Monday, September 24, 2012

Your Lips Are Moving, But You Don’t Say A Word To Me

Beginning last Saturday, early voting is available to half the U.S. citizens. I think early voting is a good idea. Whether voting a month and a half before the election is necessary, in most cases, I’m not as certain. But in our part of the country early voting only occurs two weeks before the election. That is a bit scrimpy I’d say. There must be a “sweet spot” between a month and a half and two weeks.

But the real issue is whether early voting is a good thing or not. The reasons for early voting originally were: 1) to allow people living some distance from their voting jurisdiction (military personnel and people away on business or extended vacations) to get their vote to the jurisdiction in time to be counted on election day, and 2) to allow those who knew they would be out of the jurisdiction on voting day to cast a ballot before leaving. Those two simple and understandable reasons have been augmented to include those who have a disability and, in some jurisdictions, anyone who wants to vote early for any reason.

As a retired old geezer, I tend to do anything I can “early” in case I don’t feel like doing it at the prescribed time. Seems like a good reason to me. The two weeks allowed for early voting in this jurisdiction has proven adequate for my purposes but if it were expanded to 45 days in advance of the election I’d probably be heading out to vote on this bright sunny early Autumn morning.

Of course the political parties have a stake in all of this. (What is it that the political parties DON’T have a stake in?) A party whose candidate seems to be quite popular in the weeks ahead of the election usually likes early voting. However, in a year in which a particular party’s candidate is struggling to gain the support of the electorate, they are less thrilled with it. This year, with President Obama running slightly ahead in the national polls, and considerably ahead in some of the “swing state” polls, Democrats are quite eager to have the voters cast an early ballot. It is insurance against their changing their minds later in the campaign, as they watch the debates, or as they are inundated with millions of dollars worth of negative TV and Internet advertising. Republicans would like to hold off the voting in hopes that Mr. Romney’s standing in the polls will increase closer to the election.

Of course the mere fact that voting is allowed early, and that nearly half of the country can now vote, is no guarantee that half the country will vote early. In 2008 as many as 30% of the voters in some states voted early. That leaves millions of voters to cast their ballots on Election Day. But those who are committed to one candidate or the other, and those who have made up their minds early will be more likely to vote. It might be useful to look at the results that would have occurred if only early votes were used to determine the winner of an election. How much would it change the outcome, if at all?

One potential advantage of early voting that appeals to me is that it negates the effect of the negative advertising late in the campaign, at least for those who have already voted. Those folk must still endure the irritation of seeing the ads, but have no need to attend to their message. It might be that those producing such ads would conclude that they are wasting their money chasing an audience that has already turned them off.

Perhaps that is too much to hope for. The purveyors of slander might just shift their ads to an earlier time in the campaign. But that would require them to spend even more if the window of opportunity was kept open longer by early voting. And again, it might be that they would conclude that it is too expensive to pursue that route to victory. Anything that discourages the scandal of political advertising is a good thing.

It may well be that early voting changes the results of an election, but the opportunity to achieve an advantage through early voting is open equally to both parties. They just need to make their case early rather than spin their wheels on petty issues, waiting, hoping they will not be required to stand for anything, and  doing so only when forced to in the last days of a campaign.

I say, bring on the early voting. It may be snowing on November 6th in Wisconsin. There will be many sunny days between now and then when geezers like me, and other people with busy, complicated lives, can find a few moments to slip into the City Clerk’s office and cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice.

And having done so, they can then say to the angry, sinister, lying ads that interrupt their TV viewing pleasure, “Your lips are moving, but you don’t say a word to me.”



Sunday, September 23, 2012

Who Donnit?

  by Jim Rapp

The only label more honored,
in the land of the free,
than, “Made in America,”
is the one nailed to the door
for any and all to see,
Bearing the ignorant,
        hand-lettered boast –
I Made it!” Signed by a
Self-made man.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Novel Idea – Pick a Party and Put It in Power

I’m just full of good ideas . . . or something. But I have a new one to present today. After reading Gail Collin’s light-hearted, but serious, description of the recent session of Congress in the New York Times, I’m convinced we must do something to remedy the inaction in Washington, D.C.

Of course I’m not unaware that inaction, when it stops incompetents from acting, may be a good thing. But we assume that those we place in the Congress of the United States are not incompetent. We know that many of them are clueless when they first arrive there, having no idea about their responsibilities and certainly no expertise in dealing with the complex global problems they are asked to address. (Example: In our area we have a man running for Congress basing his claim to competence on the fact that he has competed in lumberjack competitions and can still shinny up a telephone pole with the aid of a belt and spiked shoes. His opponent counters by showing that he is an affable man who knows how to gracefully fall off a log.) But still, we assume that over time they will learn to wear a suit and tie, and appear to become competent.

Our founders assumed, I think, that members of the privileged class (like themselves) would be put forth for election and that the common people, knowing that they themselves were not up to the task of governance, would select from the two or three noble men who were nominated as public servants.

But times have changed. The class of noble men has shrunk. An attempt has been made to fill out their thinning ranks with recruits from among the wealthy, famous athletes, actors, media stars, etc. In short, notoriety has been confused for nobility. But even more to my point – which I will arrive at soon – everyman (including everywoman) now feels qualified to sit in the highest halls of government and pass on matters of life and death for the nation and the world. If you have a valid birth certificate and it shows you have reached the legal age for the office you seek – you are qualified to serve.

