Thursday, December 17, 2015

American Unexceptionalism

America has a remarkable story to tell, from its very beginning to our recent past. It is one of the few countries that was created almost entirely by colonization, drawing diverse multi-cultural immigrants from all over Old Europe (even though many Americans erroneously think we were begat only by colonists from England). It created the model of directly-elected representative democracy in a time where there was no precedence for it; such a concept was an extreme threat to the existing world royal power structures. America broke the back of economic status being restricted by privilege of birth, and expanded opportunity to those with the creativity and vision and work ethic to achieve their potential. It sanctified each person’s right to speak freely, and to privately practice their religious beliefs, without persecution or hindrance – regardless of how that speech and religion might differ – an exception to the cultural homogeneity of European nations. It opened the door to invention and entrepreneurism and rewarded handsomely those who turned ideas into mass-marketing success, creating legions of individual success stories.

Stealing from this meaningful story, some self-serving politicians have created empty buzz word – “American Exceptionalism” – in another attempt to reduce serious political discussion into meaningless demagoguery. (Just as they did with the American flag lapel pin by making it into an obligatory ornament by which to measure one’s patriotism.) To wit, if one is said to not believe and espouse American Exceptionalism, then one is inherently anti-American and out of step with true Americans and our heritage. It is all good fodder for a political ad and a TV commentator’s soapbox, but a worthless basis for moving America forward.

By definition, being “exceptional” is to be different from the normal state of things. Certainly America has gone against the prevailing grain and been exceptional in many ways over its four centuries. Yet it has not always been committed to consistency or universality as it developed, often taking one step backward between its two steps forward.

Historically, America uniquely created a government defined by a written Constitution, an exception to governments then in existence (even as we have grappled ever since with conflicting opinions about what that Constitution says). Our Founders declared that all men are created equal, a revolutionary exception to governmental thinking of the day. Nevertheless, they refused to give equal rights and privileges in that Constitution to all men; women were ignored almost entirely. It was an exception to the civilized world in retaining the bondage of slavery long after other countries ended it – even fighting our most deadly war (in both real numbers and percentage of the population) in a futile effort to keep slavery going. In the early 20th century, the promise of economic opportunity for everyone was smothered and redirected to a small group of mega-rich monopolists who made themselves exceptions from the rules of free-market systems (not that different from today.) A country that was built on a foundation of diverse immigrants made future groups exceptions to our open door. Even for those lucky enough to get in, they were relegated to the bottom of the economic heap, thereby made exceptions to the promise of the Opportunity of America.

We arrive at our modern period of exceptionalism when we compare ourselves to other “developed” nations across the globe. For example, we are exceptional at spending more money on our military than the next ten countries combined. Most of that money is spent on defending other people overseas, not on Americans themselves. Not a bad deal for them when countries can get Americans to provide their military defense for them, especially when they do not have to be concerned whether America can actually afford to spend 50% of its budget on that military.

We have more people in our prisons than any country in the world. Yet we claim to be revolted by repressive and/or violent regimes that attack and imprison their own citizens.

For the country that created electoral democracy, in 2014 only around 40% of our eligible voters turned out to fulfill their most fundamental obligation of citizenship. So much for world leadership by example in demonstrating democratic principles.

In test after test of educational achievement, America – the earliest provider of free universal education – consistently ranks between 20th to 30th in world rankings. Approximately 25% of our children fail to get a high school diploma; approximately 25% of adults have a college degree. College debt weighs down graduates for years, many with no guarantee of getting the high-quality job and lifestyle that was promised from that expensive education.

In America, access to fundamental medical care is predominately a privilege of income and employment, not a benefit of citizenship – an exception to all other developed countries. Even the price of such care is shrouded in secrecy beyond the control, much less restraint, of a dependent patient base. Medical care in America is a market-based commodity, but health care corporations have made themselves exceptions to the rules of the free market.

The list goes on. As the supposed leader of the free world, we are woefully mediocre in some important areas, and an unquestioned leader in some very questionable areas.

All of this is not to demean or diminish the very real greatness of America. The gifts of America continue to flow, and will hopefully do so for some time to come. We still do some amazing things, even as we also do some exceptionally stupid things. The first step in solving our difficult problems is to acknowledge truthfully our shortcomings, without being deluded by or trapped in past glories. It is only in grounded clarity and honest self-reflection that we can properly address the needs and unfulfilled potential that we have, whether as an individual or a collective society. The determination to confront our challenges by working together on pragmatic solutions used to be the essence of “the Americans.” That ability has been lost in the myopia of political infighting that now paralyzes us into inaction.

It is this gap between what we believe we once were and what we are now, and what has thereby been lost, that troubles many Americans today – even if our perspectives and preferred actions differ greatly among us. A willingness to confront, and an ability to solve, our problems was once America’s true exceptionalism. Today, being drawn into false slogans about American Exceptionalism takes us away from the hard work that we need to do. Such slogans seek to insulate us from acknowledging our shortcomings, and from being humble enough to listen to and learn from each other. We should be inspired by our past to keep America moving forward. But we should create our actions influenced by coldly objective truths, not empty slogans designed to deceive and distract us.

©  2015  Randy Bell       

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fearing Fear

“And argue not with the People of the Scripture [Jews and Christians] unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with which of them as do wrong, and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is one, and unto Him we surrender.”   Qur’an, 29:46

Fear. It is our most potent and driving emotion, from which comes much of our most destructive behavior. We fear most that over which we have minimal control, and that includes a great deal of Life itself. Fear is also a marketable commodity. Fear buys votes for politicians, generates dollars for fundraisers, and sends sufferers to the pharmacy for pain-numbing drugs. Fear is also the fundamental basis for terrorism.

Terrorism is a war of a different sort. Conventional war is all about maximizing overwhelming power in order to take things – territory, riches, resources or people. The terrorist does not pretend to have the sheer numbers of his enemy. Rather, terrorists optimize their small numbers by the disproportionate power of their impact. They strike the most vulnerable and innocent targets close to their enemy’s home, thereby destabilizing the confidence and security of everyday life. Eight terrorists kill 120 and injure hundreds in Paris as they come together to eat and play. 20 terrorists kill 3000 people in New York’s Twin Towers. The few overwhelm the many, with the hope of winning by creating panic in the masses. A panic that will then demand a retreat from the terrorists’ insidious war of attrition.

Modern urban terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It was given birth by the Irish Republican Army a century ago as a tool to gain Irish independence from hundreds of years of subjugation by mighty England. It succeeded for most of Ireland in the 1920s, but was continued by minority Catholics in the Protestant bastion of Northern Ireland into the 1990s. Thereby, it spawned a legion of imitators the world over, the equalizer between the powerless against the powerful.

In the wake of the Paris slaughter, am I now prone to fear? Yes, but not in fear of my life, even though I am as vulnerable to a terrorist killing as much as any other American. Statistically, I am far more apt to be killed by a drunken driver careening into my car, or some hate-filled or drug-crazed individual going on a shooting spree for attention or revenge. No, my fear is that terrorism – whether internal or abroad – will succeed in creating enough fear in America that we will lose ourselves, and our very meaning as a nation, to our irrational fears. That the terrorists will succeed in getting America to turn on itself and allow the worst of our emotions, thoughts and actions to emerge and dominate our character and our decisions.

