28 July 2017

Horatio Alger, Ayn Rand, and Jesus



So, OK, that title may seem a little odd. Well,actually, if you know something of the three of them, very odd. But of late, the three of them have been on my mind, and I have been thinking about how they influence the conversation if that is what we want to call the social media chaos and Twitter storm that has overtaken politics for the last few months. Let me explain.

In the American Literature readers of the 1950's (Mr. Trump and I share an age) the Alger arch-type appeared with some frequency, often in stories written by him. I have included a link here that will offer a perhaps more complete review of Alger's novels. What I think is relevant here is the moral commentary in his work, and the theology that underlies it.

The point here is that wealth, to Alger, and we should note that the "prosperity Gospel" right wing evangelicals is that wealth is a sign of virtue. One person in particlullar appears to have bought into this idea: Donald Trump. Trump remarked of his billionaire heavy cabinet that it had the highest IQ in history. (Yes I heard him say it.) Associating wealth, intelligence, and virtue by implication at least assigns poverty to an absence of virtue, is classic Alger.
***
As near as I can tell, Rand never had an original thought in her life. Her so-called "philosophy" is nothing but Emerson and Thoreau misquoted and without the scholarship. Her writing, nowhere near as good as Alger's, was so busy preaching her conviction that she was entitled to care about no one but herself, that the stories such as they were and what there was of them, had to contend for page space. There may be a legitimate academic who takes her seriously, but I cannot find one.

Rand's silly misrepresentation of Emerson was summarized in her turgid lecture published as, "The Virtue of Selfishness." This 24 page screed is available on line if anyone really wants to read it but I won't link to it here because of copy-write concerns. She makes a very few points none of them supported: morals and ethics are a hangover from pre-modern savages and more recent collectivism. These two: religion and Marxism are evil. She has the solution, atomic individualism and legitimized selfishness and greed.
***
Which brings me to the other guy. We have two major comments on social justice from Jesus. One is the "Sermon on the Mount." Mathew 5 - 7 The other is the description of judgement. Mathew 25 It is worth noting that Jesus seems to have known a lot about Torah and other Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus called on his followers to care for the poor, Deuteronomy and Isiah call for equal treatment of aliens. In fact, Jesus condemns those who do not care for the poor, widows, and those in prison to the same hell he never mentions for gays, lesbians, or even straights! Want a Biblical trip to Hell, mistreat the poor.

We need to put the Christian comments in context. John the Baptizer, and Jesus were intensely political. We now read Jesus in particular as a moral teacher (makes him safer) but he was definitely calling the kings and temple authorities to account. In Luke he often makes that point by asking his followers to be careful about who they talk to about him. Consider one example of being a cagey careful preacher of social justice. A vineyard was a standard symbol for the kingdom of Israel. Now go read the parable of the vineyard with the usurpers, in the context of Herod's Roman backed takeover of Israel. Jesus was political.

And Jesus was in the social justice business. In other words he was everything Alger and Rand were not. We Christians claim we stand with Paul in affirming that, "Jesus is Lord." Which leads me to claim one can not be a Christian and an American Evangelical.

I have not written for a while, which is probably not noticed widely. I have been ill, and my online time has been limited. I do plan to be a bit more active.

FWIW

27 February 2017

Authoritarianism



In Episode V of Star Wars, a major climactic moment is the light sabre fight between Lord Vader and Luke Skywalker. As the duel progressives, Vader tries to talk Luke into joining him. He tries to convince Luke that if they join forces and crush the rebellion, they can bring order. That is his goal and he offers it as a virtue.

In the 1930's, the model fascist State was Italy. Mussolini until his army proved remarkably inept in Ethiopia and Greece, had been the model. Franco, Salazar, and yes Hitler all made trips to Rome to see how it was done. Hitler would add State anti-Semitism and and effective military. As Germany bailed Italy out in Greece and Africa, Hitler would eventually surpass Mussolini. What strikes me as relevant from that earlier time is the almost universal comment by Americans and other visitors was that the Fascists had made the trains run on time. That imposition of efficiency was seen as success, and an alteration of the somewhat sloppy Italian culture that was remarkable.

