Friday, August 31, 2012

How about that Clint Eastwood!

Just as the nation was waiting to hear from the “re-invented” Mitt Romney (or is that the “re-re-re-invented Mitt Romney), expecting – well, at least hoping – to hear perhaps the first civil, truthful speech of the recent Republican Convention, we get . . . Clint Eastwood.

It is hard to imagine that the organizers of the convention or the Romney campaign are pleased with what Mr. Eastwood delivered. Hard to imagine, perhaps, but not impossible. The response of the crowd, standing, cheering, waving banners, guffawing of Eastwood’s obscenities really told the whole story. Whether Eastwood went “off-script” or did as he was directed to do, it went over like a million helium-filled balloons.

For those who didn’t see his performance, Eastwood spoke with an empty chair beside him which was intended to represent President Obama. Eastwood invented a conversation in which he “questioned” the President and then invented the answers he thought would please his audience. The entire ten minute speech was a rambling insult to intelligent discourse but there were two particular points at which Eastwood stepped over the boundary of human decency entirely.

At various points in the speech, he pretended that the President was telling him to “shut up.” Of course, being Clint Eastwood, no one tells him to shut up. But the really onerous sections of his performance was when he suggested that the President was telling him, first to tell Romney to . . . well, you have to read it yourself to see the impertinence of it: 

What? What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. That. He can't do that to himself.

 And then, later in the speech this again: 

OK, well, anyway. All right, I'm sorry. I can't do that to myself either.

To be fair to the delegates at the convention who endorsed this guttural trash talk with their cheers and applause, it is possible that, in a noisy environment, they didn’t really comprehend Eastwood’s words; that they were just excited to hear someone trash the man they love to hear trashed. But they can now read the transcript and see exactly what was said. Does anyone expect there to be a cry of outrage that the “convention of family values” was sullied by such a performance? The refusal of candidate after candidate to repudiate the errors and lies from their speeches, even when pointed out by multiple fact-checking sources, does not give one much reason to hope for such an outcome.

Governor Romney was in the wings as Eastwood was speaking and I assume did not hear his offensive remarks. But if he has not heard of them by now he is being ill-served by those around him. As a man of virtue (which testimony after testimony declared him to be) he should publicly and firmly rebuke Eastwood and those who brought him on for sullying the meeting with gutter-talk; a meeting in which Romney’s own wife, Paul Ryan’s wife, his and Ryan’s children, and Romney’s grandchildren were present; a meeting which much of the nation was watching; a meeting that purported to cast the Republican Party as the party of righteousness and family values; a meeting that proclaimed, over and over again, that America is exceptional in all good things.

I am exceptionally embarrassed at Eastwood’s performance.



Monday, August 27, 2012

Democracy’s Death Watch

As the political conventions approach, the nation yawns. Fortunately tropical storm Isaac has added a little drama to the Republican Convention in Tampa, raising the possibility that there will be more excitement outside the Convention Hall than inside. It appears that nothing is on the horizon to enliven the Democratic Convention next week. Of course the media will do their best to convince us that earth shaping speeches are in the offing from those who either chose not to run or were rejected when they tried to, or even more pathetic, from the spouses of the candidates.

For a nation that eschews class and royalty we, nonetheless, give almost as much press to our celebrity politicians and their families as the British do their royalty. It has always been so – our history is littered with clowns who wanted to be, almost became, and actually were elected President. And they all had, or found before running for the office, a beautiful wife to buttress their own lack of charm. It makes for interesting and entertaining history, but it is especially irritating when it happens in one’s own time.

Our first President, George Washington, was a toothless old gent who sent most of his messages to be read to Congress rather than endure the pain of wearing his false teeth, to say nothing of the distortion of his speech they engendered. His “first Lady” seldom was at his side during public appearances, preferring to stay at Mr. Vernon where the “press” made little attempt to interview her. In those quaint years it was apparently thought that the opinion of the person actually seeking the office of president was more important than that of his spouse.

Washington’s wish for a non-partisan approach to the selection of our government leaders was short lived if, indeed, it ever was realized. So, through a succession of caucuses, smoke-filled rooms, conventions, and now primary elections, we have arrived at the era of the celebrity spouse, or in the case of one of the vice-presidential candidates this year, the celebrity mom.

All of this is interesting and sometimes amusing. It conjures the image of boys picking at, and fighting with each other while their moms vouch for the goodness of their boy.

But the really significant change in our selection process goes deeper than the glamour of the candidates or their spouses. The power of those allurements would be greatly diminished if it were not for the ubiquitous media, eager, by its magical kiss, to make princes from frogs, and at some point a frog from a previous prince, all to the glory of their ratings and the profit of their stock holders. And back of it all is the money machine, pouring out billions of dollars – yes, this year perhaps two billion dollars between the two parties – in support of, or against, one or the other candidate.

