Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or treat!

I came across this at Wounded Bird (what better place?):

I've been pondering this whilst following the events outside St Paul's. There has been much criticism of the Occupy movement for not having 'clear goals' (on which see this great cartoon. That is immediately to try and force the rebellion to conform to the dominant discourse, to be co-opted into the patterns that pose no threat to the establishment. Specific claims will, I do not doubt, follow in due course. For now, however, it is enough for there to be the protest, the rebellion - the saying 'No' to manifest injustice, arrogance, ignorance and greed.
I really don't like making the kind of comparison I'm about to make, because it raises the object compared to grandiose heights. But the truth is, for about the first four centuries one of the complaints with the "Chrestians" was that they didn't have "clear goals." It took a several hundred years of hard work by a lot of good people for Christianity to "make sense," and even then, many think it "sold out" with Constantine's conversion. That's too simplistic, too, but then, this isn't a scholarly forum for debating Church history.

The point is, Christianity started as, and was seen as, rebellion. Why do you think all those early Christian martyrs were martyrs? And there were still, and still are, efforts to keep Christianity out of "the patterns that pose no threat to the establishment," even as the Church became the Establishment.

"What keeps you from giving now? Isn't the poor person there? Aren't your own warehouses full? Isn't the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I just want to keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

4th Century

"The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds--and also big enough to shut out the voices of the poor....There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering."

4th Century
And yes, Constantine did convert to Christianity in the early 4th century. History reeks with irony. And no, Occupy Wall Street is not a religious movement, although religion is responding rather poorly to it, at least in the case of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The Occupy movement is, by and large, a pro-democracy movement. And that's where the historical comparison becomes very dodgy. Romans had reason to wonder about the Christians; what they advocated was radical because it was so new. But we really shouldn't have to work it all out this time. That we are puzzled about a demand for true democracy, that we are nonplussed by a display, world-wide, of true democracy, says something about us; something about what we should know, but apparently can no longer even recognize. I'm not sure the cartoon is right; I'm not sure it requires the fearful voice of the Powers that Be to distract us from what the Occupy movement is advocating.

We seem to have lost our way ourselves. Maybe, on this eve of All Saint's Day, one of the last Christian holidays we haven't completely commercialized (who connects Hallowe'en with All Hallow's Eve anymore?), that's what we should reflect on.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Adios, Mofo

I simply cannot resist, especially since the observation by Charles Pierce is so perfect:

Added Rick Perry Bonus: I was watching the Frontline documentary on the appalling case of Cameron Todd Willingham, whom Perry put to death for murder by arson based on trash science not far removed from bleeding people with leeches. Apparently, toward the end, Willingham believed his wife had sold him out and, while in the death chamber, he told her that he fucking hoped she'd rot in hell, or something to that effect. Confronted with the fact that the best scientific evidence exonerated Willingham of the crime, and that he'd rigged an investigation into the case by firing some people and installing his cronies, Perry says to a gaggle of reporters that Willingham was a "bad man" because, at the end, he directed at his wife "an obscenity-laced triad."

A triad.

Inches from actual English.
This is why we make fun of Aggies in Texas. They give us so much material to work with.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"We Make Things Go"

I am left watching this new debate and wondering "but what is 'violence' and what is 'intelligence'?" Which leads me to first wonder how much the decline in battlefield deaths is due to intelligence that avoids war, and how much is due to intelligence that repairs the wounded, so they aren't the dead. Which are two very different kinds of intelligence, indeed.

I have a vague memory of this discussion occurring earlier, with the Crimean War being a touchstone because it was the last big war prior to modern medicine. The death tolls were high, largely because so many died of their wounds. The death toll in Iraq has been low, comparatively, because so many soldiers don't die of their wounds. Head traumas alone, which would have guaranteed death in earlier wars (and which are only possible because of modern technology which can produce IED's), are now wounds, not fatalities. The number killed in wars has declined as much because of battlefield medical treatment as because we are "less violent." Perhaps. Inquiring minds, at least, would like to know.

As for these numbers:

_ Murder in European countries has steadily fallen from near 100 per 100,000 people in the 14th and 15th centuries to about 1 per 100,000 people now.

_ Murder within families. The U.S. rate of husbands being killed by their wives has dropped from 1.2 per 100,000 in 1976 to just 0.2. For wives killed by their husbands, the rate has slipped from 1.4 to 0.8 over the same time period.

_ Rape in the United States is down 80 percent since 1973. Lynchings, which used to occur at a rate of 150 a year, have disappeared.

_ Discrimination against blacks and gays is down, as is capital punishment, the spanking of children, and child abuse.
I'm not sure all discrimination counts as violence, but perhaps that's too much of a quibble. I do wonder what the murder rate is in America, Russia, Asia, Africa, Australia. Or are we going back to Europe as the pinnacle of humanity and the apex of education? As for murder within American marriages, I'd point out that divorce is now quite common, and it may be not that husbands and wives are better educated or simply smarter (Pinker's thesis), but that they get divorced before they get violent. Murder was probably once seen as the only way out of a bad marriage, in other words. I don't know that, of course; but bald statistic don't tell you anything; it's the interpretation that reaches the conclusion, and what is that interpretation based on? Pinker wants to see it as signs of rising intelligence; if I see it simply as a sign of changing social strictures (divorce is no longer taboo), which of us is right?

Yes, rape is down, and lynchings are down. But the latter were a public spectacle much more than a private crime (they were finally relegated to anonymity), and American society has never had the stomach for public violence that the English once did (one of Pinker's widely related examples is Pepys attending a public execution. To this day the British laugh at physical horrors that most Americans blanch at, and I don't mean that as a slight on the British. But only Englishmen could come up with the Black Knight in Monty Python's "Holy Grail" movie, and there is a greater tolerance in British culture for violence as humor than there is in American culture. We love our violence, but we don't like to laugh at it. We take it too seriously; it's a moral punishment. But that's another topic, for another time.). If rape is down, is it because we are smarter? I don't know; I don't see a connection between intelligence and the desire to rape someone. And while we don't engage in public executions, they are still a thriving business in many states in the Union. The violence of them (hanging, shooting, electrocution) has certainly diminished, but the desire for them has not. And is this because we are more intelligent? Or because we are becoming more moral?

And no, I don't think the two are joined at the hip.

I've made a purely personal observation that of the European countries with violence in their histories, the Scandinavian countries with their Viking heritage seem the most consistently peaceful today. Is this because of education, or because of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? One answer works as well as the other. If this is a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces seem to be identical: either fits. But is it a jigsaw? Is this cut out of a pre-determined mold, and it is simply up to us to assemble it correctly? Of that I'm not so sure.

The question, then, is: how do we measure violence? Battlefield deaths? But we can't measure that without measuring technology, especially medical technology. Maslow's hierarchy could answer just as well, if we decide that what keeps mankind alive is food, clothing, and shelter, and once those are assured there is less reason to go to war and seek new resources. That was the popular argument a few decades back, when the idea began that democracies never go to war against each other, and countries with trade relations have no reason to fight each other (an assumption that ignores history and even literature. Homer's warriors before the walls of Troy battle individually all day long, and find out they are practically family, that their grandfathers were great friends and when this war ends, if they are alive, they will re-establish the old ties.) Perhaps violence is down statistically, but is that because we are less violent, or because the non-warrior class now outnumbers the warrior class, and markets work better than military oppression? Rome survived on its military might first; it had virtually no market economy at all. It's social stability derived from patronage, and whenever that stability was threatened the soldiers turned on the Roman citizens or those they were supposed to protect, and no one thought it cruel and unfair. One reason NATO intervened in Libya was because Gadaffi was "attacking his own people." Are we more intelligent than Rome? Or simply operating under different standards because there are more of us on the planet, and a power like Rome's is now impossible?