We must have, I hear, order. The same lunatic gun lobby that proclaimed a right to shoot Federal agents in Wyoming and Montana now wants to attack Standing Rock Lakota and their "liberal" allies. There is as my favorite rock song proclaims, something happening here.

Back in the 1930's Hitler showed the world that what fascism needs is an enemy. So also Communism needed an evil enemy. Hitler proclaimed Jews the enemies of the "volk," while Stalin discovered, "counter revolutionaries" who were enemies of the Soviet People. If any of that sounds the least bit familiar, you have been paying attention to Mr. Trump, and his tools, Steve Bannon and Steven Miller. The press, paid protesters, and the evil intellectuals are the enemies of the people.

Wayne La Pierre declared in his CPAC speech that gun owners, "have the president's back." http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/short-enemies-nras-lapierre-invents-new-one He also brought back the big lie technique with his reference to $1500 a week payments for protesters which he knows or should know is a lie. Mark Shields observed on PBS last Friday that declaring the press the enemy of the people is where dictatorships begin.

So here we are at the moment when the desire for order over-rides (a card player might say,"trumps") liberty. The opposite of order is not chaos, it is freedom. We are slipping into a time when order will be the overwhelming motive of the State. Authoritarianism is always excused by finding an enemy of the people and of order. That way lies fascism.

17 February 2017

words matter



As the National Security Advisor debacle unwound, I became increasingly concerned with some of the language that my liberal friends have adopted. In particular, a single word, treason, troubles me.

When James (Jamie to his friends) Madison was writing the Constitution, he included a clause defining one word, the only definition in the Constitution.
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.
This one word was so repugnant to Madison and the other founders that it was defined, and the sentence specifically limited. Some of this matters today and I shall unpack it a bit.

Treason in England and much of Europe meant whatever the crown said it meant. Punishments were horrible: "traitors" took a long and painful time to die, leading to another item in the Constitution, the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" in the 5th Amendment. What the French called, "les majesty" or in any way dismissing or (in the current language) disrespecting, the king, queen or government was treason in England. Conspiracy or rebellion was not required.

Madison defines treason, and while leaving the penalty to Congress, he limited its authority. Specifically, the English rule that a person executed for treason left to any descendants something called, "corruption of blood"is prohibited. The idea is disturbingly simple, it means that they could neither inherit or earn any real property or title. While Madison and his co-authors prohibited titles of nobility, they did not object to simple inheritance, or land ownership. They found the idea of carrying a penalty to descendants unjust and prohibited it.

It is then no small thing to suggest someone has committed treason, or to carry disapproval to succeeding generations. Which is why the way progressives including those on talk radio, are tossing around the word, and the treatment Tiffany Trump has been receiving are worrisome. General Flynn may have violated the Lawson Act which prohibits a private person from intruding on the president's foreign policy authority. His conversations with the Russian Ambassador appear well over the line.

But notice something. Two hundred years ago, Congress enacted the Lawson Act, defining unlawful conduct, not treason! Were the conversations the General held treason, no reference to the Lawson act would be relevant. In fact the law would not exist.

Calling a US Marine flag officer a traitor is pretty far out. People who choose to be Marine officers are almost by definition patriots. They may be authoritarians, they may simply be wrong, but they do not levy war against the USA, nor do they assist its enemies. Do I think the general erred, sure. Do I know if he committed indictable felonies, nope: that is what we have prosecutors and grand juries to determine.

Consider the prohibition of inherited penalties. Whatever I think of President Trump (I do not think much of him) neither of his daughters are responsible for the incredible incompetence he and his staff have exhibited. Boycotting Ivanka's fashion line, or refusing to sit near Tiffany at a fashion show is simply wrong.

As is so often the case, the founders were right. Yes Gen Flynn erred, and it appears lied about it, and yes he could not continue as National Security Advisor. Yes nothing he has done to date suggests Mr. Trump or his staff either know or respect truth, and yes nothing suggests even marginal competence. But General Flynn is not a traitor, and Trump's daughters are not responsible for him.

