Friday, December 31, 2010

Religion of War

Remember September 2010? The news stories then were predominantly filled with threats about Americans supposedly under attack from Islam. A proposed Islamic community center in New York City was going to irretrievably disgrace our memorial to 9/11 victims. A media-savvy preacher with 50 congregants in Florida threatened to burn a copy of the Qur’an to protest “godless Islam” – until he accomplished his real goal of international attention. Protests against proposed mosque sites were breaking out around the country – including places where Muslims had been worshipping quietly for years. And, of course, politicians looking for headlines – and their sycophants at Fox News – came out with all kinds of statements that insulted and unnecessarily challenged the religious compassion and tolerance that is part of the best definition of America. Talk about “aiding and abetting the enemy”: we managed to prove that our enemies were exactly right in accusing Americans of being hostile to the Muslim and Arab world.

All of those supposedly relevant and important news stories magically disappeared in the noise of the 2010 midterm elections. But no wonder that they left upwards of 40% of Americans – most of whom have never met a Muslim or read a single word of the Qur’an – distrusting Islam and viewing it as a “religion of war” directed against non-Muslims (and Americans in particular). Who can blame them when we read the following examples of calls to violence from supposedly religious scripture:

1. “They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level with them. So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of God; if they turn back to enmity, then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them. Except those who seek refuge with a people between whom and you there is a covenant, or those who come unto you because their hearts forbid them to make war on you or make war on their own folk. Had God willed He could have given them power over you so that assuredly they would have fought you, So, if they hold aloof from you and wage not war against you and offer you peace, God alloweth you no way against them. Ye will find others who desire that they should have security from you, and security from their own folk. So often as they are returned to hostility they are plunged therein. If they keep not aloof from you, nor offer you peace, nor hold their hands, then take them and kill them wherever you find them. Against such We have given you clear warrant.”

2. “[For the wicked and deceitful who are against me] … let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labor. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out … As he clothed himself with cursing like as his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones ... Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the Lord, and of them that speak evil against my soul.”

3. “… ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: For thou shalt worship no other God; for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

4. “Now when ye meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when ye have routed them, then making fast of bounds, and afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens. That (is the ordinance).”

5. “It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect … I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them: neither did I turn again till they were consumed. I have wounded them that they were not able to rise: they are fallen under my feet. For thou has girded me with strength unto the battle: thou hast subdued under me those that rose up against me. Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me. They cried, but there was none to save them: even unto the Lord, but he answered them not. Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind: I did cast them out as the dirt in the streets.”

These are certainly very violent images, ones that should give all peace-seeking peoples concern. It is understandable that we would reject those who advocate such violence in the name of the religious promotion of one faith over others. Yet exactly who is it that we are to reject?

Examples 1 and 4 above are God’s words through Muhammad in the Qur’an. But examples 2 & 5 are verses from the Psalms, typically portrayed as some of the best poetry to God found in the Old Testament. Example #3 is God’s word through Moses to destroy non-believers. So towards what peoples, what faiths, are we to target our resistance, focus our rejection, marshal our defenses against religious violence?

Virtually all religions were born in violence and persecution, requiring a vigorous defense to survive. Various Hebrew kings, Muhammad, and others fought to birth and nourish their religions. Yet killing and warfare are easily addictive. From such a violent birth, how do we know when it is time to stop fighting, to avoid crossing the line from religious defense into earthly aggression?

Jesus asked us to “love our enemies as ourselves”; God spoke through Muhammad to admonish Muslims to “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.” Yet millions of people have been persecuted and died as local cultures and man’s ego have perverted God’s messages into mankind’s pursuit of wealth, power, geography or revenge for all kinds of self-justified reasons. When we are truly threatened, we must resist such actions upon us. But “As we resist the action, we must still love the person.” (Dalai Lama)

In our religious texts and in our own minds, we can find justification for anything we do if we start with our self-serving intention and work backwards. Any religion – Christian, Jewish, Islam – can be rationalized into violence by a precise selection of code words, fueled by ambition towards personal power. It is in the overriding spirit of our faiths where there is moral consistency across all beliefs – a spirit of unthreatened confidence in all beings, a knowledge that real Truth needs no forced rationalizations. Right versus wrong is known in all our hearts intuitively if we just listen quietly to that intuition. And Right is the same for all of us, however differently our faiths may express it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Headlines Are Not News

I recently signed on to my online browser, and was greeted with a breaking top news headline that said, “Federal Judge Rules Health Care Law Unconstitutional.” Considering all the time and effort that went into creating and passing this bill, a decision to nullify it would seem a significant and noteworthy news event. So I chose to read on.

As it turns out, buried down in the heart of the story were three extremely important clarifications (corrections?) of that headline:

1. The federal judge who ruled on this case only deemed one portion of the bill unconstitutional – namely that portion that mandates that everyone buy health insurance as of 2014;

2. This Virginia-based federal judge ruled in one lawsuit brought solely by the Virginia Attorney General (an AG who has on repeated occasions shown questionable judgment in his ability to distinguish between his personal political agenda and his broader obligations as Virginia’s chief legal officer), so the result of the judge’s decision would only affect the citizens of Virginia;

3. Nationally, 12 other federal judges have already previously dismissed out-of-hand similar state-brought lawsuits as without merit; two other federal judges who did elect to hear such cases both ruled the law constitutional. So the more correct box score now reads: 14 individual judges have approved the law; one has not.

We all know that, in this highly politicized climate, the Obama health care law will ultimately wind up in the Supreme Court. That event is still years away, moving through all kinds of interim legal and political wrangles and the various court jurisdictions and levels. Once it arrives in the laps of Chief Justice Roberts & Company, it is anyone’s guess what will then happen. But that is for later. So in the broader context of “legal process,” yes, the Virginia decision was noteworthy, but nowhere near decisive – contrary to the impression created by that news headline.

Unfortunately, this more balanced, more complete perspective of the Virginia ruling got completely lost in most all news reporting of that day. The “unconstitutional” headline statement ran unchanged in most all other reporting media – both online as well as cable and network news programs, including the little “news ticker” that runs across the bottom of our TV screens.

News headline writing is a uniquely creative art form. Headlines are typically not written by the author of the in-depth article but by a separate person supposedly skilled in collapsing and highlighting an entire story into perhaps less than ½-dozen words, all without distorting the story itself. It is not an easy task. The author may in fact never even see the headline prior to publication, usually with no opportunity given to comment on or edit it. I am sympathetic to those who perform this challenging and necessary task. But I am more concerned about readers who come away from a headline with a wrong or significantly incomplete understanding of the underlying news. It is similar challenge that television guide editors face in seeking to describe an entire movie plot line in 3-4 words, often with laughable results – e.g. Gone With The Wind (“Woman saves her home”), or The Wizard of Oz (“Girl leaves Kansas”). But however difficult the challenge, the news headline – designed to both get our attention and to entice the reading of the full report – must be subject to the same standards of accuracy and objectivity as we expect from the story itself. In this instance, that standard was not met on what is acknowledged is a critical and emotional subject in America.

We are bombarded today by far more news, or opinion masquerading as news, or “news” that we should have no interest in, than we can possibly absorb. (How many Lindsay Lohan or Mel Gibson stories do we have to read before we can comfortably conclude that these are two significantly troubled people?) In our self-defense of this onslaught, more and more of us must scan the news in order to just stay marginally aware of what is happening around us. In times past, leisurely reading the morning and/or evening newspaper at the breakfast table or after dinner was part of our daily routine. Today we have very little time available to read full news reports from start to end, much less to then think and reflect on what we have read.

Nevertheless, the responsibility remains ours for staying properly informed, and basing our opinions on substantive and well-reasoned information. We need to pick our information sources wisely; differentiate between reporting, versus informed opinion, versus soapbox self-promoting demagoguery; and continually remind ourselves that when we “scan” the headlines, we only see a list of topics that we may need to follow up on. Good headline writing can help us with our task of being informed. There is input in a news headline, but there is clearly no knowledge therein. Gleaning knowledge, and from that wisdom, is still our job to do.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Giving Thanks 2010

In these days of endless drumbeats of gloom ’n doom, it can seem a fertile time for bountiful pessimism. But as this year’s Thanksgiving holiday comes to a close, perhaps we need to counterbalance that pessimism by focusing on a broader view of our current state of things.

Our biggest shortcoming is that around 9½% of our working population is not working. But 91.5% are working, even if some of them are not in jobs of their ideal preference. That is nine people of potential help to every one unemployed individual. How do we bring that potential support network to bear?

Most small businesspeople are struggling. But most big corporate/multi-national businesses are enjoying record profits. A significant portion of that profit is coming from international business, not domestic. Yet corporate CEOs complain that they cannot hire because of supposed “future business uncertainty” out of Washington rather than admitting that they are doing just fine, thank you very much, with higher productivity and more work from the employees they have already. Executive pay continues to grow comfortably; middle-class employee income has been stagnant for years. How can that profitability be spread around among those who are truly generating it – or need a new opportunity?