If we measure violence by rapes, what about assaults and gun deaths, or violent deaths in general? Are those down, up, the same? Perhaps Pinker addresses this in his book, but even if he does, how do we know why this is, or what it means, or even if it means anything? I don't have an answer, I just have questions. This is a fantastically complex issue, and to rest it on matters like "IQ" (which Stephen Jay Gould, among others, has shown to be a chimera. Identify "intelligence" for me, and then tell me how you measure it the same way you can measure length or weight or height, or even velocity. The notion of comparing "IQ" levels is laughable. You might as well compare the length of unicorn horns over the centuries.) I have also known very intelligent people who were very compassionate; as well as very intelligent people with no compassion or concern for others at all. Intelligence is not inextricably linked to behavior, and can't be assumed to be the weight that tips the scales in favor of the outcome we'd all like to see.

There's also the simple fact that violence is the favored form of entertainment, at least in America. Now, of course, we're back to defining "violence". Is it the antics of the Three Stooges? My mother thought so, when I was young and watching them poke each other in the eye, or strike each other with hammers. Is it the violence of a slasher film or a horror movie? Is it the violence of an "action film," or the highly choreographed fights of the new "Three Musketeers" movie, or the Robert Downey, Jr. versions of Sherlock Holmes? The comic book violence of The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man? Dalton Trumbo remarked, in his preface to his book Johnny Got his Gun, that during the Vietnam War we read daily "body count" statistics in the newspapers, and instead of thinking of the pile of arms and legs and torsos that number represented, and throwing up at the horror of it, we reached for our coffee cups. Does anyone even pay attention to the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan anymore, or know why we continue it? War we can still always pay for, but people? Surely if we were more intelligent, Johnson's Great Society and RFK's compassion for the poor wouldn't have been erased from public discourse quite so rapidly.

And here, perhaps, I do the argument a disservice; but then, what is the argument? That according to numbers, we don't kill quite as many of our fellow humans as we used to? Well, perhaps not. But we certainly employ a great many people in endeavors directly related to violence, either real or imaginary; and we certainly have many industries devoted to the production of violence, again either real or imaginary. And we continue to do daily violence to the poor, the marginalized, the invisible, the oppressed, the neglected, the forgotten, the dispossessed, the ignored.

But to the extent we don't, is that because we are better educated, more intelligent? Or is it because we are more compassionate (and yes, education could increase that, too. Education is not merely the method by which intelligence is increased, although Mr. Pinker seems to think so.)?

I suppose it's all a matter of how narrowly, or broadly, you define "violence." Or maybe it's a question of how we define "intelligence." And also of how much "intelligence" is really worth in human history. I can guess Stephen Pinker's answer on that issue. I can also guess I would think him quite wrong.*

Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

One other point, which may or may not undermine the argument that violence is down because compassion is up (I'm not sure it is, I just think morality is as valid a cause for this perceived effect as intelligence is, and probably a more comprehensive answer. Anyway....): the focus on violence as an indicator of the "angels of our better nature" is an interesting one, since violence is always a personal problem, i.e., a problem of personal security. Violence is always about what is done to me and mine, not about what I can, or should, do for others.

Violence is bad, but it's worse when it's done against me. Nothing motivates a country like being attacked (violence against us); witness America's reaction to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But who is poverty done against? It's always done against another, and it's easy to blame the victim for the problem. Even when we don't, what motivates a country to care for the helpless, the hungry, the marginalized and dispossessed? Apparently not intelligence, which should at least tell us their interests are our interests, their hunger and poverty will be ours if we are not more equitable. Yet is there a rise in compassion for the poor comparable to the alleged fall in violence? Has anybody thought to ask? And isn't it really a more important issue? Yes, violence is bad; but I would argue poverty is infinitely worse, especially since the measures of violence seem to be death and single acts (like rape). Poverty, unlike death, is actually lived through. But poverty requires an action on my part; violence requires a lack of action on my part.

Small wonder one seems more important than the other, more a reflection of our "better angels" than the other. It's a small thing, but the more I think about it, the more it bothers me. Are we really better off, as a species, because violence is down, because the physical threat against any one of us is arguably lower now than at any time in history? Is that really good news for the poor? Does this debate promise healing for the brokenhearted, preach deliverance for captives, mean recovery of sight for the blind? Because it seems to me that, until it does, it's just rearranging the first-class deck chairs on the Titanic.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Curse of St. Custard's

So, according to a new biography, Steve Jobs told President Obama:

"Until the teachers' unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform." Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.
I won't comment on the teacher's unions issue, as there aren't any in Texas (right to work state), so I have no experience with them. Suffice to say, on that subject, that not all school districts are created that equally. Hold on to that proposition, it will play into this analysis in a moment.

Matt Yglesias thinks longer school days are fine idea, which only tells me Matt Yglesias knows nothing about school days now. It is true the most practical problem is costs, but the other problem is: who said school is over at 3 p.m.?

My information is anecdotal on this point, but where I live, elementary schools start the day at 7:30, which means teachers are there at least an hour before (some teachers, some staff). Granted, the day ends, for the students, at 2:30. But the teachers don't chase the students out of the parking lot. And if you are going to mandate school keep students in class until 6 p.m., you're asking teachers to work a 12 hour day plus grade papers, prepare for classes, deal with parent/student issues, etc., on a day when they probably will get a one hour break and lunch with the students (which is not a break at all). In other words, you not only need to raise their pay, you need to bring in a swing shift for the afternoon work. That, or work your teachers into burnout in very short order.

Don't even get me started on what pedagogical nonsense this is. By this argument, my community college students should be in class 12 hours a day, too, instead of the 2-4 hours they probably average now. What is the point of keeping students in a classroom for most of their waking hours? They will learn by osmosis, by exposure to books and chalkboards and teachers? Only people who've never taught in a public high school could imagine that more time is better time, or that a a 12 hour day would be as easy for teachers as the 12 hour day a lawyer or doctor might put in (and are we going to pay our teachers as much as we pay lawyers and doctors? I think not, hem hem.*). Teaching is, in no small part, baby-sitting. I don't say this to slight teachers, I say it because it is the truth. Young children through high school students, individually, tend to have far more energy than the average adult (especially the average middle-aged adult, who has experience that is very valuable in the classroom). That energy is multiplied almost geometrically (at least absolutely arithmetically) when you combine 20-30 such persons in one room, and then have school buildings full of them for 12 hours a day. The effort to control them, contain them, educate them, and be responsible for their physical and emotional safety, is a tremendous burden, and Steve Jobs (and Yglesias) want to increase that to half-again what it is now, and extend the teacher's working day after school finally ends, well into the wee hours of the next day?

Is anybody thinking of the children? Or of the teachers, for that matter?