And who can deny an out of work college drop-out (or was he dismissed for cheating?) the opportunity to achieve great things in politics. Our Constitution says he is qualified and that is authority second only to Scripture. So we have followed the trajectory that our Founders unwittingly projected for us, government of the people, by the people, and (for?) the people. We have a Congress filled with sheep who are committed to narrow agendas by the promises they made to get elected, and corralled and commanded by powerful leaders who control the sources of money they will need to get re-elected. The rules of order in both the House and the Senate have been so rigged that the minority can block any action through manipulation rather than debate and conversation. Compromise has become a traitorous action punishable by a political death sentence. Consequently, nothing can get done in Congress unless one party or the other has full control of the legislative process.

And that brings me to my point. We must surrender. Give up the foolish idea that petty, unprepared, unqualified, incompetent, unreasonable men and women could ever work together for the general welfare of the nation. It will never happen. The only way to get anything done in Washington is to give complete power to one side or the other, give them four years (or twenty-four) to run (or ruin) the country. It would be best if there were no opposition members to harass them. Let them have free reign until their leadership becomes so oppressive and destructive that the people rise up, burn buildings, tear down statues, attack symbols of authority, and demand a new set of elections. In fact it might be best that elections not be scheduled on a predicable recurring basis. Let the party who wins the most recent election do its will until the people revolt.

I know this isn’t a novel idea. It is the usual form of government in two-thirds of the world. It has been the norm for human government for all but the last two or three hundred years. So why should we turn our noses up at it?

The only alternative would be to elect reasonable men and women of genuine character who seek office for the purpose of serving, rather that to wield power, and who know that truth seldom lies wholly on one side or the other, and therefore compromise is the greatest tool in the hand of the wise leader. Compromise! Someone said it is “the art politics.”

I would love to present a list of reasonable men and women of genuine character that deserve our votes. I believe there are a few, but even they are sullied by the sad electoral process we have allowed to develop. My only suggestion is to listen for the word “compromise” or at least listen for a tone of civility; a willingness to admit that there is more than one way to understand an issue. Listen, not for promises of things the candidate will get done, but for proposals of ways to get things done. Insist on hearing proposals of ways to get things done. Listen and look for evidence of a narrow agenda that serves only the interests of a few at the expense of the many.

We really only have those two choices: 1) reject those who seek a narrow, divisive agenda, electing men and women of intelligence, morality, and good will or 2) take a gamble – vote a party line and let the chips fall where they may, realizing that they usually pile up in front of the sharks.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Prayer For The Dying

(On the occasion of two friends’ passing)

We hardly know;
we’d have to go
to places far from us;
to other lands
to understand –
or hidden hovels,
near at hand,
dark with poverty,
within our land –
to see the truly dying.

thank God –
a grace unknown
in meaner streets –
has come to bless
our dying;
aid our grieving;
provide an art
of comforting
as ancient as
the enemy itself.

But God alone
must comfort bear
to those who die
without the aid
of hospice.
In war-torn streets,
disease infested huts,
filthy prison cells;
on mothers’ breasts,
on rotting mats,
they die without
the comfort
of that other
ancient art.

Draw near,
o God,
and hospice
bear to them;
hear their dying prayers;
receive again
their breath to thee.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Time To Speak and a Time To Refrain From Speaking

We put a tremendous burden on our politicians when we require them to speak constantly during the year or so before an election. That is particularly true of Presidential candidates. In the election four years ago, then candidate Barack Obama embarrassed himself and potentially offended some voters by declaring that voters in Pennsylvania “cling to their guns and to religion.” This year Mr. Romney put his foot in his mouth by declaring to a group of wealthy supporters that 47% of the citizens believe the government owes them a living and that the same 47% pay no income taxes.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney were in a meeting not open to the public or the press but, as often happens, a microphone was open (purposely or not) and their comments became public.

Chuck Todd, of NBCNews explained that Mr. Romney may have been expressing his true opinions or he may have been “throwing ‘red meat’” to a group of Conservative supporters because that is what they like to hear. Presumably he would cut Mr. Obama the same amount of slack for his indelicate remarks.

But, if Mr. Todd is correct, does that really provide a legitimate excuse for such insensitivity on the part of men seeking to become President of the United States? I think not. If they were speaking what they really believe it shows a disdain for a large part of the population. Not a very good attitude for one who will claim that he wishes to be the President of “all the people.” On the other hand, if he is merely placating the partisan interests of particular supporters, and doesn’t really say what he believes, he is a hypocrite and unworthy of any office in the United States.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t convinced that politicians (and those producing ads for them) are liars, at least to the extent that they stretch the truth so thin that any honest person can easily see the lies that their “truth” is meant to cover.

