Friday, April 29, 2011

A Day on Which Absolutely Nothing Happened*

Wounded Bird does an otherwise excellent post on the Royal Wedding today, saving me the trouble (what is it about weddings? I swore I wouldn't even get up for it, and yet...). But then WB misses entirely the Wedding Sermon, which I thought was not only the best wedding sermon I'd ever heard, but one of the best sermons I had ever heard. I mean, when you can work Catherine(!) of Siena and Chaucer into a wedding sermon, well...that's someone I can learn from! So, in order to repair the error made by WB's sin of omission:
LONDON: Bishop of London's Sermon at the Royal Wedding of William and Kate

April 29, 2011

"Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."

So said St Catherine of Siena whose festival day this is. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.

Many are full of fear for the future of today's world but the message of the celebrations in this country and far beyond its shores is the right one - this is a joyful day. It is good that people in every continent are able to share in the celebrations because this is, as every wedding day should be, a day of hope.

In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them to the future.

William and Catherine, you have chosen to be married in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the Spirit of this generous God, husband and wife are to give themselves to one another.

Spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover that the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.

It is of course hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. People can dream of such a thing but the hope will not be fulfilled without a solemn decision that, whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love.

You have both made your decision today - "I will" - and by making this new relationship, you have aligned yourselves with what we believe is the way in which life is spiritually evolving, and which will lead to a creative future for the human race.

We stand looking forward to a century which is full of promise and full of peril. Human beings are confronting the question of how to use wisely the power which has been given to us through the discoveries of the last century. We shall not be converted to the promise of the future by more knowledge, but rather by an increase of loving wisdom and reverence, for life, for the earth and for one another.

Marriage should transform, as husband and wife make one another their work of art. This transformation is possible as long as we do not harbour ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom. Chaucer, the London poet, sums it up in a pithy phrase:

"Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon, Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon." As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, and mutual forgiveness, to thrive.

As we move towards our partner in love, following the example of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is quickened within us and can increasingly fill our lives with light. This leads to a family life which offers the best conditions in which the next generation can practise and exchange those gifts which can overcome fear and division and incubate the coming world of the Spirit, whose fruits are love and joy and peace.

I pray that every one present and the many millions watching this ceremony and sharing in your joy today will do everything in their power to support and uphold you in your new life. I pray that God will bless you in the way of life you have chosen, a way which is expressed in the prayer that you have written together in preparation for this day:

God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage. In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy. Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.


---The Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London

*It's a very inside joke. Don't try to make sense of it; you can't.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In lieu of yet another Easter post

I will assume the devoted religious/faithful among my audience (devoted to actually reading this blog,however occasionally, I mean) will have had enough of Easter sermons and services today. Besides, in the context of a blog, there's nothing much I can say that I haven't already said.

So I would direct you to New Advent for a definitive word on "Easter." All I can add to all the people who think if un-Christian to attach Christian significance to a "pagan" holiday is: get over it. Oestre probably never existed (more like the Venerable Bede was being less venerable than we might expect, as he is the only source for that odd connection to "Easter," which is an English word, not a Christian one. The more proper Christian term is the "Pasch," but let that go, too.) Go to New Advent to get the word on bunnies and eggs and all things "easter," if you like. Turns out this has always been a season of celebration, and always a much more important event on the Church calendar than Christmas.

Which is interesting. Christmas is almost entirely a secular observance, even in the Church (you can look me up on that if you want). Easter still isn't. Good for Easter.

I really should be out playing some games....

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday 2011

Good Friday should be silent. The church should be shrouded, the altar stripped, funereal cloths draped, only prayers and whispers heard. No music; certainly there should be no music.

Good Friday should be silent. The world needs occasions to consider the values of silence.

"Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid."--John 19:41

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Holy Week and Christ Crucified

This is what we should be meditating on for Holy Week:

In Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart has described the Christian revolution in terms of the stripping bare of the pagan life-world with its pantheon of gods, demigods and spirits who guaranteed the proper order of things and provided life with meaning.

"In such a world," Hart writes, "the gospel was an outrage, and it was perfectly reasonable for its cultured despisers to describe its apostles as 'atheists'. Christians were … enemies of society, impious, subversive, and irrational; and it was no more than civic prudence to detest them for refusing to honor the gods of their ancestors, for scorning the common good, and for advancing the grotesque and shameful claim that all gods and spirits had been made subject to a crucified criminal from Galilee … This was far worse than mere irreverence; it was pure and misanthropic perversity; it was anarchy."
Where is the sense of anarchy of yesteryear? "But we preach Christ crucified," Paul told the church in Corinth, "unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness." What would it take to be that revolutionary again, that compelling?