We have been here before, when fear, along with its partner anger, have taken the helm. The fear of slave rebellion drove the legal and social code of the American South for 200 hundred years, and the anger at the loss of that code generated another 100 years of violence and oppression against African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, our own homegrown Protestant terrorist group, used violence and intimidation against Blacks, Catholics, and Jews to try to preserve a way of life not worth preserving. Following Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese-American citizens were stripped of their homes and legal rights, and arbitrarily sent to “relocation camps” for the duration of World War II. In the 1950s, fear of Communism and “the bomb” caused Americans to turn on their neighbors and gave rise to Joe McCarthy and Congressional inquisition. Today, more Joe McCarthys continue to lurk in our shadows.

Our fear today is directed towards all those who seem intent on destroying “traditional America,” be it the violence of the armed terrorist or the evil forces of social change. We have a Christian preacher in Iowa hosting a “religious gathering” in which he called for the killing of all homosexuals “as the Bible demands.” Three presidential candidates elected to attend that gathering, implicitly endorsing the event and its message. Facebook is replete with pictures and words stating that Islam is an evil religion out to kill Americans and install sharia law. Yet it is highly doubtful that even one in 1000 of the people creating or “liking” these postings has ever read the Qur’an, talked with a Moslem, or has any idea what sharia law even is. (Has anyone read all of the Old Testament laws in their entirety lately?) Advocates of the view of Islam as an intolerant and warring religion, based upon the history of oppression and conquest by many of its leaders, fail to look at the similar history of many leaders claiming to be of the Christian faith. The mirror we choose to look into often fails to send back a true reflection.

We post pictures of ourselves overlaid by the French tricolors and claim solidarity with the citizens of Paris. But we post no such solidarity when 43 people are killed by terrorists in Beirut, or 200,000 Syrians are systematically annihilated, or 224 people are killed in the bombing of a Russian airplane. Are Lebanese or Russian or Syrian peoples somehow unworthy of our similar concern? We freak out when 10,000 Middle Eastern refugees are invited to America, even as Germany is accepting 800,000 such refugees. The land of immigrants closes its borders, and over 20 state governors vow to slam their doors shut, all because of fears of a chance that a few terrorists will hide in the mix. Fear of a potential of 10 terrorists trumps the moral challenge to us of the 9,990 who are themselves victims of terrorists.

Our enemy is not Islam. Islam clearly instructs its followers to have no quarrel with the faithful of non-Islamic religions, an instruction ignored by today’s terrorists. Moslems who follow the true practices and spirit of Islam are themselves victims of terrorism, by terrorists who violate the fundamental teachings of Islam. Our true enemy is hopelessness. When people lose hope (as many Middle Easterners have over this past century), when people believe they have lost the power to direct the results and security of their life and their family, that is when all people are at their most dangerous. Without hope, consumed in fear, desperate people are capable of doing the worst things – including resorting to terrorism as a last resort. Bombs and prudent and appropriate security measures are certainly necessary in the short-term. But bombs and bullets alone will never solve our terrorist problem, as 14 years of unending war against terrorism have shown. Until we alleviate disrespect and hopelessness caused by the historical subjugation and exploitation of the Middle East, our problem with terrorism will be our continuing future.

For their crimes against humanity, terrorists must be defeated in all nations for the benefit of all peoples, because as ISIS and their likes have shown, terrorism is no longer place bound. But in choosing our actions we need to act out of thoughtful decisions of what will be truly effective in the long term, rather than following misguided reactions driven by ill-informed fears.

This is the real fear I have for America. A fear of our looming descent into ethical chaos, as many who complain about their supposed inability to practice their own religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment simultaneously seek to deny adherents of a different religion their guaranteed freedom of practice. A fear of our growing tendency to judge people by labeling them as a group instead of meeting them as individuals. Reactions like these are occurring too frequently in America. From fear, we are turning our back on the very promise and idea of America. Our fear needs to stop. We must be the ones to stop it.

©  2015   Randy Bell      

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Labels And Name-calling

The internet is a wonderful thing.  That is important to remember as we also note that the internet is one of the worst things that has happened to serious thinking and conversation.  Its ability to shrink the world into near-instantaneous communication across the globe, to make the most remote places on earth our virtual next-door neighbors, is almost impossible to comprehend.  Yet the problem comes in what we are frequently saying to our neighbors.  The world of “social media” is all-too-often anything but social.

In the 140 character limit that is a Twitter tweet, or the typical five sentences or less than make up a Facebook post, or the captioned photo or illustration that passes for visual sharing, there is simply no way that any real information of any depth can be communicated.  No existing belief will be changed, no new perspective will be embraced, no understanding of the breadth of multiple factors involved in any issue will surface.  Within these snippets of word fragments, we simply see confirmation of our preexisting beliefs, or are enraged by someone’s contrary opinion.  We are then reduced to “voting” our approval of what we already believe, or aggressively firing back verbally at the transgressor’s contrariness.  Share; Comment; Reply All; Forward.  In a split second, our opinion has digitally circumnavigated the globe.

Rather than meaningfully listening to and exchanging divergent views, we more typically stick labels onto the opinion, or engage in name-calling using words that would likely never be said in face-to-face dialog.  The anonymity of the digital page creates a safe space for us to threaten  others’ sense of personal safety.  Especially on issues of politics, government, religious conviction, and personal lifestyle.

The most common dismissive labels are, of course, “Republican” and “Democrat,” along with the good old standbys, “liberal” and “conservative.”  Each of these terms is used disparagingly to inherently invalidate a particular point of view (“typical liberal stance” or “those Republicans hate people”) without ever bothering to really consider that point of view.  We do not distinguish between institutional Republicans or Democrats – the professional elected politicians and Party operatives – versus their rank and file registered voters with whom they may or may not be in sync.  Or the many party “wings” that branch off the central platform: the Dixiecrats of the 1940s; the “Blue Dog” Democrats of the 2000s; the “silk stocking” moderate-liberal Republicans of the 1950/1960s, and the current “Freedom Caucus” in the House.  Does Peter King (R-NY) really inhabit the same political planet as Louie Gohmert (R-TX)?

Hence the rise of the “independent” who currently has no place to call home.  The socially progressive person who also believes that excess government debt is not a healthy position.  The person who feels that government should be a last resort for action, but also believes we share a mutual responsibility to take care of one another and ensure our equal opportunity.  The person who acknowledges that owning a gun is a protected legal right, but, like all other rights, is limited by demonstrating responsibility.  The person that admires economic success and reward in our free market system, but also recognizes that greed is a human frailty that requires regulation and oversight to keep that market truly free.  The person that believes in limited government, but that government is still required, especially as a counterbalance in a time when mega-sized and mega-rich organizations dominate the decision-making for their individual personal gain.