The Presidential debates are coming soon. The candidates will be asked important questions and then will be allowed to answer them by bobbing and weaving and mouthing the same half-truths they have used all through the campaigns. Wouldn’t it be useful if the moderators (and those others who ask questions) would simply call the candidates to task and require them to defend the lying ads that their campaigns have been running? The “facts” in most of the campaign ads have been judged by fact-checking organizations to be lies at the worst, distortions of truth at their best. Wouldn’t it be useful to require the men who, in each of their campaign ads, declare, “. . . I approve this message” to either prove its validity or agree to take it off the air? Wouldn’t it be useful to present them with untruthful ads run by their supporting PACs and ask them to renounce the ads, the organizations who produce them, and the wealthy donors whose contributions make them possible?

That is a “pipe dream” I know. Politicians know that they will not be held accountable for their prevarications; indeed, their partisans will stand and cheer when they deliver their lying lines. They will pass on the untruths in e-mails, and conversation. They will vote for the liar whose lies tickle their ears most pleasantly.

Wisdom says that “there is a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking.” The time to refrain from speaking has come when you have nothing truthful to say, or when you are afraid to speak the truth because it may disadvantage a cause you would like to see succeed – by any means possible.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Values Summit - Worship at its Worst

Every so often – they say, annually, but it seems like every couple of months – a group of several thousand conservative activists meet for what they call a “Values Summit.” As millions of American Christians are making their way to places of worship, a couple of thousand men and women are gathering in Washington, D.C. for the final day of their “worship gathering.” They are not even a tithe of those, scattered over our country who share their views, but the messages going out from their meetings speak for millions of others like them. Many, but certainly not all, who attend are conservative Christian evangelicals and fundamentalist. But the Summit also attracts conservative Roman Catholics and even non-believers. It is sponsored by the Family Research Council and a number of other high-profile conservative groups.

The “values” they stand for are, if one listens to the speakers: American exceptionalism, marriage defined as a union of one man and one woman, a constitutional ban on abortion, gun rights, small government, low taxes, privatization of most current social safety-net programs, increased military spending, limitations on immigrant rights, the defeat of Barack Obama, return of government to conservative principals, and more.

There is much to be said in favor of some of the values promoted by the Summit. Many of the values are actually shared by nearly every American, conservative or liberal, though the promoters of the summit would like to claim exclusive ownership of all righteousness; portraying those not in their group as decadent, anti-American and, in the case of the current President, dangerous – not American at all.

This week, Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum spoke at their Summit. Other big name conservatives will likely follow in the next day or so, perhaps even Governor Mitt Romney. That is to be expected, of course. Liberal organizations invite liberal speakers; conservative organizations invite conservative speakers and, guess what? No one’s mind is ever changed. We divide ourselves in to Fox News people and MSNBC people and reinforce our prejudices by listening only to that which confirms our biases.

That state of affairs is deplorable, but we have come to accept it for what it is. It is the way we do politics in the “one nation, under God.” We do not expect “righteousness” from our media or our politicians or, sadly, even our Spiritual leaders. We do not “punish” those who lie to us, by withholding our support for them. Rather we excuse their lies as “less offensive” than the lies of those we oppose; as merely “fighting fire with fire.”

In November, if we choose to vote, we will have to make a choice between imperfect alternatives. But we do not have to support lies with our funds, with our viewership, with our applause, or with our endorsement – certainly not with our hearts and our souls. We do not have to wear the apparel of liars, put their bumper stickers on our cars, place their placards in our yards. We do not have to become card-carrying members of organizations (political parties, values organizations, even church and para-church organizations) that willfully disseminate untruth.

And certainly, when a group promotes itself as a “Values Summit,” we should expect it to either promote worthy values, or declare itself to value those things that most human beings believe to be valueless. (Even a “summit” of drug lords promotes values.)

When the crowd at a Values Summit stands and cheers at lies told a hundred times, and discredited a hundred times, by reputable fact-checking organizations, they are declaring to the world that they do NOT value truth and righteousness. When they approve, with their applause, the mis-quoting, and misrepresentation of their opponent’s words, they show that, for them, the end justifies the means. When they give assent to distorted facts and re-written history, they show no respect for the nation they call “exceptional.” When they value lies more than truth they have no right to ask God to “Bless America.” Whatever it takes to win, is their motto. They value an election, won with deception, purchased with millions, and achieved by collusion, more than their souls, which they have sold to gain it.

Of course, all that is said here, pointing to the inconsistency of conservatives, needs to be said to liberals as well. They, too, tolerate slipshod commercials and deceptive messages. But conservatives, in our time, are staking out their particular claim to righteousness in politics; their “Values” are, in their view, unimpeachable; approved by God. Well some of them may be. But if they are promoted by means not approved by God, “Values Voters” end up looking hypocritical and are a discredit to the God they claim to serve. They stand as proof that our nation is NOT exceptional; it is as corrupt as any other that has existed on earth.

It  could be argued – I think it is very close to being true – that Christian Conservatives in politics look no different, sound no different, and use methods no different than those they condemn in their opponents as demonic – a threat to the existence of the United States of America.

Instead of cheering the lies of politicians, those at the Values Summit Worship Service should be kneeling before the Christ they claim to revere – the one who said, “I am come to bear witness to the truth” – and pledging to make his standard of righteousness their own.

Friday, September 14, 2012

And God said, “Let Them Speak Freely”

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time is likely to be grateful that I do not possess omnipotent powers. In fact I am glad that I don’t. I know, too well, how easily I could abuse such power. But there are those in the world that wish they, or someone with their understanding, were given the power to “let” or to “restrain.”