Finally there is a "what if" lurking on the horizon. What if the Trump campaign actually was in touch with and perhaps receiving aid from Russia during the campaign? Go back and read Section 3. It may be that US Campaign law was violated. It may be that Mr. Trump or his campaign may have legal troubles. And whoever may have been a liaison to the Russians may have more legal issues. But again, Russia is not an enemy of the US, and violating election law is a specific action, not treason.

Words matter. Actions matter. I would not accept Mr. Trump's invitation to dinner, White House or otherwise. But, neither Ivanka nor Tiffany deserve to be shunned. I am poor. We do not buy fashion jewelry or gowns. But if we were to do so, the father of the designer would not be a factor.

We progressives do not need to adopt the worst characteristics of the rightwing. The willingness to name, "traitors" and carry penalties for generations (Tennessee is debating "legitimacy" a dark ages idea) is what I think of as the worst of the worst. We can and should do better.

FWIW





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The Constitution of the United States of America

13 February 2017

Speaking Justice to Power



It has been less than three weeks. America, and your tardy scribe has been seized by the Trump reality show.

Today is the day the Episcopal Church commemorates two amazing men: Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. In 1786,in part because these two men were effective lay people who brought other free black people into their Methodist congregation: St. George's. In a stunningly stupid and unChristian moment, the white members voted to restrict the blacks to the balcony. They did not even have the courage to publish the vote. Blacks including Allen and Jones discovered the infamy when ushers told them to move during the opening Sunday prayer. They and a number of other black members did not walk up to the balcony, they walked out.

The two men went two different and significant ways. Allen wanted to remain Methodist, and eventually founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. That body exists to this day, and continues to preach and celebrate the Gospel. Jones met with Bishop White (my personal hero among those founding the Episcopal Church.) White granted permission for the founding of a new parish, led by Jones who moved from lay leader to priest over time. That congregation exists.

After we read the story of Allen and Jones, the intervention of Bp. White, and the lessons for the commemoration at Morning Prayer, we were both amazed at the racism, and stupidity of the White congregation, and the courage and will of the affronted Black Christians. There is no memorial for the racists of St. George's. They are in well deserved anonymity while we recall and celebrate Allen, Jones, and White.

We were fortunate to have Mission St. Clare's resources for Morning Prayer with an appropriate prayer and readings. is the source page, which I have used as a source for much of the history above. Forward Movement has another excellent resource. I recommend both.

Posts, like sermons about readings and commemorations face the question, what does the lessons and / or history tell us about how we should live today? That requires us to put the story in context of the times. And that leads us to the Trump Administration. They came to power on a wave of relatively low education, white, male voters. Conflating them with the voters at St. George's is disturbingly easy. What to do about them is another matter.

On the one hand, the idea of amending the Constitution to require an exam in critical thinking skills or a BA/BS for registration is tempting. Applying the rule exclusively to white men based on performance is also attractive. But neither is going to happen, so we need to consider other avenues.

Realistically:
  1. We need to organize and win the 2018 election.
  2. We need to use the authority of a new Congress to limit the damage the Trump Administration can inflict.
  3. We need effective legal challenges to each and every executive order filed, whenever counsel can identify opportunities.
  4. Perhaps most importantly we need credible challenges to every Republican State legislator and governor.
We also need to shout the message of Christian diversity, that Jesus is not the captive icon of White right wing politicians but rather the loving messiah and son of the loving God. So is this view political? Of course. So was the anti-slavery movement, begun and nurtured in white and black churches, the civil rights movement begun and nurtured by black and then white churches and synagogues in the 1960's. Using the phrase "that is political" as an excuse to avoid being engaged is not Christian it is craven.

18 January 2017

Cathedrals, choirs, and inaugurations

You can be forgiven if the controversies the upcoming inauguration are causing in the Episcopal Church have not been on your radar. While we think we are important: we are less than 1% of the population. But we do have some impressive real estate. Our cathedral in Washington, is widely known as, "the National Cathedral."

