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Archive for the ‘Social Issues’ Category

Visiting friends over this past weekend, I stopped by a favorite bookstore between visits and purchased the Spring 2015 issue of Tikkun magazine. I need to subscribe to this magazine because I enjoy the articles and the overall perspective of “healing/repairing the world” (tikkun olam). A particular piece that I have thought about in different contexts appeared in Tikkun.

This Spring 15 issue contains a series of articles on the theme, “The Place of Hope in an Age of Climate Disaster.” I appreciated the complementary and interfaith perspectives on what is, to me, a very depressing problem. The ordinary person doesn’t know what to do, and the lachrymose tone of many writings on the subject (who are, after all, environmental activists who see what is happening) can be distressing. Too, we are all beneficiaries of a economic system that contains injustices, and environmental destruction is one.

It would be amazing if we had more political leaders who inspired people to action on this issue. To use Ronald Reagan as an example of a very inspiring leader: had he been an environmentalist, how many Americans would have been inspired to step up!

The nature of science, too, can be a source for impatience. Scientists observe present phenomena and make predictions based on models suggested by the evidence, and the observations may change based on additional evidence, as was the case last week when predicted solar activity suggested a near-future cooling of the earth. These aspects of science–ongoing study, and the refinement of predictions–contributes to two popular responses to the science: scoff at it, or just wait and see what happens.

But for now, on this subject of climate change, I recommend to anyone interested in this subject to pick up a copy of this issue of Tikkun and read the articles, which are:

Michael Lerner, “It’s time to get serious about saving the planet from destruction” (pp. 18-19, 60-61).

Whitney A. Bauman, “Facing the death of nature, environmental memorials to coiner despair” (pp. 20-21, 61).

Charles Derber, “Hope requires fighting the hope industry” (pp. 22-23, 61-62).

Julia Watts Belser, “Disaster and disability: social inequality and the uneven effects of climate change” (pp. 24-25, 62-63).

Vandana Shiva, “Limiting corporate power and cultivating interdependence: a strategic plan for the environment” (pp. 26-27, 63).

Ana Levy-Lyons, “The banality of environmental destruction” (pp. 28-29, 63-64).

Janet Biehl, “Reducing auto dependency and sprawl: an ecological imperative” (pp. 30, 64-65).

Arthur Waskow, “Prayer as if the earth really matters” (pp. 31-33, 65-66).

David R. Loy, “A bodhisattva’s approach to climate activism” (pp. 34, 66-67).

Rianne C. Ten Veen, “Looking to the Qur’an in an age of climate disaster” (pp. 36-37).

Parth Parihar, “Dharma and Ahimsa, a Hindu take on environmental stewardship” (pp. 38-39).

Matthew Fox, “Love is stronger than stewardship: a cosmic Christ path to planetary survival” (pp. 40-41, 67-68).

Anna Peterson, “Climate change and the right to hope” (pp. 42, 68-69).

Peterson writes, “Most people in the United States genuinely care about the environment, and yet collectively we are still filling landfills with plastic, guzzling gas, supporting factory farms, investing in unsustainable companies, and electing officials beholden to energy lobbies.” In other words, we have values but our practices are different, in part because we lack a genuine hope, she writes. Amen! But using TIllich’s theology, she discusses genuine (as opposed to utopian) hope to build confidence in the possibility of incremental improvements.

Her article is a good complement to Levy-Lyons’ article that draws upon Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” in order to discuss the fact that ecologically damaging practices are normal for our culture, and that is how we are accustomed to living.

Derber puts blame on both liberals and conservatives. Republican leaders are one source of the denial message, and unfortunately 40% of Americans buy into this message. (In fairness, I do have a conservative friend who criticizes the science based on his own study of the topic.) But liberals have another kind of false hope: that the problem can be solved within our current political and economic system.

The pieces together develop ideas that could help change attitudes but also suggest different economic practices—the later of which are scary for those of us (like me) who though concerned live comfortably each day.

All the articles have some spiritual component, even if more general, but the pieces by Waskow, Loy, Ten Veen, Parihar, and Fox clearly bring in religious traditions on this subject.

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Small Town America, by photographer David Plowden, is a favorite book. I wrote and published this review in Springhouse several years ago. The book was published by Henry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1994 (price $49.95) and although it’s no longer in print, it is available via Amazon sellers and used book sites.(1)

The American small town remains fixed in our imaginations. Those of us who have left small hometowns lament, paradoxically, at the changing social forces that beset small communities. Qualities remain fresh in our minds: the excitement that once typified the small business districts; the perceived slowness of time and pace; the ability to conduct serious business transactions on a first-name, handshake basis; the neighborliness along with the provinciality; the easy association of names and families; the lack of privacy that contrasts with the often-preferred anonymity of urban and suburban existence.

When I originally wrote this review in 1996, I had just self-published a set of previously-published essays in a little book Journeys Home. Therein, I remembered my mostly happy childhood in a small southern Illinois town, Vandalia, IL. In the years since I’ve continued to write about my home places, interjecting stories in otherwise my books with topics unrelated to the small-town theme. To use Frank Zappa’s term, the small town (and the larger themes of place and of human community) have comprised my “conceptual continuity.” If you have a similar kind of loyalty to your small town roots, you’ll appreciate Plowden’s words and pictures.

In spite of their seeming simplicity, small towns are very complex places, both in terms of social dynamics and in their potential for varied portraiture. In his introduction to Plowden’s book, David McCullough, author of acclaimed historical biographies, notes how different are the portraits of small towns among works by writers like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Larry McMurtry (not to mention, he notes such different movies as It’s a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet). Several photographers, like Quinta Scott (Route 66: The Highway and Its People, 1988, text by Susan Croce Kelly), Drake Hokansen (The Lincoln Highway, 1991), Richard Avedon (In the American West, 1983), and the novelist and photographer Wright Morris (The Home Place, 1947, Photographs and Words, 1991) have published haunting photographs of small town people and places.

In this book, David Plowden has brought together 111 photographs of small towns, taken over 25 years, into a composite portrait of “any town” U.S.A. Plowden has published several collections of his photographs. In the accompanying essay, Plowden recalls Putney, Vermont, where he was born in 1932. Liveries, general stores, “tonsorial parlors,” grist mills, and blacksmiths of the town had, by the time of his childhood, largely given way to barbershops and small cafes, local telephone operators who handled all incoming and outgoing calls, busy railroad stations, and a variety of downtown stores. Transactions were informal and trusting. One’s private affairs were public knowledge. The late-1800s facades of the business district featured modern signs more suitable for ubiquitous automobiles. Change inevitably comes, with interstate highways, Wal-Marts, and other franchises. The postwar generation, eager to be progressive, razed old buildings. Grand old hotels became homes for the elderly. Farms became “agribusinesses.” Prominent citizens died. “His” Putney no longer exists.

Many of us understand the poignancy of that change. Several years ago, in a Flagstaff, AZ, bookshop, I found Plowden’s earlier and angrier book, The Hand of Man in America (1973). Using his own words plus an array of black and white photos from around the country, Plowden called attention to the destruction wrought to American landscapes thanks to industry, strip malls, superhighways, and the loss of local heritage. Writing about local change can be subjective, for what is condemned as garish in one era is deemed old-fashioned in the next, and a few of Plowden’s 1973 examples of visual ugliness look to me today as quaint and even nostalgic.

Small Town America, while including concerns about social change, is a more positive though still elegiac account. That’s a value of photographs and judgments like his; they help us track social change and judge the value of structures that are part of our human-built landscapes. Plowden includes a generous number of black and white photographs from towns from New England to the West. He prefers buildings and rooms that hearken to his own childhood and includes fewer architectural steles characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s tourist trade. His exterior portraits include grain elevators, quiet railroad crossings, Victorian-era commercial blocks, and other styles and ornaments of vernacular architecture. He includes one photo of a wonderful old gas pump that still carries its glass crown.

Most of Plowden’s photographs depict interiors: antique hardware cabinets still in use, heavily used roll-top desks, general stores, barbershops, theaters, hotels, taverns, post offices, courtrooms, lodges, libraries, schools, and churches. I love one church interior that has the old-fashioned wooden display board for weekly attendance and offerings. Such photographs call attention to the towns’ “glory days” yet testify that the furniture and fixtures of bygone eras are by no means removed from everyday life, nor rejected for not being modern.

He also photographs several people: a horse trader, a rare blacksmith in the full regalia of his trade, a kid on a bicycle, children in school, a librarian, a judge, farmers, a barber, a tavern owner, a woman who runs a restaurant, a bearded restaurant customer working on his beer, and other small town folk. Like Quinta Scott’s Route 66 individuals, and unlike Richard Avedon’s Western people, Plowden’s several portraits of small town people look natural, in the midst of their life and work, and by no means unhappy. They’re the kind of people you and I know well.

Notes:

1. This book is one of several books that Plowden (who turned 81 last October) has published, like the recent Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden. His website is davidplowden.com.

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Watching the news of the Oklahoma tornados in May, where numerous people including children were killed, made me recall the following thoughts written after the March 2011 Japan tsunami. During that first week following that tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update. I’ve been noticing similar posts in the aftermath of the new tragedy.

The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend introduced several scriptures that do affirm God’s control over natural processes.

Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).

The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)

Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of our group argued that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who creates but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.

As it happened, I was at that time doing research for a church curriculum lessons, which used the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. I kicked myself for not thinking of that passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. where was God in the “natural disaster” of 1 Kings 19? Any natural disaster? Isn’t it inappropriate to affirm God’s sovereignty when innocent people are suffering or have been killed?

One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-129-the-cause-and-cure-of-earthquakes/ To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5, as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances.

But Wesley’s sermon raises even more urgently the question of God and natural disasters—where is God when they occur, and why does God allow them to occur? Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God.

Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken in someone a new relationship with God due to crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin. You’d never tell someone in Moore, OK that God used the tornado to remind us to be godly.

Writing from a Reform Jewish perspective, W. Gunther Plaut notes that the doctrine of “chastisements of love” (yisurin shel ahavah) is found not only in Deuteronomy 8:2-3 but also Psalm 94:12-13 and 119:71. He notes that, for Jews, this belief that God sends hardships in order to guide the people was upheld in Judaism until Maimonides, who argued instead that we suffer because of natural occurrences, social occurrences, and our own imperfection. While the biblical passages interpret the divine-human interaction in those situations, Plaut argues that the doctrine no longer has application in Judaism following the Holocaust, far too horrible an experience to attribute to a loving God (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, 1390-1391).

This is such a difficult philosophical, theological, and pastoral issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. It’s human to wonder where God is amid tragedy, though all of us are mortal and live among many, many potential dangers, just in the course of living. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we do not see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances.

But I do come back to Matthew 25:31-46, which does answer the question of “Where is God?” God (in his passage, Christ) is with the suffering, and therefore that’s where we need to be, too.

(After I posted this, I noticed this article with a similar theme: Evangelical author John Piper had tweeted verses from Job concerning the death of Job’s children in a wind storm. He was subsequently criticized for thereby implying that the Oklahoma tornado had something to do with God’s judgment. As one person quoted in the article stated, “Piper was highlighting God’s sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy,” but one writer’s response, with which I agree, is that “Christians have to stop the idea of responding to tragedy by suggesting God is inflicting his judgment.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/john-pipers-tornado-tweets-stir-up-a-theological-debate_n_3328857.html?1369350389&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 The article also points out a real dilemma in times of tragedy: what gives one person theological comfort may be distressing to someone else. )

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Rape Culture

The term “rape culture” refers to society’s tolerance and in some cases encouragement of male sexual aggression and violence against women, as well as the focus upon what the rape victim supposedly did rather than upon the crime itself. Although the term has been used for quite a while in feminist discourse and in programs to increase awareness of sexual assault, the Steubenville rape case has brought that term again into public discussion. (This past year the issues and crises of rape were in the news because of a politician’s comments about “legitimate rape”). In the Steubenville case, a sixteen year old girl was raped by two high school football players. This article gives details and indicates that the case is ongoing: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/18/us/teenagers-found-guilty-in-rape-in-steubenville-ohio.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Winnie Wang writes in the Yale Daily News about the case: “When the guilty verdict was announced, some mainstream media outlets became active participants in furthering our victim-blaming rape culture. Probably the most sickening news coverage came from CNN, where anchor Candy Crowley lamented that the ‘young men … had such promising futures, [were] star football players, very good students.’ Registering as sex offenders would ‘haunt them for the rest of their lives.’”

Wang continues, “We need to examine how we think about sexual assault. Instead of questioning whether the victim was intoxicated or dressed provocatively, we should question how we can hold perpetrators accountable. These defendants are responsible for their own actions.” She adds that we also need to examine our social environment in which these crimes happen and in some cases are covered up. (See her article at: http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/04/05/wang-examining-rape-culture-after-steubenville/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=wang-examining-rape-culture-after-steubenville)

Part of the difficulty of raising public awareness is the fact that some of us can indeed badly miss the point while trying to be caring and aware. For instance, the people who felt sadness about the young men had a kind of compassion: the men did ruin their lives before they even reached adulthood, and that is tragic. HOWEVER, they ruined the life of the young woman because of their actions, and thus people’s compassion should be directed first and very strongly to the victim. This NYT article covers the kinds of community responses: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/sports/high-school-football-rape-case-unfolds-online-and-divides-steubenville-ohio.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

There have been several related posts and news items about this issue. This letter by Magda Pecsenye, “A Letter to My Sons about Stopping Rape,” has been widely discussed, as seen in the variety of comments afterward.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/magda-pecsenye/steubenville-rape-mother-letter_b_2902943.html Ms. Pecsenye tries to wrestle with the messages that boys and young men get concerning women and sex.

In another news item, a young man at the University of Arizona student who styled himself a Christian preacher interrupted a campus sexual assault awareness meeting with a sign, “You deserve rape,” and with messages like, “if you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped.” The dean of students responded that his message was “vulgar and vile” but “is protected speech.” The young man’s message is tragically another example of a social culture that would characterize someone as “deserving” rape. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/04/25/arizona-campus-preacher-to-anti-rape-protesters-you-deserve-rape/

I remember a preacher on the University of Virginia campus in the 1980s, who (on a hot day when students were dressed in summer clothes) proclaimed to students walking by, “You’re all walking billboards for an easy lay!” That is an occasion where I wish I could go back in time and chide the man (other than ignore him, as most other students, both male and female, also did). But at the time, his comment seem more comically prudish and moralistic than a symptom of rape culture; once again, sometimes we need to be shocked into insight and clarity.

Sexual Assault awareness meetings and information are excellent responses—and are good ways to cure us of blindness and sensitize us to the issues. Obviously it is good whenever this information can permeate many aspects of culture, including religious organizations. That process is at work. For instance, I found an article that described a meeting by Maya Dusenbery, editor of the Feministing blog, who pointed out that (in the Michigan Daily article’s words) “the current conception of rape conveys a ‘no-means-no’ culture, allowing the accused to claim lack of a denial as valid sexual consent.” Dusenbery called for a change in that kind of thinking. 
(http://www.michigandaily.com/news/feministing-editor-speaks-sapac-event) We owe a great debt to persons like Dusenbery who are experts on this subject and work to education the public.

In another news story this month, the student magazine staff at Palo Alto High School took on this issue. According to that story, “High-profile rape cases from Ohio to India prompted senior Lisie Sabbag to look into local cases. The resulting stories and opinion pieces, published last week, just days before a story emerged about an alleged incident of sexual battery involving Saratoga High students, have grabbed national attention. It’s not only the topic. The package [of stories] is being hailed as thoughtful, sensitive — and disturbing. Students don’t clearly understand what constitutes rape, Sabbag’s story makes clear. Yet rape is not so rare, and sometimes the response of the victim’s friends and families turns into a second assault.” (http://www.mercurynews.com/rss/ci_23031742?source=rss)

And the difficulties don’t stop there. As I was still looking around the internet, I saw this piece that discusses the fact that “a stunning majority of states – 31 of them – offer some form of visitation and custody rights for men who impregnate their rape victims”: http://www.salon.com/2013/04/29/rapists_should_not_get_custody/

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partisanA piece from last fall….This week’s “Time” magazine (October 22, 2012) has an essay by Katy Steinmetz (p. 15) called “Unfriending the Enemy.” She notes that “The Pew Research center found that nearly 1 in 5 social networkers has blocked, hidden or unfriended someone over political material that was too frequent or too disagreeable.” One user is quoted, “The final straw for me was a post about how Obamacare requires all Americans to get chips installed in their skin.” Steinmetz writes, “now that many people can count everyone from close friends to crazy uncles to far-flung professional contacts among their Facebook friends, it’s important to keep the whole audience in mind, says consultant Jacqueline Whitmore. The original rule about politics and conversation, after all, was about having consideration or others’ feelings.”

Have you unfriended anyone on Facebook over politics? I’ve unfriended just a few, folks with whom I wasn’t close friends and who annoyed me with partisan postings. (I recall that one was rather sneering about climate change.) I felt foolish and “codependent” afterward, because I do have many friends whose political postings I disagree with, and I’ve friends whose postings, while frequent, are more congenial to my own views. I’ve political views but I’m willing to listen to and appreciate diverse opinions, as long as folks aren’t dogmatic or generalizing or angry. But then I thought, why should I have to get annoyed day after day, with persons to whom I’m not that close anyway? I suppose I could’ve just asked them to stop.

With a few friends I’ve reduced the number of status updates that appear on my “wall.” In some cases, I care about those people very much and don’t want their political views to hurt that caring. For instance, I realized a friend, whom I liked a lot in person, was a real Rush Lindbergh/Fox News fan, neither of which I can tolerate. I walk out on businesses wherein the store’s radio is tuned to Rush. But I don’t want to lose that person’s friendship. So I’ve just reduced such folks’ statuses on my feed, until after the election. I do check their “walls” to make sure they’re doing okay.

I hate judgmental peopleOne time a FB friend and I discussed an issue on FB, concerning an article that I posted and found interesting. My friend took a position I disliked and when we discussed the matter, I felt like I was seeing my friend’s point but not vice versa. We weren’t meeting halfway. But I do tend to find political disagreements exhausting rather than productive. That’s just my nature, like my friend’s nature is to be more vigorous in discussions. So if you’re like me and aren’t really a debater, but you still follow politics and want to be socially engaged, you have to find a sense of genuineness, balance, and caring.

The thing is: I don’t think that Facebook is a really good way to discuss politics, because the lack of face-to-face contact might give you courage to be nastier than you’d otherwise be, and it’s difficult to convey nuance and genuine concern. When you watch candidates and TV advertisements, you may think all Democrats/Republicans are (as my dad would say) damned liars, hell bent on turning the nation into a socialist/fascist wasteland, but some of your friends who are Democrats/Republicans are probably good, solid people who, like you, want the best for the country. But you’re lumping them into the category of the damned, destructive liars!

My mother died two weeks ago, and nearly 200 of my Facebook friends posted prayers, words of encouragement, support, and interest as I announced her loss, made arrangements, and traveled to her funeral and burial services. I feel like the possibility of mutual, real-time support is the outstanding feature of Facebook. I keep that in mind as we s-l-o-w-l-y wind up this difficult political season.