It is not easy to know the full motivation of the Muslim rioters who, as this is being written, are terrorizing the Embassies of the United States and other western nations in the Middle East. But it seems that, to some degree at least, they are angry at the United States because one of her citizens produced a provocative and slanderous video that denigrates the prophet Mohammad and offends Muslims. As a Christian, who would be incensed if some unbeliever made a similar film that called into question the character of Jesus, I understand their anger and their desire to have the film destroyed and its maker punished for making it. We have seen, in fact, strict Christian believers react, in ways not much more restrained than that of the current Muslim protesters, to books and movies that they feel are blasphemous. Sadly, we have seen photos of American servicemen urinating on a “holy book” for the purpose of disrespecting the religion of an “enemy.”

If the film in question had been produced by a Christian (or a Muslim) living in one of the Middle Eastern countries now exploding over this issue, he or she would not live one day beyond the time it took to identify and locate them. Outside of the western world, it is rare that a person can speak inflammatory words like those in the film, Innocence of Muslems, without landing in prison or running for their life. So it is understandable that the current rioters are baffled that the United States cannot bring to justice the person whose ideas are beyond offensive to them. In their world, speech (and much else) is controlled by the state, which often is synonymous with the religious establishment. A violation of their “law” is swift and often brutal.

There is much “free speech” that I would gladly see banned. The film that has Muslims around the Middle East upset is one example. But so are the lying ads on our televisions. And I’m not just talking about the horribly offensive political ads, but commercial advertising that is either deceptive or manipulative. I would have turned the microphone off after Clint Eastwood’s first vulgar joke. (I would probably censor most of his films.) I would decree that no child could be left in a home where obscenities and vulgarity are commonplace. I would reverse the Supreme Court ruling that said that the rich man’s wealth allows him to multiply his voice ten million times over that of the single mother living in poverty. I would hold people responsible for lying about their heroic exploits that never occurred. I would jail those who purposely excerpt phrases from the speech of another and twist it to mean something other than it originally did. I would rid the world of deceitful, hateful, obscene, and harmful speech.

But I am not God. I lack the power to enforce my standard for legitimate speech. And strangely, God Himself seems to have relinquished that power too by giving mankind a free will. Most of the world’s religions believe that a penalty will be exacted on those who willfully and consistently abuse the freedom God has given them. But the harms that accrue when humans take it upon themselves to define and restrict bad speech and bad behavior often outweigh the good such efforts seek to accomplish.

The United States, and a few other countries, has decided that speech that is merely offense to others should not be restricted. In the current crisis we see the awful consequences of intemperate “speech” and we wish it could be stopped. But our Founders knew that if one form of speech can be curtailed so can all others. Only by allowing all to speak freely, do we each retain our right to speak.

I have no particular Biblical reference for my contention that God favors free speech, but the evidence is pretty much in my favor. He didn’t “say it,” exactly, but he seldom strikes perpetrators of intolerance and smut with lightning. Not yet, at least. What he does do, is leave them to “reap the whirlwind”. The man who made the offensive film must now fear for his life. The lying politician eventually is found out. The profane parent lives to see their child inflict upon his offspring the same abuse that was inflicted upon him.

Thank God I’m not God! It is uncomfortable, at times, not being God. But I would do too much damage if I were given His powers. He has, though, given me some powers; given them to you, too. We have the power to speak against intolerance, hatred, deception, vulgarity. One voice against all those who spew out verbal garbage seems futile. But if a million of us lift our voice, it will be heard. And we have as much right to condemn violent speech as do those who speak it.

It takes courage and integrity to speak against the loud voices of ignorance, intolerance, greed, vulgarity, and deception. Courage because you often stand alone. Integrity, because speaking up requires us to “give up” cherished prejudices that tempt us to remain silent and take our share of the rewards of ignorance, intolerance, greed, vulgarity, and deception.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Shoot, Then Aim

There is such a thing as “buck fever.” It is characterized by rapid heart-beat, shaking hands, and irrational actions. It seldom results in the bagging of a buck.

The phenomenon describes the reaction, usually of a first time game hunter, upon sighting the target animal; a deer in most cases. The novice hunter, calm just moments before, suddenly is seized with panic at the possibility of losing the opportunity to bag “the biggest buck the hunter has ever seen.” The result, most often is a rapid emptying of the hunter’s clip and the bagging of nothing. In a few cases the hunter gets an illegal doe or a “Bambi,” or perhaps some farmer’s heifer or horse. In the most tragic cases he/she shoots a hunting companion. Simply put, the hunter shoots without truly aiming.

This week the nation was witness to a case of “buck fever” on the Presidential election circuit. Governor Mitt Romney thought he saw an opportunity to bag an advantage over President Barak Obama and opened fire prematurely. There had been a “gentleman’s agreement” between Romney and Obama that the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center would not be sullied with political attacks.

Things went well until about 6 p.m. when word began to circulate about attacks on the U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya. Early in the day, in Cairo, protesters were becoming very agitated over an incendiary film produced in the U.S. that denigrated the prophet Mohammad. The U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a statement declaring that the U.S. deplores actions and words intended to denigrate the religion of others. It was an attempt to cool the atmosphere before any attack was made on the embassy. The statement failed to quell the riots and later in the day both the Egyptian and Libyan embassies were attacked with the result that four Americans in Libya – including the U.S. Ambassador –  were killed.

