Category Archives: politics

On This September 12th

The headline on September 12th from the New York Times

I actually started composing something a week ago about September 11th, reminiscing about that day and the general mood of the country prior to the attack on the World Trade Center.  As I paid attention to some 9/11 coverage during the past week, I was reminded of what the country was actually like, and that I was really viewing it with rose-colored glasses.  Hey, I was a sophomore in college; I’d only just started paying attention to the world around me.

Thus, instead, I reflect on September 12th, or really, the initial days that followed September 11th.

Much like the JFK assassination and the generation(s) before me that were actually alive at that time, I remember exactly what I was doing at the time it all happened.  I was in my dorm room and had just gotten up to read my Yahoo! News feed and see that a plane of some type had hit the first tower.  I woke up my roommate and turned on CNN just in time to watch the second plane hit the second tower.  On live television.

What followed over the next few hours, and few days, and few weeks, was a series of feelings.  Confusion.  Fear.  Shock.

Then Focus.

Then Togetherness.

Then Direction.

This country went through a terrible tragedy and, from it, came a sense of direction that it hadn’t had in awhile.  My initial blog post was looking to those years before 9/11, and that it was a time that I wish we could all return to.  However, in many ways, the country was already on a downward spiral of divisiveness, with the Lewinsky Scandal and Impeachment proceedings in the news.  With a Dot Com Bubble bursting.  With a Housing Crisis already in the works.

Really, a decade on, I’d like us all to reflect on where we were 10 years ago today, rather than 10 years ago yesterday.  Sure, yesterday was incredibly important and it is equally important that all those lives were lost.  At the same time, I think it’s essential that we remember how much of the country actually came together for a common purpose.  Eventually, that purpose was misdirected toward other political goals.  That purpose was used to divide the country even further than it’s ever been, certainly in my lifetime.  And today, on September 12, 2011, we are about as divided as we could be.

But on September 12, 2001, we were all together.  In grief.  In searching.  In wondering.

Yet also, in a desire to root out evil.  A need to be together in service to our communities.  To be together in solidarity and in support of our firefighters, policemen and EMTs, but also in support of each other.

Case in point: I read on Facebook that over 100 people from our church in St. Louis went to East St. Louis to be in service to others on September 10th as part of the Serve 2011 project.  That’s the kind of feeling we should be getting from 9/11.  Not only focusing on the attack itself, but also on the need to better ourselves that followed for the first few days and weeks after it.  The thing that was designed to tear us apart that actually helped bring us together, even if only for a few short moments.  Where we weren’t rich, poor, black, white, man or woman: we were just American.  And we were all the same.

And that’s what we need to work toward finding again, 10 years later.  Ten years after September the 12th.

What “The American People” Want

I’ve been paying attention to this fight over the debt ceiling to an extent.  Not a huge one, not a small one: just “an extent.”  I certainly have my view on the subject (i.e. make some cuts to entitlements, raise revenues on the top 5%), but that’s not what this particular post is about.

This is about the mythical “American People.”

I listen to NPR’s “On Point” program on a regular basis and, on more than one occasion, they’ve had politicians on talking about what “The American People” want.  They apparently want a balanced budget.  They want the government to act just like a family does.  They want Big Business to pay their fair share.  They want to be Pro-Life.  They want to be Pro-Choice.  They want to lower taxes.

Where are these people?

Frequently, when politicians talk about “The American People,” they’re talking about The Majority.  They fail to mention that The Majority only represents 51% of the actual voting population of America: there’s another 49% that’s statistically just as big.

With regards to the debt ceiling, let me just go ahead and summarize what the actual American People want for those politicians that apparently don’t know:

  1. They want their social security to stay the same.
  2. They want their medicare/medicaid to stay the same.
  3. They don’t want more taxes.
  4. They don’t want wasteful government programs.
  5. They want roads, bridges, police, fire fighters, clean water and constant electricity.
  6. They want a job they like.
  7. They want to be paid more than they’re currently getting.
  8. They want to buy the stuff they want with the money they make from the job they have.
  9. They want their kids to go to good schools and get the education they want.
  10. They want to live the lives they want to without the government interfering (or their neighbor, for that matter).