I’ve begun to post articles that I find interesting, not on Facebook but on my blog. Somehow it seems more like a sincere sharing of social concerns, and of things I find interesting on both sides of the political aisle. There are some scriptural admonitions about being kind, gentle, thoughtful, and mutually supportive, and I do want to try to follow these teachings, even on political and justice issues about which I feel really passionate. It’s a struggle to find that balance, but a good one.

 

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I learned from a Facebook fan page that the environmentalist author Anne LaBastille died on July 1, 2011.  Here are some websites that describe her life and work. http://adirondackdailyenterprise.com/page/content.detail/id/525384/-Woodswoman–Anne-LaBastille-dies-at-75.html?nav=5008http://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2011/07/remembering-anne-labastille.html?flv=1
http://www.santafenewmexican.com/Outdoors/Woodswoman_wants_to_return_to_cabin

Occasionally I write authors and artists whose works I enjoy, and in Dr. Anne’s case I was familiar with Woodswoman and The Wilderness World of Anne LaBastille, as well as a National Geographic article about Wisconsin that featured a picture of her resting—tanned and quite attractive, I thought—in her canoe. I didn’t tell her that, but I told her I enjoyed her writing.  She wrote back, I wrote back, and for about ten years we sporadically exchanged notes.  Mostly I got postcards from her, sometimes short letters, and I wrote a bit more.  I was just starting out in free-lance writing, and her example of independence and resourcefulness in managing her career, as well as her writing style, were inspirational to me.  In one note, she apologized for not writing sooner because she had a break-in at her home, the same crime that she described at the end of Woodswoman III.  She also alluded in letters to her painful experiences as a guest professor, which she recounted in detail inWoodswoman IIII.

I was always respectful and appreciative of her time. In fact, until now, I never told anyone we were occasional pen pals, to respect her privacy. We were both only children, had PhDs, liked going barefoot, and felt a lack in our lives for having never met our grandfathers. I was honest with her that I wasn’t active in environmental efforts—and didn’t even know what a “grebe” was until I read Mama Poc—but that I enjoyed ecology-related books and planned to support organizations more conscientiously. In retrospect, I appreciate that she didn’t dismiss me as an inadequate fan just because we weren’t “on the same page” about issues crucial to her.

I regret that we fell out of touch and never had the chance to meet.  During the mid-00s, I had to move my elderly mom to a nursing home in another state, sell my childhood home, and complete a short book-writing assignment by a deadline.  Consequently I didn’t write for nearly a year, and I never heard back the two or three times I tried to reconnect, including giving her the book I’d written.  She may have been ill by that time, or I may have seemed like an absent friend. But while we corresponded, I was able in small ways to help her by citing and recommending her books, and calling attention to her books to some independent booksellers.  One time she was chagrined that some company was making her books available online without permission. Since she didn’t use computers, I did some research for her about the company and sent her information if she wanted to deal directly with the situation, which she appreciated. She was also pleased that I gave my father (a dog lover and former hunter) his own copies of her books and that he became a fan prior to his death.

She had many grateful fans, and I was only one, and a minor one. I enjoyed collecting all of her books, including the children’s books, her two 1960s books, and her 1974 scientific monograph about the Lake Atitlan grebes.  She autographed several for me.  Of course I included self-addressed padded envelopes for her to use.  She liked the following review that I wrote to help “spread the word” of her efforts.

*****

Book Review of Woodswoman, Mama Poc, Beyond Black Bear Lake, andWoodswoman III (written for Springhouse magazine, published in the June 1997 issue).

Some Springhouse readers will already be familiar with this author. I read some of her National Geographic articles back in the mid-1970s but remained oblivious (in spite of her memorable surname) that she’s a best-selling author with a large following. I love nature-related books (one of her articles had introduced me to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac) and last year I finally checked to see what else she’s written.  I selected one of her books and liked it so much I didn’t wait twenty years to find others!   All her books are available from bookstores or from West of the Wind Publications, Westport, NY 12993.

Dr. LaBastille is a wildlife ecologist and consultant who lives in Adirondack Park, a six-million acre area of state-and-privately-owned land in upstate New York. She was born in New York City, grew up in New Jersey, and received her Ph.D. from Cornell. She has written several books: Woodsman, Beyond Black Bear Lake, Assignment Wildlife, Women and Wilderness, The Wilderness World of Anne LaBastille, andBirds of the Mayas. She also wrote titles in the “Ranger Rick’s Best Friends” series for young people and has contributed to Nature, Travel, Reader’s Digest, Outdoor Life, Audubon, National Geographic, and others. She has worked as a professor, lodge-co-owner and manager, a freelance ecologist, park commissioner, guide, consultant, writer and photographer. She has received top awards as a writer and conservationist.

Woodswoman begins as LaBastille, reflecting upon her experiences as she sits in her cabin during a beautiful, dramatic winter, recounts her early goals of studying wildlife and living in a natural environment. Several years before, her marriage succumbed amid the pressures of running a resort lodge in the Adirondacks; the need to remove herself from that situation caused her to return to her long-time dream of a private haven in the woods. LaBastille found a track of land at a reasonable price near a location she calls Black Bear Lake. She recounts the construction of her 12 by 12 cabin, heated with a wood burning stove, lighted by candles and kerosene lanterns, then gas lamps running off her propane. Two males who helped her with the cabin’s construction gave her the nickname (at first an exasperated response to her requests) which became the book’s title. Settled, she loved to contemplate the beauties of the park, the scents of the forest and the many animals of the land. Unfortunately, an attorney showed up stipulating that her 14-ton house had to be moved 12 feet back from the lake to conform to codes, which she grudgingly accomplished. Trespassers showed up, too, whom she dismissed in no uncertain terms.

Much of the book recounts the splendor and history of the park. She notes that the park is the largest track of wilderness east of the Mississippi and half the park has been legally designated “forever wild” since 1894. She is visited by beaver and deer, shrews, bats and monarch butterflies. She writes with awe concerning the great trees, the spruce and fir; she writes concerning the history of logging in the region, and the lives of the park’s residents (don’t miss the description of “Adirondack haircuts”). She delights in skinny-dipping in the clean water, in developing her practical outdoor skills first learned during her initial and happy years of marriage, and in living a healthy lifestyle that many of us would find too Spartan (no TV, electricity, or phone). Her first two pets were a kitten and silver fox—the kitten was too lively and the fox was sadly killed—but Pitzi, a German shepherd puppy she found in Guatemala which doing her doctoral research, became her companion for twelve years. Helped by her guide friend Rob, LaBastille became one of the very few licensed women guides of the park.  She finds love, in a chance encounter with a man she calls Nick, and she weaves a bittersweet story through her observations of the park. After they go their separate ways, she ruminates about the difficulties of the successful career she has established, the difficulties of being a woman whose education threatens some men, and her own dreams and hopes. But in the last chapter, an eventful stay in DC helps remind her of the impersonal quality of the city, contrasted with the tranquility of her cabin and her many friends and contacts there. The book ends wistfully as the author looks to the unseen future, confident of the rightness of her choice to live close to wilderness.

Mama Poc covers the period of LaBastille’s life from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, thus including the same general period as Woodswoman but including additional years.  [Of course, Assignment: Wildlife, which I’d not yet read at this time, and the later Jaguar Totem also cover this period.] LaBastille documents how a single species went from health (albeit rarity) to extinction in less than a quarter century.

Around 1960, she and her husband studied birds in Central America and Mexico, and during that time she encountered a rare bird, the giant pied-billed grebe classifiedPodilymbus gigas. Unlike the common grebe of the U.S. (Podilymbus podiceps) the larger grebe lived only at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where it required certain amounts of territory for health and breeding. The grebes were called “pocs” by the native Indians, and thus LaBastille became “Mama Poc” and “the crazy bird lady” by people curious at her presence and work. She began to document the life of this bird, with its estimated population of only 200. After her divorce she traveled again to Guatemala, meeting and befriending several people including Armando (they fall in love), Edgar Bauer (who appears on the book cover with the author), and others who work with her on gathering census data and observations. Unfortunately, the grebe population fell to 80 during five years when new species of fish were introduced to the lake.  What should she do? She and Armando created “Operation Protection of the Poc” and obtained the interest (partly thanks to LaBastille’s creative use of Spanish!) of the agriculture department to hire a game warden, which Edgar became, and they began educational trips around the region.

For the next few years LaBastille returned to Guatemala and accomplished a great deal. She learned how best to get things done in the country and she gathered both grass-roots support and the support of Guatemalan leadership. Soon Edgar had better equipment with which to work, the poc was featured on a postage stamp, and folk who loved the lake grew concerned for the grebes.  Sadly, she and Armando realized their cultural differences and other issues which made marriage impossible. That sad realization coincided with the happy news that the grebe population as growing again.

Several years later, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit Guatemala in 1976, killing 23,000 people and creating fissures at the bottom of Lake Atitlan, causing it to drain slowly. But a reduced water level threatened the giant grebes, which needed much more territory in which to thrive. With Edgar, LaBastille also discovered that many vacation homes and tourism adversely affected the lake. Edgar devised a plan to increase the reed growth at the late, but as Guatemalan policies grew more heated he was killed by unknown assailants in 1982.  When LaBastille returned in the mid-1980s, a census revealed rapid diminishment of the grebe population, which were doomed. Too little was known about the birds’ habits to breed them in captivity; meanwhile, the human population around the lake thrived.  As a valedictory, LaBastille spotted two male pocs at the lake during a late visit which included a bleak but comic attempt to get medical care for an Indian’s dog.  One determined person can make a difference, she writes, and her successes with the pocs, both in increasing their numbers and encouraging public awareness, is a case in point.