About 6:09 p.m. Governor Romney, thinking he saw a huge opportunity to take a political shot at the president, released to the press a condemnation of the statement by the Cairo embassy, claiming that it was an apology, a desertion of an American’s right of free speech, and that the President was responsible for the statement. The press was instructed to not release the Romney’s criticism until mid-night (honoring – but only barely so – the “gentleman’s agreement” against political attacks on September 11). However, about 10:30 p.m. the governor apparently was overcome with “buck fever” and, thinking an opportunity was slipping away, opened fire. The press release was authorized to be publicized. Romney had emptied his “clip” in a frantic attempt to gain a political advantage.

Subsequent reports have shown that the Governor not only broke his pledge to not make political statements on 9/11; he also shot before aiming. The facts that have come out show that his accusation that the embassy’s statement was an apology, simply were not true. Further, his defense of the freedom of speech for an American is beginning to look like a defense of a man who cried “fire” in a crowded theater. Yes, freedom of speech is a cherished part of our American tradition, but few will dare to defend irresponsible – even deadly – use of that freedom. The Governor is on record as having suggested that our government should not have condemned the inflammatory film that cost the life of four Americans serving their country in a difficult and dangerous place.

If proof were still needed to show that Governor Romney is ill-fitted for the task of Commander in Chief of the U.S. forces, and head of U.S. diplomacy, we got that proof on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. The last thing our nation needs in these trouble times is a leader afflicted with “buck fever”; a man who shoots before knowing what he is shooting at.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What Is Truth?

Two thousand years ago a skeptic, faced with a man who said to him, “I am come to bear witness to the truth,” asked, as he turned on his heel to order the man’s crucifixion, “What is truth?”

In the last two weeks, during the political conventions of our two major political parties, we’ve been promised, by candidates and their surrogates, that they had come to bear witness to the truth. But the poor listener must be feeling the same sense of frustration as Pilate felt when told by yet another “messiah”, “I am come to bear witness to the truth.” (Sadly, Pilate did not know that on that one occasion he was faced with a true truth-teller.) It is a good thing, for the sake of the speakers at the conventions, that we who are saying, “What is truth?” don’t have the power of life and death over them. But we would sometimes like to turn on our heels, when in the voting booth, and say, “None of the above.”

Voters in this election have a plethora of sources for getting opinions about the truth of various statements made in the conventions and elsewhere. The fact checkers don’t always agree on the facts or the interpretation of the facts. They vary in their tolerance for truth-stretching, and their categories of truth telling are unique to their particular system of rating. But, they are, in my opinion, all attempting to help the honest observer clarify the claims being made by politicians, and by surveying a number of these sources one can come to their own decision based on a clearer understanding of the underlying facts. Here are a few of fact-checking organizations I’d recommend to anyone interested in basing their opinions on more than emotion or blind loyalty to a party line:
Washington Post Factchecker

Most news outlets also run articles that examine the truthfulness of the politician’s claims. It is inexcusable for anyone who has access to a computer, or even a smart phone, to pass on “truth” they have not attempted to verify in some way other than taking the word of the politician.

Many – too many – of the truth claims that come to us arrive, via Internet or E-mail feeds. The vast majority of those are distortions or outright lies. But it is possible in many cases to check on their veracity too. is perhaps the best source of information about myths and outlandish claims circulating on the Internet and in E-mails.

One way of determining the honesty of a fact-checking organization is to observe the manner in which they document the sources of their information. Do they reference sources you can go to in search of verification or additional information? Do they provide interactive links such as those above which allow the reader to easily go to the source of their information? Do they always seem to come down on the same side of the political divide? (If you find yourself going to a particular site because you know that you’ll find a position supported that favors your political predilections, it is probably also an indication that the site is biased in that direction.)

It is a fact that our fallen human nature (I realize that is a theological statement but it reflects my understanding of the truth about mankind) causes all of us to avoid what Al Gore termed, “Inconvenient Truth.” It is our natural bent to seek out those who reinforce beliefs that the world is truly what we want it to be. But those who build their world on imagined truth, or emotionally generated truth, or wished-for truth, or self-serving truth, do nothing to improve their situation or our world in general.

The world is transformed by men and women who love truth more than anything else. They are the ones who face the “inconvenient truths” that hold back progress in law, or governance, or politics, or industry, or education, or theology, or medicine, or ecology, or science, or any of a thousand other areas of human endeavor. They find it more onerous to live with a lie than with an uncomfortable truth and so, they embrace the truth.

We will never know if the “truth” we embrace is truly true. Ultimately we live by faith – there is no other alternative. I’ve been fascinated for years by a statement made by the Apostle Paul, the great original theologian of the Christian faith. Some might take his words to be a dogmatic statement of truth, but in fact they constitute, whether he thought of it in that way or not, a great statement of faith. He said, “I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.” (Emphasis is mine.)

In our search for truth, using all the tools at our disposal, the most we can ultimately say is, “I know whom I have believed and I have good reason to believe that those sources are reliable and will, in most cases, not let me down.”