Growing up, a political “conservative” used to refer to someone with a preference for limiting government intrusion into our personal lives, and resisting any mandate that everyone live and think the same way.  Today, many of those who call themselves conservative are the very ones advocating adherence to a single point of view, a single religious basis for our country, a single set of personal values and life-styles .  All while allowing “the government” to be able to snoop into our privacy in the name of “national defense” with minimal constitutional oversight.  It has now been turned upside down with “liberals” aligned with “libertarians” leading the fight to resist this intervention into the law and interference into the social fabric.  How did such a fascinating role reversal come about with so little acknowledgement of it?

In our digital world, we skip over the effort of discussion and simply (re-)broadcast the billboards of our opinions.  Hence someone against the recent nuclear treaty with Iran grandly pronounces that “John Kerry is the worst Secretary of State in history.”  Reading that, I could not help but wonder whether that writer could even name six Secretaries of State prior to 1945, or how he would evaluate John Foster Dulles or Henry Kissinger.  Similarly, Barack Obama’s presidency is pilloried as “a disaster,” yet more than a few past presidents would love to have achieved his factual economic percentages.  Bernie Sanders is dismissed as anti-American because if his “socialist” beliefs, while many of those detractors could not define what socialism is and why it matters.  Is Social Security/Medicare socialism, or the U.S. Postal Service, or the laws shoring up and protecting the antiquated oil/gas/coal industries?  Donald Trump is dismissed as a “carnival barker and clown,” but in doing so do we simultaneously cavalierly dismiss the fears of millions of Americans who resonate with his declarations?

Some people think we should reduce government spending and debt, but it is always someone else’s government check that they want to reduce.  People receiving food stamps are labeled as “takers” and “welfare loafers who should get a job,” skipping over that a substantial number of recipients are retirees who already worked all their life, and military families and the working poor paid too little to afford the American economy.  One writer accused a U.S. Senator of being a hypocrite because of her supposed inconsistency in being “pro-choice” (i.e. the killing of fetuses) while supporting gun safety laws to protect school children – the writer not acknowledging that killing comes in many forms (war, death penalty, right-to-die, self-defense, etc.), each drawing us to separate moral judgments about the different ways we kill.

The issues we live with in human life are many, and they are complex.  Trying to stake out a position, a solution, in 140 characters is like trying to stop a tsunami wave with a single sandbag.  It cannot be done.  All issues we face have many inputs, many considerations, many constituencies.  Each must be considered and interwoven into the solutions we need.  All the verbal grenades we throw at each other bring us nowhere closer to shared resolution, but only harden our separation.

We who self-servingly rail against the partisanship and polarizing so evident in America today need to first look inward.  Then take an extra second before we speak – or press Share or Forward.  We may make fun of speaking in politically correct-ese, but is not most political correctness simply speaking in kindness and being considerate of others?  If we truly want to end the rancor, stop the polarization, and find genuine solutions, it all starts within each of us.  We have to take down our soapbox banners, stop speaking in meaningless generalities, spend time listening to other perspectives, adjust our opinions, and rein in our belief of being 100% right.  Then we can choose to turn away from those who are more invested in our division rather than our resolution.  We can choose to hang around with listening people who like to think.  Even if they think differently,

©   2015   Randy Bell     

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Election Chaos

Chaos.  Absolute total chaos.  What was supposed to be a highly scripted, well-managed election in 2016 has turned out to be so far anything but.  Anointed political royalty has been dethroned, the leadership team at each National Committee is being ignored, the candidate pool has expanded exponentially in quantity (though not necessarily in quality), and the national legislative body is collapsing in on itself.  The American voter looks at this spectacle in fluid confusion somewhere between amusement, horror, bewilderment, and inflamed passion.

In the Democratic presidential pool, three candidates have worked really hard for months to achieve a 1% (or less) following in the polls.  No one knows who they are or why they are running.  Vice President Joe Biden is still deciding whether to run or not.  Hillary Clinton’s anointment as the “inevitable candidate” is on hold due to continually declining poll numbers; the early fears of “too much baggage” are proving to be valid.  This race has been upended by a previously-ignored improbable, older, white Senator named Bernie Sanders railing against corporate privilege and economic inequity  His credential is “authenticity” in an age of focus groups.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party makes the Democrats look like a model for a well-managed and organized political campaign.  17 candidates went out for the gold ring of the presidency.  At least a half-dozen of them still barely move the polling meter and are virtually ignored.  Old faces from 2008 (Mike Huckabee) and 2012 (Rick Santorum) elections try to find any way to be relevant for 2016.  As with the Democrats, the “anointed one” (Jeb Bush) has proven to be anything but.  Sitting Senators and Governors wallow in single-digit support, while together three candidates who have never held office before out-poll the whole rest of the collective field.

17 candidates should have made for a rousing political debate, highlighting and offering multiple faces, perspectives and ideas for us to think about.  Instead, we have been treated to overly long-running scripts of mindless noise and “who can top this?”  Donald Trump has been endless theater, wealthy and un-beholden enough to call his own shots and freely speak his empty mind.  No policy, plan or detail ever leaves his mouth, preferring instead verbal hand grenades against anyone he deems an opponent – which is just about everyone else.  But he has managed to capture and crystallize a large segment of an angry American public who want unvarnished “straight talk,” regardless of the niceties or accuracy.

Ben Carson is a vacuous apparition, a quiet demeanor covering over a lack of content.  He tells us about things that are all wrong, that the System does not work – Trump’s message at 1/3rd the decibels, but just as empty.  He seeks the highest office of the land, pronounces love for our Constitution, then advocates an unconstitutional religious test for that same office.  If he talked a bit louder perhaps he would not find himself one step behind himself so often.  Carly Fiorina is this year’s “Republican woman” who has managed to recently impress with her debate skills to downplay her less-than-successful business and political record.  But after she made up stories about supposed Planned Parenthood abortion and organ-farming videos – all subsequently debunked – she has to decide if she will follow into the imaginary dream worlds of her embarrassing Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman predecessors, or will choose to be a credible candidate of substance.  Then again, substance does not seem to matter this year, so perhaps living in fairy tales is OK.  None of these top three candidates has ever held a position of public service, so there is no track record by which to measure the credibility of what they say (to get elected) versus what they truly believe, or how much of what they say would they be able to actually accomplish.

The middle-% of the field, all current or past Governors and Senators, struggles to find a voice, overshadowed by the anti-everything sounds of the three “outsiders.”  We never really hear what they have to say, because the media – not the Parties, not the candidates – control the air time.  So they move their podiums around the stage, but it proves to make little difference.

Meanwhile, there is Congress with its significant Republican majority in both chambers.  After the 2014 elections, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised that these majorities would show the country that “Republicans know how to govern.”  We are still waiting to see it.  So far it has been Obama’s national stage and agenda.  If you are a Democrat, you are likely pretty happy about it all.  If you are a Republican, your upset stomach is probably stuck up in your throat, cemented with frustration.  “Showing how to govern” now means total confusion in the House about what to vote on, non-cooperation with the Senate, Senators running for president appealing to their voting blocs, with a loud dominating argument for yet another government shutdown.  The party of “conservatives” long claiming to favor limiting government interference in our personal lives is now the main proponent of just such intrusions.