As for the 11 months a year idea, good luck with that. Texas moved the start of school back into early August, a move done by the state Legislature, not any one school principal. The howls of indignation and outrage at disrupted vacation plans, not to mention from vacation providers who saw their season ending far too soon, brought that experiment to an end after one year. There have been discussions about going to a year-round school calendar since I was in elementary school (at least), and we've come no closer to it know than we were then. For better or worse, the 9 month school year is so deeply engrained in American culture you might as well try to get rid of Mom and apple pie first. I'm not opposed to year-round school; in fact, I'd champion it. But I've tried to change culture before, on a very local level, and I have the bruises to show for it. I may think the change is a good idea, but I won't soon try again to even seek to implement such a change.

As for the 12 hour+ work day, I can only say: if you want to drive even more teachers out of teaching, be my guest: implement a 12 hour day, even if you can get the tax revenues to pay for it. But I suspect it will be about as popular with parents as the 11 month school year. The most influential families today, on a local if not a national level, have children in many extra-curricular activities that keep them out of school but also away from home for several hours past 6 p.m. already. Tell those parents all those activities are going to end and their little darlings are going to be in a classroom for 12+ hours a day, and see what happens. Let's just say I won't be in the room when the unfortunate soul announces that plan to the wrong group of parents.

Contrary to what Matt Yglesias says, "The problem a mayor or school chancellor seeking to implement this idea would have is" not "a budget problem." The problem would be long before that, with simply trying to get parents to accept it. You know, we've really got to learn to start taking people into account in these public policy discussions. Steve Jobs may have been able to control the last details of every Apple store on the planet, but his reach ended right about there. Funny how people like Matt Yglesias don't get that, either.

*nigel molesworth, very posh.

Never start your day with the news....

NPR tells me first thing this morning that the war in Libya was not cheap; or maybe it was:

"First of all, it dramatically lowers the cost to the American people. We spent just over a billion dollars, which is dramatically less than we have in recent military interventions," he said. "And also we see a great deal of legitimacy for our actions when we work internationally with other partners and allies."
It's certainly dramatically less than we're willing to pay for anything else. Anybody hear, say, a Paul Ryan complaining about "borrowed money" being spent on military ventures? Or does that only apply to domestic spending?

LOWE: I come from a very middle-class family and under President Obama, I get $5,500 per year to pay for school, which doesn’t come close to covering all of the funding, but it helps ease the burden. Under your plan, you cut it by 15 percent. I was just curious why you would cut a grant that goes directly to the middle- and lower-class people that need it the most.

RYAN: ‘Cause Pell Grants have become unsustainable. It’s all borrowed money…Look, I worked three jobs to pay off my student loans after college. I didn’t get grants, I got loans, and we need to have a system of viable student loans to be able to do this.
So, "I had to suffer, and so should you," combined with "We can't afford to spend money on people!" Which is certainly the theme being sounded, because the other major problem this country faces is too many hungry people:

SESSIONS: No program in our government has surged out of control more dramatically than food stamps. And nothing is being done about it. [...] Multimillion dollar lottery winners are getting food stamps because the money is considered to be an asset not an income. One of the fast and furious gun buyers –

HOST: But hold on, for ever lottery winner that has food stamps, there’s probably a lot more people who really need them who have them, right?

SESSIONS: Well look, do you think there are four times as many people who need food stamps today as in 2001. That answers itself. [...] We cannot do this. We do not have the money. Congress doesn’t understand that we can’t afford to double the program every three years.
Given the current unemployment situation I'd say yes, there probably are four times as many people who need food stamps today as in 2001. But again, no complaint about the cool billion just spent in Libya to destroy that country in order to remove Gadaffi from power. Of course, blowing stuff up can be profitable: right, Sen. Graham?

One of the problems I have with “leading from behind” is that when a day like this comes, we don’t have the infrastructure in place that we could have. I’m glad it ended the way it did. It took longer than it should have. If we could have kept American air power in the fight it would have been over quicker. Sixty-thousand Libyans have been wounded, 3,000 maimed, 25,000 killed. Let’s get in on the ground. There is a lot of money to be made in the future in Libya. Lot of oil to be produced. Let’s get on the ground and help the Libyan people establish a democracy and a functioning economy based on free market principles.
So maybe all that money spent in Libya was just an investment for...I dunno, Halliburton?

There is a cost for all of this, as NPR pointed out this morning:

With the nation's student-loan debt climbing toward $1 trillion, it's taking many young people longer than ever to pay off their loans. Two-thirds of college students now graduate with debt, owing an average of $24,000. But some borrow far more and find this debt influencing major life decisions long after graduation.
So "we" cannot do this, but "they" can. And who is "we" and "they", again?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Of economics and morality

Chris Hayes is surprised that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not revered in his own lifetime:

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Which is a little funny (and no slight against Mr. Hayes, we all have the same historic myopia. The world was a simpler place before we were born, and the attitudes we learned were the ones everybody had before it all got complicated....), since earlier in the show Mr. Hayes cited King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." To many Americans, including those journalists in the NBC archives, Dr. King in his lifetime was a criminal and a troublemaker. "I have a dream" was quickly eclipsed by the anti-war sermon at Riverside Church; and almost no one supported King's efforts, after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and decisions like Loving v. Virginia (which removed "miscegenation" from our vocabulary, in 1967), to go after issues of economic justice. King was in Atlanta in his last days supporting a sanitation worker's strike. One of Mr. Hayes' guests, a young black man born long after Dr. King was dead and safely canonized, opined that Dr. King, had he not been killed, would have moved into the position of "elder statesman" before the '70's began; a revered figure, but irrelevant. One does wonder what effect a living Dr. King might have had on the public discussion of economics and economic justice in the '70's and '80's. Clearly what might have been the changed course of that conversation is almost unimaginable, especially to the generation who grew up thinking Dr. King was universally revered in his lifetime, and his most important speech was about a "dream."

This, in fact, actually captures the situation of Dr. King's efforts during his lifetime quite well:

The critics of the civil rights movement in America said much the same thing. Yet pre-eminent oral historian Studs Terkel, for his epic book RACE, interviewed dozens of African Americans for this seminal work, and suggested this ragtag element was one of the underpinning strengths of the civil rights movements. In fact, as one protester said, it really wasn't about 'blackness' or being allowed to sit in the bus or use the same toilets, it was about poverty and about class. " They play off one race against the other. That white kid on the picket line got the same problems as that black kid who don't have a job. He's on strike because his wages aren't what they supposed to be," said Union steel worker, Joseph Robinson.

And says Little Dovie Thurman, heavily involved in the civil rights struggle: "At first I couldn't understand why they hated Dr King so much. Then I began to see he wasn't just working with poor black and white. He was talking at unionizing, and against the war, all kinds of issues. That gave him a force of power that they didn't want him to have. They had to get him. He know that black power, white power, wasn't going to work. As long as he (King) was saying, "Let the black eat at the counter, let them go to the washroom," that was fine. But that didn't get at IT."