Beyond Black Bear Lake begins as LaBastille recounts the many intrusions into her life after Woodswoman’s publication: visitors sought her out, some well-intentioned and respective, some not. Her fan mail increased beyond her ability to handle it, and her phone machine (at a nearby house) included truly weird calls. Likewise the human population around Black Bear Lake increased. LaBastille resolved to build a new cabin near the parcel she owned farther into the woods. She loses her beloved Pitzi when he encounters a car coming too fast down the road. She resisted obtaining a new dog but serendipitously met Condor, a German shepherd puppy who, like Pitzi, learned to ride in a canoe and carry the mail bag. Later, in the book, LaBastille acquires Condor’s puppy, which she named Chekika after a Seminole chief.

Concern for the effects of acid rain and technology upon her land (which she discusses) she selected Lilypad Lake for a retreat home she’d call Thoreau II.  Careful to be aware this time of bureaucratic regulations (which she encountered anyway), she set to work on her retreat, recounting the process of cutting and dragging logs and raising the place. Frighteningly, she dealt with a proposal to store nuclear waste in the Adirondacks. Fortuitously, a hip injury became occasion for a friendship with a local surgeon named Mike to grow into a mutual love and affection. She writes of Rob, her old friend who taught her to guide and who, in his old age, willed himself to die rather than be hospitalized, and of Rodney Ainsworth, a hawk-nosed, cigar-smoking and tender-hearted guide with whom she also became close friends. (She writes additionally of the admirable Rodney in Wilderness World.) Finishing her house, she muses concerning the similarities and differences between her Thoreau II and Henry David’s own famous cabin at Walden Pond, which cost only about a hundred dollars less than LaBastille’s). She reflects on her happiness as an unmarried woman and the rightness of her life spent living in wilderness, solitary with nature, as she built her career as a writer, photographer, and ecologist. She dreams of the educational and ecological work which her estate will someday continue.

LaBastille’s most recent work, Woodswoman III, represents her ongoing reflections and experiences in promoting environmental issues. Her encouragement of women to pursue active environmental appreciation, as well as to nurture their own independence and self-reliance, is another ongoing task. Astonished at time’s passage, she describes her satisfaction at living for thirty years at the edge of wilderness. Her life still balances quietness and contemplation with professional fervor. As a writer and consultant, her daily routine is hectic and resistant to quite writing time. Recently she purchased a tract of land which she christens Kestrel Crest Farm; there, powered with electricity for her grudgingly acquired phone and fax, she humorously describes both her work day and her schedule as an “ol’ book peddler” around the park. She also describes the enjoyable and rewarding experiences as she revives her work as a park guide, and farming her land with a Thoreau-like, barefoot ease.

In the park, she is greeted by loons, a respected porcupine, and a hearty pheasant named Napoleon. She loses her beloved Condor to old age and infirmity but Chekika is soon joined by the Arizona-born puppy Xandor, another shepherd (regrettably, with similar infirmities endemic to the breed). She appreciates ongoing friends (like Andy and Albert), honors the park’s founder (a determined New Yorker with the memorable name of Verplank Colvin), and she enjoys the temporary company of a mouse who hitchhikes in her truck until a witnessed highway accident makes the mouse disdainful of human chaos.

The natural and human worlds remain enriching or terrifying. A twister strikes the park (leaving the remote Thoreau II in unknown condition for a while). In two chapters she recounts a new environmental hazard, the large boats (50 HP and over) which had long been discouraged but now threaten the environment and local neighborliness alike. LaBastille also suffers cut brake line, arson, and burglary; the first two are assumed to have been in response to her environmental activism. Her experience reminds her of Edmund Burke’s famous quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In all her books LaBastille style is informative and genuine; her words are never forced or self-conscious. The naturalness of her style attracted me to seek out her other books. Her happiness and delight at the natural world are everywhere apparent. Although LaBastille says her fan mail came mostly from women, I don’t think she writes for women alone, though she is particularly encouraging to women. Like Thoreau, she aims to convinced people of the value of nature. But Thoreau, writing extremely and rhetorically, couldn’t imagine that people wouldn’t walk several miles a day like him!  LaBastille is more invitational. Even Mama Poc is not stylistically characterized by blameful outrage (although she did feel outrage and sorrow); she still makes clear that one person can accomplish great things in conservation and natural preservation.

Many of us lead lives of quiet inattention to the natural world.  I’m not different. One of the benefits of books like hers is to call people like me to a kind of repentance. Read her books if you’d like an enjoyable impetus to appreciate the outdoors. She discusses the need for natural wildness, responsible recreation, and protected lands. She doesn’t eschew urban life but sees the modern city as that “wilderness” where you may lose your spiritual center. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t appreciative of the noise and the risk, even though we may feel at peace as we lounge comfortably with the TV remote. The solitude and silence, which nurtures and sustains LaBastille in the Adirondacks, may go the way of the pocs if we’re not better stewards of our world, time, and lives.

Read her books, too, if you need an injection of inspiration and courage for your own life. Impressively credentialed academically, she uses her training to serve, teach, train, encourage, and inculcate confidence in everyday people concerning wilderness. She has made her own way into areas of work and scientific inquiry traditionally dominated by males. Like many modern women she has struggled with commitments of career, singleness, love, and companionship. Like many people she discovers, in living, that the lost dreams of one portion of her life leads to wisdom and new dreams down life’s way; she accepts difficult circumstances as opportunities to make choices concerning her priorities. Those priorities balance personal needs as well as service to others. She is interested in physical health, emotional and spiritual well-being, lifestyles responsible to the environment, and the needs and mysteries of the earth. She is a “regional writer” in that she has selected a beloved region, lived in it and loved it, gained wisdom from it, and she lets the region stand for larger truths. As a “whole” kind of person, she validates those ecological values to which she has devoted her life.

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Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Here is a book review which originally appeared in Springhouse in 1994…. Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 and died in 1993. He was the son of a speculator who spent his life drifting from western town to town, looking for bonanzas which never materialized and entering one boondoggle scheme after another, while doing “more human and environmental damage than he could have repaired in a second lifetime” (p. xxi). Stegner’s fifth book, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, was his first literary success in 1943 and is based on his rootless, childhood years.  I remember from grade school reading the chapter “The Colt,” which has been widely anthologized. In this volume the essays “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood” and “letter, Much Too Late” poignantly describes Stegner’s childhood. He taught at Wisconsin, Harvard and Stanford and wrote several novels and nonfiction works, most with western themes. One could scarcely find a better life’s work than Stegner’s: reflecting upon a region which one loves deeply.

This collection of essays concern western literature, identity, and environment. The book that its title, as does the 1943 novel, from a 1920s hobo ballad which celebrates a dreamt-of land of plenty, where “the handouts grow on bushes…and the sun shines every day. Stegner writes that his experiences of drifting, with his father, gave him a lifelong passion for the West—in American consciousness, the mythic land of abundance and opportunity—as well as a keen awareness of the consequence of human exploitation of the western environment. Early in the book he posses a ludicrous-sounding situation—imagine several millions people living in a desert region with no source of fresh water closer than 200 miles—and responds that this situation is, in fact, the case for Los Angeles and other western metropolitan areas, and that the droughts of that region had not slowed the growth of those areas. His father’s eagerness for economic gain and his disregard for the consequences of his actions seem an uneasy metaphor for the rapid growth of western cities.

What will be the consequence of such a situation? Stegner fears the worst, for the western environment, unlike non-arid regions, does not easily heal environmentally. “Damaged by human capacity to carelessness, it is more likely to go on to erosion gullies and desertification than to restore itself” (p. xvii). In the interesting essays “Thoughts in a Dry Land”, “Living Dry”, and “Striking the Rock”, he considers the theme of aridity in the history of western settlement, including the various federal agencies that have tried to preserve particular lands or which have developed dams and reservoirs to “engineer” aridity “out of existence” rather than adapt to it.  The dry “open spaces of the West are areas which many, including such perceptive authors as William Least Heat Moon, consider “the true West,” even though 75% of the West’s population live in large metropolitan areas far from fresh water sources.

Interestingly, Stegner sees western literature as symbolic of the cost to western environment, and the resurgence of western literature in recent years as a metaphor of what could be, in the future, a more responsible approach to western economic development. In several essays that examine Owen Wister’s The Virginian, John Steinbeck’s “Flight,” Walter Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Stegner shows how the western literary tradition reflects the regional experience. The West uniquely mirrors the American experience (at least that of Americans of European descent) of entering an abundant, new land where laws and social structures are not yet in place. The literary genre of “the Western” is popular because this experience of taming—both socially and environmentally—a new land still holds our imaginations. The unquestioned morality of The Virginian (a character Stegner doesn’t like), the lynch-law of The Ox-Bow Incident, and the pipe-dreamers like Stegner’s father embody the risk, and the lack of social and environmental responsibility, which the west has inspired. Stegner prefers authors who write appreciatively of place and “stewardship”—Larry McMurtry, George R. Stewart, Wendell Berry, Louis Erdrich, and others—because the West needs boosters with those qualities.

Stegner makes important points in these interesting essays.  I’m not an active environmentalist beyond the everyday chores of recycling and turning off lights, etc, but when my family and I lived in Arizona, I was chagrined that support for education, mental health, etc. was defeated at the polls one year (“let’s not throw money at the problem,” piously noted a Phoenix television editorial) even though plenty of money was “thrown” at economic development for rapidly growing cities. I don’t want to say development is automatically a bad thing, nor economic and energy needs, but other human needs tend to be lost in public debate, as well as needs of the environment such as clean air (which Phoenix lost years ago), water, the forests and desert.  The challenge has grown more dire in the years since I read this book, in our current mood toward deregulation, unhindered corporate growth, and the curtailment of government programs (even pension plans). I have no solution and neither really does Stegner, except for “stewardship,” a quality which could catch the public imagination as deeply as the West already has.  Poignantly (considering he died shortly before his collection was published), Stegner hoped he lived to see the West so revitalized.