One of the traditions that surrounds the inauguration is a non-denominational service of prayers, readings and music attended by the new president, vice-president and a fairly good sized chunk of official Washington, cabinet nominees / members, Congresspersons, Senators, and a lot of supporters, especially contributors. Mr. Trump and his team are planning to attend such an event. Therein the controversy.

Officially of course, the church has no opinion on elections. So neither Mr. Trump nor Ms. Clinton were endorsed in any way. But(!) the Republican platform was in opposition to most if not all of the social justice positions of the church. I cannot cite data, but my hunch is that less than 5% of Episcopalians voted for Mr. Trump. I would guess that something over 90% of Episcopalians support the Affordable Care Act.

Saying that Mr. Trump is not in tune with our values is to massively understate the case. And if that were not enough, we promise at every baptism that we will "respect the dignity of every human being." We interpret that mean gay marriage, women's right to choose, and accepting, welcoming and protecting the alien, legal or not. In short Mr. Trump offends us on about every level.

So do we host the inaugural service? We do. Does our choir sing at the event, it does. Are a large number of Episcopalians deeply offended, absolutely. The offended have made a vocal presence on social media, decrying the decision. Those actually making the decision, the bishop of Washington, Dean of the Cathedral, choir director have also made their case.

I have been on both sides of this. That is sort of a classic Episcopal position, we call it via media, the middle way. Sometimes however one must actually decide. So here I am, blogging what I am with some hope, calling my final word.

This us no ordinary inauguration. This is a minority president, who is flagrantly dishonest, stunningly demagogic, misogynistic, homophobic, a bigot, and by his own description, a sexual predator. Yes we must honor our law and undertake a peaceful transfer of power. Yes we can celebrate our institutions. But assisting in the event, or providing entertainment for the supporters of bigotry and hatred, as a church is wrong. The dean is wrong, and the bishop is wrong.

I think via media is simply not available when it comes to opposing frank evil. This inauguration brings evil into power. That is not something to sing about.

06 January 2017

Christmas Letters

I generally do not do a Christmas letter. But this year, while I am not sending one with cards, I have been thinking about 2016. So,here, a sort of year in review.

In January, I went to see my Primary Care Doc, again. I had begun complaining of extreme back pain a few weeks earlier. Doc said I walked into his office like a man with severe lower back pain, but I was pointing at the wrong place. Tests and films were indicated. We knew I did not have gallbladder pain as I had surgery to remove it some years ago, and I know what pancreatitis is like, this was not that. Tests, we did tests.

Late January found us doing a biopsy of a tumor on my adrenal gland. I had moved from mere tests to the care of Amita Hospital's Oncology practice. The diagnosis took a while, and the special pathology facilities of Mayo Brothers. But it was definitive: B cell diffuse non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The nice thing if there is one, about lymphoma is you do not have to worry about it spreading, it is everywhere. (Gallows humor sort of goes with cancer, especially the second time you have it.)

My first chemo came close to ending my year. I did a full scale anaphylactic shock episode. Who needs to breath? LaGrange Hospital's "crash cart team," and the care of a great oncology oncologist with his nurses pulled me through. Or so I hear. The anaphylaxis hit me with a flash of discomfort and a long period unconsciousness. When I woke the therapy was over. I was exhausted, sick, but not in any real pain.

That pattern took me to June. After nearly losing me, the oncologist started each treatment with a half-liter of Benadryl. Not only does that keep the anaphylaxis away, it knocks you out.So I slept through the actual treatments. Unfortunately, the Benadryl does not keep the next few days away. Everything you have heard about chemo, especially the nausea, hair loss, lethargy, and weakness is true. BUT(!) after 6 treatments, 18 weeks of infusion and recovery, in June I tested cancer free.

July and August were all about getting stronger and recovering things like my beard and what hair I have. Remember that this all began when I went to doctors seeking help with back pain? The good news is that the cancer is gone, the bad news is that the back pain is not. So, September and October were spent working with surgeons, doctors, and a raft of radiology technicians. At one point, I had a firm schedule for a potential 10 hour surgery.