Little Dovie realised, as Martin Luther King did, that the struggle and the civil rights movement wasn't just about race, but rather a far bigger issue of understanding power and class distinction.
We forget that, just as we forget that morality and economics have been joined at the hip since economics was first identified as a subject for public discourse. The original impetus of economic theory was not to scientifically examine systems of exchange for insights into their function, as if they were natural forces like weather or tides; the original impetus was moral. Economic theory grew out of moral theory, and the idea that a just society should order its public affairs along lines that create a moral society. Utilitarianism, the philosophical underpinning of all economic theory, was originally intended to create a moral society by establishing a public morality that provided the greatest social utility to the greatest portion of society possible. Of course, if that didn't extend to everyone in society, it was either because no system was perfect ("Sucks to be you") or because the poor and the suffering deserved their fate, a proper consequence of their immorality. "Morality" often applies to thee and not me, especially when it is considered as a public concern. How I conduct my private affairs is less important than how the public is controlled and coordinated, whether the control is "incentives" or the control is imperatives. You can hear this in the advice Andrew Mellon gave Herbert Hoover when Mellon was Secretary of the Treasury: "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people." You can hear it in what Herman Cain said at the most recent GOP debate:

Herman Cain recently criticized the Occupy Wall Street protesters, saying, "Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."

At Tuesday night's CNN debate, Cain stood by his comments -- to loud cheers from the audience.

"I still stand by my statement," he said.
And the GOP crowd that night went wild with approval; nothing we like more than blaming someone else for their moral failings. After all, economics is really about morality; the worthy are rich, the sinners are poor. It's not really a new attitude, either: "Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The Gospels either record or reflexively assume that beggars and whores and the lame and blind are being punished for their sins, or their family's sins, and deserve the impoverished state they live in. One of the greatest scandals of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the proofs that he could not be a holy (unscathed, pure) man, was that he didn't revile the poor and rebuke the lame, and treat them as people who should learn to live a more moral life.

Economics has just come along to give us a more acceptable basis for our hardness of heart. The poor are poor because they have failed in the marketplace, and the failure is their own fault. The market is fair, just, and rewards the pure in heart. These are still the standards which guide our public discourse. The critics of "Occupy Wall Street" almost all do so from a position of moral superiority, a position proven by their elevated financial (and so social) status. Martin Luther King spoke eloquently from a jail cell. Martin Luther King spoke so eloquently from the pulpit of Riverside Church even the Washington Post turned on him. Dr. King spoke eloquently, and the people who refuted him and rejected his message spoke eloquently from positions of power and privilege and economic comfort, sure that they deserved to be there, just as sanitation workers deserved no more pay than would cost those privileged persons as little as possible. The people with moral superiority, the people with the white churches that had the social and economic power (the journalists ask Dr. King how many white people attend his church; they don't ask if white people would be welcome there, which is a different matter altogether), sneered at Dr. King's efforts, and so prompted his famous letter:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leader era; an too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unBiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
There it is. 1963. Birmingham. "Racial and economic injustice." Dr. King didn't pick up the latter after he'd solved the problems of the former. They were never separated; and they still aren't.

In fact, the greatest injustice is thinking that economics has anything to do with morality. It is how we continue to justify the market as a strong green god, sullen, untamed, intractable. And how we continue to justify the "punishment" the "market" metes out on those who "deserve" it. After all, one doesn't come between the god and the object of the god's wrath; not if you don't want some of that wrath on you. But if our god truly was God, and all men and women our brothers and sisters; or if at least we recognized that the market is a human construct and not a "god" at all, and we are all in this together...ah, what then?

Tedious historical footnote:

This is the photograph, made into a billboard, that Dr. King was questioned about in those clips Chris Hayes assembled. I remember it from my childhood:

The scene is the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, established in 1932 by a student of Reinhold Niebuhr's. It was a "communist training school" because it was teaching about race relations and was a center for training civil rights activists. As you can tell from the tenor of the questions of Dr. King, it's pretty clear this is a subversive place: blacks and whites, men and women, are sitting together as equals.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Papers, please

I understand the concept of reasonable suspicion:

A standard used in criminal procedure, more relaxed than probable cause, that can justify less-intrusive searches. For example, a reasonable suspicion justifies a stop and frisk, but not a full search. A reasonable suspicion exists when a reasonable person under the circumstances, would, based upon specific and articulable facts, suspect that a crime has been committed.
Emphasis added

The problem for me with the 11th Circuit's ruling on Alabama's immigration law is that, under Federal law, entering this country without permission is not a crime. There's also the basis of the "reasonable suspicion." It's never going to fall on me; I look as white as my Anglo-Irish heritage can make me. No, reasonable suspicion in this case is always going to come down to one thing:

"If they see me they will think I'm suspicious and then they will detain me indefinitely," Gomez says.

Why would the police think she was suspicious? "They will see the colour of my skin."
So, will we, as a nation, institutionalize racism in the name of border security? Yes, I'm afraid we will. Why? Well, because of the court's ruling:

The Obama administration asked the court to step in last week, arguing that the law encourages discrimination and subjects state residents to unwarranted scrutiny from local officials.
I'm sure the court thinks the concept of "Reasonable suspicion" is the legal fig leaf that makes this ruling justifiable. But a police officer can always manufacture an excuse to stop someone who "looks illegal," and once that is done, the "reasonable suspicion" that they are in the country illegally can be as simple as skin color.

But that's okay. We have a border to secure.

Papers, please.

The Dismal Science

In the land of mankind, conceived of as a pyramid, there are few at the top, and many at the bottom,” the congregation sang. “In the land of mankind, those at the top crush those at the bottom. Oh, people of the poor, people subjected to domination, what are you doing just standing there? The world of mankind has to be changed, so arise people, don’t stand still.
I like to remember that Malthus was an economist:

Supply-side' economics, where the focus is on the assumption of limited supply, continues to dominate economic thinking. Fear of scarcity is part of our way of thinking and, because of Scrooge's lost childhood, it is certainly part of Scrooge's psychology. One of the points Dickens is making though is that fear of scarcity and economic withdrawal can lead to the dangers of Ignorance and potential social unrest. A Christmas Carol is like the biblical Parable of the Talents, for nothing of importance will grow if talents are not used wisely. Dickens' work is in part a plea for a new and radical way of economic thinking, suggesting and imagining that at least as far as food supply is concerned it will be, and now is, possible to feed the nation. If not, then at least find a means of fair distribution of what supply does exist.
I start with Malthus because the linked essay, which is really quite good, is a study of Dickens' response to Malthus in A Christmas Carol as well as other works. It is clear to me we are seeing the Scrooging of the world economy in ways large and small. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? If austerity isn't working, the answer is: more austerity!

Because, after all, we can't go on like this.

" A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests."
That's Malthus, but it's hard to see (or hear) what has changed in almost 200 years. The shorter version heard today is: "People are too damned expensive!" While that isn't as blunt as Scrooge's dismissal of the two gentlemen in his counting house, the sentiment is the same. The people today most publicly worried about this are the people with the least visible means of support, and the most time to be visibly fretting. They put me in mind of Sally Brown from Peanuts noting that everyone is worried about overpopulation, but nobody wants to leave.

It's always a problem, in other words, in which the solution should fall on someone else. So it's not that all people are too damned expensive; just the people I don't know well. Overpopulation is a problem, too; a problem for thee, but not for me. After all, now that I'm here, we can pull the ladder up and stop all those people from reproducing.

I mean, what's the point of being the 1% if you can't look down from eight stories up on the 99% who can't reach you?

This is theology of scarcity, again. And it doesn't have to be theological, to be a theology. Malthus was an Anglican curate, but if I labeled his thinking a "theology," it would be to say he had replaced the God of Abraham and Jesus with the false idol of the material world, a god nonetheless. So his is still a "theology," however crabbed and twisted. Do you think still I exaggerate?