There are probably more things I could list, but this is a good start.  The American People just want things to continue going as they are, or to go better.  They don’t want things to change, unless they will get better.  “The American People” that most politicians seem to be talking about don’t actually exist, except in the polls they use to win their election.

I’m getting a little tired of “The American People.”  I want The American People back.

Roddenberrian Economics

Ayn Rand is someone I’ve heard of in the past, but up until now, haven’t really paid much attention to.  I “got into it” with someone over Facebook a few weeks ago regarding “Randian disciples” and learned a bit more about her in the process.  Then, at the end of April, NPR’s On Point had a discussion about her, specifically with reference to the Tea Party.  The architect of the Republican Congress’ budget plan, Paul Ryan, has referenced her on multiple occasions.  There is also a movie out, “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” which was released in a partial attempt to capitalize on her resurgence, though Rotten Tomatoes currently has the film sitting at around 9% positive ratings.

Rand grew up in Russia and moved to the United States in 1926.  She was a philosopher and writer, and is perhaps best known for her books, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” both products of the mid-20th Century.  Due in part to her upbringing and the general climate in the post-World War II world, she embraced the concepts of Objectivism and was very much a rational individualist.  She opposed in Collectivism, an idea that contributes to Socialism and Communism.  Because of her beliefs, and the stories she told in her books, fiscal Conservatives, and especially Libertarians, have embraced her and in some ways treat her as a figurehead for their ideas.  Alan Greenspan was one of the founding members of Rand’s ironically named “Collective,” a group of close confidants and proponents of Objectivism.

The key idea behind her overall philosophy, as I understand it, is that it is wrong to take what is one person’s and give it to someone else.  That the purpose of one’s life is to pursue your own personal happiness and your own self-interest.  One could call this whole idea “Randian Economics.”  Or, as she puts it:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Any of you that know me, however, would have another quote come to mind.  Something completely different, and the antithesis of this philosophy, in my view:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

- Spock

“Or the one.”

- James T. Kirk

Which brings me to Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek (pictured atop the camera in the image above).  I won’t go into the history behind all of it, but let’s just say that if I were going to choose a side between one philosopher from the mid-20th Century and another, I’ll go with Roddenberry.  His vision of the future is one that I’d like to live in.  One where money is not the driving force for all we do.  Where the desires to serve humanity and all others surpass the desire to serve yourself.  Where humans recognize that they are only able to be more than themselves when they are together with others.  Where no one human is above anyone else, at least in terms of rights and respect.

Bear in mind that these ideas weren’t necessarily revolutionary in the 1960s, but they weren’t made publicly available on television often, either.  At the time, it was highly irregular to have a Japanese American man, an African American woman, and a guy playing a young Russian on the same bridge, serving together, working together, helping each other.  Roddenberry infused his fictional universe with hope for the future through Collectivism, where we all share what we have and work together toward a common good.

And so, I wish to coin the term “Roddenberrian Economics.”  I think we’d all be better off if we took some pointers from the man.

Heck, I’d even argue that Gene Roddenberry has more followers than Ayn Rand does.

Lonely In The Middle

The last few weeks have presented a variety of issues within the American national discourse that warrant commentary, but I’ll let that aside right now and focus on something a bit more “meta” to the situation: how, exactly, we as members of society communicate with each other.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook on two unrelated subjects.  On the first, I stated the following:

Andy Linsenbardt wants help with a list of bands or groups worse than Coldplay. The only one I can come up with so far is LFO.

That status update started a discussion spanning 96 comments across 10 or so people.  I followed it up with this:

For those that don’t want to read through the 89 comments in my previous status posting, the following was decided, after much deliberation: ICP < Nickelback < Creed < Coldplay.