The consequences of all this?  At the highest levels of political contests – the presidency – we are giving voice to the worst of our collective bigotry and darker selves, with no substantive discussion about real solutions to serious issues.  Two governors have already been bounced from the field; the winnowing process has begun.  More candidates will follow.  Around 50 Republican House members – a small minority within a commanding majority – continues trying not to improve government but to destroy it, without regard for very real consequences.  They forget that the Constitution they profess to love was purposely designed to replace a weak central government with a strong one that could effectively lead our collective union.  In their pursuit, they just forced out the Speaker of the House.  This is governing?

Trump/Carson/Fiorina and Sanders – as different as the specifics of their message are – actually share a few things in common.  Negatively, both have a target that they generalize as “the bad guy”: “1% the billionaires” for Bernie, just about anyone and everyone for The Donald.  It may play well on the stump, but that kind of broad-swath name-calling does not bring people to the table together to solve problems.  But even though their audiences are decidedly vastly different, both also speak for the disaffected who know that the wayward excesses, foolhardy adventures, special treatment and hypocrisies of the past 25 years have drained the country of its standing, trust and energy.

Years of low approval ratings have finally caught up with the American political establishment.  Americans may be widely divergent in their ideas for political direction, but they know the needed direction ain’t where we have been – this protracted period of being governed from the extremes instead of from the American middle that has always held this fragile country together.

Maybe all of this venting will actually prove helpful in the long run.  By releasing some steam from this political/social pressure cooker, perhaps we can then settle back and more quietly and rationally figure out what to do and with whom to do it.  By hearing these negative extremes, perhaps it will motivate us to rediscover what our real national values and priorities have always been, and speak out for these to bring us back together again.  Disagree on specifics, yes, but we can still agreeably come together on goals.  Unfortunately, such a time is not yet now.  Hopefully this head of steam will run its course and exhaust itself.  Hopefully this negativity will pass and motivate us towards a better future.  Be of hope.  The alternative is too scary.

“This country is in very hard times, there’s no question about it.  But we’ll dig ourselves out of it once again if we can stop yelling at each other for ½ hour.”  (Garrison Keilor, 2010)

©   2015   Randy Bell     

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Diplomacy Or Bullets

“You talk to the most awful in order to get what you claim to be looking for: Peace.  You don’t negotiate with your friends.  You negotiate with the person you regard as your enemy.”  (Bishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa)

As Congress returns from its ill-deserved month-long recess, the most pressing issue it will take up is expressing its formal opinion on the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated this past July.  There will be many loud voices expressing a torrent of words on this subject, very little of which will reflect informed ideas from them or enlightening insight to us.  But the show must go on, and be assured that most of it will be just that – “for show.”

A number of Congresspersons expressed opposition to this pact even before the negotiations concluded, before it was formally signed and announced.  Which means they have not even bothered to read the document, and have no idea what this agreement actually says.  So when we hear these politicians say “I have been against this negotiation from the beginning” in order to appeal to their political base, they betray their own ignorance.  We should instead turn their attempted bragging back onto them and henceforth properly ignore them.

Others have been thoughtfully reading the document, asking relevant questions, listening to a variety of knowledgeable insights and opinions from objective parties.  These are the people we should seek out and listen to in order to make up our own minds.  I am most certainly far more willing to listen to an MIT physicist (now Secretary of Energy) and officials of the UN’s nuclear inspection team about the effectiveness of the agreed-upon inspection protocols than kneejerk critics such as the junior senator from Texas who opposes everything that our government attempts to do regardless of its merits.  And the overwhelming consensus within the scientific and technical community is that the inspection protocols Iran has agreed to are more than adequate to catch any breach of the agreement.  So in spite of all the rhetoric flying around about verification shortcomings, I am content with what has been agreed to.  I assume there are no more than a handful of Congresspersons technically qualified to know any more about this than I.

Then there are the folks who complain the deal only stops Iran for 15 years, and then they are free to start up new bomb making efforts.  Truth is, a lot of change can happen in 15 years.  15 years ago George W. Bush was elected president.  There was no 9-11 event, no U.S. war in the Middle East, no world-wide Great Recession.  I do not know what the world will look like 15 years from now, but I know it will be different from today: in the U.S., in Iran, in the Middle East.  All 15-year stretches end far differently than they started out – for better or worse.  I am easily willing to buy 15 years’ time to deal step-by-step with whatever new barriers and opportunities will undoubtedly arise.

Then there are those who claim we got clocked on this deal, that we gave away too much, that we should have held out for a “better deal,” that we should shut down this agreement and go back to the negotiating table.  Truth is, Donald Trump never saw a deal he did not think he could have negotiated better, and Benjamin Netanyahu never saw a deal he was willing to accept.   Biased, self-serving political critics such as these also deserve to be completely ignored in this discussion.

In our tendency towards nationalistic arrogance, we too often assume that it is all about us and what we want.  It ain’t.  Like it or not, Iran is a sovereign nation in its own right, with its own agenda and cadre of hardliners advocating for their own self-interests – just like us.  Like any country, like any negotiation, they will give up some things to get other things they deem more critical, but only up to a point.  Just as we have to do.  Unless we are willing to send in our bombs and our troops to overthrow their government and conquer their people – which we are not so willing – then we also have to give and get.  It is called “compromise” – that “C” word that Washington hates so much but which much of the rest of the country understands well.

In the end, there is no going back to the table.  For all the blustery talk, there is no better deal to be had.  Obama’s brilliant work was to create a broad coalition of nations willing to put severe economic restrictions into place, and then get an unlikely cohort of Britain / France / Russia / China to stand together with us in these negotiations.  These other nations have already agreed to this pact.  If this agreement fails in America in a misguided effort to seek a phantom “better deal,” that coalition will disappear.  The sanctions, the pressure on Iran, will never come back.  The failure will be America’s, and Iran will be free to go on its own to develop a bomb today.  Exactly what we thought was our primary priority to avoid.  America today may be the most powerful nation on earth, but like it or not, America is not powerful enough to sanction Iran into submission all by itself.   To think otherwise is to confuse American leadership with American arrogance.  So we would lose, Iran would go its separate unrestrained way, the rest of the world would move on, and Netanyahu would be left to his own scary unilateral actions.

Tom Cotton, the demonstrably freshman junior Senator from Arkansas who envisions himself as a shadow Secretary of State, will likely be a leader of the Senate challenge against the agreement.  Senate Republicans will be in unified opposition against it as a political statement rather than as an informed, measured move towards international peace.  John McCain and Lindsey Graham will once again propose sending in the troops, as they do with every international crisis.  The old guard from the Bush administration, who continually try to justify their role in creating the Iraq War and its subsequent consequences, will demonize any form of approachment with Iran.  Hopefully, all of this misguided opposition will ultimately evaporate in the cold face of pragmatic international realities.