I’m not sure whether Stegner gives sufficient benefit of the doubt to that American literary character, the rugged loner. True, such a character casts off identity, social and laws and thus potentially embodies irresponsible qualities. But another side of the character is the ability to triumph over insurmountable odds.  I take it from people who like, for instance, John Wayne, that his roles appealingly capture this quality. Stegner moves in that direction when he evokes Claude Dallas, the fellow who killed two game wardens and became in the process a folk hero. Stegner rightly deplores lawlessness and its “attractiveness” to some people, as well as the tendency for people to uncritically rally around even a violent folk hero.  Yet, might there be a new western character who, on one hand, faces great odds and seizes the public imagination, while on the other hand, rallies around issues of social and environmental import?

The idea seems odd at first—Marshall Dillon lobbying for clean air?—but, as Stegner writes, the West is in many ways still new and finding its identity. In so far as the West embodies many American values for both good and ill, perhaps we are a nation are, too.

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I first heard of the contemporary artist Shepard Fairey on a program on the Ovation network. His socially-engaged art, first manifested in his street art (especially his Andre the Giant sticker), has been collected in gallery shows and books like E Pluribus Venom, Mayday, and Obey: Supply and Demand. He became known, as well, because of his “Hope” poster widely published during the 2008 presidential campaign. A few weeks ago, while taking a writing break at “my” Barnes and Noble cafe, I noticed a book which Fairey and Jennifer Gross edited, Art for Obama: Designing Manifest Hope and the Campaign for Change (Abrams Image, 2009).

The book collects a variety of paintings, collages, computer-generated art, prints, and other works from and inspired by Obama’s campaign. One by Ron English, “Blue Abraham Obama,” in which the famous 1863 Alexander Gardiner photo of Lincoln, wherein he looks directly into the camera, is rendered with Obama’s features. Another Lincolnesque painting is Scott Siedman’s “The Man from Illinois,” in which Norman Rockwell’s painting “Lincoln the Railsplitter” (depicting young Lincoln walking, reading a book, and saying an axe) is remade with Obama in the role (holding a hoe instead of an axe). There are several prints concerning America’s lack of universal health care; a very forceful print in which a 1950s-era water fountain marked “Colored” is pouring rainbow colors; numerous renderings of the promises “hope” and “change,” and art connecting Obama to Dr. King and Gandhi.

Not all the art is painting, collage, and print. There is a dress, designed by Lisa Anne Auerbach, with the slogans “Chosen People Choose Obama” and “My Jewish Grandma is Voting for Obama” woven into the fabric. Sculptures and furniture are also artworks responding to Obama’s campaign. I highly recommend this book if you appreciate examples of socially-involved contemporary art (which makes me wonder if politically conservative people are also producing artworks today: I just don’t know).

Exploring this book, I thought, not unkindly, “What happened to all that hope and change?” (or, as former Gov. Palin put it, unkindly, that “hopey, changey stuff”). Then, serendipity! As I sorted files from recent projects) I found a 2010 Time magazine that I’d saved in a pile of research from last year. Peter Beinart’s article, “Why Washington’s Tied Up in Knots,” gave me some answers to my question (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1966451,00.html). I enjoy pieces like this which help me make historical connections.

Beinart argues that the two major political parties were, until the mid-1900s, diverse with outlooks and vying interests. One force that caused a change for both parties was the support of civil rights, environmentalism, abortion rights, and “a more dovish foreign policy” among liberal Northern Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s. The Republican party grew more conservative in response, as conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans and Northern liberal Republicans became Democrats. As this process continued, Beinart writes, “Washington politics became less a game of Rubik’s Cube and more a game of shirts vs. skins.”

He notes that after Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush left office, “congressional Republicans realized they could use political polarization to stymie government — and use government failure to win elections. And with that realization, vicious-circle politics started to become an art form.” By the 1990s, “a new breed of aggressive Republicans — men like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott — hit on a strategy for discrediting Clinton: discredit government. Rhetorically, they derided Washington as ineffective and conflict-ridden, and through their actions they guaranteed it.” These congressmen used the filibuster, previously a rare devise, to force the failure of legislation. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans discredited moderate Republicans as traitors to the party. “The Gingrich Republicans” used the “vicious circle” because it worked—and in particular, it worked because (1) Americans dislike political fighting, and (2) American voters tend to blame the party in charge. “By 1994, trust in government was at an all-time low, which suited the Republicans fine, since their major line of attack against Clinton’s health care plan was that it would empower government. Clintoncare collapsed, Democrats lost Congress, and Republicans learned the secrets of vicious-circle politics: When the parties are polarized, it’s easy to keep anything from getting done. When nothing gets done, people turn against government. When you’re the party out of power and the party that reviles government, you win.”

To return (in my mind) to the outcome so far of Obama’s “hope and change”: Beinart further notes that this vicious-circle politics have become even more pronounced during the Obama administration than during the Clinton administration. Democrats who were thrilled at the Obama victory (as well as the Democratic majority in Congress) neglected to appreciate the resultant hardening of the Republican minority–and their unwillingness to cooperate and compromise. “In 2009, Senate Republicans filibustered a stunning 80% of major legislation, even more than during the Clinton years. GOP leader Mitch McConnell led a filibuster of a deficit-reduction commission that he himself had demanded. The Obama White House spent months trying to lure the Finance Committee’s ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, into supporting a deal on health care reform and gave his staff a major role in crafting the bill. But GOP officials back home began threatening to run a primary challenger against the Iowa Senator. By late summer, Grassley wasn’t just inching away from reform; he was implying that Obamacare would euthanize Grandma.” Beinart further notes that Republicans have, during Obama’s term, not only helped to thwart his goals but to foster the “rising disgust with government not just to cripple health care reform but also to derail other Obama initiatives.”

He continues that there is no guarantee that Democrats might not use these tactics, although the Republicans currently use them better. And the tactics don’t always work: for instance, when the government is “handing out goodies.” But when the government wants people to make sacrifices, this is the point where people are called upon the trust their government: “It’s when the pain is temporary but the benefits are long-term that people most need to believe that government is something other than stupid and selfish. Which is exactly what they don’t believe today.”

In a more recent issue, I found an article even more relevant to the Shepard Fairey book: Anthony Romano, “Wanted: A New Messiah,” Newsweek, Oct. 10 & 17, 2011. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/10/02/the-search-for-bold-leadership.html)

He writes that “America is desperate for a messiah. Christie Fever would seem a little more remarkable, for instance, if conservatives hadn’t already contracted Bachmania, Donalditis, and Restless Perry Syndrome, then cast aside each of their would-be saviors as soon as he or she showed the slightest earthly imperfection. Meanwhile, on the left, and in the center, the very voters who fueled President Obama’s landslide 2008 victory are now awarding him the lowest job-approval ratings of his career. Christie summed up popular sentiment in his speech. ‘If you’re looking for leadership in America,’ he said, ‘you’re not going to find it in the Oval Office.’ Never mind that the administration just assassinated yet another Al Qaeda kingpin, Anwar al-Awlaki, out-Bushing Bush and further discrediting the old canard that Democrats can’t protect America. The belief that there’s someone better out there—someone who can lead us not into recession, but deliver us from unemployment—now extends to both sides of the aisle.”

Romano reminds us that FDR and Reagan served during economic crises, but their leadership style (according to the research of Yale’s Stephen Skowronek,” is “reconstructive”: in Romano’s words, “both of them blamed the crises they presided over on the failed, un-American ideology of the previous regime and relentlessly positioned their sweeping proposals as part of a grand project to undo the damage and revive real American values.” This is a “resilient model” for a president “because it serves as a one-size-fits-all justification for everything the White House does. FDR had high hopes for his central New Deal agency, the National Recovery Administration; to him, it was ‘a supreme effort to stabilize for all time the many factors which make the prosperity of the nation.’ Two years after the NRA was created, however, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. While this setback may have deterred a nonreconstructive president, Roosevelt simply cited it as further evidence of the old regime’s intransigence and again started ‘promising to reconstruct the very terms on which American government operated,’ as Skowronek puts it. By 1936—after forcing Congress into the summer session that produced Social Security, the Wagner Act, and the Banking Act, among other reforms—he had. He won reelection with 523 electoral votes. ”

Romano notes that although Reagan’s approval rating was very low in the early 1980s, when unemployment was over 10%, he stuck to his script of less regulation, lower taxes, and other policies a way to return (in Reagan’s words) to “the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers.” Romano writes: “Eventually, the Fed rejuvenated the economy by manipulating the money supply and lowering interest rates. But Reagan got the credit because he kept harping on his reconstructive storyline (tax cuts = growth), which provided the public with a more intuitive explanation. In 1984 he carried every state but Minnesota.”

Unfortunately, he writes, “Obama ran as a reconstructive leader, but he has governed as something else entirely. It’absurd to say, as Christie did in California, that the president has been ‘a bystander in the Oval Office,’ or to claim, paradoxically, that he’s a socialist bent on ‘transforming’ America into France part deux. As Obama’s advisers often remind us, he has accomplished a lot of unradical things as president (preventing another Great Depression, passing private-health-insurance reform, saving Detroit).” But Obama has tended (in Romano’s words, “to look for policy proposals, like the stimulus or health-care reform, that respectfully weave opposing viewpoints into some sort of pragmatic whole. As president, Obama has assumed the role of the bipartisan realist—the leader who prides himself on seeing the world as it is, with all its political limitations, and doing the best he can within those constraints.”

Unfortunately, Obama has also needed to communicate a reconstructive vision which (as it did for FDR and Reagan) “gave meaning to their victories, kept them buoyant during dry spells, and defined the opposition before the opposition could define them. The approach also assured voters that Reagan and Roosevelt shared their deep dissatisfaction with the way things were.” To me, the fact that the Tea Party emerged and forcefully voiced a Reaganesque vision during debates about bailouts and health care reform is an example of the opposition doing the defining, rather than vice versa.