1½ years ago, our American-iconic automobile industry was verging on collapse. Decades of incompetency, can’t-do and non-competitive / non-innovative thinking had finally caught up to them. Today, in spite of all the rhetoric of a “government takeover,” the industry is plunging forward, creating the cars they said for years couldn’t be made, competing successfully on quality, all under long-awaited new leadership. Left alone, supposed free-enterprise capitalists almost caused 2 million industry and affiliated jobs to be lost; a supposedly “socialist” government intervention restored capitalism to a nearly dying industry. Who woulda thunk?

Two years ago John McCain “suspended” his presidential campaign (for about 3 days!) to race back to Washington to “help save our economy from collapse” at the hands of the financial / banking industry. As it turned out, McCain had no ideas to offer, and went back to campaigning. Talk of a full-scale depression with 20+% unemployment filled the airwaves. Economic indicators were all in the negative. It was a truly frightening time, with no parallel experience in the lifetimes of all Americans born after 1940. Today all these discussions have magically disappeared. Now we spend our time instead arguing about how we did/did not accomplish this return to stability, and talking endlessly while avoiding the hard steps needed to prevent a future recurrence of this catastrophic greed. But now there is no economic depression scenarios backdropping our conversations. I may not like that a “too big to fail” strategy let a lot of guilty financiers off the hook without impact on their personal finances. But I will accept that Grapes of Wrath – The Sequel has so far not had to be written.

Credit card and other consumer debt has thankfully continued to fall as people restructure their finances to something more viable. Selling one’s home takes longer than in memory, but prices are no longer continuing to drop significantly. Many home mortgages are still in jeopardy, but hundreds of thousands have been redone by the FDIC to prevent foreclosure. The shameful tragedy is that commercial banks did not follow the FDIC’s lead, even thought they could have – which had they done so would have actually improved their income statements instead of depressing their profits through foreclosures. Short-term thinking one again trumped long-term investment and the public good.

Yes, we still have our problems, issues to resolve, hurdles to overcome. And there are many different voices pitching many different proposals for “next steps.” Far too many of these ideas are ill-thought and/or self-serving for personal benefit. But somewhere in that cacophony of hollering are the thoughtful, innovative, free-thinking and substantive ideas that have the potential to lead us all to a collective better place. But those beneficial ideas need nurturing to survive, grow, and stand out from the meaningless noise. That nurturing includes our willingness to listen and discern carefully; to think unselfishly in favor of a greater good; to take a step or two backward in order to advance two or more steps forward; to be willing to live and work differently from before if we want things to be different; to separate out true thinkers and leaders from the hucksters who want our votes and/or money for their own reward.

Coming back from this deep a hole, while fighting political battles instead of creating economic solutions, with unpunished guilty persons preventing future course corrections, was never going to be quick or easy. Our short-term impatience is quite unrealistic (and immature), however justifiably frustrated we may often become. But Americans are bright and creative people – we have not yet lost that national characteristic. We are a pretty resilient people, and after a grief period we typically go about what needs to be done – and get it done. And when we have come together to act collectively in the same direction, we typically have come out of our adversity stronger than ever.

So that is our focus for this Thanksgiving. In the midst of our struggle, we have endured far worse. We have stabilized the patient, and have moved out of ER and into intensive care; almost every indicator is moving in the right direction. Progress has been achieved; more progress is on the radar. For those bright candles within the large darkness, we do give thanks. And give ourselves an interim pat on the tush.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Election 2010 - Reflections

Another bi-annual election has come and gone. One that confirms that our level of enlightened discussion about truly relevant and critical issues continues its decade-long free-fall into a new modern-day era of the Dark Ages. Regardless of one’s political views or party affiliation, we should all collectively hope that a new Age of Reason is around the corner. But such a corner frankly escapes my present view. So what did we see and hear in the many months leading up to this election? And what did we learn and take away from this election day?

In sum, the American people are confused, angry, impatient, and willing to strike at anything they can hit in order to express those feelings. It was clearly an “agin’er” election, a search for the lesser of unacceptable choices – logic or rationale be dammed. It was the third straight major swing of majority representation, with all the potential for a 4th straight swing again in 2012. It demonstrated the heightened volatility of our electorate, with a mixture of winners and losers scattered about like roadside litter. So let us set aside for the moment all the self-indulgent and self-promoting claims and hyperbole of the politicians, political consultants, and cable TV pundits, and see if we can sort out some modicum of sense from these latest results.

Clearly, this election was one that in the end mostly favored candidates with “Republican” beside their names. And for a party pronounced “all but dead” after 2008, they are entitled to be complimented for their achievement. Yet, something I have not seen before, in almost every political TV ad that I saw, candidates never identified him/herself as either Republican or Democrat. Some claimed to be “the conservative choice,” but generally it was a race between this person versus the evil / corrupt / unethical “other guy.” Given that both political parties are currently rated so low by the populace, their hiding of political affiliation shouts at a high volume. And it also thereby seriously undermines any claim to victory by the Republican Party.

Similarly, the dramatic shift in majority party was in the House, where Republicans replaced over 60 Democrats. But statistical analysis showed that most of these shifts happened in already-normally Republican districts. These were districts Obama and Democrats had stolen away in 2006 and 2008 given high dissatisfaction with Bush Republicans. Now these voters were returning to their traditional fold. This has to be a big disappointment for Democrats looking to court red states turning blue, but it is not an unnatural cycle.

Democrats also won some key, and perhaps unexpected, victories, e.g. California, Nevada and Colorado. In one recent post-election poll, only 40% of voters supported “the Republican Agenda” – whatever that may prove to be. This further reinforces the view that this was an “agin’er” election, not an endorsement of much of anyone on either side. Especially when you factor in all the Republicans who were turned out in their own primary elections and who never even made it to November. Which is why the number of new faces in Congress is significantly higher than just the winning seat count. There are now a lot of new kids on the block thumping for attention the next two years.

Which brings us to the phenomena of the Tea Party movement. A fair number of candidates claiming that label got elected, so that “movement” will have to be paid attention to and courted by some future political candidates. But such candidates also lost some key races – mainly statewide versus district races, often fielding some pretty marginal (flaky?) candidates. So the Tea Party appeal clearly has its limits, not just with the obvious liberal voters but also with a significant core of Independents. Quality of the candidates still thankfully matters. Sarah Palin’s endorsement helped some, but it was no guarantee of success. Witness her inability to oust her avowed nemesis Murkowski in her own home state of Alaska. Talent still matters too. The Republican establishment tried to corral and manage the Tea Party, but with limited success. This group will likely cause more problems for Republicans than the Democrats will!

It was not a good day for rich CEOs – not a group with much fan support these days. The three biggies (California, Connecticut) spent millions of their own money, and all three lost. Being a CEO seems less attractive today than being a politician – incumbent or otherwise. After the Wall Street excesses, being a good CEO is not much of a job qualification right now.

So with all these outcomes and the public temperament, why would anyone (besides the highly limited and untalented Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell) try to claim an endorsement for their political party or agenda? John Boehner, incoming Speaker, has so far spoken cautiously, unlike senate counterpart McConnell. Marco Rubio, the sanest and most charismatic of the “new conservatives,” spoke accurately when he said voters had not endorsed Republicanism, only given it a second chance – because they did not like what Obama and Democrats had delivered versus their expectations. It is not that the vast majority are so upset at things like “Obamacare” or other such campaign rhetoric; their anger is over the economy combined with the political process of Washington. Jobs, secure employment, loss of income, loss of homes, slippage in real income, loss of faith that tomorrow will be better – these are the electorate’s concerns, while they perceive corporate America to be doing fine with all kinds of assistance from Washington lawmakers. They wanted a new “transparency and cooperation” from our legislators, but the political deal-making they watched unfolding only affirmed how badly distasteful the legislative process has become.

Economic insecurity and unfairness are driving voters today, and a Washington that continues to be consumed with self-serving political gamesmanship while problems and needs go unaddressed may well be the foundation for another potential sweeping in 2012. People are looking for action that yields results that creates positive outcomes for them. Political distrust and lack of confidence is at an all-time high. Political party affiliation, infighting, and “business as usual” – for business and not for people – will be the likely climate of the next two years, with the prospect of little substantive accomplishment. It is a climate that people will not tolerate, because they are still looking for a representative government that they feel represents them and their goals, and they could care less about party, incumbency, or political/governmental philosophy. They are impatient for a real change in political life, and jaded about the likelihood of achieving it. Party/incumbent loyalty runs very shallow, because people are still shopping for the person(s) who can deliver on their real goals. This is the true message of 2010. The politician, or the party, who ignores that message does so at his/her own political peril.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Election 2010

Next Tuesday is yet another Congressional election day. The high energy and drama of the 2008 election seem so long ago. This year just seems like loud noise and often incoherent yelling from a vocal minority, and a quiet muted frustration from a disillusioned majority. It is not an easy year to exercise our civic duty.