Mind, I don't accept the theory that the gospel was such an outrage in the "pagan world" that it upset the apple cart of history and paved the way for the conversion of Constantine. That's historical rubbish. More likely, had Constantine not converted, Christianity would have struggled along as a minority religious sect for many more centuries, upsetting no one and pestering many (as the Jews, inadvertently, have done in European history). Constantine's conversion was Christianity's blessing, and its curse; and the aggressively spiritual, aggressively contrarian Christianity some imagine, probably never existed outside the martyrologies.

Still, a guy can dream. And besides, a Christianity that isn't revolutionary is just "Christendom," and Kierkegaard was right about that.

It ain't worth havin'.

But it ain't worth positing as the only "true" Christianity, either. There has to be a better way. Which is where the spirituality of the monastery, or of a Dorothy Day, comes in. What am I trying to say? This:

On what condition does goodness exist beyond all calculation? On the condition that goodness forget itself, that the movement be a movement of the gift that renounces itself, hence a movement of infinite love. Only infinite love can renounce itself and, in order to become finite, become incarnated in order to love the other, to love the other as a finite other. This gift of infinite love comes from someone and is addressed to someone; responsibility demands irreplaceable singularity.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 50-51.

And this:

These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your own cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you now know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
James 4:1-6

And even this:

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
Dorothy Day, from The Dorothy Day Book, p. 11.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holy Week Begins

Not my favorite version, but the best quality I could find on short notice. Although it should end with the far more plaintive plea of the original: "HEAL YOURSELVES!!!"

This is, for purely personal historical reasons, my soundtrack for Holy Week. And even in this versions, at least it pushes us closer to the human experience of Holy Week. Which is a very good thing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Waters of Oblivion

The consistent thread through the Hebrew scriptures into the proclamation of the basileia tou theou is that humans must eschew and avoid political power, because power draws its source from the fear of scarcity.
Scarcity comes in many forms: scarcity of liberty; scarcity of money; scarcity of food and water; even scarcity of want:

The rise of the politics of fear begins in 1949 with two men whose radical ideas would inspire the attack of 9/11 and influence the neo-conservative movement that dominates Washington.

Both these men believed that modern liberal freedoms were eroding the bonds that held society together.

The two movements they inspired set out, in their different ways, to rescue their societies from this decay. But in an age of growing disillusion with politics, the neo-conservatives turned to fear in order to pursue their vision.

They would create a hidden network of evil run by the Soviet Union that only they could see.

The Islamists were faced by the refusal of the masses to follow their dream and began to turn to terror to force the people to "see the truth"'.

The neo-conservative movement, the one that spawned Paul Ryan as much as George W. Bush, has come to dominate by preaching a scarcity of want. Paul Ryan firmly believes those who have from private means are deserving, and those who have from public means are corrupted, are suffering from a scarcity of want, from a lack of need. If that is not a perversion of sense and civilization, what is it? If that is not demonic, what is it?

This is Puritanism perverted and grown mad on too much of nothing. Not the nothing of material deprivation, but the nothing of spiritual deprivation. Ayn Rand's "dystopia" (as NPR recently described it) is not a product of want and deprivation, but a product of infantilization, of growing up and find the world is not a mere extension of ego, that there are people besides you to account for. Rand's "Objectivism" is an unwillingness to face that reality: that you are not the center of existence. It is a child refusing to grow up; Peter Pan made real, and not a charming boy-child, but a distorted and disgusting adult, one who revels in her self-affirmed self-importance. Too much of nothing.

Paul Ryan is a devotee of Ayn Rand.

And why do I continue to harp on this? One example:

To call some of the provisions in this deal “budgetary” and others “policy riders” is a distinction without a difference. The budget is policy and policy is the budget. To take an example from my field of expertise: The deal likely reduces or even eliminates funding for One-Stop career centers. These are places that host many social service agencies and have the primary mission of connecting the unemployed to the workforce. (Total elimination appeared in HR 1, and a massive cut in the Senate amendment to HR 1.) This is a huge policy decision -- we have determined that we are not going to assist the unemployed at career centers. Where was the debate on this, not to mention the debates on the dozens of other effects of the deal?
Not only "where is the debate" but: "What are we doing?" Read the rest of the story at that link to find out. We are turning into Paul Ryan: deciding who is worthy, and who is not, and it's all based on some vague Ayn Randian idea that those who are worthy will survive, and those who are not should be discarded. And where is the debate on that?

And it all returns to too much of nothing. Not only are we fearful of it, or despairing of it (especially if we are the unemployed sitting at those computers asking "Can't I just apply for a job?", in which case your universe doesn't even include this post), we have become dependent on it. When everyone has nothing, only those who claim control of the nothing, who claim the right to dispense it and distribute it and control who gets the most of it, have something. And we have ceded that, we have given it away, we have thrust it upon them. A sordid boon! It is not the world that is too much with us, it is the nothing that the world offers. When we decide that nothing is all there is, we doom ourselves to despair and helplessness and fear.

Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Marion.

Want has become the new good, and when government interferes with that situation of want, government has overreached. Indeed, it seems government should create want, not alleviate it:

The Unites States, with costly military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, increased spending by 2.8 percent to $698 billion -- about six times as much as China, the second-biggest spender ahead of Britain, France and Russia. In 2009, U.S. spending grew 7.7 percent.
Much of that spending, of course, creates destruction and want in other countries. I've seen figures that indicate the current federal deficit is largely a product of two wars ("off budget" until Obama took office) and the so-called "Bush tax cuts." Remove that, and the budget deficit isn't such a problem. Indeed, we had this same argument during Vietnam: social spending was too expensive, but funding the war was an absolute necessity, no matter what.

I was teaching "A Modest Proposal" for the umpteenth time this week, when I realized something about it I hadn't noticed before. The argument, of course, is couched in terms meant to make the solution sound reasonable and practical. That the solution is cannibalism is meant not to shock with its absurdity or immorality, but with the reality that the English might as well eat the Irish children outright, as they devour them in every other aspect of human existence. Swift's argument is, in structure if not substance, a model of its kind. But what is easily overlooked is how well it works as an argument, and why its outcome is really so logical (if monstrous).

Swift's narrator focuses on the problem of poverty in Ireland, but like any planner, he focuses on the number of poor children, and the problem of poverty as a problem of lack of income. It is not, in other words, a structural problem (the English as absentee landlords refusing to allow Ireland any local industry for basic human needs (clothing, furniture; this is pre-Industrial Revolution Europe, remember; needs were simpler when factories weren't present to create new ones every day), or to even be taxed for their landholdings. A close reading of the essay, without any economic history lesson, shows money flows out of Ireland, not into it, and that's a dandy arrangement: for the English. But the proponent of the "modest proposal" sees the problem as one of numbers and of opportunity in what we would call a "free market." Indeed, his is the ultimate free market solution.

The problem, as the essayist sees it, is the number of poor children. But blaming the mothers never crosses his mind (which already makes one wonder who the real monsters are today). Instead, he wants to turn that liability to an asset, and he does so by calculations drawn from the raising of livestock as feedstock. Just as any farmer would calculate the cost of raising a cow or sheep until it can be taken to market, Swift's narrator calculates the cost of raising children, and concludes that 1 year olds can be raised on mother's milk and a few coins for clothing, then sold to the butcher at a tidy profit. The horror is in the cannibalism. No, the true horror is that this is still the way we approach human problems. We take the humans out of the equation, and roll on.

The horror of Swift's proposal, of course, is that it is inhumane. But the error is a simple one, and it comes from a simple situation: define the problem, and you define the solution. If the problem is numbers (number of poor children in Ireland) and poverty (lack of opportunity for income), the easiest solution is a new market for a new source of meat. It is, in fact, no less inhuman a proposal than any other proposal which displaces the person from the equation, and decides the solution based on numbers and an abstraction like poverty (which is very real in civilization, but quite abstract to those who plan ways for society at large to cope with it, or just to ignore it). So, define the problem without any humans being involved, and you get....

Well, the theology of scarcity, for one thing. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, for another. Define the problem by excluding the humans, and whatever solution you reach will be too much of nothing. And even when it is as monstrous as "A Modest Proposal," odds are we will pay attention to the horror of the solution, and not to the situation which produces fresh horrors everyday, for which no solution is ever offered.

On the waters of oblivion.

When we start from the assumption that there is always enough want to go around, and indeed that there should be a distribution of want, especially to those who are not us, then it's easy to see the solution is not an alleviation of that want, but it's proper allocation. Swift was satirizing an attitude of indifference, but his satire changed nothing. "Ireland has her madness still," as Auden would say 300 years later. It is the allocation of want that is the great driver of our society, just as it was in Swift's day. Ryan's budget proposal was originally based on predictions it would lower employment to 2.8% in some rosy future. The only problem with that, the experts pointed out, was that it would trigger inflationary worries in the Federal Reserve, which as a matter of stated policy would regard such low unemployment as a problem, and react accordingly. Want must be carefully allocated, in order to keep the system working. We all know that, since the advent of the factory, want has become the driving need of our economy: if we do not want, we do not buy, and if we do not buy, the economy falters, sputters, perhaps comes to a halt. Without the careful allocation of want, what economy do we have?

Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Marion. Send them all my salary from the waters of oblivion.

The basiliea tou theou is about the absence of want.

Matthew 6:25-33
6:25 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

6:27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,

6:29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?