This past week, another article by Beinart caught my eye: “Occupy Protests’ Seismic Effect” (The Daily Beast – Mon, Oct 17, 2011, http://news.yahoo.com/occupy-protests-seismic-effect-062600703.html) He writes about the demonstrations “against unregulated capitalism” that had just taken place in 900 cities. He addresses the topic of the hopefulness exhibited in the Obama campaign, and shows how it is taking a slightly different direction.

He writes: “In a great many countries, especially in the West, the political grass is dry. Huge numbers of young people are unemployed, governments are launching harsh and unpopular austerity programs, and the financial elites responsible for the global economic meltdown have almost entirely escaped justice. Millions of articulate, educated, tech-savvy people are enraged and desperate. And they have time on their hands.” This movement is quite fertile, he notes, and something like this hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. He notes that those movements did not push American politics to the left because, among several reason, “many ordinary Americans were starting to chafe against taxes and regulations that had been growing since the New Deal. Although few realized it until Ronald Reagan’s election, the relationship between government and the economy in the late 1960s and 1970s was actually more conducive to right-wing than left-wing change.”

Although the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s was a precursor to what we’re seeing now, that movement had more to do with “globalization’s impact in the developing world” while the current movement is, according to Beinart, primarily focused on what unregulated capitalism has done to their own societies [i.e., America and Europe]—societies where there is much greater anger and pain than there was 15 years ago. Therein lies the movement’s greater potential to create political change.”

But—to return to my interest in the Shepard Fairey book—Beinart argues that a more recent and more important precursor is Obama’s 2008 election! He traces the beginnings of the “netroots” activism in Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and the beginning of sites like DailyKos and MoveOn. “But,” Beinart writes, “in retrospect, the netroots movement’s focus on candidates as a vehicle for change left it unprepared for the aftermath of Obama’s election, when Obama failed to articulate a story about why the financial meltdown had occurred—and why America’s regulatory system and welfare state needed to be rebuilt—that could compete with the Tea Party’s narrative of a government grown so large that it was stifling both economic growth and personal liberty.”

He continues: “What we are witnessing in Zuccotti Park actually represents an improvement over the Obama campaign. That campaign was largely about faith in one man. The Occupy Wall Street movement, by contrast, represents a direct reckoning with the most powerful forces in American life, forces that are not voted in and out of office every two or four years. And it represents a belief that young Americans must force that reckoning by themselves. No politician will do it for them. Those instincts are exactly right, and we’ve never needed them more.”

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Every once in a while I like to take notes from news articles and columns, to help me think through ideas and topics. The Bible calls us to care for the needy and so perhaps I can do “my little bit” for voicing concern for those in society who are struggling—as I also seek to do “my little bit” in other ways.  (I do realize that many of the articles I enjoy come from the Huffington Post, although I’m also focusing on GOP positions, which interest me as one who taught aspects of the party’s history in undergrad classes.)

“God so loved the world,” as the Gospel teaches, but what’s happening in that beloved world at the moment? Big economic issues and the accompanying politics are “what’s happening,” among other things. Steve Thorngate, writing for The Christian Century, laments that there wasn’t serious policy debate in the debt-ceiling negotiations of this past summer. The president wanted to “get to yes,” while the GOP leaders are keen on preventing Obama’s reelection, while Reps. Boehner and Cantor want control of the House republicans. This is, as Thorngate writes, all about “zero-sum electoral politics.” He criticizes the way the mainstream media (for instance, an article in Time that week) conflates policy talks with the trope that leaders should “just compromise.” In reality, there are no liberal extremists parallel to GOP hardliners who refused to budge on raising the debt ceiling and letting Bush-era tax cuts expire for the sake of increased federal revenue. Democrats have already compromised concerning cuts to what the Time article called“cherished entitlement programs like Medicare”, but GOPs will meanwhile (in Thorngate’s words) “feign disappointment when agreeing to cut tax expenditures.” (http://christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-07/compromise-compromise)

Coming from the conservative perspective, David Frum, a CNN columnist and former assistant to President Bush, complains that “[o]nly about one-third of Republicans agree that cutting government spending should be the country’s top priority. Only about one-quarter of Republicans insist the budget be balanced without any tax increases. Yet that one-third and one-quarter have come to dominate my party. That one-third and that one-quarter forced a debt standoff that could have ended in default and a second Great Recession.” Frum offers several ideas. One is to borrow money at less thant 3% interest in order to help people get out of unemployment, because “Unemployment is a more urgent problem than debt.”

He makes other points. Second: “the deficit is a symptom of America’s economic problems, not a cause,” because government spending increased and revenue declines when the economy weekends. Third: “The time to cut is after the economy recovers.” Fourth: “The place to cut is health care, not assistance to the unemployed and poor”; the US, he says, “provide less assistance to the unemployed and the poor than almost any other democracy” and yet health care is more expensive here and with “worse results.” Fifth: he argues that federal income could be increased not by raising tax rates but by, for instance, higher taxes on energy to encourage conservation or eliminating certain deductions (like state and local taxes) from taxable income. Sixth: he argues that the “frenzy of rage and contempt” among Republicans toward Obama “satisfies the emotions of the Republican base” but are undercutting their own good judgment via pinning all the responsibility for our economic problems on Obama. Finally, he worries that some GOP leaders are going to ruin our economic system in order to prove that the system is in trouble. (http://www.cnn.com/2001/OPINION/08/01/frum.debt.republicans/index.html).

Speaking of Obama-hating, I’m honestly not aware that liberalism has ever produced such a cottage industry of angry media; liberal-hating authors fill an entire shelf at my nearby Barnes and Noble, which to me is creepy. One thing that urks me badly is when my churchgoing Christian friends start to sound hate-ful and snarky like some of these authors and broadcasters; aren’t we called to kindness, patience, and compassion, even as we teach and debate?  I personally have found only one book (there may be others) that aims to persuade in a more irenic manner: Patrick M. Garry, Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged. New York: Encounter Books, 2010.

There is a lot of talk about taxing the wealthy these days, especially with regard to retaining earlier tax cuts and the need for national debt reduction. I worry that some of the rhetoric give a one-sided picture. In my own little world, I know well-to-do people who are extremely generous, concerned about social issues, and hopeful to improve the common good, and I know of large companies that contribute notably to beneficial efforts. In current discussions of taxes and federal revenue, Charles Hugh Smith, writing at businessinsider.com, notes that we tend to lump the wealthy together. That’s mistaken, he notes: many wealthy people (Steve Jobs is his example) “created value” and benefited millions of people, while other wealthy people (those connected with Countryside and Enron) deserve condemnation.

Smith clarifies some of the issues. Smith cautions that “the debate over tax rates is pointless, because as long as the super-wealthy own the levers of Federal governance and regulation, then they will buy exclusions, loopholes, rebates, subsidies etc. which relieve them of whatever official tax rates have been passed for public consumption/propaganda purposes.” He cites the sociologist G. William Domhoff who distinguishes “the net worth held by households in ‘marketable assets’ such as homes and vehicles and ‘financial wealth.’ Homes and other tangible assets are, in Domhoff’s words, ‘not as readily converted into cash and are more valuable to their owners for use purposes than they are for resale.’ Meanwhile, “[f]inancial wealth such as stocks, bonds and other securities are liquid and therefore easily converted to cash,” and Domhoff calls these “non-home wealth.” Smith cites 2007 statistics that “the bottom 80% of American households held a mere 7% of these financial assets, while the top 1% held 42.7%, the top 5% holds 72% and the top 10% held fully 83%.” I direct people to this interesting article for Smith’s several graphs and analysis. His conclusion:

Beneath the happy surface of Federal transfers and spending funded by debt, earned incomes for the bottom 95% are falling and wealth is accumulating in the top 1%. (Emphasis in text.) The Federal Reserve’s project of goosing stocks and bonds has greatly enriched the holders of those assets, while doing essentially nothing for the bottom 90% except increasing their government’s debt load.
“It’s painfully obvious that the Federal government and the Fed are the handmaidens of the politically powerful Financial Elites. Why spend your own money on bribes, bread and circuses when you can arrange for the Central State to borrow the money? Why, indeed. ‘Austerity’ is of course a modest reduction in the amount of money borrowed and spread around to keep the masses safely passive, but a few trillion trimmed here and there over a decade won’t change the Great Game.” (http://www.businessinsider.com/made-in-usa-wealth-inequality-2001-7)

Taxes, by their very nature, do impede economic growth by taking money from businesses and consumers. The author of Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan, notes that when government is “doing the things that it is theoretically supposed to be, government spending must be financed by levying taxes, and taxes exert a cost on the economy.” In his opinion “supply-side economics” is a “chimera” because “we cannot cut taxes and have more money to spend on government programs.” Basically if we pay more taxes, we get more government services, and if we pay fewer taxes, the government will have “fewer resources to fight wars, balance the budget, catch terrorists, educate children,” and other traditional government functions. So how do we have strong services and security from our government while also doing things that encourage economic growth?[1] (I wish I knew!)