On the other side of the coin, for a completely separate issue, I posted a story published by the Des Moines Register regarding abortion laws in Nebraska and how a particular couple were forced to do something they didn’t want to.  The feed this post spawned went for 51 comments across 7 or 8 people.

In both of these unrelated discussions, involving many individuals of completely different ideologies, we were able to “hold it together” and not get (too) personal.  We were completely capable of providing opinions without the need to tell each other that we were bad people or completely wrong (well, aside from the occasional sarcastic comment in that first thread…).  For the most part, it was a respectful discussion from ranging viewpoints.  On the latter discussion, I don’t think we came to anything close to a consensus, yet I feel we left more informed on the opposing viewpoints.

While the first status update was largely a “dig” at Coldplay (much-deserved…), I wasn’t thinking that I’d get nearly that many comments.

On the latter one, I kinda did, which brings me to the following point:

I think the thing missing most from the national discourse today is honesty and openness, especially from those positioned in The Middle.  There are quite a few folks out there on the political ultra-right or ultra-left that have their signs waving on the picket line, the so-called “activists” you could say.  These people are being very successful in pulling their ranks further and further from each other, making it appear that there is only a very distant “middle-ground” left between them.

It’s just sad when Facebook is the last bastion of reasonable discourse.

I won’t get into the abortion debate here or anything, but it’s safe to say that, aside from the folks out there with “Pro-Choice” and “Pro-Life” signs going on marches, the issue is frequently ignored in the middle.  I think it’s mostly out of fear, as those in the middle are afraid of being labeled one or the other, and what that may mean.  It’s the kind of issue we frequently ignore in schools.  Going to Lutheran and Methodist churches all my life, it’s an issue that’s frequently ignored there, as well.  It just seems as if there isn’t really a middle ground in that particular debate, let alone a variety of others.  People are afraid of the subject.  They keep it locked away.

In a related fashion, all too often, I hear of people not wanting to say anything about politics, or about religion, or about culture, because they are afraid of offending friends of theirs, or of “getting into it” to the point where they may not end up speaking with someone for a few days (or weeks…or ever again…).  These are people that don’t want to bring it up around the dinner table with their spouse, or with other family members.  Those that don’t want to bring it up at work so they don’t end up getting into some kind of long argument with their co-workers.  And most relevant to this particular post, those that don’t want to post anything on Facebook or other social networking sites so their friends (or future employers…) can’t see what they think about various issues.

And therein lies the problem.  If people aren’t willing to defend their positions, with intelligence and respect, then those on the ultra-left and those on the ultra-right with their signs will have effectively won.  They will have won by scaring those in the middle away from getting into the debate in the first place.  By causing them to hide from the discussion, keeping the issue from ever reaching any kind of moderate consensus.  Without a voice firmly planted in The Middle, then the opposing sides continue to pull apart with little to hold them together.

The problem is nothing new, and it exists in other instances.  Case in point: Years ago, at a Wesley House float trip, I had a great conversation with a Methodist pastor I greatly respect.  We were lamenting the decreasing population of Methodist campus ministries, while others were increasing in number.  In his view, the other ministries were offering a more “black and white” interpretation of the world, and the Bible, while Methodists (and ELCA, and others…) were allowing for the fact that there are “greys:” that black and white weren’t the only options.  The people we were trying to provide a service for weren’t interested in The Middle: they chose their extremes, likely because they wanted to be told what to think  The Middle, to them, was a scary place to be, a place where you may have to question things, have to think about the world, and have to make decisions.  Picking an extreme, there’s a clear-cut answer: you accept it and move on.

On a political spectrum, I technically fall center-left.  I’m a Moderate, by most interpretations.  But my thoughts on a variety of subjects, to some, would paint me as an ultra-leftist (because “The Middle” has been pulled more and more toward the Conservative side of the spectrum, but that’s another issue altogether…).

You can position yourself in the middle of an argument and still have strong feelings about it.  It’s possible.  And I try to do it all the time.