After all the political hysteria dies down, this is a good deal versus the lack of any realistic alternatives that have been offered.  Do we trust Iran?  No, not any more than they trust us – for very good reasons given our unsavory history with them.  Is this agreement going to solve all of the issues between Iran and its neighbors and suddenly make them a good citizen of the world?  No.  But nations solve relationship problems one line-item at a time, in increments, not in overnight upside-down reversals.  This diplomatic effort was only intended to put the brakes on a nuclear Iran, not to resolve all manner of other desirable issues.  The current Agreement accomplishes what it set out to do.  We should respect that goal and celebrate its accomplishment, without the despicable rhetoric of presidential candidates, without stirring up false fears for political gain, without following false leaders both within and outside our borders.  Take the win and declare victory for today.  Tomorrow’s next difficult issues will come soon enough.  Sometimes, you just have to take a manageable risk and, as someone once sang, “give peace a chance.”

“When you have a divisive issue (e.g. Northern Ireland conflict), you do not seek “victory,” because there cannot be just one winner.  You must seek instead to be inclusive by accommodating all.”  (John Hume, Northern Ireland Catholic peace negotiator.)

©   2015   Randy Bell     

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Have You Ever Noticed That ...

After five years and two Supreme Court decisions and over eight million new people with health insurance, some Republican presidential candidates and well-paid business people are still trying to undo the Affordable Care Act.  The claims of “economic disaster” and efforts at legislative repeal continue unabated.  But have you ever noticed that most of the loudest screamers against this new service come from people already well-insured (often provided by government programs) and with easy access to services for their personal health care?

Scientists continue to document record high and low temperatures and unhealthy elements in our air.  There can be no argument about the facts that come from their politically-neutral mechanical measurement devices.  Nevertheless, many seriously concerned people are debating in good faith about how much of this adverse climate change is simply a normal cycle of nature versus a reflection of human-caused impacts.  And either way, what to do about it, if anything.  Some politicians with no scientific background whatsoever pontificate about the supposed “myth” of climate change.  But have you ever noticed that not one of these doubters is willing to put their nose up close to a running automobile’s tailpipe, or climb atop the exhaust funnel of a coal-fired electric generating plant, and breathe in very, very deeply?

We sent thousands of soldiers to war over this past decade “to defend America’s safety.”  Many of them are now home seeking our assistance with the damages inflicted upon them.  But have you ever noticed that many of the people who were most gung-ho about sending our sons and daughters into unlimited combat at an unlimited cost are the most prone to say we cannot afford to now straighten out the Veteran’s Administration and pay the full debt that is truly owed to these veterans?

Legislators in many states – mainly in the South and Midwest – have rushed to pass “concealed carry” and related laws that allow people to carry their guns into virtually any public establishment or setting.  Schools, college residences, bars and restaurants, etc.  But have you ever noticed that in not one instance have they opened up their own legislature building to such access?  The metal detection devices and security guards remain fully in place to prevent just such intrusions into their own space.

Many business people complain about “excessive government regulation” and “interference in the marketplace.”  But have you ever noticed that most of these same people are the first to seek out special exemptions and favored treatment in government procurement processes, tax laws, and agency regulations in order to defeat their competition and monopolize the marketplace?

Some people are enthusiastic about fracking to obtain more oil to run our automobiles and power our infrastructure.  This form of drilling process is said to be safe for the general public living in proximity to these well sites.  But have you ever noticed that these same people have pressured state legislators to prohibit local governments from preventing fracking in their communities, and make it a crime for any public health official or private citizen to reveal the chemicals being forced into the ground to accomplish this removal of oil?

The United States Supreme Court has made a number of significant legal decisions over the past several years.  Many of these decisions have been quite controversial, and usually decided by a narrow majority vote.  But have you ever noticed that, whether one generally has a “liberal” or a “conservative” viewpoint, whenever a decision goes in favor of one’s own personal belief the Court is “honoring its sacred duty to interpret and uphold the Constitution,” and whenever it goes against one’s belief the Court is “nine unelected judicial-activist judges dangerously intent on making new laws on their own?”

Awhile back, the Supreme Court ruled that spending unlimited money to promote one’s point of view is the equivalent of “free speech,” protected by our Bill of Rights (even when the payer is a non-person corporation).  But have you ever noticed that most of the people choosing to “speak” so freely through their money only do so through secret super-PACs who are able to hide their donor lists from being viewed by the public?  (I normally like to know who it is that is so desperate to speak to me.)

Many legislators claim that they “represent the people” and serve the public interests.  But have you ever noticed that when 90% of the people want one thing, and a handful of lobbyists and institutions with big dollars to donate want a different thing, those politicians typically turn their backs on the public 90% and vote with the couple of big-money people?

A number of federal and state legislators have mounted a concerted drive to pass laws “that ensure the integrity of the voting process” – even though virtually no proof has ever been offered that we have any problem with voting integrity.  But have you ever noticed that, if voting is such a sacred responsibility and obligation of citizenship, the net effect of these laws is to make it more difficult for fully qualified citizens to vote?

Many citizens are rightly concerned about the illegal immigration into this country that has occurred over the past 30 years.  But have you ever noticed that some of the loudest complainers about illegal immigrants are the very ones who are hiring them to work in their factories, harvest their farmlands, maintain their yards and landscapes, and build their homes and roads?

A number of people highly object to people speaking a language other than (American) English within our borders.  But have you ever noticed that when Americans go abroad, particularly to Europe, we fully expect everyone there to speak English to us even though it is not their native language?

Have you ever noticed that many small businesspeople vote for “pro-business” politicians who then enact laws that favor mega-corporations and super-rich people who are fully intent on driving these same small businesses out of business?  (Shop local.  Support your neighborhood business person.)

Some days the world makes even less sense than we ever thought possible.

©   2015   Randy Bell               

Monday, July 27, 2015

Of Money And Media

The presidential election of 2016 is still over 15 months away.  Yet the campaign for that office has been underway since the beginning of this year.  I had set a personal goal to avoid for a while longer any blog discussion of candidates or the issues they are talking about (or more likely avoiding).  This was to be my protest of silence against the ridiculousness of the excessively long and nonstop campaign cycle we have created in America.  (In the United Kingdom, they allow only two months for an election period!)  Our election has become a marathon that frankly has little relationship to producing the “best” president from among the candidates.  Instead , it has become an overly-produced product from media corporations desperate to fill air time and create year-round corporate income, and from political professionals to justify their ongoing fulltime employment and campaign paychecks.

Nevertheless, there are two general observations about the forthcoming election that warrant commentary even at this early date.  Because they give us clues about how this election may be determined, and who is really running this most important function of our collective society.

First is the blatant and indisputable reality that politics has fully become all about money.  With the unfathomable Supreme Court decisions that corporations have “free speech” rights just like people, and that there should not be effective limits on campaign donations, the cash is flowing like a tsunami over an arid flatland – with far more cash still to come.  Recent candidate filings show that even at this early stage, all Democrat and Republican presidential candidates combined have already raised close to $300M – $200M by Bush and Clinton alone.  Most of this money has gone into insidious Political Action Committees (PACs) with benign-sounding names hiding secret donors invisible to public scrutiny.  The theoretical independence and legal separation of PACs to their related candidate is a cynical joke.  For skilled political operatives, it is just a matter of which trick (of many available) will be used to get around these legal “restrictions.”  By the time 2016 gets done, we will most likely exceed the $3B price tag that pundits are predicting.  $3B any of us could likely find far better uses for.