6:31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'

6:32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Maybe the beginning of an answer is to begin thinking about what we can do for others, rather than thinking about what we don't have for ourselves. Maybe it's not want we should be focused on.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Why I went into the woods

Stirring the pensieve again...

And speaking of the demonic:

Austin - Today Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee unanimously voted against HB 1, the Republican budget proposal for 2012-2013. HB 1 passed the Committee on a vote of 18-7 and will be considered by the full House of Representatives in the coming weeks. Democrats on the Committee spoke out against the proposal to cut funding for neighborhood schools, make college more expensive, and eliminate basic services for children, seniors and the disabled.

House Democrats have called on state leaders to fix the $10 billion permanent budget hole created by the Republicans' 2006 tax plan and use a portion of the $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to address the 2012-2013 budget, but the leadership has refused to do so.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) said, "In many cases the cuts in health and human services are making life and death decisions. Texas children, senior citizens and disabled Texans deserve better. With inadequate resources, our school children are destined to a second class education and unable to compete in today's global economy. This budget is unacceptable to our constituencies who have sent us to ensure a first class education for our children, protect our citizens, care for those who no longer can care for themselves and provide services to those who have nowhere else to turn."

Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston) said, "Texas is experiencing a budget shortfall, but cutting funds to schools, the elderly and disabled is not the only way to address our problem. It is important that we uphold the commitment to our citizens and not put the most vulnerable of our population, like children, the disabled and the mentally challenged at risk. I will continue to work throughout the rest of the session and any special sessions to have a bill with the appropriate cuts that I can eventually vote for."

Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) said, "Just like so many Texas families, the state has put money into savings for times of fiscal crisis. Texas Republicans are today demanding that we make devastating cuts that will hurt Texas' school-aged, elderly, and disabled residents, cuts that they would never suggest for their own families. It is unconscionable that such brutal cuts are being proposed while billions of dollars sit unspent in the state's savings account."

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) said, "Not a single person showed up in our committee and asked us to eliminate pre-k grants for our youngest schoolchildren and financial aid for college freshmen, but that's what this budget does. Prior generations of Texans have invested in educating children in our state, but this generation will drop the torch if this budget passes.

The budget is almost $8 billion short of funding our legal obligations to schools. These cuts will destroy the infrastructure of education and health care that past generations have built for our children.

The Republican budget fails to uphold our obligation to our children and threatens to end our state's prosperity. We can do better than this if the Republicans fix the recurring $10 billion hole they put in the budget with the 2006 Perry Tax Swap and eliminate tax loopholes that litter our tax laws."
I highlighted a portion of that to emphasize the destructive nature of the demonic. It is this desire for destruction which sets this apart from the merely selfish or short-sighted. This is not the theology of scarcity; this is the theology of destruction. This is beyond despair; this is demonic. What do I mean? I mean this:

The consistent thread through the Hebrew scriptures into the proclamation of the basileia tou theou is that humans must eschew and avoid political power, because power draws its source from the fear of scarcity.
This has certainly been true all my life. In my childhood, it was the Cold War, and the fear of scarcity was the fear of a scarcity of liberty, a scarcity of life itself in the shadow of the Bomb. We only had to capitalize it to know what we all meant. That fear turned into the informal slogan of the Bush Administration: "Freedom is not free." The scarcity lingered on, the idea that nothing is ours without purchase, without price, and purchase and price always means one to a customer, and only to the paying customer. Blow you, Jack, I got mine!

Before that, and even alongside it, was the scarcity of security in one's job; so that white plantation owners, long after the end of slavery, kept poor whites fearful of poor blacks who would take their property, their jobs, their women. Scarcity was a handy tool for keeping the poor from noticing their enemy was the wealthy who exploited their poverty, not the blacks who shared it, who even suffered worse from it. Power draws its source from the fear of scarcity. And when that fear is not enough, or when that fear replaces reason itself, it becomes demonic. It becomes destructive.

But maybe we have only ourselves to blame, because one can never have too much milkshake. Scarcity is built into our very way of life:

Scarcity is the peculiar province of economics, the "dismal science." How much is available to go around, how fairly can it be distributed? This is the assumption of utilitarianism, this is the assumption of John Rawls' "Theory of Justice," this is the assumption of economists: scarcity is the nature of the world, now how do we adjust our desires to meet this wholly reasonable and undeniable conclusion? The economic pie can only be so large. Full employment, for example, would be disastrous: without a scarcity of jobs, what bargaining power would the employer have, what incentive would drive the worker to labor rather than laziness? With every niche filled, there would be nowhere to go, and little reason to worry about being asked to go. Scarcity is not only reality, we deem it necessity. The desert is our model for the world, it is the spur of our incentives: we are not creatures driven and derided by lust, because lust we can market. Lust is another model of scarcity, as you can never have enough things, look good enough, have enough sex or be attractive, knowledgeable, witty, intelligent, enough. You must always lack and desire what you do not have. It is not lust we are driven by now, but fear. Fear for our security, but also fear for our want, fear that the world, indeed, is not enough and that we must always have more. Our fear is that the world is actually the desert we are afraid it might be, and that enough will never be afforded us.
But now what we agree we are living in the desert, we have panicked, and we are turning on each other.