Here is a rule. When your cardiologist calls on a Sunday night late, the news is never good. Mostly because of simple caution, I had postponed surgery for two weeks. When my cardiologist called he affirmed my surgical clearance but said he was a bit concerned about my ekg. He asked me to come the next day for a 24 hour ekg that can be worn. I went.

When I got the portable ekg, I was told that 8 days later, the Tuesday after the test, I would meet with the doctor to discuss the results. Remember my rule? I turned the portable unit in at about 10:00 and at noon, Doctor's assistant had called to move my appointment up to the next day. So a very little bit of medical information: I am 70, and any number between 0 and 200 is an acceptable number of irregular heartbeats. I had over 4,000. So Wednesday, an interventional cardiologist found a 95% blockage in the main coronary artery, and another smaller blockage. I have two new stents. I also still have the irregular heartbeat.

The idea had been that without the blockages, as often happens, the heart beat would drift back to normal. But then, this d oes not always happen, and 2016 was just my tough year. My heart was simply not "calming down."

The next idea surprised me. So here is the logic. Lots of old guys (moi) especially if they sometimes snore (also moi) have at least some sleep apnea. To my surprise, it turns out that if that condition is treated, a benefit is that the cardiac rhythm is also normalized. OK, sleep study and a CPAP machine - right? Wrong. Oh we did the study, I have, "severe" sleep apnea. But I choked on every possible mask for the machine. I am told this simply happens sometimes.

So, ends 2016 with the back problem, the sleep apnea, and the irregular heart beat. Two of those are "life threatening," the sleep apnea and the heart irregularity. We are exploring alternate treatments in 2017.

All of this of course was for us in the foreground as the catastrophic presidential and congressional elections were playing out. I wrote a few blogs about the mess, but I was so busy not dying, I did not become really involved. I am under no illusion, I am a small fish, and my absence from the pond did not significantly alter the results. But, I cannot expect you to be active if I am not. So, my plans include a lot more involvement as we begin to resist the new American fascism.

2016 taught me something about mortality. I had so many near misses. But I also learned I can continue in the face of it. I became a master Mason, saw my elder son become a Mason, both of us mentored by my younger son, and saw Drew become only the second Senior Verger in the over 145 year of our parish. My grandkids grew and continued to be grand hopes for the future.

Happy New Year!

03 January 2017

Thoughts of the Magi

My younger grand child, Gabriel greeted me on New Year's Day with a loving hug, smile, and question, "What are your New Year's revolutions Grandpa?" Jamie, three years older and much more sophisticated noted the "error," corrected him observing they are resolutions. I have been thinking about whether it was an error. I think Gabriel may have had a point.

A resolution is a typically insincere commitment. Most often, I think, many are things we acknowledge we should do. I know family members who have resolved to quit smoking over and over for decades. Besides a certain humor value, until recently, I almost never saw a resolution last past January. FitBit and its competitors have changed this a bit. Drop a couple hundred dollars, or get your love to do so, and suddenly a fitness or weight loss resolution has if not teeth, at least longevity.

But what of revolutions? Revolutions live near the Book of Common Prayer's scarry call for those who confess, "amendment of life." For most of the last seventy years, I am not sure I wanted that amendment of life thing, although as a civil rights demonstrator, folkie, anti-war, progressive, I have to admit wanting to amend other people's lives. That indeed may be my problem.

So what are your revolutions? I hope mine will be getting out of the house, into the ride business, (Uber) and back to the business of living. Enough of the cancer, back injury, and heart problems. Yes they are with me, and yes I cannot get rid of them. But I can be revolutionary, I can simply live while I ignore them. I can stop being obsessed by either my health or self.

That may be my personal revolution, but it is not enough. Revolutions are never enough. Yes, here, on social media of one sort or another, I think the revolution demands more. I need to find ways to have an impact. I dunno where I will end but for no. I think I need to be playing and singing revolutionary songs again. Hand me down my dulcimer.

As my favorite science fiction heroine says, "lets be about it."


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