Another notion in the news is “class warfare.” Two articles I found are worth reading, one is “Classlessness in America: the uses and abuses of an enduring myth,” in The Economist, discusses the reality of class in the wake of Rep. Paul Ryan’s remark about ‘class warfare.” (http://www.economist.com/node/21530100/) Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott’s “Class Warfare?” which argues that although a “millionaire’s tax” does not solve all problems, but that it is a significant way to raise revenue, but President Obama “hasn’t made out [the] moral case to the American people,” and that his critics are wrong to argue that it is not a serious possible solution to our economic struggles. “More and more citizens believe–and rightly so–that we aren’t all in this together, and that there isn’t a level playing field…. Intergenerational income mobility is lower in the United States than in many European countries…The rich get richer, and so do their children, while the great majority struggles. It is the winner-take-all economy, not taxation, that is the moral problem threatening our democracy.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-ackerman/class-warfare_3_b_982888.html)

Yet another article, by Joshua Holland for Alternet, is “The real ‘class war’ in America: Six narratives wealthy elites are using to destroy the nation’s poor.” All his points are worth reading. One of the false narratives he lists is “unemployment benefits have created a ‘nation of slackers.'” He quotes the hard words of Rep. Steve King (R-IA), “The 80 million Americans that are of working age but are simply not in the workforce need to be put to work. We can’t have a nation of slackers… We’ve gotta get this country back to work and get those people out of the slacker rolls and onto the employed rolls.” But Holland points out that America has one of the “stingiest unemployment benefits” among developed countries, and that unemployment benefits are not discouraging people from finding work—because “[t]here are no jobs!” We have nearly 7 million fewer jobs than in 2007, and to that you can add many millions more people who are working part-time and would like a full-time job, so “you get 25.4 million workers vying for 3.2 million full-time job openings. King, comments Holland, takes an assertion that there are millions of people not in the work force, and derives from that the conclusion that they’re all “slackers.” Similarly, Holland argues that food stamps do, indeed, help people and in fact discourage starvation for many people! But the stigma attached to SNAP, perpetuated by critics who equate nutritional assistance with perpetuating instead of helping to curb poverty, causes some people to not seek this assistance despite eligibility. (http://news.salon.com/2011/09/27/wealthy_class_warfare)

In a couple of other “news round-ups” (http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2009/10/christian-love-part-1.html and http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2010/03/not-funny-but-interesting-part-2.html), I thought about the need for conservatives to create a compelling vision for the common good rather than being a “party of No.” Recently, Vice President Joe Biden noted “You’ve got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don’t have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because [he’s] gay. That’s not reflective of who we are. This is a choice about the fundamental direction of our country.” As the article author noted, too, the “histrionics of a small minority of the GOP debate crowd … continues to present a lasting problem for a Republican Party struggling to come off as inclusive.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/27/biden-on-gop-debate-boo-gay-soldier_n_983263.html)

Unfortunately, the possibility of a positive, inclusive political vision emerging on the national scene seems hopeless right now in the wake of numerous political changes that have arisen over the past fifteen or so years, as discussed in another article, “Why Congress is So Dysfunctional” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/02/congress-dysfunction-long_n_991010.html)

A few weeks ago, an article from Religion News Service indicated that conservative Christian leaders were praiing Governor Rick Perry and his presidential candidacy. Former Focus on the Family leader James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., of Liberty University, and other evangelical leaders supported Perry’s style, policies, and faith. Falwell even admired Perry’s “guts” for suggesting Texas might secede from the Union. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/22/rick-perry-praised-by-evangelicals_n_976674.html)

Still another article author, Karl Giberson, explains some of the background to this (to me lamentable) position of these evangelical leaders. “Widespread rejection of human-induced climate change by evangelical Christians, of the sort we have seen recently from Rich Perry and others, is a bit of a puzzler. There is no obvious reason why evangelical faith commitments should motivate the faithful to reject climate science.” But he comments that “one of the strategies employed most effectively by evangelicals in their crusade against evolution, which does pose real, although soluble, biblical and theological problems, has been to undermine the entire scientific enterprise. If science is a deeply flawed, ideologically driven, philosophically suspect enterprise, then why should anyone care if almost every scientist supports the theory of evolution [and by extension, climate change]?” And the anti-science polemic by, for instance, the Discovery Institute, characterizes science as a kind of left-wing ideology which one can reject. This is very sad, as is the way some evangelical Christians will, nevertheless, become attracted to “faith-friendly” but “indefensible views in many areas: American history (the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation), sexual orientation (you can ‘pray away the gay’), climate change (not happening), evolution (never happened), cosmology (Big Bang is a big joke) and even biblical studies (the bible tells us what is about to happen in the Middle East.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-giberson-phd/evangelicals-and-science_b_975821.html)

Another article, “Rick Perry and Republican Magical Thinking” by Lincoln Mitchell, points out that Perry does “project an image of strength and independence” as well as “a record and some relevant experience while also legitimately presenting himself as a political outsider.” The “magical thinking” part is a fuzziness of some Republicans’ thinking “that cutting taxes can magically solve all economic woes,” as well as the contention “that global warming is a conspiracy by liberal scientists.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lincoln-mitchell/rick-perry-chris-christie_b_983140.html)

Yet another article, by Eric Sapp of the Eleison Group, criticizes Gov. Perry for his combination of belief in God with his determination to cut government programs for the poor. This is interesting not only from a political position but it also speaks to the role of church and government in fostering the social common good. Gov. Perry, like many conservatives, believe the church can care for society’s need better than government programs. Sapp notes that progressives tend to lose this “Church can do it better” argument, which in turn supports the conservative argument that government isn’t supposed to solve all problems. Sapp argues, “What we should be saying is that it doesn’t matter whether the Church could do a better job caring for the poor or not because the Christ isn’t doing it. We wouldn’t need Section 8 housing if we had enough Habitat homes. We wouldn’t need food stamps or school lunches if we had enough soup kitchens. The way to ensure better care for the poor than government can provide is not to hobble government programs but for the Church to make these programs unnecessary.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-sapp/rick-perry-tithing_b_975723.html)

The more I’ve thought about this particular issue, the more I think it’s not a simple either-or. I think that the Tea Party, with its anti-taxation and small-government rhetoric, has raised this issue afresh. But there can be possibilities of government working along side of faith-communities for the common good, and of persons of faith working as citizens and civic leaders in order to serve the common good through government.

Last year, while working on a research project about faith and citizenship (purchasableright now! http://congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDcurriculum.htm), I found an interesting book Doing Justice in Our Cities by Warren R. Copeland, professor of Religion and Director of Urban Studies at Wittenberg University, and also a several-term mayor and civic leader in Springfield, Ohio. He notes that, after he and his wife became the legal guardians of a teenaged girl, people remarked, “You are such good Christian people to take this girl into your home.” But he wonders why people don’t say they’re “good Christian people” because they participate in the public life of their community! “Being legal guardians for a teenager is not significantly less complicated than being a good citizen,” but he wonders “why is the direct relationship of a legal guardian so often seen as more of an act of faith than the principled participation in a community’s public life?” He adds that “Those who have served on the board of a voluntary association know that that can be just as difficult as government,” since voluntary associations, like local government, “shape our communities and understandings of the issues we face” in public life.[2]

Similarly Copeland wonders if people avoid public service because (to use his example) building a house for Habitat for Humanity is somehow more clearly a “good cause” than dealing with local and federal laws about, for instance, housing. During one year of his elected service, Copeland voted to support construction of over 200 housing units for medium- and low-income families via a federal tax credit program. In addition, his city’s public housing authority supports nearly 2000 housing units. In twenty years, he notes, Springfield’s local Habitat chapter constructed forty homes.[3] “Voluntary organizations provide a human touch and often a spiritual dimension that may be missing from government programs. However, we are not about to meet the huge needs of our urban communities through volunteerism.” He also uses the examples of public schools. He notes that people make personal decisions about their children’s education, sometimes by moving to new communities or removing children from public schools, but “[g]enerally this only makes things worse for the vast majority of our children and makes the overall education system less just” Individual and volunteer errors cannot address all the problems of school quality, funding, and so on.[4]

“Both [government and voluntary groups] are essential to a democratic society.” This is, to him, a matter of faith. “I believe that the fundamental values of real freedom and real diversity are essential to the experience of full humanity in our human communities. I believe that the ethical principles of respect for the integrity of other human beings, recognition of the just claims of our neighbors, and concern for the common good deserve our commitment.”[5]

Words to ponder—and to end this little “news round-up”!

*****

Notes:

1. Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 94, 97.

2. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

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9/11 Reflections

The news has been filled lately with 9/11 remembrances.  Many news stories have updated us on the families of victims and the dreadful events of the day.  My wife Beth and I are attending two different events Sunday afternoon and evening.  Many communities, colleges, and universities are holding remembrance events.

Beth was in Manhattan on business that morning.  With no Tuesday classes, I was home watching a VHS tape of the movie “Finding Forrester,” so I didn’t know what was happening until Beth’s secretary called and asked if I’d heard from Beth.  By that time, both towers had fallen.  Unbeknownst to me, Beth had actually seen the second tower fall as she and her colleague stayed at their hotel several blocks away.  Of course, phone service was dodgy but we finally got through to each other.  Beth and her colleague left the city on Saturday, when the LaGuardia flight that had been optimistically scheduled was, in fact, cancelled, and the two of them rented a car to drive out of the city and across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, finally to our home in Ohio.  It was a bad week, but so much worse for many, many people.

The evening of 9/11 I did something well-intentioned,  which was to take daughter Emily to the animal shelter to look at cats.  We had already discussed the possibility of adopting a second cat, and I thought that merely looking at cats would be pleasant for her as we both worried about Beth’s situation.  Of course, we found the perfect cat, a little 8-year-old part-Siamese, black and white kitty named Domino.  I should’ve waited, but in my distress I decided we could adopt Domino.  Unfortunately, our cat Odd Ball—one of the most patient and placid cats on the planet—reacted very negatively to the interloper, and I was up most of the night dealing with the situation.  It wouldn’t have been a restful night anyway.  I can imagine that very strict British woman on the show “It’s Me or the Dog” sharply criticizing me for the situation.  Happily, Domino settled in, Odd Ball settled down, and we loved Domino for four years until he suffered a disease and had to be put to sleep. Emily wrote a contest essay (which though excellent didn’t win) for “Cat Fancy” magazine about our 9-11 friend.