With that much money being spread around, does anyone think that there is no expectation of quid-pro-quo “reward” for such largess?  The money trail inevitably shows a link to party and candidate platforms, proposed legislation, Congressional votes, and presidential executive orders and policies.  My paltry double-digit political donation carries little influence versus those giving out 8-9 digit donations.  My one vote into the ballot box may count the same “1” as everyone else’s, but my influence in the country’s direction, governance, fairness and way of life are nowhere near the same.

But before I get to cast my ballot for anyone, there is the question of whom I will be able to choose among.  As of this writing, there are sixteen Republican and four Democrat official candidates for president.  Under the wide-open Republican banner, there are around 3-4 candidates each polling more than 10% of the voting base, with the rest trailing in the single-digits (or near “0”).  This is where the broad spectrum of the news media is supposed to step in and help us sort out and understand who all of these people are and what they are about.  But so far, it seems that they have another idea of their job: pick a couple of favored candidates, concentrate on marketing them to the public, and ignore the rest of the field.

The first Republicans presidential candidate debate is scheduled in early August.  Fox “News,” the host selected by the RNC, has decreed that it will only allow the top ten polling candidates to appear on stage with an opportunity to speak.  The other six just-as-worthy candidates, only a “margin of error” statistical difference from each other, will be declared unimportant and thereby ignored.  In the meantime, the Huffington Post has made a policy decision to relegate Donald Trump to its Entertainment section of reporting, even though his polling leads all Republican candidates.  Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, said that ten minutes of discussion about Trump’s campaigning versus one minute spent on John Kasich’s candidacy announcement was justified because “Trump is a major poll driver and John Kasich is not.”  Polls, not information needed by the public, equals coverage.

So that seems to be the media’s premise: our job is not to give all candidates an equal opportunity to speak to the American public about their proposed solutions to America’s needs.  Rather, or job is to bless only the poll leaders and help them lead even more – six months before anyone in the voting public actually votes on these candidates.  So we already see the shift in campaign strategies: it is not about saying anything meaningful, or saying it to the early voting states.  It is about saying or doing anything that will get you media attention.

Fox “News” thinks it is their job to anoint who is worthy of being on their stage.  I prefer the alternative proposal that 16 RNC-certified candidates deserve to be treated equally.  Meaning simply that two debates of eight randomly-chosen pairings are required.  At this point in the cycle, Lindsey Graham’s 1% poll is as valid as Jeb Bush’s 12%.  And when the time comes, Bernie Sanders’ poll number will be as valid as Hillary Clinton’s.   No one is a winner yet!

In truth, I am not sure that I will have much in common with most of the Republican candidates for president announced so far.  Or have much confidence in their track records, credentials, or their plausibility to be the “leader of the free world.”  I am not sure that Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum or Rick Perry has anything new to say to us.  Or that George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson has any ultimate viability.   But a Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio perspective on some specific issues might bear some interest.  Regardless, anyone who has done enough work and accumulated enough support to be able to formally declare his/her candidacy deserves a respectful and equal hearing from the voting citizenry.  That is the true meaning of our democratic way.

Our democracy has always suffered from “rigged” elections, backroom deals, party bosses, and media propaganda for favored candidates.  But in the end, it is supposed to be the voters who pick their leaders, at all levels.  In 2016, it is going to be an uphill battle for voters pushing back against the Money and the Media.  Unfortunately, at this early moment, any expectations for real discussion of real problems seeking real answers from real leaders seem highly unlikely.

©  2015   Randy Bell      

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Flag Through A Prism

This is a blog I had not intended to write.  But after several readers wrote asking for my thoughts about the controversy over flying the Confederate flag, obligation took over.  Hopefully there is something worthwhile to be added to all the current extensive conversation that is occurring.

First, full disclosure.  I was born and raised in the South in a medium-sized city in Arkansas.  My upbringing was typical of the 1950s South.  With a maternal family name of Lee, we were steeped in Civil War history and injected with Old South traditions and pride.  The absolute segregation of African-Americans was simply the “unquestioned way it is,” rarely openly discussed but clearly in evidence in the Black side of town, the “White/Colored” door signs, and the separated facilities (e.g. schools, movie houses, swimming pools, parks).  My extended family employed African-Americans for child-rearing, domestic help, and yard maintenance.  Our extended time together made them almost “family,” but they most certainly were not.  There was always a certain line of familiarity never to be crossed by either side.  Black voting and politics were nonexistent.  When I was a teenager, I was shocked to find out that some “special rules” also applied to white Catholics and Jews.  The doors of doubt were thusly opened slightly; the questions slowly began.

Arkansas was the jumping off point for school desegregation and the ‘60s civil rights battlegrounds.  The forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock hit my town like a bombshell.  To their lasting credit, the town fathers saw the handwriting on the wall and, anger and panic aside, quietly went about desegregation: from the first grade, one subsequent grade added each year.  We never made the headlines; violence was averted.  Structural change came, even if begrudgingly, even if changes in attitudes and perspectives lagged behind.

I left Arkansas at 21, and spent the rest of my adult life in Massachusetts/New England until returning to the South (North Carolina) ten years ago.  Trying to answer the many questions from “outsiders” during the turbulent ‘60s, questions I had never thought to ask, turned out to be the only way I was fully able to understand what “being Southern” really meant.  That experience steadily changed my perspective dramatically, even if my affection remained intact.  But one insight I also learned:  a Southerner can never explain his/her culture to a non-Southerner.  The starting points for such a discussion are simply too far apart.

A non-Southerner sees the South in 1-1 relationship to a specific topic of interest, typically slavery / segregation / civil rights.  The Southerner sees the culture as one complete entity made up of many inseparable facets, as if looking at many rich colors through a prism.  Each Southerner picks one’s own combination of facets that drives him/her, which makes the language of conversation into a near-incomprehensible verbal maze to try to decipher.

For some, “Southern Heritage” means a longing for the ante-bellum South lifestyle and social manners glorified in “Gone With The Wind,” even though such plantation excess was available only to the small minority of wealthy society.  For some, it refers to the Southern Greek Revival appreciation for education, intellect, art, architecture, philosophy, politics and thought that produced four of our first six Presidents.  For some, it refers to the agriculture-based economy, with slavery just a necessary dependency.  (Only some Southerners could afford to own slaves themselves, but the others still depended upon the plantation economy for their income and so the economic base had to be defended.)  For some, it refers to the Confederate nation and government, an in-your-face defiant statement personifying “states’ rights over federal” that reflects long suspicions going back to the Constitutional Convention itself.  For many, it refers to the military campaigns of the Civil War, and homage to the tactics, valor, courage and sacrifices of real family ancestors fighting against overwhelmingly superior  odds – regardless of the reasons for which they fought.  For some, it is redressing the destruction of Southern society in the Reconstruction Period by a punitive North in spite of Lincoln’s plan for forgiveness and reunification.  The epithet “damn Yankee” was taught to every schoolboy.