Malthus asserted that Nature had a set natural limit on the population of plants and animals -- sparing of room and the nourishment to rear them. Two things did though keep the human population down : vice and misery ( Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice .) These vices and miseries and their agents of war, famine and disease were a necessary evil. In a later edition of his work in 1803 Malthus added moral restraint ( By moral restraint I mean a restraint from marriage, from prudential motives, with a conduct strictly moral... Delaying the gratification of passion from a sense of duty. ) This thought is surely in the mind of Dickens and indeed Scrooge when Scrooge lets go of his sweetheart, Belle. Scrooge once again is very reasoning in his argument. Discussing the world's attitude to poverty he says, "There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!"
Again, Scrooge sounds just like Herman Cain or Mitt Romney or anyone else who has spouted "Class warfare!" lately. I can't slip a piece of epistemological paper between them. And the purpose is always the same: we've got ours, and they want to take it from us, because there isn't any left for them!

Nor, of course, can there be. When resources are scarce, there is never enough to go around. But who says resources are scarce, except the people who have control over so much of them?

And what has this to do with Scrooge?

Scrooge's economics, largely based on those of Thomas Malthus, is isolationist and lacking any social dimension. Its mathematical equation of food production and population growth and its denial of human instincts all betray a rigid economic inhumanity.
Again, if that doesn't seem familiar, it should. Economics doesn't have to be so miserable, of course, but it so often is; or at least, it is so often used that way. We so easily prefer abstractions to people, because abstractions are so much more easily manipulated. And the economic models being pursued and promoted around the world seem determined to isolate the poor (however they are defined) and to exclude all social dimension because, well: people are too damned expensive!

And if this sounds like the same old song, it's because it is. Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have recognized it. She sang a different song:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

It would make a fine theme song for the Occupy Wall Street Movement. And what about Elijah and the widow?
After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)
And, of course, the ultimate vision of liberation:

“Come for water, all who are thirsty;
Though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy wine and milk,
Not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
Your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
You will enjoy the fat of the land.
Come to me and listen to my words,
Hear me and you will have life:
I shall make an everlasting covenant with you
To love you faithfully as I have loved David.
I appointed him a witness to peoples,
And you in turn will summon nations you do not know,
And nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
Because the Lord your God, Israel’s Holy One, has made you glorious.—Isaiah 55:1-5 (REB)

The world's vision of liberation is to gain all you can and then hold on to it as tightly as possible. Only when confronted with the symbol of Scrooge do we wonder about this goal; but even then, we convince ourselves we are not Scrooge, and we identify with Bob Cratchit, who, after all, didn't have it all that badly:

"Bob Cratchit was paid 10 shillings a week, which was a very good wage at the time... Bob, in fact, had good cause to be happy with his situation. He lived in a house not a tenement. His wife didn't have to work... He was able to afford the traditional Christmas dinner of roast goose and plum pudding... So let's be fair to Scrooge. He had his faults, but he wasn't unfair to anyone. The free market wouldn't allow Scrooge to exploit poor Bob... The fact that Bob Cratchit could read and write made him a very valuable clerk and as a result of that he was paid 10 shillings a week."
In modern times he would have had a refrigerator, too!

But the lesson Scrooge learns is the lesson woven through the Bible, and usually ignored in favor of more "spiritual" lessons, one where the focus is on "inner liberty."

More recently, [Pope Benedict] said, “it seems to me we need not theology of liberation, but theology of martyrdom,” and argued that the movement will become a valid theology “only when it refuses to accept power and worldly logic” and instead emphasizes “inner liberty.”
And what is that? Something so precious we cannot define it? Something so valuable we cannot imagine it? Perhaps....

You gather corn -- will you bury England under a heap of grain, or will you, when you have gathered, finally eat? You gather gold -- will you make your house-roofs of it, or pave your streets with it? That is still one way of spending it. But if you keep it, that you may get more, I'll give you more, I'll give you more... I'll give you all the gold you want -- all you can imagine -- if you can tell me what you'll do with it. You shall have thousands of gold pieces; thousands and thousands -- millions -- mountains, of gold: where will you keep them? Do you think the rain and dew would then come down to you, in the streams from such mountains which God has made for you, of moss and whine-stone? But it is not gold you want to gather! What is it? Greenbacks? No; not those neither. What is it then? Not gold, not greenbacks, not ciphers after a capital I? You will have to answer, after all, "No, we want, somehow or other, money's worth."
Money's worth is what we want. And what is that? We don't know, but we have to have it! And there is your economics, in a nutshell! The systematization of the pursuit of the ultimate abstraction: getting our money's worth! And what is that? No one can say, but everyone can agree it is the most important object of living, the summa of human existence!

And they say superstition is dead, and theology a waste of time. Hah!

There are streams in the desert. Not everything is grinding and grasping and chasing after empty terms. There is always hope in what seems to be a hopeless situation. Which brings me back to quoting myself:

The simple truth of the Scriptures, of the Gospels, of the Letters of Paul and Peter and James and all the others, even of the Revelation to John, is that the world you live in is quite literally the world you see. Change your sight, change your reality. There are streams in the desert, and they are part of the prophetic vision; but you have to look to see them. We could call it seeking our place of resurrection. It's a better concept than seeking our self-assured security.

Are we on the road to scarcity? Or do we live in a world of abundance, able to satisfy the needs of all?

You, as Jean-Paul Sartre would remind us, choose.
And to end with quoting a song:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
and hear their death knells ringing;
When friends rejoice, both far and near,
how can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
our thoughts to them are winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
how can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Guided by a revelation

Listening to this on the way to work this morning, I thought of this.

Why? Because conveying new ideas to people is like evangelism. Sort of. Kind of. Well, it's similar.

Let me explain.

"Evangel" means, almost literally, "messenger of the good news." If you take out the prefix, you get "angel," a word we recognize as English (although it's actually Greek in origin) and which we associate with mythical winged beings. Not sure where the wings came from in tradition, but the purpose of angels in the New Testament (where the word appears, and so enters English, eventually) was to be "messengers," which is what the Greek word meant. So to be an "evangel" is to be a particular kind of messenger. But there we stumble immediately, because now the question is: "What is the 'good news'?"

TED (as in the conference) has an advantage over the church here. TED is for people who already know what TED speakers are talking about, and who want to hear something in a new or novel way. I try to imagine my mother at a TED conference, for example, and I know it would mean nothing to her. Far from being exciting and invigorating and inspiring, it would be confusing, bewildering, and boring. There is a basic principle of epistemology at work here, one we often overlook.

To learn something new, you have to connect it with something familiar. Too new, you can't learn it at all. There's a reason we start children off with simple addition and then subtraction, rather than with calculus and elementary analysis. Not only are the latter more complex than the former, they are too unfamiliar. Our entire educational system is built on this simple premise: in order to learn what you need to learn in college, you first need to learn what we have to teach you before college. The new must always be attached to the familiar, or learning it is almost impossible.

Which is why it can be so difficult to teach people philosophy. Some of it is quite familiar, some of it is not. The latter is considered "esoteric" by those who don't know enough about it. But it is esoteric largely because it is so unfamiliar. (I am rather like Socrates in that way; I still contend philosophy is simply the study of wisdom, and that wisdom is fundamental to thinking about human existence, and thinking about human existence is something everyone does throughout most of their lives. But I digress....). So if you start with the familiar, and then introduce the new, you have a better chance of explaining your new ideas.

Unfortunately, the most familiar thing about evangelism is the notion of salvation; even if it isn't our notion of salvation at all.