That last point should give us significant pause. We have a situation now in which, at all levels of government, candidates and their supporters are willing to spend hundreds of times more to get their candidate elected than he or she will earn in pay for that service. Of course the honor is worth something – for the winning candidate. But what do the millionaires who, from the shadows and sidelines, are pumping millions of their personal wealth into these campaigns hope to gain? Any thoughtful honest person knows that they expect to “earn a profit” on their investment.

It is time to admit that the “march of democracy” has led us to the brink of democracy’s extinction. When one man in Los Vegas can buy the attention of the nation and use his influence to destroy the reputation of a candidate he opposes through deceptive TV and internet ads, we can check off the democratic principle of “one man, one vote” and relegate it to the ash heap of failed political experiments. Democracy, if not dead already, is dying.

Can anything be done to revive the patient? It is hard to find any hope. Ultimately any hope lies in the honesty of each voter as they approach the polls in November. They will not have the choice between one wholly virtuous person and another wholly evil, although the ads would have them believe that is the case. Instead, they will have to choose between two imperfect individuals, one better suited to serve in the office he or she seeks than the other. As they enter the polling booth they will need to shake off the fog created by months of lying ads and try to discern who that “better suited” candidate is and then put their X by him or her, regardless of which party their name is listed under.

It is the only hope that democracy has for survival.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Worship of Mammon

When the religious leaders of His day came to Jesus, taunting Him by demanding that He show them a “sign” that would authenticate His claims to be the promised Messiah. His response was curious. He said, “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

Of course Jesus was not implying that all the Jewish people of that generation were adulterers in the sexual sense. He was using the language of the Old Testament prophets who had condemned the people of their day for wandering from the worship of the true God, Yahweh, and serving false gods. The not very subtle implication was that Jesus saw that generation of Jews as worshiping gods other than Yahweh while pretending they would offer their devotion to Yahweh if only Jesus would give them a sign significant enough to convince them that He was the true Messiah. His searing rejoinder was, “none will be given . . . except the sign of Jonah.”

The sign of Jonah! As Jonah was in the fish three days and nights and impossibly returned to life, so Jesus would lie entombed in the earth three days before miraculously emerging whole and alive. If that “sign” were not enough to turn a generation from its petty gods to worship the true and living God, there would be no hope for it.

Lets face it: we live in a wicked and adulterous generation. Only the willfully blind can deny that. Those who wish to deny it, point to the good that is done – sometimes by people who are otherwise not “good” – as evidence of the basic goodness of mankind. We must thank God for all the “good” that is done in the world; all “good and perfect gifts” come from Him. But a sober assessment of the world we live in reveals a different situation. Even the world's greatest living “saints”, when examined honestly, are deeply flawed in ways that should embarrass the human race. We all sin, even the best of us, and fall short of God’s plan for our lives. But worse, the world is filled with devotees of evil; worshipers of power, violence, money, sex-for-sex’s-sake, physical and sexual abuse, drugs, alcohol, and more . . . so much more.

Too bleak, you say? If only it were. In most of the world one can see the results of the worship of the gods of this world on display: war-torn bodies strewn in the streets; prostitutes lurking in sleazy neighborhoods; children begging for food or dying for lack of it; crime and violence and drugs on open display; dictators cruelly crushing their subjects under an iron heel; powerful holders of wealth denying even the crumbs to masses. It would be impossible to paint those pictures too bleakly.

But in America we have sanitized our gods, made stars of our adulterers, lionized our billionaires, legalized our addictions, rationalized our wars, trivialized infidelity, hidden our poor, and when they cannot be hidden, labeled them “lazy” so we can safely deny them the fruit of our wealth.

America has elevated monetary success to the status of “National God” and then declared, “In God We Trust.”

Mr. Romney– himself the epitome of the American $dol –  recently chose as his Vice Presidential running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. Ryan has made no secret of his devotion to the economics of Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged.  Mrs. Rand’s materialistic philosophy has become the anchor for Paul Ryan’s vision for the American economy. Mr. Ryan thinks so highly of Rand’s work that he gave each of this staff a Christmas gift of her book. The Ryan/Rand economic philosophy cements the acquisition of wealth as the supreme good in human existence, ignoring the words of Jesus that “man shall not live by bread alone.” Ryan’s and Romney’s philosophy flaunts the Biblical warning that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” In their rush to protect and enhance their wealth and that of their friends they are willing to “grind the face of the poor” reducing or eliminating programs designed to protect the vulnerable poor in our society.

Next to Mrs. Rand’s casket, during her funeral, stood a six-foot high floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign. Whether that “tribute” to her life’s philosophy was of her own choosing, or devised by her admirers, it nonetheless summarizes the hedonistic – and truly godless – aim of her work and her writings.