So, what is truth? First and foremost it is beyond our earthly powers to determine, precisely, and for all human time. But a reasonable approximation of the truth (2+2=4 for example) can usually be obtained by honest observation of reliable data. Any who deny themselves the chance to know that much of the truth deserves to live in the fantasy world of delusion and disappointment to which such a choice ultimately leads them.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Now That Labor Day Is Over Lets Get Back To Work

On September 2, 2001 PBS News aired a brief but interesting history of the origins of the Labor Day holiday. Now that everyone has put away the camping gear and stashed the cooler on a shelf in the garage, where it will sit until Memorial Day next spring, it is a good time to think about those who built this nation.
That is one of the contentious issue of our day. President Obama recently attempted to argue that any successful endeavor is the result of the labors of many people and many institutions, including the government. His opponents in the election have seized upon one phrase in his remarks and attempted to paint him as anti-entrepreneurial. But, despite their dishonest interpretation of his remarks, they do, at least, give us a reason to ask the question, “Who built this?”
In the late 1800s a movement had been afoot for several years to have a day set aside to honor working people, but it had not gained much ground because working people, though numerous in the millions, were essentially without political power and easily ignored. Any attempt by workers to organize and bargain collectively was crushed with the aid of government troops and at the insistence of the Industrial Barons of the day. However, the situation regarding the establishment of a “Labor Day” changed dramatically in late 1894 and, almost miraculously, Labor Day was born.
But a little history is needed so I’ll provide a summary of the PBS broadcast that I referenced before. You can read the entire piece in a few minutes by following this link.
George Pullman was an industrialist whose company, in the late 1800s, built railroad sleeping cars that bore his name. A “Pullman” came to be the name for any railroad car that provided sleeping births just as a “Kleenex” has come to be, for many people, the name of any facial tissue.
Pullman was apparently a humane man by his lights, and probably by the lights of many in his generation. Concerned about the corruption of morals engendered in a big city environment, he built his own company town, named for him, of course, just south of Chicago. In addition to the facilities needed to produce his sleeper cars, the town provided housing for his workers and their families, a company bank, a company store, etc. Pullman set the worker’s wages – high enough to keep them working, but not enough to tempt them into sinful opulence; that was reserved for Pullman and his fellow industrial barons.  He set the rent for housing, set the prices in the company store, paid their wages from the company bank, minus the cost of rent. It was a utopian existence. No doubt many of the workers agreed . . . as long as it worked.
However, in 1893 the nation fell into one of its recurring depressions and sales of railroad sleeper cars fell off. Pullman had to lay off a large portion of his workers and those who remained had their wages cut . . . but not their rent. As the workers situation became more and more desperate they began to organize a union under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, demanding higher pay and lower rents. The result was inevitable. President Cleveland, yielding to pressure from his wealthy supporters, declared the strike a federal crime and sent in 12,000 federal troops to put it down. It was the way things were done then and, as we discovered in Wisconsin last year, the way things are still done when too much power is placed in the hands of one side or the other. A couple of strikers died and Debs went to prison. So much for that labor union. Anyone else want to try? The workers went back to their jobs under Pullman’s rules and at his wages.
However, 1894 was an election year and Cleveland was locked in a difficult contest for re-election. Though he was not willing to support the Pullman workers in their hour of need he hoped to persuade them to help him in his. He threw his support behind the establishment of a national Labor Day, hoping to placate the disgruntled workers whose hopes his “army” had crushed a few months earlier. A bill establishing a national Labor Day sailed quickly through Congress with bi-partisan support and was signed into law shortly before Election Day. It did not gain the labor vote for Cleveland – he lost the election anyway – but Labor Day had become a reality.
This Pyrrhic victory for labor has given politicians, for a hundred succeeding years, the opportunity to praise the efforts of the working people of our nation; to tell them, “This Land Is Your Land. You built it with your labor.”
So, who did build the Pullman empire? George Pullman certainly had the vision that propelled it into existence. His money, and the money of his stockholders, furnished the factory and tools needed to produce the Pullman Sleepers. But what about the hundreds of workers whose 10 hour days caused the cars to roll off the assembly line. Or does their labor not count because they were paid for it? But so was Pullman and the stockholders. And what about the citizens of the U.S. whose valuable public lands were give to the railroads at little or no cost? Or what about the tax payers who footed the bill for 12,000 federal soldiers to crush the workers strike and allow Pullman to continue paying wages less than their cost of living? And what about those workers who struggled, in the years after the strike, to live on such wages?
Pullman deserves to be remembered for the contribution his idea made to comfortable rail travel. He is entitled to a fair return on his investment and a fair wage for the leadership he gave to his company. But he did not build the Pullman Company alone. Every worker in his factory, and every holder of stock in his company, and every citizen of the United States had a hand in the success of his enterprise.
But in the end, Pullman got the money, and the bragging rights. Eugene V. Debs got prison time. A couple of strikers got “early retirement.” The workers of America got Labor Day. This Labor Day 2012, at our family gathering, three members had to work. They were busy “building” businesses that others will take credit for building.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Regarding Tampa and Charlotte, Trim you Expectations

Wednesday, November 5th, 1952 was a bleak day in the Rapp household in Clinton, Illinois. The ballots had been counted and the Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, was the overwhelming victor in the Presidential election, bringing to an end two decades of Democratic dominance under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Eventually Dad would bring himself to vote for Richard Nixon and later for Ronald Reagan, but in 1952, memories of the Great Depression and World War II were too fresh to allow him to vote for anyone associated with the party of Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt was bigger than life in our house, and Truman’s gritty insistence that his way was the right way evoked admiration among Democrats, unmatched until the recent love affair between conservative Americans and their tough-talking, Reaganesque, Tea Party politicians.