Mention "evangelism" and most people think of the earnest Christians who are concerned with the eternal state of your immortal soul. Already there are so many assumptions being made there the purpose of evangelism is very off-putting, and not just because the evangelizers tend to be rather annoying and single-minded in their purpose. They are single-minded because of their theology, however, not because of the demands of evangelism. It is one thing, in other words, to have good news to tell; it is another thing what "good news" you are talking about.

In the most evangelical of Christian circles (and often the most obnoxious, too), evangelism is not just the message of salvation, it is salvation; and more importantly, it is not just the salvation of the unsaved. In the theology of the evangelical (the ones who knock on your door, who are concerned with your salvation), salvation is not just for you, but for them as well. They take the Great Commission of Matthew ("make disciples of all nations") as a directive to convert the world to Christianity, or fail as Christians themselves for not doing so. Their salvation from damnation is tied not only to their acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (into their hearts, they used to tell me. Did I have Jesus in my heart, I was often asked in high school by very concerned peers, usually the best looking girls in school. No, I replied, he'd just clog a ventricle.), but to their ability to save you, too. For this soteriology (theology of salvation), the believer is not saved until the unbelievers are saved, too. And so you get the endless cycle of evangelism as conversion to a particular theology, a particular credo, a particular set of beliefs. So you get Jehovah's Witnesses who come to my door repeatedly, even after I tell them I'm an ordained Christian minister. Ordained, Christian, and a minister I might well be, but since I'm not of their theological beliefs and principles, I am not yet saved, and their salvation depends on recruiting me.

And that, too often, is the face of evangelism.

It doesn't have to be, of course; but to put a new face on evangelism requires we abandon this model first. "We" being those of us who are Christians, but who don't think our salvation is of primary importance, and that our salvation is tied to yours. Those are not the ties that bind. That is not the love of God we proclaim. This is not the commission we were given. If we have any commission, it starts a bit earlier in Matthew's Gospel, with the sheep and the goats. The question of the salvation of your eternal soul is not so important as the question of your life here and now. It is said that St. Patrick evangelized Ireland not by preaching, but by doing, by helping the daily lives the people led, not by promising a better life in the beyond. And, of course, there are the words attributed to St. Francis:

"Preach the gospel ceaselessly. Use words, if necessary."

The gospel should be strange and new. And it should be apprehended by revelation, not by discovery. This is the epistemological mistake we make. The TED conference is about discoveries, things revealed because someone peeled back the obfuscation and found the true reality beneath, followed a path of reasoning to understanding, a path the rest of us can retrace, can be led down to the same conclusion. And there is nothing wrong about that, but the very idea of the gospel is based on a different understanding of understanding, a different epistemology altogether. The very concept of the gospel comes by revelation, not by discovery. And revelation always comes through action, never through reason. Words are logos. Revelation is not.

So there is no TED conference for evangelism, because the gospel is in the world, but not of the world. It is revealed, not discovered. And it is, as Wittgenstein said, a record of experience, not a doctrine handed on:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).

As my seminary professors told us, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is impossible from an historical perspective. It has never happened in human history, there is no precedent for it, aside from the usual claims of resurrection, common at the time of Jesus of Nazareth. (Thus the epistemological problem: something entirely new cannot be entirely known.) But those claims are not accepted as history, so how can this one be? However, the evidence is that something happened to the followers of Jesus, to the disciples and later to Paul, and that others had an experience that caused them to be believers, to start a movement which later became a church which later became a world religion. Something happened, even if empirically we cannot say what; they had some experience, which they identified as an encounter with the risen Christ. They were "simply describing what happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it." And it was never described as a discovery; it was always described as a revelation.

The TED conference is a model for the world. With TED, discussion leads to discovery. But with the claims of Christianity, revelation leads to discussion.

It's hard not to connect all of this, with this:

There is order here, and a kind of vague organizational structure. There is a schedule of activities posted for every day. People get fed from a kitchen in the middle of the park. The marches generally go off on time, and the park is developing its own internal institutions, like the free library that Eric Seligson tends along one wall— battered paperbacks, everyone from Howard Zinn to Robert Ludlum, donated by the protesters or by passers-by. The first batch of books got ruined in the rain when the police forced him to remove the blue tarps because they were "opaque" and you couldn't see what was underneath them. Seligson replaced them with clear plastic bins. "You know, this is sort of an anarchistic bunch — kids — but I really am amazed for the respect they have for the word," he says, "for literature of all different kinds, not just political. There's a real reverence for what has been written that has surprised me, since they eschew whatever came before, all the thought that came before. They entertain everything. You know, all the Isms, as well as the entertainment reading. We have the romance novels, too."

People looking for "a coherent message" in the park would do well to talk to Brendan Burke, a tall, tattooed truck driver with a degree from NYU and The New School, who's based at the center of the park, where four or five young people are crouched over laptops, shouting into the wind in their own way.

"People are informed today. People are online," Burke explains. "People in Kansas do yoga, you understand. Country's different, you understand? There's no more mooks in the citizenry. We are working people and we're not getting a fair shake, so we took to the streets. It's an irrational act, an act of passion, but we need to use self-control and respect. Those who want to go down with the ship will go down with the ship. Those who will be there will be sensible people who are out here for a reason. The kids who are out here who just want to party, well, they're beautiful children and we protect them every night. I can't even tell you what's going to happen after today. The cops may sweep this when the landlord says I want them out.
"This is not Tahrir Square. This is not Tompkins Square Park. This is not Yuppies against squatters. This is about minds. We need help from people who know. We need help from people in the financial industry who know. They should be here, too. He should want to see a better community. I want to see change in a systematic and legislative way. We're looking for real results. We're looking for protection for people. We're down here trying to play bills. It's serious out there, but it's quiet, because it happens at everyone's kitchen table. It's happening household-by-household. There's a sense out there, which I hope what's going on here will dissipate, that there's something wrong with me. I'm a jerk because I can't pay that bill. There are working men who will march tomorrow. It's all about people, who feel they got duped. There needs to be a systematic legislative change, so that this cannot happen any more."
Do I mean OWS is a Christian movement, or should be? Or that it is depending upon some revelation from a deity for people outside the movement to "get it"? No; but the basic approach of OWS is the same as the basic approach of the early Christian church: you don't get it, until you get it. And there is no simple message here, no single phrase or word or idea that sums it all up.

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:26-35, NIV

That's Luke's version of early church evangelism. Philip is guided by a revelation from God, and reveals not a singular idea, but "the good news about Jesus." And what was that? Presumably more than "Jesus Saves" or "Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?" ("Lord" and "Savior" being words that would have made more sense in Luke's culture than in ours, and had far less to do with religion and Christianity in particular, than they do today).

