a lie, per se. It’s just label devoid of context. It’s only a myth in the sense that some Greek deity is a myth, a character who doesn’t really exist interacting within a pantheon that doesn’t really exist. Except that’s being too generous, because there might be a Zeus or an Athena, and they might live on a Mount Olympus somewhere. “Center-Right,” without some context, doesn’t mean anything, anywhere.

So, every time you hear a pundit use the phrase, shout at your television. Scream, “BS!” or “Bollocks!” or “Cockamamie malarkey!” (if you’re Joe Biden).  Flip your TV the bird. Take off a shoe and throw it at the set. Tweet #CallinBullshit and tell people what network is still floating this garbage. But whatever you do, don’t let this slide.

Here’s how you know it’s a lie: Imagine someone was trying to give you driving directions. They told you to go down three blocks, turn left on Monroe St., and find the third house on your left, the one with the red door and the white fence, with the number 7597 on the mailbox. You could get there, right? Now imagine they told you to drive three blocks down to the ocean, then make a right heading south down the coast, and look for a houseboat that isn’t tied to the docks. The boat is adrift in a moving sea, it changes its distance from the shore based on the tide, and it’s generally headed north. It was last seen in your town about five presidencies ago. Do you honestly expect to find it there now, just because they waved vaguely in the direction of the ocean and told you to go to the “Center-Right”? No. Freakin’. Way.

My analogy is actually an oversimplification. If the houseboat is America and it is drifting slowly to the north on a changing political sea, the analogy implies that at least the land is fixed and you have control over your own position on that fixed ground. In fact, there’s an active earthquake fault line in that area and you have a sever inner ear condition. We can only know the position of the boat relative to where the land used to be, and we can only interpret that in relation to which way our ear is causing us to lean that day. Now, can you honestly say the boat will consistently be found in the “Center-Right” of this universe?

I’ve tried to give these pundits the benefit of the doubt. (My wife says that’s a bad habit of mine.) If the statement is meaningful, maybe they are referring to some kind of global political spectrum in which the U.S. is near the middle, but slightly to the right, of the other countries in the world. This just doesn’t add up, though. We’re to the right of many countries, but their politics are in flux. For example, countries in Europe have institutions like national health services which imply they are more left-wing than we are. However, these same countries, when faced with almost identical economic pressures during our most recent housing collapse and the ensuing recession, chose austerity programs that were far more right-wing than anything our citizens would have tolerated. While they slashed government spending, we developed a Tea Party that quickly grew to focus on social issues and which succeeded only in knocking moderate Republicans out of their primaries, thus ensuring the passage of Obamacare and a Democratic majority in the Senate that could make sure it wouldn’t go away even if Mitt Romney won the presidential election. In short, our response has been more left wing, and not because of our President, but because our right-wingers couldn’t capture a majority in a time when a left-wing program was being enacted.  In relation to Europe, America had a left-wing response.

For that matter, why do we measure our political spectrum on a continuum that stretches from the Netherlands on the left to Saudi Arabia on the right? I was under the impression that comparing ourselves to the modern countries of the “Old World,” or to any foreign country, was somehow un-American. 

Still trying to give these pundits the benefit of the doubt, I imagined they were putting modern America in a historical context, somewhere between Mussolini’s Italy on the right and Mao’s People’s Republic on the left. But this historical model doesn’t work, either. Most positions held by modern Americans related to the enfranchisement of voters, the role of government in public life, and the relationship between the state and religion, for example, would all have been considered wildly left-wing at some point in history. Women and minorities voting? Crazy liberal idea. Religious pluralism and tolerance? Nutso liberal. Public libraries and schools? Left-wing extremism. But America didn’t normalize these ideas through a left-wing revolution (well, maybe we normalized the liberal idea of voting rather than obeying a king through a left-wing revolution, and maybe we ended slavery through an incredibly bloody civil war, but most of the mainstreaming of these liberal ideas happened more peacefully and more slowly). Now these ideas aren’t liberal. They are the norm. Not only did the country drift on a slow tide toward a more inclusive, tolerant, and activist political structure, but the culture shifted around these ideas. Furthermore, we are products of that culture, so we moved around in that cultural milieu, such that a woman could run as a vice-presidential candidate and not think of her candidacy as the product of a million liberal victories. From where she was standing, she felt like a conservative (and looked like it to the rest of us). 

American can’t be “Center-Right,” because wherever America is, that’s its center currently. A few years ago, the political center was firmly opposed to gay marriage. Karl Rove was able to use it as a wedge issue to get his base to the polls and put George W. Bush into the White House. But that wasn’t a center-right position. That won. It was the center. As of last night, gay marriage is winning. It is becoming the center. Does that mean we’re a “Center-Left” nation? No. In thirty or forty years, our children will be standing on different ground, looking out at a different sea, leaning whichever way their inner-ear conditions cause them to lean, but I would bet good money that if they are told where the houseboat of America sailed back in 2012, they’d say it was a far-right position wherein only a few states allowed gay marriage, something that will be so normal they won’t even consider it up for public debate. 

In one last, desperate attempt to believe the TV blowhards were using a term that meant something, I considered the possibility that they were speaking about the rate of change Americans generally find tolerable. Maybe they mean we keep moving that center to the left, but we do so slowly because we’ve got some kind of right-wing ideology written into our genetic code. Our history doesn’t bare that idea out, either. Sometimes the boat moves quickly, as it has with gay marriage. Sometimes the boat moves very slowly. Slavery lasted for hundreds of years in North America, and it was followed by Jim Crow. Even with a second term African-American President, we still carry the vestiges of deep seeded racism within our culture. It’s not the law anymore. It’s not a basis for public policy. It’s not even socially acceptable for the majority of Americans. But it’s not gone. On that front, we’ve moved very slowly to the left. Our national xenophobia has refocused on people from different countries of origin as every passing generation tried to burn the bridges behind them by calling the next wave of immigrants an unfair burden on the system. In that way, the ocean stays in place and the land moves. We go back and forth from isolationism to the flexing of military muscle like we’re riding the tides. Religious minorities go from cults to the mainstream in waves. But at every point, whether we’re isolationists who are concerned about Catholic Irish Immigrants or hawks slamming the doors on Mexicans and looking down our noses at Scientologists, that’s not left or right. It’s just the center. 

As of yesterday, America picked a guy who some portion of the population consider a socialist. Does that make us a “Center-Left” nation? Oh, and as of last night, he was still African American.  Does electing a black guy still qualify as a left-wing idea? We didn’t elect the Mormon guy. Does that make us right-wing evangelicals?  And we’re still about as polarized as we were going into the Civil War. Does that mean the Union and the Confederacy met in the middle and were all centrists? 

Labeling our whole country as “Center-Right,” is meaningless, and worse, it’s creates a false picture that whatever is right-wing today hold some kind of sway over the national psyche. If anything, our country is Progressive, but it’s making progress in fits and starts toward some far off goal that we haven’t defined and which won’t fall neatly into our current definitions of right and left. 

Elections tell us where we are. Pundits who try to tell us that we are, at our core, somewhere to the right or left of that position are invariably wrong. You aren’t to the left or right of where you sit reading this right now. America isn’t to the left or right of itself, either.