Personally, I cannot seem to find any Republican that I can put an “X” next to on the ballot (with the possible exception of the two senators from Maine; but I believe that neither of them is up for reelection, and I do not live in Maine anyway). I just cannot vote an endorsement for a political strategy that says 1) “say anything” without regard to accuracy or consistency from one day to the next, and 2) vote against everything, whether good for the country or were your own ideas now disregarded, in order to deprive the Democrats of any legislative success. At a critical time when this country needs leadership and solutions to our current morass, such thumbing your nose at the electorate for purely personal political gain is inexcusable and intolerable.  My simple question is ... why in the world would I vote for or trust the people/party who drove us to this current ruin, and whose only proclaimed program now is to take us back to those very same policies?

The Democrats, on the other hand, had no lack of ideas and agenda, fueled by being out of power these past years. What they did lack was the ability to manage that agenda. They took on milestone legislation and major economic issues – and somehow managed to come out on the rhetorical defensive, looking totally incompetent in their ability to focus and achieve a core agenda. There were a half-dozen critical “to dos” for health care; instead, they expanded that to a 2000 page bill seemingly filled with every health care idea ever thought about. That overreach almost sunk the topic entirely. They passed an economic stimulus bill that was inadequate to the need, and then never adequately defined the successes it achieved (leaving the Republicans to successfully tag it as a failure). They never developed a credible argument for why borrowing our way out of our recession made sense (which it does), even though smart CEOs are doing exactly the same thing for their companies where in similar straits. You borrow money when you need it (not when you don’t), and you spend it on investments not operating expense, which is exactly why the business community is complaining now about the unavailability of loan money to finance their growth. (Borrowing for day-to-day operating expense is still a stupid idea, for government and businesses.)

Democrats passed a badly needed financial reform bill. It restored regulation and oversight that had stabilized us for 60 years – until dismantled under 25 years of Republican rule, thereby leading us to this current financial devastation. But then they failed to nail the Republicans who, as expected, opposed it even though this should have been THE connecting issue with the American public. And they have inexplicably continued the Bush strategy of trying to fix the financial industry through the banks and investment companies instead of going around them and working directly with the financially injured citizens. The unsurprising result is that the banks and financial companies have emerged virtually unscathed and richer than ever, while the average Joes and Josephines are still hurting and losing ground.

Politically , Republicans continue to demonstrate that they are far better at winning the sound bite battles, and keeping all their people on board the same political train. Conversely, Democrats squandered their both-houses-and-president monopoly and sent out a dizzying cacophony of messages. Republicans can reduce any problem issue, no matter how complex, to a simplified 1 sentence message easily understood by the public, but they have no program to offer up behind it except the time-worn and disproven “cut taxes” call without paying for it – while claiming to be against deficit spending. (Only Republicans could get away with proclaiming such a paradoxical position with a straight face!) Conversely, Democrats can expand any problem issue to an exhausting paragraph incomprehensible to virtually anyone except an obscure technical policy wonk, with more programmatic solutions than anybody could ever want – a classic “killing the ant with a sledgehammer” approach.

Further disrupting all this confusion is the emergence of the Tea Party movement. What started as a legitimate grass roots expression of justifiable exasperation at Washington’s incompetence and ineffectiveness morphed into a vehicle for bad and irrational behavior. Betraying its constituent-led origins, it has become a marching tool for Fox News, secret donors and backroom wheeler-dealers (a la Karl Rove). It was given voice by self-centered promoters like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, and Jim DeMint. It smartly magnified its perceived power by supporting fringe candidates in Republican primaries in small populated districts where their influence could overwhelm “establishment” Republican candidates. The result has been a slew of embarrassing and uninformed candidates exemplified by Sharon Engle (the Nevada kook) and Christine O’Donnell (the New Jersey witch-wanna-be) along with other such types. These are “against everything” candidates guided by colossal constitutional ignorance who personify how ridiculously low our standards for political qualifications have become. They have polarized the Republican Party even further to the extreme right (could any of us thought that possible?), and driven out some competent people into the “Independent” ranks as “ideologically impure.” If they win anything (questionable), they are likely to be as problematic to Republican party leadership as the “Blue Dog” Democrats are to their party leaders. Besides all the unwarranted news they generate for the media, until they win some significant and contested positions in the general election they still have no credibility. But every election year the media always look for “the underdog” story and give it excessive weight, and this year it’s the Tea Party as underdog.

Running in parallel to the candidates elections are an exhausting number of relevant peripheral currents, such as:
• The collapse of the U.S. Senate as an effective institution, drowning in its own rules of (non-) order, a 60 vote “super-majority” required to do anything in spite of our long-standing legislative principle of “majority rules,” action on any topic subject to the whim of any one senator to put the item “on hold,” and the mere threat of a filibuster sufficient to prevent a vote. Harry Reed needs to be reelected, if for no other reason to keep kooky Sharon Engle out of the Senate, but he is clearly not up to the job of Majority Leader.

• President Obama has a substantial list of successes to point to, but doesn’t seem able to point to them. The economy is no longer in doomsday; our receivership of the auto industry is paying visible dividends in economic stability and providing badly-needed new corporate direction; financial wildcatting has been somewhat reined in; health care made huge progress despite the bad distortion of it; foreign relations are significantly better than in a decade. Other worthwhile initiatives are at least in the pipeline. But however well-intended, Obama abdicated leadership by leaving legislation to be defined and thereby run amuck by Congress (“damn it, you’re the President, not a senator anymore!”), and his vaunted speaking voice escaped him. A clear, focused message on core directions that accurately reflects the mood of the people has been nowhere visible. Frankly, Obama’s first act on Wednesday, November 3rd, should be to fire his entire Communications Office – who seem to consistently live in a fog of surprise at the events around them they did not see coming – and get some competent help who can reconnect his voice with the people.

• Campaign dollars are out of control, projecting the most expensive election in history. This is thanks in no small part to the Supreme’s Court’s preposterous decision that “corporations are people, too” and thereby entitled to freedom of speech. Meg Whitman has already spent $140 million of her own money to win California’s governor race. We can only hope that she, like others, will find that not only can “money not buy you love,” but it can’t necessarily buy political office either.

• If you really want some amusement, look no further than the Democratic candidates to replace Republican senators in South Carolina and North Carolina. The former is a candidate-no-one-ever-heard-of that seems like a walking Tina Fey/Saturday Night Live comedy farce; the latter seems like she just woke up a couple of weeks ago and decided “Maybe I should actually campaign for this office!” Or look at the Alaska senate race where Sarah Palin’s very visible personal grudge campaign against Lisa Murkowski, the former-Republican-now-independent incumbent, is reducing Tea Party candidate Joe Miller to a back seat; it is a political form of a Desperate Housewives soap opera drama.

• Left-wing Democrats are complaining because results these past two years “did not go far enough?” Folks, get off the sidelines, and get real. A lot went your way; why do you think the right wing is now so vocal – because you failed? Do you not get that you won more than many thought possible to win? Even Ted Kennedy, an undisputed champion of universal health care, ultimately admitted he was wrong not to take up President Nixon on his health care proposals in the 1970s “just because they didn’t go far enough.”

So what is a concerned citizen supposed to do in this election? The litany of complaints against the current state of our national government could go on unendingly. The anger of our citizens is entirely justified, even if our specific complaints may differ. Let us trust no politician who promises to “cut spending / reduce the government / balance the budget” without telling us exactly where s/he would cut so we can determine if we really do agree with their easy rhetoric. And let us similarly trust no politician who promises that government can right all wrongs, and can protect us from all our fears and calamities.

Not voting is an abdication of civic responsibility, even if we are hesitant to give the appearance of endorsement to the winners. In the end, we need vote for pussycats even if for no other reason than to keep the mice at bay. General expectations are that 2011-2012 will be a non-event for Congressional accomplishments, as gridlock completely takes over and Republican presidential wanna-bes come out swinging for 2012. So we need to be ready, to find our own real voice, and to figure out the actions that we are called upon to take to restore honor, direction, integrity and promise to this great country. Enough is enough of this political gamesmanship at our expense. As has been said, in the end we ultimately get only the government that we work for and deserve. What shall that be?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pertinent News Stories

Did you happen to pick up on the following news stories?

1. The pastor of the Philadelphia Third Presbyterian Church gave a sermon calling for “Christian voters” to join forces to keep “pagans, Muslims, and other non-Christians” (including Deists and Unitarians) from political office. He went on to say “every ruler should be an avowed and sincere friend of Christianity.”

In response to this call, the President wrote that “among the greatest blessings secured to us under our Constitution is the liberty of worshipping God as our conscience dictates – or not.” Even a special Congressional subcommittee thereafter responded that “It is not the legitimate province [of Congress] to determine which religion is true, or what false. Our government is a civil, and not a religious institution.”

2. A quiet but highly respected Senator from a well-known political family in Louisiana spoke on the senate floor about the extreme level of partisan acrimony that we see in the political environment. Speaking about the public debate, he pertinently observed that “I think the discussion may be turned to useful purposes. It may, by the interchange of opinion, increase our own information on all of the important points which have been examined, while, not being called on for a vote, we may weigh them at leisure, and come to a conclusion, without being influenced by the warmth of the debate… However, the cost of partisanship for partisanship’s sake [is] too high for a free society to pay… The spirit [of zealotry] of which I speak creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue – denies every virtue to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs … mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of heaven, war, pestilence, and famine as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friend as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing.