It is not too much to say that OWS is demanding a change of perspective, a whole sight, or all the rest is desolation. It is not too much to say that is the claim of Christian evangelism, too. And while evangelism must use the tools of the world, just as OWS is using Verizon to access the internet, evangelism can still be in the world but not of the world. Because, unlike the discoveries discussed at TED, evangelism is about the revelation given in a human life; a revelation that can change and challenge a life. Are we all meant to be evangelists if we are Christians? No. But we are all meant to preach the gospel; and use words, if necessary.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Purity of Heart might get in the way

Occupy Wall Street occupying my thoughts:

So to all those trying to figure out how to engage, here’s my advice. If you want to “help” #OccupyWallStreet, in New York or any place around the country, think about what you can bring to a public space to make it more lively, interesting, or helpful. On a basic level, just bring yourself. If you are a cook, cook food and bring it. If you are a lawyer, offer free legal help. If you’re an artist, make art. If you’re Joe Stiglitz, go by and host a brief teach-in (as he actually did). If you can publish, make a newspaper. One idea is to bring a laptop with internet access, and open it to the spiffy complaint page of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Put up a sign called “Complain About Your Bank” above the laptop, and show people how to use it. That’s useful. That shows people how to interact with their government and take action to empower themselves against banks. Make the space better, and then enjoy what you’ve made. Or, if you want to fight politically, fight for the right to this public space. Try and make sure predator drones aren’t at either political convention. Advocate for keeping parks open.

The premise of their politics is that #OccupyWallStreet isn’t designed to fit into your TV or newspaper. Nothing human really is, which is why our politics is so utterly deformed. It’s why they don’t want to be “on message” – what kind of human society can truly be reduced to a slogan? I’m not sure I agree with their political premise. But in the carnival they have created, in the liveliness and beauty and art and fun and utter humanity of it all, they make a damn good case.
There was a quote from Steve Jobs on NPR this morning, where he described how the original Mac was designed by poets and artists and historians and a lot of people we don't ordinarily think of as being involved in computer design or even in consumer product design. And I remembered the essay in the Atlantic by James Fallows when the Mac first came out and almost no one knew what it was. Fallows critiqued it because of the mouse and the interface which would soon become ubiquitous as "Windows" (this was in the days when we all had to learn the language of DOS) and the complexity of the programming which he feared was too much of a sledgehammer swatting a fly.

And now all we can say is that Steve Jobs changed the world, because he refused to think like a computer programmer or to have only one message in mind when he designed a new product.

And it occurred to me, that might still be an applicable lesson.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Is "Messy" Messianic? And other useless considerations....

I was directed here by starting here, so first, my thanks to both Ann and Mimi. But what I'm most interested in is here, something Harvey Cox said 12 years ago. But to simply put the matter in context:

Still, the liturgy of The Market is not proceeding without some opposition from the pews. A considerable battle is shaping up in the United States, for example, over the attempt to merchandise human genes. A few years ago, banding together for the first time in memory, virtually all the religious institutions in the country, from the liberal National Council of Churches to the Catholic bishops to the Christian Coalition, opposed the gene mart, the newest theophany of The Market. But these critics are followers of what are now "old religions," which, like the goddess cults that were thriving when the worship of the vigorous young Apollo began sweeping ancient Greece, may not have the strength to slow the spread of the new devotion.
Opposition to the "liturgy of The Market" is currently being pronounced by the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, which is spreading out to occupy other places as well. But the narrative of the movement is not yet 'crystal clear' enough to fit on a bumper sticker, so the media seems most concerned about how incoherent the movement is. At first I wondered: so what was the single, coherent message of the Hoovervilles? But after reading Cox's argument, I'm thinking: the message is coherent, but like the message of the Church, it isn't being spoken in the language of the world.

Let me explain.

I'm a supporter of the traditional liturgy of the church, the ancient practice, much modified but much the same, handed down from the Roman Catholic observances. Most pastors I know, especially in my denomination, disagree with me. They insist such practices are too arcane and archaic, and must be discarded in favor of newer, more appealing styles of worship. It would seem to be an argument just about styles, then: whether I wear a robe or alb, a tie or a collar, a business suit or an open necked polo shirt, surely what matters is what is said, not how it is said. Right?

Well, maybe.

But if what I say is in the language of the world, is entirely in the "liturgy" of the world, am I not speaking in terms of the world? Reports coming from the Occupy Wall Street movement are that it is radically democratic. At least, "radical" as we have come to understand democracy. But we forget America is not a democracy; it is a democractic republic. We are far more Roman than Greek, and while they Greeks gave us the concept of the "demos," the Romans taught us to organize a republic. We are as much a republic as Rome once was; the main difference is, we are more democratic than Rome ever was. But we still assume we must speak with one voice in all matters; and so pundits bewail "partisanship" and the "lack of civility" that prevents everyone from agreeing that we should be at war in Vietnam, or in favor of waiting for civil rights to be granted to African Americans, or go slower on granting just voting rights to all Americans, or....

You get my point.

The Occupy Wall Street "movement" seems to be less about recreating the democratic republic in miniature, and more about reclaiming the ancient Greek ideal of "democracy." It is not unknown in this country, the idea that democracy means listening to all the voices of all the people. The man standing at the town hall meeting is a citizen entitled to be heard like very other citizen, where the vote is a consensus of those gathered, not the decision of representatives. If Occupy Wall Street doesn't have one message to convey, that is because it is conveying a message by what it is rather than just by what it says. Ironically, in this web-linked and internet besotted age, actions still speak louder than words. And trying to reduce actions to words is as much a distortion as trying to reduce the parables of Jesus to simply moral homilies.

The parables, in fact, are a good example of what I mean. Simple tales told about ordinary events, but tales charged with extraordinary and seemingly contradictory meaning. Jesus' parables take the everyday life of his original audience and fill it with wonder and paradox and even confusion. How can a father honor a son's outrageous request for his half of the estate when his father still lives, and how can that father welcome that same prodigal son home? But how can the brother stand outside and not share in the celebration, and at the same time, how can he go in and accept what the father and his brother have done? Isn't there a simple meaning to this tale, something we can fit in a bumper sticker? There is, by now; but it distorts the tale to render that "simple" meaning. It fits the tale, in fact, into the language of the world, rather than leaving it in the language of the parable.

So to speak in the liturgy of The Market is not to challenge the basic presumption of The Market as God; it is only to seek to reform the presumption so it better serves our preferences and comforts. But there's nothing preferential or comfortable about camping out in a public park for three weeks, demanding attention and advocating for change. The Market expects activities to pay dividends, to reap rewards, to at least incur profits. In The Market, even time is for sale, and the coin of purchase has to have meaning in The Market, or there is no purchase possible, no transaction can occur, no purpose can be identified. If the activity does not have a Market purpose, what purpose is there to it?

Does everything, then, have to have a Market purpose? Does all liturgy, all human action, have to speak in terms of the World to be understandable? And if it does, can it radically challenge the World? Or can it, at best, only seek to reform it, to tweak it, to modify it, however slightly?

"What life have we if we have no life together?" In the NPR story, some of the occupiers of Wall Street noted the irony of protesting corporations while using Verizon to live stream the protest marches and so bypass any coverage or lack of coverage the media might (or might not) provide. But if the message is not about damning the corporation outright, perhaps the message is, in part, about the right use of the corporation. "Liturgy", after all, is the "work of the people." To work is to be in the world (the example of Christ led even the scholarly monks of Medieval Europe to labor as well as study); it is not necessarily to be of the world, however. But to speak in the liturgy of the church is to speak a rich language; one, however, comprehensible to the Church, if not to the world. But what does it mean to speak in the liturgy of The Market?