Yet the indefensible reality of slavery complicates the whole Heritage.  There are very few today who claim that slavery was a good or needed thing.  The post-reconstruction period proved that the agricultural economy did not really need it.  The undeniable truth is that Southern slavery – the absolute control by one individual over another, enforced by extreme physical torture and mental abuse – is a major blot on Southern Heritage that is indefensible today.  But in my childhood, slavery and Blacks were never talked about.  And it substantially remains in the shadows today, a topic polite ladies and gentlemen do not explore in honest discussion.  It needs conversation.  It still needs further redressing.

The Southern Heritage and Civil War that we seek to respect and honor ended in April 1865.  150 years ago.  Yet some Southerners today seem to still seek to reverse the finality of Appomattox and continue fighting that war.  They fight not on battlefields but in the legislatures and on social fronts, all while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes and the USA.  It is a schizophrenia, a paradox, that lives comfortably in the heart of a Southerner that an outsider can never quite comprehend.

The flag that we are debating today is not the flag of the Confederate nation.  It was the battlefield flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, designed to distinguish it clearly from the North’s Stars and Stripes in the chaos of the battlefield.  But for over a century it has been appropriated for causes well beyond its original purpose.  It was the flag flown when denying Blacks their new constitutional rights granted after the Civil War ended.  It was the flag flown at KKK demonstrations, at cross burnings, and at lynchings.  It was the flag that lined the streets in Birmingham and Selma, and when attacking the Freedom Ride buses.  It was the flag that hung over too-many assassinations, bombings and killings of the 1960s, and silenced all-White juries into no justice rendered.  Today the flag is used on apparel and license plates to apparently self-proclaim “I am a bad-boy rebel,” and it is even NASCAR’s unofficial sports flag!  Are those the battles and causes and people that we are seeking to honor by flying that flag on public buildings across the South?  Today, 20% of the population of the Old Confederacy states are African-Americans (as high as 37% in Mississippi).   Are they not “Southerners” also, or are “Southerners” inherently White-only?  Do we continue to ignore and deny African-Americans their existence and birthright just as the Founding Fathers did in their Constitution?  If all of our great-great-grandparents were Black slaves, would we even be having this conversation now?

We need to remember our history, learn from our history, honor our history.  But the sins of fathers should not be passed to their children, and the children should not take up the cause of their fathers.  We have to acknowledge ALL of our history, not just the selected parts, and see our ancestors in the full light of their times.  So we need to keep our statues and monuments.  We need to preserve our flags in the archives and museums in which all history is ultimately destined to lie, restoring the flag from being an misappropriated symbol of hate to its rightful symbol of valor.  We need to honor all of our citizens in our public places, not just some of them, remaining scrupulously neutral toward all. We need to keep the better parts of our heritage in our hearts, the lesser parts in our consciences.  Respecting and honoring the past does not require us to live in the past.

In my senior year high school yearbook, there is a picture of me standing beneath a Confederate battle flag being waved to rally a cheering home crowd attending a Friday night football game.  I get all the things that flag has meant to so many.  But that was a fall night in 1962.  53 years ago.  It is now 2015.  The world has changed dramatically.  For the better.  It is time to catch up fully with those changes.  It is time for all of us to move on.  In so doing, I am fully confident that my great-great-grandfather, Samuel Carroll Lee, a Confederate soldier from Tennessee, would be very proud of us all.

©  2015   Randy Bell      

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Humanity's Violent Inhumanity


There is so much violence in this place you have created that we call Earth.  It exists all through the life forms and food chain, from the simplest creatures through the complexity of human beings.  Yet in no instance is the violence so wanton, so random, and so outright cruel as violence perpetrated by humans, mainly to each other.  And we manage to do it in such myriad ways.  We, who are supposedly the most rationally intelligent of all the species.

Wars are fought for seemingly unexplainable reasons.  Mind-numbing genocide kills upwards of millions of people in an attempt to wipe out a whole section of humankind.  Innocent young girls are bombed as they attended Sunday School simply because they were Black. Young children are shot in their seats, in the school classroom intended to nurture their future.  Adults in a Bible study group are killed in a church that epitomizes the historical experience of African-Americans.  We shoot innocent bystanders for no apparent reason as a blood sport.  We kill or maim family members or loved ones out of our own inexplicable hurt.  We mortally wound a person’s self-esteem by an angry word or expression of disappointment – mental and emotional violence as deadly as the physical.  We bully impressionable children and vulnerable teenagers because they may be different, scarring them for life and perhaps pushing them into their own suicide.

How do we make sense out of all of this?  In the midst of the beauty of human life, the splendor of Nature, and the miracle of the science of Creation, how does this continuing violence we expend against each other fit into the Universe’s scheme of things?  What are we to take away from all of this?

“Violence is an inherent part of being human.  It has been there from the beginning of humankind.  Each of you is born with the capacity for it, though not necessarily for the execution of it.  So any understanding starts with accepting that it exists, and it exists within each of you.  How will you manage it?

Some people look to Me to stop it.  For Me to somehow magically put an end to the desire and ability for one person to harm another.  But it is not Me striking out at one another.  It is not Me holding the knife, the gun, the weapons of death and destruction.  It is not Me that says the words and does the acts that denigrate and marginalize others.  It is you.  It is your choice about whether you will do these things.  And why you would choose to do so.  Look inward, not outward.

Is this violence abhorrent?  Yes.  Not just because of the very real physical and mental pain it creates for the victim(s), for the families, for the community.  But also because it marks the very public descent of a human being to the most base instincts of his or her Self.  A decision to walk away from giving the gift of peace and happiness to others while feeling one’s own joy, and instead choosing to give harm and destruction to another while feeling one’s own pain and suffering.  Human life is about choice, and using one’s tools and capabilities to make good choices for one’s self and the many.  The reality is that human beings are capable of making some very bad choices.  These days it seems that the choices being made are increasingly worse ones.  And they are happening more frequently.

Your earthly world can be anything you choose to make of it.  For better or for worse.  As has been said, violence begets violence, because violence comes from fear and hopelessness.  When the emotion of fear is thwarted by hopelessness, it leads to anger which creates hate, and hate generates the act of mental and/or physical violence.  Violence, then, is seen as a tool to overcome that fear and hopelessness.  For a fleeting moment, the violent have power over what s/he fears.  Hope is rekindled – even if but for an instant.  As long as you allow, if not endorse, these moments of power, of revenge, of triumph, the violence will continue.

So ask yourself, what makes a person feel fear and hopelessness?  What makes a person susceptible to the force of hated?  Where, and from whom, does one learn to hate?  What makes a person then choose to perform the violence that flows from hatred?

The violence begins to stop when you choose to stop it.  As an individual; as a collective society.  When you take away the tools of violence from the fearful and hopeless.  When you do everything possible to protect the vulnerable.  When everyone who deplores violence actually does something to help prevent it.  By making their words heard, and speaking and standing in opposition to hate and violence, in the home and public square.  And truly means it and acts it.