Except, of course, we aren't. No one followed George W. Bush when he tried to use his "political capital" to lead us into privatizing Social Security. Wisconsin hasn't followed Scott Walker into accepting his union busting law. Ohio is moving to put John Kasich's similar attempt on the ballot for repeal. GOP governors across the country who moved to destroy in the name of fear and scarcity, are finding they have no support for their demonic actions. Even John Boehner, who insisted until recently that "we are broke," is now ignoring the demands of the Tea Party to reach a reasonable compromise with the Democrats in order to avoid calamity. Which is not to say the legislature in Washington is beyond reproach:

Who are — once again — under attack, this time in the House budget bill, H.R. 1. The budget proposes cuts in the WIC program (which supports women, infants and children), in international food and health aid (18 million people would be immediately cut off from a much-needed food stream, and 4 million would lose access to malaria medicine) and in programs that aid farmers in underdeveloped countries. Food stamps are also being attacked, in the twisted “Welfare Reform 2011” bill. (There are other egregious maneuvers in H.R. 1, but I’m sticking to those related to food.)

These supposedly deficit-reducing cuts — they’d barely make a dent — will quite literally cause more people to starve to death, go to bed hungry or live more miserably than are doing so now. And: The bill would increase defense spending.
There is something evil in that, too; but we have become so inured to reducing the poor to greater poverty (Title X funds once signed into law by Richard Nixon and championed by then Rep. George H.W. Bush are now anathema in D.C.) that it's almost status quo, rather than a dramatic turn toward destruction. Which, itself, is a sad statement. Consider:

What’s poverty? Poverty guidelines have not changed since the 1960s: “A family is counted as poor if its pretax money income is below its poverty threshold,” which is $11,161 for a single adult — think about that! — and $17,286 for a couple with one child.

The poverty rate in 1959 was nearing 40 million. It dipped to about 23 million in 1973, only to rise again in the early 1990s to about 39 million. But the poverty rate in America in 2009 was the highest it’s been in the last 50 years, at about 43.6 million.
Who is "broke"? Who is damaged by current economic conditions? Who has the real problems here? People who can get the attention of TeeVee and politicians by traveling to D.C. for a "rally"? Or the poor, the destitute, the kind of people no U.S. politician has visited, at least in my memory, since Robert Kennedy?

Meanwhile, the Tea Party and its supporters continue to clamor for calamity, and they are set to achieve it in the "laboratories of democracy," if not on the national level. Even as they clamor, though, their support falls and the extremism they pursue in the name of liberty is being seen as a vice by the greater public. Which means there may ultimately be some redemption in the rush to extremism. an ironic result to countenance from one who is himself so extreme in his defense of the "attack upon Christendom."

I was re-reading Thoreau's words with a class I had assigned the excerpt to:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.
It has been 30 years or more since I first read those words. I had forgotten them, but they were obviously buried somewhere, and fertilizing that did grow in my mind over the decades. Should we live like men? Or like baboons? The question is as timely now as it was in the 19th century.

"How should we then live?" is emerging for me as the question of 19th century Europe. Tolstoy; Kierkegaard; the Romantics (now reduced to a minor literary movement that lasted only a few decades; no longer the sweeping change in fundamental human thought which we are still living through. Sometimes scholarship can be so blinkered and so in love with minutiae and novelty....); Thoreau; Emerson; the U.S. Civil War itself. So many writers and thinkers and events raised the question of what life was for; a question first raised in response to the Industrial Revolution and one still relevant today. It was the question raised by Sartre and existentialism in the aftermath of World War II. It is the question raised by mega-churches and the "Gospel of Wealth" and every vulture theologian who longs for the time when people open their eyes and realize their despair and come running back to the Church, if only in order to fill the pews and justify the time spent there by the loyalists, and to improve the self-esteem of the person in the high and lonely pulpit. It is the basis of the question of whether we should or should not live by faith, whether we should preserve our ancient metaphysics or toss the baby out with the bathwater; whether, having torn up noblesse oblige in our desire to be free Jeffersonians, we must now preserve the tattered Social Contract.