I am no censor of the conduct of others: it is sufficient for me to watch over my own. The wisdom of gentlemen must be their guide in the sentiments they entertain, and their discretion in the language in which they utter them. No doubt they think the occasion calls for the warmth they have shown, but of this people must judge … There are legitimate and effectual means to correct any palpable infraction of our Constitution. Let the cry of constitutional oppression be justly raised within these walls, and it will be heard abroad – it will be examined. The people are intelligent, they people are just, and in time these characteristics must have an effect on their representatives.”

3. A leading senator from Kentucky proposed that the President declare a national day of prayer and fasting to “seek divine relief” from a series of recent disasters. The President responded saying that, while he too believed in “the efficacy of prayer,” it was his determination to “decline the appointment of any mode of religious activity. I could not do otherwise without transcending those limits which are prescribed by the Constitution for the president, and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the Government … I deem it my duty to preserve this separation and to abstain from any act which may tend to an amalgamation perilous to both church and state.”

4. Accusations that the President was creating and enacting near-dictatorial powers prompted a number of strong speeches. The same senator from Kentucky claimed that “We are in the midst of a revolution, hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending towards a total concentration of the pure republican character of the Government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man. [In just a few years] the government will have been transformed into an elective monarchy – the worst of all forms of government.” A well-known senator from South Carolina proclaimed that, “We have arrived at a fearful crisis. Things cannot long remain as they are. It behooves all who love their country – who have affection for their offspring, or who have any stake in our institutions, to pause and reflect. Confidence is daily withdrawing from the General Government. Alienation is hourly going on. These will necessarily create a state of things inimical to the existence of our institutions, and, if not arrested, convulsions must follow, and then comes dissolution or despotism, when a thick cloud will be thrown over the cause of liberty and the future prospects of our country.” And finally, from a senator from Massachusetts: “There never before was a moment in which any President would have been tolerated in asserting such a claim to despotic power.” All pretty strong words against the sitting President.

Did you miss these news stories? Probably yes, because they happened 170 years ago in the early 1830s. The President was Andrew Jackson, the first president not a part of the generation of founding fathers, the first president from the then-West (Tennessee), and the first president to be an avowed proponent of “the common man.” The Philadelphia pastor was the Reverend Ezra Stiles Ely; the Louisiana senator was Edward Livingston; the Kentucky senator was Henry Clay; the South Carolina senator was John Calhoun; and the Massachusetts senator was Daniel Webster. All political icons from the 1st half of the 19th century.

The point of this looking back is that America has been down the road of intemperate political arguing many times before. As discouraging as the current economic, social and political environment is, it is not new. It is more of the continuing give-and-take that has always defined our on-going experiment in representative government. The arguments and ambiguity about religion in political life, the power of the central government versus state governments, and the liberties to which we are entitled, all started at our original Constitutional Convention. They have continually risen and fallen for two centuries. Though we have lurched right, then left, then back again, somehow we have always managed to ultimately settle back into our national center.

We have lost many opportunities over the years, and we have much to be ashamed of in our country’s conduct; these are frequent omissions in our schools’ history textbooks. But through it all we remain a beacon of hope, envy, accomplishment and aspiration for many, and – if we can forgo our flashes of arrogance – better than most alternative forms of government that have been tried before. So in spite of our faults and clumsiness, we have no choice but to ignore the self-serving demagogues so ever-present today, offer up our best ideas, stay involved, and keep on plugging to try to make it all work. In essence, it is simply about continually working to see if diverse human beings can in fact coexist and work successfully with each other. The jury is still out on this, but there is no choice but to keep trying. And to remain hopeful.

(Historical notes principally from “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” by Jon Meacham)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

15 Minutes Too Much

In the late 1960s, the pop artist Andy Warhol famously predicted that, in the future, everyone would have their own 15 minutes of personal fame. It seemed like a ridiculous remark at the time. But the 1960s were a very different time than today. Now we have the then-unforeseen environment of the internet, where virtually anyone can publish virtually any statement regardless of veracity or discernment and then claim it as absolute truth; we now have 24-hour / 365-day news delivery with airtime and page space that must be continuously filled and resupplied. Taken together, these two forces conspire to fulfill Warhol’s prediction by offering up any space-filling “news” as items supposedly of pertinence to us. And thereby, they give these news sources their newly found 15 minutes of fame, even though they are likely of no real consequence to the pursuit of my life.

The latest example of this is the disturbing case of one Terry Jones. Mr. Jones was apparently the pastor of a small church in Germany until he was released due to “financial improprieties.” He subsequently made his way to Florida where he founded a small church in a vacant mall space, with a congregation of less than 50 people. In the weeks leading up to the next forthcoming anniversary of the 9-11 destruction in New York City, Mr. Jones came up with the reprehensible idea to burn copies of the Qur’an as a way to show his hatred of all things Islam, supposedly because of what 19 Muslims did on September 11, 2001.

We have experienced book burnings in America before, as well as its more subtle but just as sinister cousins of book censorship and book bannings. Any of these various forms of negative expression are bad enough, but when they are specifically targeted towards insulting or restricting whole groups of people, they become even more of an assault on our society of free expression and freedom to worship.

Yet in the spirit of our times, attention and media space goes not to the substantive but to the outrageous. Thereby a previously (and deservedly) unknown player with a base audience of less than 50 people is suddenly the lead news headline of the day. Ultimately, a person who should be of no consequence to me whatsoever is generating conversation and attention from religious, political and military leaders across the country and world. No matter that people across all philosophical persuasions were universally condemning this proposed book burning as an undeserved and improper religious affront to one specific religious group as well as a tangible threat to American soldiers operating in Muslim countries. Through all of this noise the only question I found myself able to ask was – WHY are we even talking about this obviously self-promoting individual, versus consigning him to the set of right-wing or left-wing fringe people who have always existed in America and who should at most be a mere footnote buried on page 20 of the daily news, quickly dismissed and permanently forgotten about.

In the desperate rush for constant sensational headlines, these are now the kind of people who show up on our TV screens. Two years ago we had to endure day after day of “Joe the Plumber” and his nonsensical views on the economy and our presidential choice. Joe was an out-of-work plumber who wanted to buy a plumbing business but couldn’t afford it, who turned out to not be a licensed plumber after all and had no economic credibility at all. Yet there he was at one McCain rally after another, TV microphones stuck in his face, basking in his sudden fame, a political know-nothing designated by the media to speak “for the people.” The press ate it up as a “man in the street” human interest story; yet my opinion of the value of modern news reporting went down every time Joe’s image or words appeared in front of me. It was classic “celebrity over substance” reporting. Good old Joe had far more than his 15 minutes of fame due, and thankfully he has now gone on and disappeared from view.

I expect that it will so continue. So much noise coming our way built upon so little thought. And some ill-deserving people are getting way more than the 15 minutes allotted to them because they are very good at moving from one outrageous headline to the next. “Media savvy” is seen as a greater skill than being “smart people.” I would frankly put Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, and Newt Gingrich all in that category of being way beyond their 15 minutes due. I say that not because I differ from most of their political views, but because there is absolutely no substance or real ideas coming from them. They just provide emotional clichés designed to get attention for its own sake without having to actually DO anything about their headlines of complaints. (Newt used to be a more reasonable big-picture thinker offering substantive ideas, but he has thrown that away in a willingness to now become another one of those who will say anything to get attention to his/her wanna-be presidential candidacy.) It is very easy to throw bricks through windows and thereby create self-focused publicity through destructive words and actions. Especially when you then disclaim any responsibility for unwanted actions that may subsequently ensue. It is a lot harder and slower to take those same bricks and build solid structures (of solutions) that will stand strong and have lasting benefits. It is to the bricklayers that we need to give our attention, not the brick throwers.

It is said that we ultimately get the government we deserve. I believe we also ultimately get the news and information that we deserve and demand. If we fill our days and our minds paying attention to those who deserve only passing interest (if any at all) from us, how will that leave us time and energy to listen to those who can truly inspire, inform and lead us to better and more positive outcomes?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Some Voices From America

Some quotes to note, all of which happened in one week:

“Barack Obama is the worst president in history.”

(Ben Quayle, son of the former vice president; another politician willing to say anything some people want to hear in order to get elected, and claiming history for validation while his words demonstrate he has no idea about history. President Warren Harding, anyone?)

“I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful.”

(Laura Schlessinger, radio commentator, electing to quit her show the end of this year after she used the word “nigger” 11 times during a recent call. It would appear that she was able to say exactly what she wanted, no matter how distasteful. So why is she complaining? Perhaps because free speech does not mean freedom from accountability to others for what we say?)

“Islam is a religion of hatred, it’s a religion of war.”

(Franklin Graham, evangelist; a preacher who has obviously never read the Qur’an and has selective memory about history’s Christian warriors and conquerors, and then – incomprehensibly to many of us – he complains because he was not invited to a Pentagon-sponsored military interfaith prayer service.)