Despite the sense of doom – the fear of a return to the hard times of the late 1920s and 1930s – the Rapp kids all went off to school that day to face the taunts of our mostly Republican classmates who knew well our political loyalties and were glad to make us pay for them.

But little changed, then, or in the days and years to come. The New Deal reforms enacted under Roosevelt and extended under Truman were actually enlarged and extended under Eisenhower. They would continue to be expanded under most succeeding Presidents, Democratic or Republican, despite the perennial Republican campaign rhetoric promising to abolish them and return to a laissez faire economy and a bare-bones national Government. The American people, it seemed, liked a touch of socialist sweetener in their capitalist tea, and even the Republicans liked to be re-elected. Often Republican administrations out spent the Democrats, running up larger deficits and expanding the size and reach of the Federal bureaucracy.

Soon both parties were declaring themself against big government and large deficits when campaigning as the “out” party, but were pro-government and pro-spending when they were incumbents. A new form of bi-partisan agreement had arisen; “what’s good when I’m in, is bad when you’re in, and what’s reprehensible when you are in will, nonetheless, be allowable when I’m back in.”

The conclusion I’ve arrived at, observing these things over the last sixty years, is that the nation is either not as bad off as the “outs” would have us believe or, even if it is, the “outs” will not significantly change its trajectory if and when they achieve power.

So trim your expectations folks. No saviors will be found in Tampa or Charlotte this fall.

For all that they claim they can and will do – much of it “on the very first day in office” – we must remember that these who speak to us with golden tongues are mere men. More to the point, they are mere men hedged in by a thousand restraints on their power, not the least being their own short-sightedness and ignorance of the forces that work against any man or woman accomplishing what they set out to do.

They are billiard balls aiming to rearrange the configuration of their world; buffeting, and being buffeted by, those they hope to displace; hoping to advance their career at the expense of another, bumped out of the way by their success; influenced by the forces that brought them into being AND by the environment in which they are confined; subject to all the laws of political, social, and economic gravity. Don’t expect too much of them. Especially, don’t expect them to be able to accomplish a tithe of what they claim they have the power to do.

So what’s an ordinary citizen to do with all the rhetoric and banners and press releases and celebrity endorsements? One choice is to swallow, wholesale, the promises and claims of one side or the other. Another is to reject it all and bury oneself in “reality” TV and Extreme Sports. A third, and better way is to listen to both sides, fact check anything that ordinary intelligence tells you is “over the top,” keep track of who is lying most and most egregiously, pick the candidate whose lies are least onerous and whom you believe is most likely to accomplish things you count as valuable, and then cut your expectations by about eighty percent. Then go and vote in November.

If your side wins, just remember that your champion is only a man of clay. If your side loses, remember that the man you feared, but now must endure until the next election, is also only a man of clay. Too much optimism, or too much despair ultimately leads to the same place because there is, realistically, only one place to land; in the real world. And the real world is, to a major degree, beyond the manipulation of mere men – blind and largely impotent men – men, made of clay.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Am I The Only Prude Left Standing?

I’ve been looking all over the Internet to find one person who was offended at Clint Eastwood’s pornographic remarks at the Republican Convention on Thursday night. I’ve found a couple of sites that quoted those two sections of Eastwood’s speech in which he suggested that the President was urging him to either tell Mitt Romney to commit an (impossible) act of indecency with himself or suggesting the Eastwood himself should do so. But I’ve found no one; not even on the Christianity Today site, who called his remarks obscene and offensive and unworthy of a party that portrays itself as a champion of family values.

First let me say that while I found Eastwood’s performance bizarre, crude, and counter-productive to what the Republicans hoped to accomplish that night, it would only have bemused me, if not for his use of perhaps the most vulgar insult available, as a laugh line. If he had suggested that the President should perform such an act upon himself, it would have been shocking and degrading, but to put those words in the President’s mouth; to suggest that the President is the kind of person who would use such gutter-talk is beyond belief. Well, no longer is it beyond belief, but no one would have believed they would hear it at the Family Values Convention . . . in prime time.

It appears that Mr. Eastwood somehow convinced someone in the Republican hierarchy to let him speak at the convention. One story, reported, is that Mr. Romney invited him to come after Eastwood delivered an endorsement of Romney at another event. Somehow Eastwood got the honor of “opening” for the Candidate in an unscripted, five to eight minute speech, which he stretched to nearly twelve minutes. So, presumably all responsibility for Eastwood’s words lie solidly on his conscience, where they apparently hardly register at all. No blame to the Republicans or Mr. Romney for the excrement left by Eastwood on the convention platform.