"How should we then live?" is emerging, for me, as the question of 19th century Europe. Tolstoy; Kierkegaard; the Romantics (now reduced to a minor literary movement that lasted only a few decades; no longer the sweeping change in fundamental human thought which we are still living through. Sometimes scholarship can be so blinkered and so in love with minutiae and novelty....); Thoreau; Emerson; the U.S. Civil War itself. So many writers and thinkers and events raised the question of what life was for; a question first raised in response to the Industrial Revolution and one still relevant today. But not a question many people want to tangle with. Far easier to wrestle with the question of how to get through the day and increase my acquisitions and improve my bottom line. Still, as even TV commercials knew in the '60's: "Is that all there is?" Is the goal of life simply to have a goal in life, and that goal to be "He who dies with the most toys, wins"? If it is then, of course, all we live with is anxiety about what we have, what we don't have, and how to keep the former and obtain the latter. As the cigarette commercial used to ask: "This is living?" And it answered its own question: "Some people don't think so."

But only some; most of us continue to live lives of quiet desperation. How should we then live?

Re-reading Thoreau has made me reconsider Sartre. Consider how this, with a slight shift of emphasis, becomes Sartre's responsibility of the individual:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
Surely we must; but can we do it?

We can't live the life of a Thoreau, anymore than he would want us to. We can't return to the idyllic life of the simple Russian peasant, the type of life Thomas Hardy worked hard to show us was neither simple nor idyllic. Maybe the question, though, isn't "Can we do it," but: "Can we avoid it?"

Aye, there's the rub.

Take poverty, for example. Is the poverty of another a detail that fritters away my life, that diverts me from the true responsibility of living? Or is it a burden I take upon myself merely by recognizing its reality, especially if I d nothing further about it. But responsibility! Am I responsible for the poverty in the world? Am I responsible to the extent I do nothing about it, to the limit to which I lift not a finger to alleviate it in the life of one soul I encounter in all my long, long years? Is my life to be spent in contemplation and rectified by giving away what I have and ennobled by attending more to nature than to society, and improved by working selflessly for the benefit of the widow and the orphan?

How should we then live?

Can we avoid the life of awareness Thoreau and Sartre urge upon us? Certainly we can, but what credit is that? Do not the Gentiles do as much?

How should we then live? Getting and spending and laying waste our powers? This is an old, old story:

As Brueggemann reads the Biblical narrative, Pharaoh represents the people who live in fear and anxiety and anger. Such people have no energy left over for the neighborhood. In the story of Joseph and Pharaoh, the guy with the most power and authority and wealth, dreams of scarcity. Which is not surprising; Pharaoh's oikos is governed by the fear of running out. It is what keeps him in control, keeps him in power and why the people allow him to rule.
So long as Pharaoh kept us scared, kept us anxious and without energy for the neighborhood, the anxiety of scarcity could rule. It is not clear that is going to prevail much longer; or at least, that such anxiety can carry us all the way into pure destruction, into the realm of the demonic. Our leadership may be going there; but the people are refusing to follow.

This anxiety about scarcity is what drives the Hebrews into slavery and so, in brief, Genesis moves into Exodus.

Now Pharaoh is so afraid of scarcity, so filled with anxiety for what might be taken from him, he begins to kill the babies of the Hebrews (and here the parallel to Herod in the New Testament, where he is clearly Pharaoh to all the Gospel writers, becomes clearer. This is where Matthew draws his parallel with the Massacre of the Innocents). This is Pharaoh's anxiety at work. As my notes indicate from the lecture: "The system that generates anxiety cannot relate to steadfast love." Which all by itself explains much about the reaction to Tom Fox, and even to the desire to go to war in the Middle East, a desire Wesley Clark says originally led to a plan to invade 7 countries in that region. But the story of the Exodus is that "Anxiety generated by ideology and social systems is not a part of the human condition." It is, in other words, our creation, and our creation, unlike God's, is grossly imperfect.

Enter Moses, a person with nothing who dreamed of freedom and departure from the "anxiety producing system." And then there is the miracle in the desert, the gift of God's abundance in the manna which comes to break the influence of the anxiety system (it comes as the people are complaining that they were better off in Egypt than in the desert). Our anxiety, Brueggemann notes, is a product of our lack of trust (faith) in God. God's offer of abundance, he says, calls into question the anxiety created by social systems, by human structures and strictures; and yet God never gives us more than "this day our daily bread."

That is from a previous post of mine. Here is another example of Brueggeman, one where he attaches Israel directly to America through, not theology or history, but anthropology:

The treasured narrative memory of Israel is so familiar that we scarcely notice that it is not really a “religious” memory. It is a political-economic memory about the time when we were slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Israel can remember the oppressive circumstance when we were nothing more than instruments for the acquisitive economics of Pharaoh (Exodus 5:4-19). We were busy making bricks in order to build pyramids that would bestow grand immortality, and busy building granaries where Pharaoh could store and exhibit his economic monopoly as he controlled the world’s food supply. We remember the pain and the sweat and the resentment and the anger and the foul smell of the huts in which we had to live.