“Nazis don’t have a right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.”

(Newt Gingrich, a presidential-wanna-be who is also willing to say whatever his constituency wants to hear, regarding the proposed Muslim community center nearby the 9-11 Twin Towers site; no, Newt, the Nazi analogy works only if al-Qaeda was trying to put up a sign of some kind, not Muslims; for everyday Germans to build a memorial to Jewish holocaust victims could potentially be appropriate and healing indeed.)

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here…”

(Michael Bloomburg, Mayor of New York City, on the proposal to build the Muslim center and the ensuing outcry that has arisen.)

“I prefer blueberry.”

(Senator Carl Levin, good-naturedly responding to a woman who hit him in the face with an apple pie over a disagreement on foreign policy; is this how some think we should now conduct our political disagreements?)

“These are very tough times for America with many of our people hurting, there is no doubt about it. But we will dig our way out of it once again, just as we always have – IF people would just stop yelling at each other for 30 minutes.”

(Garrison Keillor, Prairie Home Companion host, at a recent concert.)


So much anger, so much hatred in our public conversation today. Yet still some voices of calm reason striving to be heard. Regardless of our philosophical differences, whose voices should we be listening to these days? The voices of anger, division and self-serving interests? Or the voices of inclusion, good will towards others, and the serving of the pubic interests?

In the election upcoming this fall, perhaps we should have less concerns about what a particular politician says, or claims to think, or his/her governmental / economic philosophies. Perhaps instead we might spend more time thinking about what we believe inside ourselves – about our own character and beliefs, about fairness towards all, about listening and speaking respectfully to our differences. Negative speech inevitably leads to negative outcomes. In the difficult times in which we now live, we need to speak and act towards positive outcomes, appealing not to the worst in us, but to the best in us. Positively.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Un-Hallowed Ground

Recently, housing and zoning officials in New York City approved a request by some local U.S. citizens to renovate and convert a former Burlington Coat Factory building into an Islamic Community Center. The purpose of this Center, as stated by the reportedly respected and middle-of-the-road Muslim cleric leading this effort, is to promote inter-faith dialog and sharing in the promotion of peace among all faiths. The Center, which will not be a mosque but will contain a Muslim prayer room, will be located two blocks from the destroyed Twin Tower site where 3000 people were killed on 9-11-2001. Both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomburg and President Barack Obama have both endorsed this project as the right thing to do and the right statement to make about America.

The negative reactions and noise-making that have ensued were entirely predictable. It appears that because all 19 of the 9-11 terrorists were Muslim, people of the Islamic faith are not entitled to locate places of worship in America. The protestors argue that the Twin Tower location is hallowed ground, intended to honor those killed there. But I hardly think that a Burlington Coat Factory building that has no connection to the events of 9-11 except adjacency qualifies as hallowed ground. And I hardly think that Murfreesboro, Tennessee – which is all up in protesting arms because a group of Muslims who have been quietly living and worshiping there in peace for years and who plan to build a large Islamic Center there – is hallowed land not available to Muslims.

This is not an argument about hallowed ground. This is the venting of people’s continuing anger over the act of 9-11, and their frustration at 9 years thereafter of continuing war, the killing of young American soldiers, and the draining of our economy. The ones who have been killing us are Muslims, which apparently means that all Muslims are bad, which also apparently means that Islam, the religion Muslims follow, must thereby be evil.

There are millions of Muslims living in America. They have been in this country for years, quietly going about their business of living and working, with the same aspirations for themselves and their families as the rest of us. Likely with a family immigrant heritage that came to America for the same reasons of economic opportunity and freedom of expression that brought all of our immigrant ancestors to America. They lived pretty much unnoticed and un-hassled by the rest of us until 9-11. Most were as horrified by the 9-11 actions as non-Muslims were. (“They were just thugs,” a Muslim told me once in Lebanon.) Yet out of our ignorance of their Islamic faith, a number of Americans lumped all Muslims together as equally guilty of the abhorrent sins of the few simply because of their faith.

“The Greatest Generation” took on Hitler’s killing machine and defeated it. German soldiers, and even many SS members, thought of themselves as good practicing Christians, predominately Lutheran. Shall we ascribe the gassing of 6 million Jews and others to an implied racism of Lutheranism? In 1942, we herded American citizens of Japanese ancestry into “relocation camps” and arbitrarily seized their property – an ugly blot on our history – just because the then Japanese government attacked us at Pearl Harbor. Should we ascribe the 9-11 event to a people, and effectively deprive them of their rights of citizenship simply because of their historical lineage? Shall we blame Jesus for all the broken promises made to, and the near annihilation of, Native-Americans, the killing of Mormon founder Joseph Smith by a mob, and the killing of all the people in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh – all acts committed by self-proclaimed “good Christian people”? The net of “guilt by association” is a broad one, quickly ensnaring all kinds of innocent bystanders.

The First Amendment guarantees every citizen the freedom to practice his/her religion of choice without interference. It does not say, “except for -----.” There are no exceptions listed. The only test is citizenship, not the religion one chooses. I have become very tired of self-promoting politicians who yell about honoring and strictly adhering to the Constitution in one breath, and who then selectively pick what parts of the Constitution to observe for which group of people in the circumstances that they think will win votes for themselves. I have become equally very tired of those religious leaders who ask governments to endorse their brand of religion over others, who would deny that same right to others, while never acknowledging that freedom of religion for all is the very thing that guarantees them their own form of worship.

The Qur’an – Islam’s holiest scripture about which we Americans are woefully ignorant – rejects killing, and expressly endorses the teaching of Moses and Jesus, both of whom also reject violence. The Qur’an’s passages do include calls to defend the faith vigorously if attacked, reflecting Islam’s earliest struggles against persecution and the threat of annihilation, just as Christianity suffered in its beginnings. It is often these passages that terrorists point to in recruiting sycophants to do their killing work – kill the infidels who are attacking Islam and its Muslim adherents. As Ron Paul solely but correctly pointed out in his 2008 presidential campaign, unfortunately for us U.S. history over the last 60 years has given the Muslim world plenty of reasons to feel persecuted and under attack from us.

Islam has not declared war on America. Islam did not kill those 3000 people in the Twin Towers. 19 Muslim terrorists chose to do that with justification, but did so out of a perverted distortion of their faith. A distortion arising from their own selfish motivations, angers, and sense of persecution – frustrations they felt in their minds of their lack of ability to enjoy and fulfill their own life. They were as antithetical to Islam as all faiths have had to endure those who rationalize their acts in betrayal of their faith. Just as distorted as the man who chose to kill an abortion doctor because the killer claimed “to believe in the sanctity of life.” Our unwarranted attacks and discriminations against Muslims in this country reflect our own fears, not their threats. Each time we do so, we affirm the very mantra that Osama bin-Laden proclaims against us – that American are out to destroy Islam. These kinds of words and actions we take do not extinguish bin-Laden’s fire; instead, we just inflame and justify his fire.

That Center in lower Manhattan needs to be built precisely because we need to renounce by our actions the message of hate, and to expose the lies from those who are traitors of their faith. To show the strength and best face of America, not our worst. And then we all need to return to, and remind ourselves of, the real Truths of our own faiths.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Working On Purpose

We have a hummingbird feeder hanging from the eave of our porch roof. It is located in the corner, above the outdoor dining table at which, weather permitting, breakfast, lunch and dinner are eaten. Sitting in the shade of that great southern porch, surrounded by views of woods and mountains, enveloped in the constant cooling breeze that offsets the summer’s heat, allows one to take moments to reflect on the sights, sounds and rhythms of the nature that surrounds. (And yes, this is often what passes for simple entertainment when you live an hour from “normal” civilization!)

Sitting at the dining table the other day, I studiously watched as 3-4 hummingbirds took advantage of the sugar-water in that feeder. They would dart down from their perch in a nearby tree, hover mid-air at the feeder, insert their long beaks into one of the feeder holes, drink quickly or sit and indulge awhile, and then zip off in an instant to rest from their work.

And so this pattern continues all day long. But with variations. Perhaps with an occasional side-trip to one of the many brightly colored flowers in the garden. Some hummingbirds would notice me sitting there and fly away, suspicions of my presence interrupting their work. Occasionally a dominant hummingbird would attack another feeding bird and chase it away – obviously claiming the feeder as its own selfishly-entitled property. (We have since installed a second feeder to try to prevent the kids from fighting with each other.) And then other wildlife got into the drama as a bee finds the feeder and decides to also claim it as its own, thereby chasing away all of the hummingbirds. (Stingers apparently trump comparative size.) The fact that the bee cannot get to any of the sugar-water seems to matter not a twit in this scheme of escalating dominance.

In the meantime, a small bug of some sort (my knowledge of bugs is quite limited in detailed recognition skills) lands on one of the cut flowers in a vase on the table. He also goes about his task – exploring and draining from the core of one flower, then jumping to the next, making the rounds of each available flower. All while the many butterflies of various sizes and colors flutter from one flower in the garden to another, seeking out the fruits of their searches.