Right now, you say that such violence is unacceptable.  Yet you do in fact accept it by your actions.  You talk about the equality of all persons, but continue to treat each other unequally.  You talk about the Brotherhood of Man and the Sisterhood of Women, but you do not welcome all into your family.  You talk about doors of opportunity, but then shut them to those seeking to enter.  You talk about unity but foster separation, and shrug your shoulders at unfairness.  Many of your ministers, politicians, leaders and their followers, preach anger and hatred toward each other on a daily basis.  What else would you expect to result from this continual dissension and turmoil besides violence towards each other?

You can imprison the offender after the fact.  Or you can remove the need to offend.  Ending your violence will not come from some divine intervention.  It will end when your ill-treatment towards each other ends.  When you take a truly honest look at your thinking and actions instead of your words.  It ends when the violence of negative thoughts and indifferent actions within your heart dies.  When you collectively stand and say loudly, “ENOUGH” – and mean it.  When you demand it of those who pretend to be your leaders – and demand it of yourself instead of hiding behind “it’s not me.”  When you open the doors of your home and welcome all to come inside and be your guests.  And when you leave the familiar comfort of your home to be their guests.

This is not wishy-washy, squishy-softy stuff.  Accepting all others with equal fairness, and removing fear and hopelessness, is one of the hardest challenges you will face in your lifetime.  As a person.  As a society.  As a community of human friends.  Good luck in meeting that challenge – if you are truly willing and able.  It is your Choice.”

©  2105   Randy Bell      

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What Means Christian Nation?

It seems that every day in the social media jungle, there is some comment claiming that “America is [supposed to be] a Christian Nation,” as was supposedly intended by our Founding Fathers (which they most certainly did not).  Or that we need “a Christian in the White House” (we already have one).  Or that we need to have prayer in the public schools (the last place to which religious ritual should be entrusted).  Such thoughts are also echoed by some (thankfully not all) among the growing plethora of Republican candidates for president, reinforced daily by a series of Fox News opinionators.  They are all storytellers in the fairy tale of a supposed “war on religion” in America.

When I read or hear such comments, I am always struck by two questions.  1) What would such a “Christian Nation” look like; what would change and how would our nation be different from what it already is?  And 2) Which version of “Christian” would we put into such a special standing?

As a Christian Nation, does that mean we will reject the 30+% of Americans who do not call themselves Christians, and forcibly expel them out of the country?  Would we take away their right to vote, to own property, to practice their alternative religion or build their houses of worship?  Would we forbid them from political office or government service, even though that is expressly prohibited by our Constitution?  Would we require tax dollars to be used to support Christian churches as some countries do with their “state religion”?   Would we throw out 225 years of secular legal legislation and replace it with religious law interpreted from the Bible (Old and/or New Testaments?) – as they do in Iran from the Qur’an?   Is our most American secular holiday – Thanksgiving – to be reserved only for Christian prayers and meals?  Would we need to sign a loyalty oath to the “Christian Church” to be an American?

I personally find the idea of America as a Christian Nation to be dangerous on its face, and that opinion has nothing to do with Christianity itself.  Such a concept is a total assault against the values and promise of America as a safe haven for all comers of any faith.  Given that it is never explained what a Christian Nation would mean in specific, tangible terms suggests that this movement is coming from baseless, intangible fear.  The current absence of any government endorsement or adoption of any particular religion, and that wonderful precedence of keeping religions and government separate, is exactly what keeps our individual religions safe and sound.  We tamper with that neutrality at our own extreme risk.

Even so, the harder question remains: whose version of Christianity would we use (besides people’s assumed answer: “mine!”)?  For all the good spiritual lessons to be found in the original teachings of Jesus, the history of the Christian Church that followed is replete with internal fights over domination for power, violent persecution of contrary opinions as “heretics,” and the ultimate fracturing of the One Church into the many parts.  Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics split the original Christian Church a thousand years ago, while Protestants then broke away 500 years ago as a protest to Roman Catholic practices.  And now Protestants themselves have split into innumerable mainstream, evangelical, and “other” denominations.  The would-be Christian needs a detailed tour guide to navigate this religious maze.

Christians differ among themselves from church to church within the same denomination.  They differ within a single congregation.  All Southern churches within a denomination do not practice the same; their brethren churches in the North or West can be radically different in form and practice.  Further, most Christian denominations are fighting significant internal battles over issues of religious dogma, ritual, policy, inclusion, the role of women (or lack thereof), moral code, and the diminishing numbers in the pews.  Who then is the “true believer,” and where is s/he to be found?  I once heard a Baptist preacher of a large southern church say in an interview that, “Whenever you put ten Baptists into a room, you immediately have 14 different opinions.”  A Baptist minister friend filling in at two small Methodist churches in our rural county once remarked to her congregations on some of the similarities she found between Baptists and Methodists.  She was quickly rebuked that “please don’t tell us we are all the same!”  Then there is the question of whether some denominations are even Christian at all: e.g. Mormons, Quakers.

A primary tenet of Catholicism is the idea of the Pope as being infallible and having absolute authority.  Yet in survey after survey, the vast majority of American Catholics admit to not believing or following one or more dictums of the Pope.  In Ireland, one of the most Catholic of nations (and an ancestral home of many Americans), voters recently approved same-sex marriage by a resounding margin.  Some hailed that historical vote as a great victory for marriage equality, which it certainly was.  But the bigger significance of this vote was its overwhelming renunciation of Catholic authority, leadership and religious law – the same as is increasingly happening in America.

We often hope for religion to be the great unifier of humankind.  But that is not the way it has worked out.  While religions may seek to serve all of humankind, each typically wants to do so on its own terms.  And therefore all religions are ultimately destined to break down structurally into smaller components.  Religion is intended to nurture and be the expression of our spiritual being, and that being operates in our individual Self, a Self unique from all other Selves.  So our religion can be informed by Greater Lessons, but it must reside in the smallness of Self.

In truth, few Americans have been prevented from worshiping their God and expressing their spirituality by constraint of law.  Houses of worship have not been forcibly shuttered or prevented from being built by government force.  Ministers have not been gagged in the content of their sermon from the pulpit (though perhaps censored by their own leadership!).  No one has been denied a place on a ballot, or required to wear a religious identity patch on their arm, by governmental edict.  Religious freedom is alive and well in the homes and worship houses in America, which is where it is intended to be guaranteed – even if it is not so alive in the hearts of many of our citizens.

And that is the true beauty of America’s posture toward religion.  Take no side.  Leave each individual to find his/her own road, without interference, without being forced into an inappropriate alternative.  That was the real intent of our Founding Fathers.  Any real attempt to establish one single national religion would tear this country apart over which denomination wins; all others lose.  “Christian” is a beautiful inspiration containing many different meanings to which we can choose to aspire. But it is not a universal form applicable to a nation of 300 million independently-minded citizens rooted in individual American freedom.  Let us leave the details of that inspiration to the individual Self and to his/her conscience in the privacy of each home and house of worship.  Instead of expending our efforts in trying to achieve religious superiority, perhaps we should be focusing our energy on perfecting the practices of our own spirituality, and leave the souls of others to a power far greater than ourselves,   The public arena is no place to look to find one single true religion.

©   2015   Randy Bell