Beth and were going to lead a community project this year, including interviews of people about how 9-11 changed their lives. The project never developed amid the many other, good projects happening around our community, but the question is still pertinent: how did 9-11 change your life?  I think for Beth and me, our normal efforts to try to promote inclusiveness and understanding increased.  I was privileged to write a short study book on world religions which also promoted understanding and mutuality. My editors hoped the book would be well-timed following 9/11,  and the book went on to sell over 20,000 copies.

I always wonder what happened to a student enrolled in my European history class that semester.  He had gone to Manhattan to help with efforts.  When he returned, he was quite shaken up and asked if I’d give him some leeway with his assignments.   Of course I told him to take care of himself.  But then he stopped attending class altogether and made no further contact.  I hope he found help for his difficult experience.

******

Not surprisingly, both Time and Newsweek and other magazines feature cover stories this week on 9/11.  I picked up a USA Today issue called “Remembering 9/11: A Tribute to Heroes.” I was interested in the article therein, “Good News in America,” which tries to balance our current gloomy mood with positive things: a record number of foreign students attended American colleges in 2010; employment is up in Silicon Valley and the tech sector; there are more jobs in clean energy than ever; farm exports are up; we have a growing number of national parks; there are more women entrepreneurs; and although he’s controversial, Obama is of course our first African American president, significant amid our legacy of slavery and racism.

Looking for a balanced analysis of our national policies of the past ten years, I found an article in the journal Foreign Affairs (Sept.-Oct. 2011).  Melvyn P. Leffler of the University of Virginia reflects on “9/11 in Retrospect: George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy, Reconsidered.”

He concludes that “It seems clear now that many of [Pres. Bush and his advisers’] foreign policy initiatives, along with their tax cuts and unwillingness to call for domestic sacrifices, undercut the very goals they were designed to achieve” (p. 37).  Their goal of U.S. primacy, analogous to the expansion of U.S. global policy after the Korean War, was hurt by other things. One was the flawed efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq which, in combination with America’s support of Israel, caused increased hostility toward the U.S. in the Muslim world, while the cost of both wars—now well over $1 trillion—also hurt American primacy in the world, added to the increase in domestic spending, and increase in U.S. debt held by other countries, as well as Bush-era tax cuts.  Thus, both American position in the world as well as its economic strength have declined since 9/11.  Unfortunately, too, the U.S. war on terror, including our two long wars, have possibly increased the number of jihadists (pp. 37-39).

However, the war on terror has had positive outcomes, too: it has possibly thwarted new attacks, gained successes in Libya (e.g., its abandonment of a nuclear program), kept ties strong with India, China and Russia, and, as Leffler puts it, “reformed and reinvigorated foreign aid, exerted global leadership in the fight against infection diseases, tried to keep the Doha Round of trade talks moving forward, and raised the provide of democracy promotion and political reform in ways that may have resonated deeply and contributed to the current ferment across the Middle East” (pp. 39-40).

Leffler helpfully goes on to show how the Bush Administration’s strategies were not at all something new and unprecedented but were rooted in strategies, presidential rhetoric, and bipartisan national policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine.  Even our unilateral policies after 9/11 are rooted in Americans’ “instinct to act independently, and to lead the world while doing so,” going back to Washington’s farewell address” (p. 42). I recommend this article for anyone thinking with these issues.

Our current partisan atmosphere in the U.S. isn’t new, either, but it is still lamentable, especially in light of the commonality and mutual care following the 9/11 attacks. As I watched the NBC news this morning, Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked that our time of political goodwill changed into an extended time of political rancor.  What I wish for is, unfortunately, not going to happen, because it’s not the nature of politics: a kind of soul-searching and bipartisan problem-solving among our elected leaders regarding the plusses and minuses of our recent foreign and economic policies.

For instance—-to go on a tangent for a moment—I supported recent efforts at health care reform, as well as the use of stimulus funds to help the faltering economy.  (This is a debated point among economists and columnists, but writers in The Economist magazine have argued that these funds did save the country from potentially disastrous economic depression and, in fact, additional stimulus money might have hastened an economic recovery).  But unfortunately the timing and the way the efforts were handled by the administration and Congress (while not unlike the way the Medicare prescription drug legislation was handled several years ago) created a “vacuum” of public discussion that has resulted in the posturing and lack of cooperation among national leaders who do share responsibility of addressing economic mistakes and advancing beneficial economic policies.  I go on this tangent because one big issue right now, seemingly lost amid the rhetoric about cutting domestic spending, is the plight of injured and troubled veterans of our recent wars—as well as the circumstances of the poor and the struggling middle class, who continue to be stigmatized in political rhetoric about “entitlements.”   But our economic challenges include not only domestic “cushions” but also foreign aid, major military expenditures for our long wars, and the current need for tax reform.

What we need is a very strong injection of a sense of shared responsibility into our political discussions and into our everyday thinking as citizens.  9/11 has, after all, become a powerful symbol for American resilience, mutual help, and hope for the future.

As I thought about these topics, I found a discussion of Thomas Friedman’s new book, That Used to Be Us: How American Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (by Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum). The authors argue that America’s turning point came not with 9/11 and its aftermath, but a decade earlier, when the Cold War ended. Friedman states that “[w]e shifted from [the] greatest generation that really operated on what we call in the book ‘sustainable values’ — saving and investing — and we handed power over to the baby boomer generation who really lived by ‘situational values’ — borrow and consume.”  One wonders if this is one reason why we, as a country, did not mind so much when we did not have to make many domestic sacrifices at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were waged.  He also notes that, with globalization, American-based companies are no longer contributing as much to the well-being of society.  Friedman notes that “We are missing the voices of those CEOs in our discussions — national discussions on education and infrastructure — because if they can’t get the workers, the infrastructure, the opportunities that they need here, they can just go somewhere else… And that’s a huge problem.”

Friedman continues, “We’re having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election and it’s like they don’t even overlap in many ways. The incentives of politics today — money, cable television, gerrymandered districts — are so misaligned with the needs of the country that they become like a closed circle, operating on their own,” he says. “What we argue for is an independent, third party that actually can show that there is a huge middle in this country that demands different politics.”[1]

Recently, I was the principal writer for a lesson series about “faithful citizenship.”[2]  In those lessons, we cited the noted author Robert Bellah who has commented that contemporary conservatism, with its strong free market component, and welfare liberalism both tend to focus upon individual rather than the common good; both outlooks stress that “[t]he purpose of government is to give individuals the means to pursue their private ends” and differ only “about the means by which to foster individual self-reliance, not about the ultimate value of fostering it.”[3] Furthermore, we tend to lose sight of our commonality–as individuals, families, and workers–when we frame stories in terms of individualism. Researching the lessons I found a wonderful comment by columnist Ellen Goodman, who takes the current slogan of the Home Depot company, “You can do it. We can help,” and says that, in our current moment of overpaid CEOs, individualism, and misplaced stress on “personal responsibility,” we’ve lost the second half of that slogan, “We can help.”[4]  We Americans want to help each other, but somehow we often lose sight of that when we discuss broader economic and foreign policy issues.

If conservatives tend to emphasize personal responsibility and discipline, the liberal answer of providing government relief to the needy also misses a huge sense of what the ethicist Eric Mount calls “shared membership in a national community or a global community.”[5]  What Americans still need is a “story” of shared national and global membership wherein we do not frame our view of one another as “us and them,” but rather of “being in this together.”

Mount writes: “Learning to tell better stories about ourselves as Americans and as members of the global community will not occur if we cease to remember the stories that we tell around the tables of our familial and religious communities and of our various voluntary associations and fail to advocate the virtues embedded in these stories. Nor will the better stories emerge if we lack the willingness and ability to hear the stories of other…The virtues of faith as openness to the other, love as affirmation of the other and compassion toward the other, hope as the expectant patience to keep public discourse alike, and generous public-spiritedness as the manifestation of gratitude are essential to the process of table talk that sustains civil society. If our covenantal religious traditions are worth their salt, they will season civil discourse to make it more inclusive, more respectful of difference, more attentive to the well-being of the entire community, and more constitutive of shared identity that does not subsume all other identities.”[6]

Can politics be loving and inclusive?  It’s hard to imagine!  Do we need a new, third party that can better articulate the needs of the political and economic “middle”?  We’ll see how such an idea plays out historically.  But for now, the legacy and heroism of 9/11—powerful in its tragedy, as well as its commonality among our families, religious communities, and organizations—can be a reminder to us that Americans’ first reaction to a crisis is to pull together and bolster one another.  I’ve low expectations about writing letters to national leaders, but we can at least pray that some of our common spirit of mutual care can extend to the vision of our national leaders as well as to our personal political and economic opinions.[7]

Notes:

1.  “Thomas Friedman on ‘How American Fell Behind,’ NPR Books, Sept. 6, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/09/06/140214150/thomas-friedman-on-how-america-fell-behind

2.  “Faithful Citizen,” http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.html

3.  Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 262-266.

4.  Ellen Goodman, “Bob the Un-Builder, The Washington Post Writers Group, January 11, 2007:

5.  Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

6.  Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 156.

7. We Christians aren’t always as careful as we should be in communicating Christ’s love and Christian kindness while also communicating our political opinions.  I admit that I rage (and sometimes shamefully swear) in private while watching the evening news, although I try to be kind while discussing politics with others.  Feeling angry and discouraged about politics is entirely normal; it’s a sign that we’re engaged citizens!  But then we church people need to be careful that we don’t sound like certain angry, divisive political commentators when we talk politics, otherwise we might fail badly in sharing the Gospel of God’s love.

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