It is actually fairly easy to sit and watch this broad scenario of life throughout the day, day after day, in its continual repetition. It will go on for months, until the approaching winter drives all of these creatures into their next phase of migration or hibernation. While I watch all of these “doings,” I am struck that:

• for each creature, this is “their work”;

• doing that work requires consistent daily attention;

• each creature has an absolute clarity about the work they are to do that day, that moment;

• there is a complete orderliness and framework within which that work is done – individually, collectively, and among the various species.

It causes me to wonder sometimes how few of us share that same sense of clarity of purpose in our lives, and the ability to simply go about fulfilling that purpose each day. I doubt that that hummingbird, bee, insect or butterfly spends too much time trying to figure out their career path, their next job to take on. It all seems pretty intuitive in the land of the hummingbirds. Even the birth → maturity → death cycle, and the evolving changes undergone through these cycles, have that same orderliness and predictability to them.

Why is this not so inhuman life? Some might argue that it is because we are of higher intelligence. Yet, as has been shown many times over in the daily news headlines, higher intelligence does not necessarily make us any smarter. Or maybe it is argued that, as human beings, we have so many more options to consider and explore than does the hummingbird. But if that is so, why do so many spend time in worry searching for THE ONE THING we should supposedly be doing with our lives to fulfill those things that appear to drive our needs. Yet we are usually never satisfied with the interim answers we come up with along our way. Leaving us with a sense of restlessness, anxiousness, and incompleteness to reflect on in the quiet of our evenings.

I suspect that, in truth, the hummingbird has it pretty right. There are a few basic truths of hummingbird life that need to be followed (feeding, pollinating, reproducing, safety, and seasonal mobility), and God-given tools provided to accomplish each of these truths. Whether food comes from our feeder, the flowers in our garden, or from nectar from miles away, is not really of great consequence. Whether shelter comes from a constructed nest or from sitting on a branch under a leaf, it is still shelter. Mission and need accomplished. Sitting in a pretty tree is just a bonus.

It is likely that human beings are way too smart for their own good. We do not lack for our own simple and clear purpose in our life. However, we typically layer so much unnecessary baggage on top of that purpose that clarity has been destroyed. We are so preoccupied with the laundry list of HOW we will live day-to-day that WHAT we set out to do has long been made invisible. Job, income, location, automobiles and houses have become the false purposes instead of the tools to achieve True Purpose. Perhaps we all need to find the hummingbird inside each of us, where True Purpose sits. All of the other considerations are just the mechanics, pliable details best left in God’s hands. We simply need to remain flexible and open to these details as they are brought to us, connecting them all to a renewed clarity of True Purpose.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Christian Nation

“America is, and was founded as, a Christian nation.”

In the need of certain people/groups in America to continually sow divisiveness and bigotry, statements such as the above have emerged as one of the latest lines of attack. This maneuver seems to come from either a fear of losing one’s own religious freedom and belief simply because others practice different beliefs, and/or the need to justify the correctness of one’s religious affiliation by making it dominant over others. Peaceful religious coexistence – i.e. “you go your way and I’ll go mine, but we do not have to adversely affect each other” – does not seem to be an acceptable option to these individuals. In this environment, one religious doctrine/affiliation is seen as needing to dictate public religious practices; political leaders need to be of a particular religious affiliation and agenda; mosques are not to be built because “that religion is evil and doesn’t worship my God” (i.e. “they” have no right to be in America); and one form of prayer and belief should drive our legal rulings (e.g. gay marriage, “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, particular religious symbols on public tax-supported properties).

All of the above single-mindedness is set against the fact that 25-30% of Americans do not claim to be of the Christian faith; of those that do, this includes Christians of all denominations, with Roman Catholics holding at their traditional 25%, plus all of the various Protestant or independent Christian forms. Given the significant differences in dogma, ritual and practice among all of these Christian groups, and indeed even among groups within a particular parent denomination (along with their history of bigotry and violence towards each other), I am not even sure what version of Christianity an “all-Christian nation” would look like, or what Christianity’s unifying role could even be.

I have written about a number of these “religion in the public arena” issues in previous blogs. What disturbs me now is that the previous “America is a Christian nation” argument is now being advanced to a 2nd tier – “Our Founding Fathers created America as a Christian nation.”

No they did not. But to suggest that they did is pretty scary for America’s future as the Land of the Free for all who come here. If “Founding Father precedence” is allowed to become a justification for religious bigotry, then support for freedom of religion gets turned on its head. The promise of Freedom of Religion, one of our greatest gifts to human governance, has to then become a change of America’s constitutional intention, instead of fulfilling its original intention. So let us see if we can pull the rug out from under this subversive attack on religious freedom.

Recently, a longstanding friend forwarded to me a widely distributed email he received containing a copy of the Declaration of Independence, with a request for all readers to read it as part of the 4th of July observance. A very good idea. I replied to him that not only should people reread this marvelous document regularly, but they should also read the equally marvelous Constitution each September 17th, the anniversary of its signing. I also suggested that each should be read “not only for what they say, but also for what they do not say.” Because, for political advantage, both documents are continually misquoted and presumed to say many things that are nowhere to be found there.

In the case of the topic at hand – America’s purported founding as a Christian nation – the realities are these:

1. In BOTH the Declaration and the Constitution, (including the 27 Amendments), the words “Jesus,” “Christian,” or “Christianity” are nowhere to be found. Not once. Nothing. Nor the mention of any particular religion, church or other religious figure.

2. In the Declaration, the word “religion” is nowhere mentioned. There are four references to a generic deity greater than our human existence, a deity attached to no specific religion in particular: “Nature’s God”; “Creator”; “Supreme Judge”; “Divine Providence.” These general terms are applicable to, and can be found in, most all religions (Christian, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.).

3. In the Constitution, the word “religion” is used twice, in both cases prohibiting a specific religion as a criterion of citizenship: Article 6 – No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States; 1st Amendment - Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Pretty clear and pretty firm. The closest the Constitution comes to referencing any religious person is in the closing ratification date: Article 7 - the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven – the conventional date format of the time.

How anyone can conclude that our two supreme founding documents established a specifically and exclusive Christian nation is beyond my understanding. Quite the opposite – in wording by both commission and omission, the attempt to remain unattached to any specific religious group seems much in evidence.

Some people also have a practice to lump the Founding Fathers into one homogeneous virtual person and mindset. Nothing could be further from the case. In almost all instances they did believe in some greater spiritual power, but they held different beliefs about how that power interacts with this world. Though they were all members of some Christian church, they held a range of religious views, affiliations and levels of engagement with their churches. From Congregationalist Samuel Adams’ religious fervor, to Jefferson’s more rationally-driven approach to religion, to Franklin’s evolving religious views, to Washington’s virtual silence on the subject. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were products of intensive political negotiations and compromises among men of wide-ranging and strongly-held differing beliefs on questions of economics, politics, religion, and America’s destiny. But after their experience of the tyranny of kings and the negative consequences of a state church receiving political favoritism, they certainly shared a suspicion of unchecked government and politicized religion.

The Founding Fathers’ belief in a god and their affiliation with various religions did NOT translate into making their individual religious views into general law. Any more than Henry Ford created an Episcopal automobile, or Albert Einstein created a Jewish scientific theory, or Chief Justice John Roberts interprets American law from a Catholic directive. The Founding Fathers, in their collective wisdom, clearly understood that the only way to guarantee the right and security of any one faith was to allow equally for all faiths. To the preference of none, to the exclusion of none. Religion was to be left to home, church, synagogue, mosque, and monastery, not the workplace or the government office. Everyone to be free to adopt and practice his/her choice, in privacy or with their peers. They affirmed that quite clearly from the very beginning of this country. It seems that every now and then we must all speak up loudly to reaffirm it again.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ethical Dilemmas of the Workplace

President Obama fired Stanley McChrystal, the general-in-charge in Afghanistan. For insubordination. For making insulting and competency-challenging remarks about much of the Washington civilian leadership. To a Rolling Stone magazine reporter, of all people. Remarks specifically cutting about Obama, his CEO/commander-in-chief. On a very personal level, not a conceptual or philosophical debate. And apparently not the first time he has tried to out-word his commander. So Obama fired him. Rightfully, in my opinion.

By all accounts, McChrystal is an excellent, dedicated soldier. A Special Forces alumni who sleeps 4 hours/night, and eats 1 meal a day after a morning’s run. A soldier’s solder who emphasizes “the team.” But perhaps crossing over into one of those overly gung-ho types that become a stereotype of “we versus them” toward outsiders. I.e. non-military folks outside of McChrystal’s circle just don’t get it and are a nuisance to “the mission”?