Accepting Religious Curiosity in Context

I was catching up on NPR’s “On Point” from February 16th, where Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Richard Watts, author of various books, the most recent of which is “Hungers of the Heart: Spirituality and Religion for the 21st Century.” The entire podcast is worth listening to, but toward the end, Watts and Ashbrook got into some interesting territory.  In general, Watts is very interested in “the historical Jesus,” looking at the man and historical record and the context in which the Bible was written, as opposed to focusing on what could be considered the more “mystical” aspects of the Bible.  We pick up this transcript as Tom Ashbrook is reading a comment off the internet:

Ashbrook: “…but then here’s Elmridge who says of you ‘but he is denying the divinity of Jesus.’  What about that, Rev. Watts?”

Watts: “Well, one of the things we need to do is we always need to read texts in context.  When we don’t do that we get into big trouble.  Now, for example, if I tell you that there’s…that I know someone in the first century that’s called ‘divine,’ ‘the son of god,’ and ‘the savior,’ you know, who do you suppose I’m talking about?  Well, most people would say you’re talking about Jesus.  No, I’m talking about Caesar Augustus.  Caesar Augustus received all of those divine titles, and so when Christians talked about Jesus and what they had encountered in his life, they used titles which were very counter-cultural, they were saying, look, if you want to know what life is about, if you want to know what real power is, if you want to know where divinity is, look at this peasant going around talking about creating a new community of compassion and love.  Don’t look for the seat of power for the emperor in Rome.”

Watts: “Christianity in the very beginning, before it was called ‘Christianity,’ Tom [Ashbrook], it was called ‘The Way.’  And it was a way of life.  It was a lifestyle.  It doesn’t mean that lifestyle was devoid of a basis of belief, of course it was, but it was a lifestyle long before it was a creed, and I think we need to get over our hang-up with absolute creeds and get back to the lifestyle, a lifestyle which is non-violent, which is compassionate, which is inclusive, which creates community rather than holding people off at arm’s length.”

There was another interesting exchange later in the podcast.

Ashbrook: “You know very well, as do many other preachers, that the kind of mainline protestant churches that you’re describing that may be most open to this kind of open-minded, liberal conversation, are the ones that have seen their attendance just go through the floor in the last decade.  Now why is that?”

Watts: “Part of that, that’s a great question, and part of the problem is, that, I have to lay at the feet of clergy.  It seems to me that an awful lot of clergy don’t bother to teach the people what they themselves have learned.  And so, people are sort of fundamentalist by default because they, these sorts of questions that you and I are talking about today are not often raised and I know that in mainline churches there are all kinds of people sitting there never receiving permission to raise their questions, never having the opportunity to engage in give-and-take about what their life experience has taught them, or what their life experience has asked them.

Let me tell you a very brief story.  There was a scholar in the Jesus Seminar, which works to uncover the facts about the historical Jesus, that was giving a talk to a group of Missouri Synod Lutherans, a very conservative denomination, and he was talking about New Testament documents, and the document “Q,” which is a lost document of the sayings of Jesus.  And then came time for the question period and he wondered, he felt like Daniel in the lion’s den, and a woman stood up and, instead of addressing the speaker, she turned around to address her preacher in the pew behind her and she said to him, ‘did you know about Q?’ And he said, ‘well, yeah.’  And she said, ‘why didn’t you tell us?’  And I think that’s a very powerful parable, that our churches are full of people that are questioning, who are curious, but who aren’t being adequately taught…”

I won’t write much about this, as the post is already long enough with these transcripts included.  I just wanted to say that this is the kind of thing I like to hear about, the historical context in which the Bible was written, and how that context can help inform what we know and what we don’t know about religion.  Moreover, I think that if there was more of this being taught in our churches today, there would be fewer “black and white” interpretations of what the Bible tells us, and we would all be more accepting of each other.

It’s a shame when pastors and educators shut down the intellectually curious.  We should all be fostering curiosity in ourselves and in our kids in order to better understand where we come from and who we are, rather than asking someone to tell us, and then accepting that information blindly.

Questioning and thoughtful investigation is the way of science.  It should be the way of religion, too.