We are able to remember that there was a dramatic contest between the intelligence community of Pharaoh (now called “magicians”) and the daring challenge of Moses, who had no credentials. We had heard about the contest that played to a draw. Some of us trusted Moses, many doubted him and some simply refused. The ones who trusted followed him in that dark night of death, reached the waters and crossed. The memory was sealed as Miriam and the other women danced the dance of YHWH, the God of economic emancipation: “The Lord will reign forever and ever” (Exodus 15:18).

We headed out to a new world, and departed Pharaoh. The memory, so vivid to us, culminated at Sinai. We assented, in a blank check, to the new rules of YHWH, because we knew they would be better than the old quotas of Pharaoh (Exodus 19:8). Right from the mountain we heard the holy voice of the covenant speak to us 10 times about the love of God and love of neighbor (Exodus 20:2-17). We pledged our loyalty and in that instant were converted from a company of weary slaves to a people summoned to neighborliness (Exodus 24:3, 7). It was a transformation wrought by the holy power of YHWH, but we gladly signed on.

This is the narrative memory we deeply treasure. We treasure it so much that we teach our kids and we regularly perform it in order to recall why this night is different from all other nights. It is the night of death and of new life. It is the night of departure. It turns out to be the event of abundant bread. And before we finished, the narrative led us to new promises and pledges of loyalty to neighborly justice. The trek from slavery through abundance to covenant is one we made in wonder. And we keep making it, always again in wonder. And every time we perform it well, it is yet again an awesome miracle that we can hardly trust.
Read the whole thing, of which that is an overly long or unjustifiably brief taste. Those last words are the best, for me: "The trek from slavery through abundance to covenant is one we made in wonder. And we keep making it, always again in wonder. And every time we perform it well, it is yet again an awesome miracle that we can hardly trust." We don't trust it at all, of course. And we don't always make it; or rather, we don't always want to make it. But somehow, we do. Not as a religious pilgrimage, but as a people pursuing democracy and the creation of a more perfect union. As Breuggeman says, citing the words of "America the Beautiful:"

We sing this belated version of our Manifest Destiny. It is serious reuse of the older biblical narrative and we do not doubt that the God of liberty and covenantal justice and mercy and compassion continues to be the primal agent in our history. That version was primarily Protestant; we have, however, all appropriated it. We have gathered around it a mix of deep faith and patriotic pride, sure that this radical God willed a revolution in public power that ends in practices of peace and prosperity, with liberty and justice for all.
Brueggeman draws the parallels between America and Solomon, some of which I've mentioned before. He applies what he finds in Scriptures to the "current" financial crisis (his words are from 2009), and he points out that: "Sinai is not an ancient memory; it is rather a current mandate," a word that, taken out of context, would surely disturb and challenge many more people than it should, for many more reasons than they should.

It is the covenantal justice, and mercy, and compassion, that we must focus on. We can avoid it; but for how long? We can do it; but where do we start? Auden once wrote about "New styles of architecture/a change of heart," indicating perhaps that the external could eventually influence the internal. But it's the internal that affects the external, if indeed there is a distinction between them. Jesus pointed out many times that it isn't what goes into a person that is the question, but what comes out. What you do, not what you think, is what matters. When the sheep are separated from the goats, the sheep had no better thoughts than the goats did; it was their actions that determined their fate. Neither group knew who they had served or failed to serve; it was the service (or lack of it) that mattered.

Maybe the beginning of an answer is to begin thinking about what we can do for others, rather than thinking about what we don't have for ourselves. It seems like a small thing; but it is the seed of such a big thing...

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

People are too damned expensive!*

David Brooks:

The Ryan budget will put all future arguments in the proper context: The current welfare state is simply unsustainable and anybody who is serious, on left or right, has to have a new vision of the social contract.
The social contract, it should be pointed out, grew out of the sense of noblesse oblige, of the obligation of the ruling class to provide (however meagerly) for the lower classes. How well this ever worked out in Europe you can decide for yourself. The British seem to have quite a nostalgia for it, if "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey" are any guide. Of course, the view is quite different in "The Remains of the Day," but the author of that novel wasn't British....

So the "social contract" was the idea that the people, rather than a single ruler or ruling class, would care for each other. No doubt Rousseau was influenced by Socrates' discussion of his obligations to Athens and the law of Athens in the Crito. But the "social contract" Brooks evidently refers to is merely a legal document, a set of agreed upon provisions entered into between two classes (those with money, and those without), and those without money have no claim, legal or moral, on those with money. So the terms of the contract are inherently unfair, unworkable, and unenforceable; and lead only, not to a "social contract," but a "welfare state."