Our politicians – at this time in history, the conservative ones, especially – like to portray America as a God-fearing, God-loving nation and themselves as the High Priests serving at His altar. And that we are; and that they are. But not as they believe. When America is finally laid in its casket – as all nations eventually are – and its final history is written it will have to be noted that the god it feared – the god it loved – was not Yahweh-God, as revealed by His Son, Jesus the Messiah, but rather the great god, Mammon. And the eternal symbol of our devotion to our god will be the dollar $ign.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chick-Fil-A: What Have We Learned?

The recent media flap over the statement by the owner of Chick-Fil-A that he opposes gay marriage, and the consequent attempt by gay activists to boycott restaurants in the chain, followed by a show of solidarity for the company and its franchises by opponents of gay marriage, illustrates a very important point about American’s love for freedom of expression. It is highly selective.

Both sides want freedom to express their opinions regarding controversial subjects but would also like to curtail the ability of their opponents to do so. Both sides want their opinions to be taken seriously and respected even though they often disparage the opinions of their opponents. Both sides claim moral legitimacy for their beliefs and practices and naturally refuse to grant such legitimacy to opposing views.

The history of our nation is a history of such controversies, the most famous being, of course, the struggle over black slavery. But there were others: Jim Crow laws, the right of women to vote, prohibition of alcoholic beverages, polygamy, legal prostitution, Sunday blue laws. And now, in our time, the “hot issues” revolve around abortion, birth control, euthanasia, stem cell research, and of course gay rights, including gay marriage.

As a nation we have approached these problems in a variety of ways: all out war in the case of slavery; constitutional amendments in the case of Jim Crow, women’s voting rights, and prohibition; state and federal laws to regulate polygamy, prostitution, and blue laws. None of these issues was easy to resolve and the resolution of each of them left a portion of the population dissatisfied with the result. But those who were displeased found ways, through either active avoidance, or passive resignation, to live with the new status quo. Occasionally someone or some group decides to flaunt the will of the majority and the courts are required to determine if they have that right or if they must be forcibly required to abide by the law. Such “civil disobedience” is a method of protesting that society has “gone off the rails” and needs to be put right again. But there is a price to pay for such actions.

In most cases – in the cases currently troubling our society: abortion, birth control, euthanasia, and gay rights, the struggle is between those who have no intention of doing these things but feel strongly that they must prevent anyone else from doing them, and those who feel it is their right to decide for themselves what is permissible for them to do. The options available to us for resolution of our differences are political-legal regulation, moral persuasion, and a combination of the two.

The difficulty with political-legal solutions is that they can be overturned as we saw with prohibition, and with various Supreme Court decisions. Political-legal solutions do not determine right and wrong, they only declare the present state of toleration for certain behaviors. Only moral persuasion offers a solution likely to last; it brings agreement as to the rightness or wrongness of various behaviors.

But moral persuasion takes time to work. Its effectiveness is lessened by human imperfection. And, over time, the conclusions about what is moral or immoral can change.

So what are we to do while we wait for our political system and our moral community to do their work. If we value the freedoms our forefathers have handed down to us we need to dial back our rhetoric, attempt to understand what our opponents are feeling and saying, work in a civil manner to persuade others of the righteousness of our cause, patiently and respectfully work to enact the laws that reflect our sense of right and wrong, and, above all else, treat others in the manner in which we wish to be treated ourselves.

We are constantly reminded that we live in a highly polarized time. There may never have been a time in our history not highly polarized, but it is certain that ours is. Much of the polarization of American politics has little to do with the issues discussed above; these issues are merely convenient pawns being used by powerful interests who know they can marshal certain elements in society to their cause by feigning a desire to correct the particular ills that are troubling the culture. The Republican Party, since the days of Ronald Reagan, has used the conservative Christian community to propel its candidates into office but has, for the most part, done little about the moral issues they care about. The Democratic Party plays to the fears and aspirations of various minority groups, including gay rights activists but, like the Republicans, seldom do anything substantial about the concerns these groups have.

To a Conservative, words like “liberal” “progressive” “compromise” are dirty words. “Socialist” is treasonist. To a Liberal, “conservative Christian” “neo-con” “right wing” “Tea Party” have equally negative connotations. As long as we continue to define each other by these terms we will make little progress toward resolving differences between us. It will take brave souls to begin the process of dialogue. Such people will not be electable to public office. But if enough of us become those kind of “peace makers” we can slowly begin to put the engine back on the track again.

Under our system of government the owner of Chick-Fil-A has every right to own and express his opinion. He appears to base it on a long tradition supported by most of the religions of the world. And those advocating homosexual marriage have every right, under our system, to advocate for what they believe to be right and fair. It is possible for both sides to hold their opinions while still respecting those who disagree with them.  We do it all the time in a myriad of situations.

For the first 250 years of our nation’s history homosexual couples have had to abide by the laws and moral understandings that forbid them to establish open and legal marriages. If those laws change then those who see homosexual marriage as morally offensive will have to live with that situation in just the same way that they have learned to live in a society in which other of their moral persuasions have been rejected.