Comparisons have been made by various commentators to President Harry Truman’s confrontation with General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. MacArthur famously saw all other beings as lesser than himself, including the president and generals in his chain of command. MacArthur wanted to take the war into North Korea to punish them for their unprovoked incursion into South Korea, arguing that there was no danger of China coming in to defend them. Truman argued for the more limited objective of simply pushing North Korea back to within its borders. (It was sort of like Bush 1 versus Bush 2: H.W. Bush wanted to just push Iraq out of Kuwait and stop there; W. Bush said go all the way to Bagdad as liberating heroes and throw Hussein out – with disastrous consequences.) After a number of blatant instances of personal disrespect to his superiors (including Truman), MacArthur opted to take to the press his disagreement with Truman on the fundamental objectives of the Korean War. So Truman fired him – not for his differences of opinion, but for taking his case outside “the chain” and publicly challenging the competency of the country’s leadership during wartime. By most historical judgments, Truman’s foresight and actions were the right ones on all accounts.

I am quite sure that Stanley McChrystal is an intelligent and honorable man. Apparently he has his concerns about his reporting line’s view of his job and his mission, versus his own view. Why he chose a Rolling Stone interview to publicly air those concerns, in the words that he chose, is a mystery, perhaps even to himself. But what does a person do when personal goals and beliefs do not seem to be matching up with the goals and beliefs of one’s superiors or the collective institution as a whole?

This is the recurring dilemma of the workplace. Be it the military, the multi-national corporation, the local franchisee, or the mom and pop pizza joint down the block. Ethical choices challenged some Enron personnel, some SEC inspectors who suspected Bernie Madoff early on, some oil drilling engineers who were told by BP to cut corners and hurry up their drilling in the Gulf, and an untold number of whistle-blowers who have sought to push out into the open questionable actions that some would have preferred to keep hidden.

The ethical dilemma in the workplace happens in 2 parts:

• Where to set the ethical line of conduct, that point at which actions and decisions become personally unacceptable;

How to respond to that unacceptability – e.g. ignore it and go on; develop a scheme to go around it; raise it quietly up the ladder; raise it loudly across (&/or outside) the organization; quit and go elsewhere.

Setting the line is hard because ethics so often can be made to be “relative,” not absolute. Watergate, and more specifically its cover-up, crossed almost everyone’s line. The financial mis-dealings of the last decade became very relative, as the perpetrators seemed to easily pass the buck on to the next link in the chain. (Note how few of these individuals have ever said “I blew it and take responsibility.”)

If we do decide the line has been crossed, which action step do we choose in response? I personally have never had much trouble with the first decision – “the line” – even if my expectations were perhaps overly intolerant. The response part has always been more difficult to determine, and I have used each of the available options in one situation or another. I have done battle with the enemy within and without, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But what I have learned over time and many experiences is that:

• No boss gets fired from the troops below, only the bigger cheeses above;

• The troops can sometimes make the impacts of a bad boss a big enough nuisance directly to the higher ups sufficiently for them to take an action;

• Complaining outside the chain may win you some supporters, but it is probably a sign that you’ve already lost the bigger battle inside;

• The ethical conflict is about TWO perceptions of ethics colliding with each other, so an internal debate about “who’s right” is usually fruitless;

• A leader cannot/should not expect everyone to agree with his/her every decisions and actions. And it can be OK if people acknowledge their disagreements openly. But every leader must expect that, once a decision and direction have been determined, people are supportive and capable of working together towards that objective without continued backbiting, arguing and turmoil (e.g. “I personally might have chosen a different option, but this is the decision and we all need to work together to accomplish it”);

• You always need to keep your life positioned so that when your response doesn’t change the landscape, you can know that it is time to go – and then go. Quickly.

I sympathize with Stanley McChrystal and his ethical conflicts, as I sympathize with all who struggle with such dilemmas in their workplace. He appears a man of principle and discipline who turned loose of both in one very bad judgment. He further made the disagreement personal, and he did so publicly and irretractably. In any work environment, when that happens HE now becomes the object of discussion, not the policy disagreement. But when the work environment is 90,000 troops under your leadership in a life and death situation, that moment of bad judgment is a moment too long. It was time to go.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Arizona Immigration

Arizona is a rugged place to live. A mix of mountains, desert, heat and barren from its southern border with Mexico to its northern mountains. You have to want to live there, because the weak of heart are separated out relatively quickly. Its vast, open expanses create a bigness of spirit, and its habitat conditions have created a strong sense of self-reliance and independence in its people over the generations.

Arizona is also now the Ellis Island of the southwest, the main port of entry for illegal immigration into the U.S. Immigration of one part drug and weapons dealers, and a second part of employable workers looking to earn a livable wage for themselves and often their families. (Unfortunately, in the dead of night, the U.S. Border Patrol is hard pressed to tell the difference between these two groups as they sneak across the southern border.) The drugs and arms dealers are a menace to the character and stability of this country. The second group typically consists of decent people willing to do credible work to improve their personal lives, for which they are needed by American employers. Just as millions of Asian-Americans, Irish, and Eastern Europeans before them.

Congress and the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) are supposed to manage this cross-border traffic. Its failure to do so the last 30 years has given us three kinds of residents of Mexican ancestry:

• descendants of those Mexicans living here before there was a United States, similar to the Native-Americans who predate the rest of us;

• legal immigrants who have been properly coming here within the rules, and are now as American as I with my Scot-Irish immigrant ancestors;

• those who have arrived more recently without authorization, unentitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship but welcomed by American businesses and residents for their services.

Why do we care about these illegals? Partly on economic principles. Ever since the War Between the States, America has had immigration quotas. We have tried to manage the flow of people wanting to come here, though the numbers often reflected our own prejudices about who would be allowed in and who would not. The quotas attempted to protect us from being overwhelmed by population growth and/or excesses of people vis-à-vis available jobs – particularly in difficult economic times like our current condition.

We have also been concerned that if immigrants are not self-supporting and contributing to the overall economic well-being, they will drain from and overwhelm our American “safety net” of social services – however incomplete those services may be. We also fear that illegal immigrants will remain “un-Americanized,” necessarily living in the shadows outside of mainstream America, thereby perpetuating old-country cultures, values, language, rules, instincts and assumptions.

And then there is the simple illegality of their situation: they’ve broken American law just by their presence here. Which means that every aspect of their lives going forward is tainted and influenced by this illegal core. Americans do pride themselves as being a law-abiding nation (even when we have regrettably not acted as such many times over). So our sense of fairness says, “be legal, no exceptions.” And we look to law enforcement agencies to correct this violation of our shores.

Unfortunately, Congress and the Executive branches that are charged with making and enforcing our immigration laws have been virtually ineffective with such enforcement. They have not stopped the flow (though our economic recession has slowed it down). Nor have they dealt with the estimated 10 million illegals already here, shy of some token headline-grabbing raids on a few employers. Congress, that land of no compromise, stands on opposite principles of inclusion versus punishment and passes no new tools to manage this problem. And the INS, Border Patrol, and IRS fail to enforce rules already in place. Employers (business and personal) continue to hire workers to do good work most current citizens are not willing to do.

Against this governmental chaos, Arizona passed a recent law requiring state law enforcement officers to force anyone who “appears to be illegal” (read “Mexican”) to prove their citizenship. (Although the law is written generically, it is safe to say that Caucasians, Asians, Mediterranean and Arab-looking residents will be de facto bypassed in this proof process.) Notwithstanding the understandable frustration that generated this law, it is a horrible law. As a native southerner growing up in the 1950s, this smacks of the worst of the Jim Crow anti-negro laws and treatments of that period. Once again, we give away our innate sense of fair play and constitutional justice to our (mostly irrational) fears. Frightened people love the law – and they assume that they are exempt from it – and policemen hate it because they know they will be dammed if they do or don’t under it. A significant proportion of the rest of the country threatens to shun Arizona by economic boycotts.

I personally doubt that this law will stand up under court appeal – at least until it gets to the U.S. Supreme Court when it is anyone’s guess with Justice Roberts and company. Until then, Congress and the Executive need to set aside their rigid either/or orthodoxy and:

• build the deterrences and staff the border to stop the illegal traffic;

• accept the reality of the 10M already here and get them to citizenship and full economic contributors. We blew it, and we need to accept our culpability by acknowledging that we are not going to send all of those people back and disrupt our economy even more;

• create the “guest worker” program that American businesses, farmers and personal employers need;

• genuinely enforce the labor laws to prevent unauthorized work – the true root of the problem.

The current hidden subculture works for no one. Illegally entering the country is not American. But neither is guilty until proven innocent, selective laws by race, or carrying “identity papers.” Arizona passed a bad law that responds to the worst in us. Congress, on both sides of the political divide, needs to act for the national good, not for parochial political benefit. Let our conscience enforce the laws of the land. But let our hearts remind us that we are all immigrants in this country, and we should be guided by the familiar poem mounted in the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

We need fear not the stranger in our midst.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reflections On 65

If you would, please indulge me in some thoughts of a more personal commentary. Last weekend, I hit another one of those birthday milestones. Admittedly, 65 does not have quite the be-all connotation it once had. Enrollment in Medicare arrives, but full-benefit Social Security retirement is now delayed to age 66. AARP enrolls you at 55; retailers offer senior discounts anywhere from 55 to 65; you can retire early with a partial social security benefit at 62. Conversely, mandatory retirement age in many companies has been pushed back towards age 70. Nevertheless, “65” still has that aura of being the doorway to senior citizenship status – a status with an ever-enlarging peer group.