The welfare state never includes defense spending or tax structure which encourage and sustain corporations. So while we must cut welfare spending, we can never do anything to endanger corporations. At least, Joe Barton is not ashamed to say so. I can't find where Mr. Brooks has spoken ill in print of Mr. Barton's defense of Exxon's tax status; but he did defend Mr. Barton's apology to BP last summer, so his sentiments are rather clearly with the monied classes (surprise, surprise).

And while the poor will always be with us, clearly we shouldn't feel any particular obligations toward them. Especially since they are so expensive. I mean, after all, what's more important? People? Or money?

(*not to mention they're lazy and shiftless! Isn't this where I came into this movie?

Monday, April 04, 2011

The poor will always be with you...and that's the problem

The Texas House has acted, and strictly on party lines. The Texas House has passed a budget which:

... cuts public education by billions of dollars from current spending levels and leaves schools more than $7 billion short of the money they are owed under current law; it is billions short of the money needed to pay for expected growth in Medicaid caseloads over the next two years; it cuts state funding for colleges and universities by more than 10 percent. It also balances without a tax increase and without money from the rainy day fund, and it reduces the state budget by $23 billion.
Gov. Goodhair is so proud:

“Today’s action by the House is another step toward achieving fiscal responsibility and ensuring state government lives within its means. House members set priorities for state spending and found savings, and thanks to their leadership, this budget paves the way to help Texas recover from the impacts of the national economic recession. You cannot tax or spend your way to prosperity, and Texans expect their elected leaders to govern under that truth when it comes to taxpayer dollars.”
But the impact? Well:

Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee: “This budget will dismantle the educational infrastructure in the State of Texas.
And the poor, the sick, the infirm? Get away from our state monies!

Among those choices were several measures that cut the about $100 million family planning budget by more than 50 percent to pay for a series of initiatives that would seek to reduce abortions and help fund autism programs and mental health and trauma care.

In the end, Democrats said the Republican-dominated House should have been more willing to tap the state's $9.4 billion rainy-day fund and close tax loopholes instead of zeroing out pre-kindergarten grants, reducing about $6 billion in Medicaid funding for low-income families, and making cuts in higher education that would leave new college students without state financial aid.

State Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, had one of the few successful amendments over the weekend that would put $10 million into the dropout prevention Communities in Schools program. He spoke of meeting a woman on the steps of the Capitol who said her son died after the cuts made by the Legislature in 2003. He did not say if the woman cited a particular cut in funding.

"What I could have told that woman was that this Legislature, instead of choosing your kids and your folks, they're choosing not to raise the cigarette tax by 25 or 50 cents," Castro said. "They're choosing not to close corporate loopholes so they can raise more revenue. They're choosing not to do gaming." … Not one of us will leave this chamber and go back to our district and take ownership of those cuts. … This budget is not worthy of the Texas House of Representatives.”
One again, our financial woes are all the fault of the poor. Are we serious about our budget problems in Texas? No more than the national GOP is:

...if GOP officials were serious about fiscal responsibility, they could allow the expiration of ineffective Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthy, long before they started taking health care benefits away from families in poverty.
Which they plan to make very concrete:

Low-income Medicaid beneficiaries will lose their guaranteed benefits altogether. Currently, Medicaid is jointly financed by the federal government and states, which are required to provide comprehensive health care benefits to people in poverty. Ryan's plan turns the program into block grants for the states -- states get a bunch of cash from the feds and have to make the best of it. For many states, that will mean severe benefit rollbacks.

Seniors, and others on Medicare, would be in a slightly different predicament. Currently seniors 65 and over are guaranteed a defined benefit program: taxpayers finance the system, and the government agrees to pay for seniors' health care services (though seniors have to pitch in too). Ryan's plan would leave that system intact for anybody currently on Medicare, or expecting to be on Medicare within 10 years. For everyone else the program would be radically overhauled. Future beneficiaries would no longer have a single payer system to rely on. Rather, they'd be given a menu of private insurance plans to pick from, and subsidies to help pay their premiums. If those premiums skyrocket, that's on them. If the insurers themselves aren't required to pay for whatever the doctor orders, then the guaranteed benefits will erode.

Recently Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt -- a respected health care expert -- described the plan this way: "Under the defined contribution approach envisaged by the Rivlin-Ryan plan, most of the risk of future health-care cost increases would be shifted onto the shoulders of Medicare beneficiaries. This feature makes the proposal radical."
Clearly the problem is seen to be the poor, who apparently want all our money. It's money that matters. And nobody else.