To speak in the liturgy of the Church is to make the Church and its traditions paramount, if not necessarily supreme. To speak in the liturgy of The Market is to make The Market paramount, if not necessarily supreme. Which, however, should be necessarily supreme: God? Or The Market? Perhaps not even God (there is no reason to make Occupy Wall Street a wholly Christian movement), but what substitute for The Market can be offered? The demos? That would seem to be what Occupy Wall Street wants to offer, and it's a very reasonable substitute to The Market. But The Market speaks in terms of "bottom lines," of DJIA closes and stock prices and valuations that are definable if not final. The Market wants a single, simple, marketable narrative. Democracy, on the other hand, especially direct, unfiltered democracy, is messy.

Long live the messy.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

No, not originally from "Godspell"

When wilt thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
The people, Lord, the people,
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of thy heart, O God, are they;
let them not pass like weeds away
Their heritage a sunless day
God save the people

Shall crime bring crime forever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father,
that men shall toil for wrong?
No, say thy mountains; No, say thy skies;
man's clouded sun shall brightly rise,
and songs be heard, instead of sighs,
God save the people!

When wilt thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
The people, Lord, the people!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
God save the people; thine they are,
thy children as thy angels fair;
from vice, oppression and despair,
God save the people!

Words: Ebenezer Elliott, 1850

Saturday, October 01, 2011

"People are Messy"

There is a common thread in the analyses of our current fiscal problems, and it is connected by the fact that people cost too much damned money!

It is connected, in other words, by an idea. An abstraction. The worship of concepts over the concern for human beings.

This is as good a starting place as any:

Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT), who’s expected to face Sen. John Tester (D) in the Montana Senate race next year, is worried that some families who receive federally-subsidized lunches may be gaming the system and therefore bilking you out of your hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

It’s about waste, fraud and abuse, he suggests. But Democrats say it’s about something else: A Republican looking to scrimp on a program that benefits the least fortunate of all Americans, poor children, while he fights to protect subsidies for multi-billion dollar oil companies.
Mitch Daniels has been all over the news lately, from The Daily Show to Morning Edition on NPR, promoting his idea that people cost too damned much and we really just cannot afford them:

Daniels, whose book portrays America — and President Obama — in deep trouble, says that he largely agrees with columnist Charles Krauthammer, who says the Social Security system needs to be adjusted, not abolished, and that the changes can come over time.

Changing the system, Daniels says, "would send a clear and positive message that we do not intend to go over a fiscal Niagara."

"The wisest course would be to say to today's retirees, nothing changes for you, but also to ask them to join in seeing that younger generations who are paying for their retirement today have some protection, too."
I pause only to note the "expert" Mr. Daniels agrees with is a newspaper columnist. I might also point out I've been hearing Social Security was going to "go broke" since at least the 1970's. It's a popular canard because, well: people are too damned expensive.

We're never about to go "over a fiscal Niagara" because of defense spending, or because we build too many highways, or because we bail out too many banks, or because we let too many corporations get away with not paying any income tax. It's always because we spend too much on people. Wait for the day a Mitch Daniels goes on the talk shows promoting a book about how we buy too many weapons systems and waste too much money propping up Wall Street.

You'll be waiting a very long time.

Everybody plays the game, even if they don't quite seem to. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles are all for making the tax system "equitable," and want to keep social programs, but only for the "most vulnerable":

The work done by our commission and others has shown that it is possible to reform entitlement programs in a way that preserves and even strengthens the safety net for the most vulnerable while achieving significant savings.
But Dennis Rehberg and Mitch Daniels would define the "most vulnerable" as the taxpayers (who are being cheated by "the poor") and major corporations (who need lower taxes and less regulation so they can "create jobs"). And nowhere in the Simpson/Bowles editorial is there any mention of the outrageous spending in Iraq and Afghanistan which created the budget deficit we have in the first place (Clinton left Bush with a budget surplus; Cheney said "Deficits don't matter".), nor any idea that "entitlements" should perhaps include defense spending in its definition. Defense spending is still for the most vulnerable of all. Apparently.

Two arguments could be made here: one purely emotional, the other painfully rational and based on a pile of evidence. The conclusion is the same, and this is the golden thread running through the discussion of the current situation. Matt Yglesias, for example, noted what I immediately noted about Michael Kinsley's (the poor man's Newt Gingrich) column on Chris Christie's weight:

A further nuance here, though, is that not only did Michael Kinsley’s piece on this draw a spurious connection between Christie’s appearance his personal virtue, it does so in order to make a second bad moral panic. After acknowledging that Christie “makes all the right noises about fiscal discipline,” he says that “perhaps Christie is the one to help us get our national appetites under control. But it would help if he got his own under control first.” This not only misunderstands obesity, it misunderstands fiscal policy. The sentiment here is that small budget deficits are a sign of self-control and personal virtue, and that large deficits are to be deplored as the reverse. There’s just no reason to think that any of that is true. The question to ask about fiscal policy is whether it’s appropriate to try to advance full employment in the short-term and capacity growth in the long-term. You have to ask what’s really going on, what the situation is, and what the impact of the policy choices will be. On Yom Kippur, you fast as an act of self-abnegation as part of a process for atoning for one’s sins. A person with out-of-control appetites will have a difficult time doing it. Fiscal policy is nothing like that.
No, it isn't; but fiscal policy is a terribly abstract notion. Much easier to replace it with an equally abstract notion, but one that seems concrete: people are no damned good! And fat people are victims of their appetites! And so the rest of us, greedy bastards that we are, are victims of our appetites. Or rather, victims of someone else's appetites (always easier to blame someone else for your problems).

Remember when the narrative said that it was the poor who caused the financial markets to collapse because they took out mortgages they couldn't afford? Funny, if they couldn't afford them, how did they get them? I've never been able to take out a large loan I couldn't afford; I always had to have a credit check. If I couldn't afford the debt, it was because of a loss of income, not because I never had the income to repay the loan. How was it the poor were suddenly responsible for the lenders being irresponsible?

They weren't, of course; but the story of the rapacious poor continued. Rick Perry is right: children of illegal immigrants in Texas deserve to pay in-state tuition rates for Texas colleges, colleges supported by state taxes paid by people who live in Texas. Being "illegal" doesn't exempt you from paying taxes, especially in a state with no income tax. A Texas resident pays sales tax on every purchase (except food and medicine) and pays property tax, either as a landowner, or through rent. That money is all you are asked to contribute as a resident in order to get in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges. So how does being "illegal" affect residency status?

It doesn't. But the GOP primary voters who are disgusted with Rick Perry (NPR found some in New Hampshire) think "illegal immigrants" don't deserve anything from Texas because...well...they're "illegal." They aren't people, they're: "Illegal." Perry was right to call people with such opinions heartless, even though that's no way to win votes.

But ideas matter more than people.

In fact, people don't even matter. It's the idea of people that matters.

When Jesus says, in Matthew's gospel, that you saw me naked, or hungry, or sick, or in prison, and you cared for me, even if just to visit me or give me some food, he's contrasting the idea of people with the reality of people. And those who treat people as human beings rather than ideas, are the ones who, literally, served God (and stop and think what it means to "serve God," without serving as God's agent of power. To serve the powerless God, the God who is sick, in prison, or naked, or hungry. We praise "servants of God" who tell us what they think God wants. We pay almost no attention to servants of God who actually serve God by being servants to people.)

I don't want to banter still with still more ideas of how this idea became so important. I just want to point out that if there is truth in the old teaching from the catechism that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," this is a concrete application of that teaching, rather than merely a metaphysical or abstract one.

Most of us prefer ideas over people. It's just so much easier to deal with the world that way.