From my vantage, there are really four key birthdays that are important to notice. The first is your Day1 original birthday when living starts. All the world is brand-new, frightening in its newness given your quick realization that you have no immediate context or self-coping skills for this existence other than inherited instincts. So the next 20 years are spent trying to figure out the structure and makeup of this human life, and the tools needed to survive – if not thrive – in it. The tools we ultimately choose are quite individual to our experiences, outcomes and the scope of our worldly education from those early years.

Which brings us to the 21 milestone. We have loaded ourselves (for better or worse) with what we think will be effective tools for making it in this world, coupled with what we think is a good understanding of how life works and the rules of the game.  Then we set out on what we believe is our path to follow – maybe even with some glimmer of what the path’s end is supposed to look like. We rent apartments and buy houses, get jobs, begat a family, serve as parents, earn money and pay bills, and try to leave some room for fun along the way.

Until somewhere around 40, the 3rd major milestone. (For some it is as early as 30, or as late as 50, but this milestone inevitably shows up somewhere.) We have been diligently following our path, using our tools. But now we have a track record we can assess. And that assessment begins to raise doubts. Was this the right path for me, or were other choices possible which I may have denied or not even seen? Did my toolkit have the right tools in it, and/or did I use the right ones at the right moment in the right circumstance? Was my earlier understanding of life accurate, or did I miss a couple of key elements in that understanding? Have I been riding life’s wave, avoiding life’s wave, or has the wave been riding me? Doubts arise, basic truths get questioned, and dread grows that we may have locked ourselves into a play in which our role actually belongs to someone else.

In this phase we may plunge on and reach our greatest heights professionally as our hard work to date on this path begins to pay off. Or we may abruptly change directions to head down a different road, making a dramatic change as the only way out of the current play and into another. Or we make an uneasy truce – achieving a level of success on the current path yet all the while knowing that our ground work is weakening, out principles are bending, our needs are shifting. That which we previously clung to so tightly begins to move as we loosen our grip. Over time, recognition grows that our life is unfailingly morphing to a different place.

And then we reach 65, a progressive journey to a milestone that demands a choice: to hang on stubbornly to what was, or to let go what is no longer really important or truly needed and move into a clearer view of what one’s own life is really about.

Change has been pretty much a constant through my entire life. Surprisingly so, given my upbringing. At 21, 65 was a number with which I had no connection or meaning. At 40, 65 was a number visible on the radar but always still out there in the future, yet increasingly a marker of time left on a ticking clock. So much left to do.

But here I am. Arriving at 65, it is not the disaster I had once anticipated. Nor is it an end to life’s journey, though maybe a necessary end of what has gone before. It instead serves as a door opening into yet another phase of never-ending change. Jobs end, but careers continue even if in new forms. Doubts about what I could possibly do after 65 yield to doubts about how/what I will do with the opportunities in front of me. What I have learned yields to what is still to be learned.

My physical stamina is definitely reduced from 5 years ago. The soreness from a day working to maintain this mountain refuge takes a little longer to ebb. The impending finiteness of my life is more real to me now, given that 82% of my 79-year old life expectancy has already statistically expired. But death is not as frightening a prospect as it once was, though the manner of my death remains a concern. The timing is pretty much out of my hands.

I know the physical side of my life from this point will get progressively more difficult. That is a shame, since I just now feel like I am really understanding what my life is about. (As with the old saying, it is a shame that youth is wasted on the young!) I keep hearing that we are supposed to live “in the now.” Yet right now I have an advantage of seeing and understanding from an informed lifetime of experiences, answers, and learning. I think it is important to draw on those as I live through my now-ness.

65 is a milestone. One that demands a pause for deep reflection before proceeding. Because this upcoming phase can be radically different from all those many birthdays of before. My reflection says that life is pretty darn good right now. A settled-ness, clarity and peace not experienced before. And if I am perceiving current clues and insights correctly, what awaits around this corner can be better than ever. So I am embracing this latest change. And so would I similarly hope for you, at whatever your age.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Equality of the Dollar

Take a dollar bill from your purse/wallet. Examine it closely. Ask someone close by to do the same. Other than a different serial number on each, I am guessing that each bill looks exactly the same (wear & tear notwithstanding!). And I assume that your $1 bill looks exactly like mine.

When we each deposit our $1 bill into our respective bank account, the only thing that is recorded on our computer file is “1.00.” That’s it. Your digital “1.00” looks just like my “1.00.” There is no other tag attached to our 1.00s, no indication of our age, gender, race, religion, profession, marital status, etc. Just a generic lookalike “1.00.”

When we write our checks to pay our taxes – federal, state, county, local – our “1.00 without a suffix” goes into another bank account filled with lots of other 1.00s. Those 1.00s come from many people with a myriad number of backgrounds, demographics, personal opinions, spiritual/religious beliefs and affiliations; people who live their lives in countless different ways. All of those individual people are nondescript and neutral to the tax treasury – just a whole lot of identical 1.00s mushed together. In fact, our public treasuries are one of the great equalizers of our wide-ranging diversity. The commonality of our 1.00s makes us all equal, shared co-owners of the public funds, wrapped together across our individual human differences.

When it comes time to dispense all of those collective 1.00s, we are all shareholders in those decisions. EQUAL shareholders, because such decisions are not based upon how many 1.00s you contributed versus I versus others. Unlike a corporation, a greater pay-in does not buy you greater shares of public stock and thereby give you greater voting control. My one vote is the same as your one vote for the Congressperson or city council member who will likewise each have one vote on how to spend the money.

While the majority of one-votes accumulated will decide how the money will be spent, such decisions need to still reflect and honor the individual sameness of all of those 1.00s that contributed to the pot. The time-honored American tradition is that, while the majority rules so that we can move forward, the rights of the minority must still be respected. So public expenditures must be as “category-neutral” on human criteria as possible. Funds provided from diverse sources should not be spent so as to favor homogeneity or favored groups. We are obligated to preserve the same neutrality going out as the 1.0s were neutral coming in.

Yet when large sums of public funds are dangled in front of adoring eyes, these principles of neutrality and the avoidance of favoritism seem to get quickly lost. A failure to proactively support one interest group’s cause over other groups is often seen as an attack on that first group, a limiting of its causes, instead of recognizing that a preferential treatment today can easily be tomorrow’s discriminatory treatment. Yet with public institutions supported by public dollars paid by taxpayers with different views and values, it is only by remaining neutral that we can ensure that all expressions can be made possible, all citizens/taxpayers can be included, and no one is legally preempted out of participation.

Instead we choose to argue about whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in secular courthouses. These Jewish teachings may be 10 good principles for moral living, but only a few of them have been made into actual laws. (Maybe I should honor my father and mother, and proclaim only one particular god, but thankfully these admonitions have not been made into American statutory law.) Likewise, when an organization puts a cross on a hilltop in a publicly funded national park and then disingenuously claims it to be a non-religious monument to WW1 dead, it speaks in contrast to the many beautiful and moving memorials to our war dead that required no obvious symbol of only one religion in order to be meaningful – witness the Viet Nam or WW2 war memorials in Washington. When we eliminate the saying of prayers in public schools, we are thereby protecting our children and all religions from abuse by any one preferred religion – because who’s prayer would we use that would be applicable to all of the diverse children in the classroom? Which child would have to leave the room? When my county commissioners open a public meeting with a prayer that concludes “In Jesus’ name we pray,” are non-Christians thereby implicitly excluded from the subsequent political discussion? When students in a California law school seek to form a club open only to Christians pledging a non-homosexual lifestyle, AND seek to have the club funded from a pool of student fees paid equally by ALL students, do these would-be lawyers not see the inherent conflict of their request?

Some religious and lay leaders now claim that America is “A Christian Nation” and was founded as such. Just as I guess Iraq and Iran were founded as an Islamic Nation or Israel as a Jewish Nation. But nothing could be further from the truth about America’s founding or purpose. Our country was founded by men and women who predominately (but not exclusively) attended some form of a multitude of Christian churches, but whose personal religious views encompassed many different viewpoints and expressions. Given the experiences of their forefathers/foremothers in colonizing America to escape persecution and the abuse of state-supported churches, religious tolerance and religious freedom were in fact their over-riding concerns and what was collectively written into their Constitution for us. Promote none; allow for all. And over the course of our 200+ years, we have gotten better at extending such equality and neutrality in the public arena to differences of race, gender, economic wealth, and marital/sexual status.

If we want homogeneity of thought and a single point of view, that is where we have the power to utilize our privately-funded churches, schools, topic-specific clubs, and corporations. But when you take my 1.00 of taxes and merge it with your identical and no-more-powerful 1.00, please do not turn around and try to have it spent in a way that insults or minimalizes me. Let us instead respect and look out for each other in our common endeavors, and go our separate ways only in our private endeavors. Picking none, we are open to allowing for each of us.