It is ironic that they moved the podium forward eight feet after Eastwood’s performance. That was pre-planned, of course, but also fortunate. Otherwise Romney would have had to wear barn boots.

I don’t normally think of myself as particularly prudish. I’ve worked in the real world and heard my share of obscenities and learned to “turn them off” when they seem to be merely “boys being boys.” But in even the most foul situation I’ve been in, the appearance of a “lady” – especially if she happened to be the boss’ wife – resulted in the termination of the expletives and obscenities until she left. Obviously I have not encountered the world of Clint Eastwood. Fool that I am, I assumed the language used in his films was “scripted” and that in his private, “unscripted” speech, he would show as much discretion as an ordinary longshoreman. (Apologies to all longshoremen.)

Apparently not. In a hall filled with the nation’s most righteous, most patriotic, most Christian citizens; in a hall in which a possible future First Lady – the boss’ wife – and her children and grandchildren sat together, Eastwood displayed his ignorance and insensitivity. It was enough to turn one’s stomach.

But did it? Not if the cameras can be believed. Those deacons, and Sunday School teachers, and leaders of family values organizations were on their feet, stomping, waving, shouting, and laughing. Surely they didn’t hear what was being said. No doubt some didn’t. But all of them could read it an hour after the convention was over and, though a few expressed regret at Eastwood’s speech, it was almost universally because it detracted from Mr. Romney’s big moment, not because anything Eastwood said violated their sense of decency. No hint that their sense of values prohibited the maligning of a decent man who happens to be the President of the United States.

I think the last words officially spoken at the convention were those of Mr. Romney. They were, “May God bless you! May god bless the American people, and may God bless the United States of America!”

Oh yes, God. Please do. But first . . . could you wash our mouths with soap?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hazards of Political Ecumenism

Paul Ryan, in his acceptance speech as the vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party chose to play the “religion card.” Speaking of his and Mr. Romney’s faith, he said: 

Mitt and I also go to different churches, but in any church, the best kind of preaching is done by example, and I've been watching that example.  

He went on to declare:  

Our faiths come together in the same moral creed. We believe that in every life, there is goodness, for every person there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the lord of life. 

These statements reveal either a very shallow understanding of the two men’s faith communities or an attempt to meld, for political purposes, two faith communities that hold radically different creedal understandings. I suspect the statement is a blend of both; ignorance on the part of Ryan about his Catholic and Romney’s Mormon heritage, and a desire to placate a segment of the Republican Party that would like to be assured that they are not deserting their fundamentalist “creeds” by supporting those whom their forefathers labeled “Anti-Christ” in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, and “cultic” in the case of the Mormon Church.

I want to say very clearly that I do not believe either man’s religious affiliation disqualifies him to be President of the United States. Article VI of the U. S. Constitution declares, “. . . no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” So, until we see fit to amend our Constitution in a way that reserves the right to hold public office to people of certain faiths, it is the right of any natural born citizen, thirty-five years of age or older, who has resided in the U.S. for 14 years to run for the office of President.

Many of the people to whom I entrust my welfare – indeed my life – are people whose faith traditions are different than mine; doctors, nurses, policemen, mechanics, food servers, airline pilots . . . the list could go on and on. I feel no compulsion to assure myself that all those who hold in their hands the power to preserve my life or destroy it are Christians with the same “creedal understanding” that I have. I could wish that all people were followers of Jesus Christ, and worshipers of Yahweh God, but since that is not the case, and since it would create world-wide havoc to attempt to make it the case by any means other than persuasion, I accept the fact that there are millions of people whose faith differs from mine, but who, nonetheless, can look on me with kindness and work for my wellbeing.

Why is it, then, that so many feel they must, as Mr. Ryan attempted to do, show that, in matters of faith we are all pretty much alike? Is he also willing to say that Mr. Obama, though of a different political party, has essentially the same concern for the wellbeing of our nation? Indeed, is he willing (or are those fundamentalists who insist that all presidential candidates for their party be transformed into “born again evangelicals” willing) to declare that his and Mr. Obama’s faiths “come together in the same moral creed?”

Few of our founders would qualify for membership in a modern Christian fundamentalist church. Many of them were openly skeptical of key Christian doctrines held dear by “Bible believing Christians” of our day. Still, they served their nation admirably for the most part. They understood that religious divisions posed a great danger to the tranquility – perhaps even the success – of our nation. And so they insisted that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” They had faith that the American people, given the opportunity to assess the worth of a candidate, would see in him or her, the moral character – or lack of it – required to be a good leader. That moral character might come from a particular religious upbringing or belief system, or it might spring from an agnostic or even an atheistic background. In neither case should the source of one’s beliefs qualify or disqualify them for public office; only the beliefs themselves.

Mr. Ryan is wrong. His and Mr. Romney’s faiths do not “come together in the same moral creed.” Any theologian of either of their churches will tell you that. I would be at a loss to find  any of the creedal statements of the Christian Church that echo Mr. Ryan’s characterization of his and Mr. Romney’s common creed:  

. . . that in every life, there is goodness, for every person there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the lord of life. 

Further, as far as I can determine, the Mormon church is, like many evangelical and fundamentalist bodies, a non-creedal church. One Mormon contributor to the Millennial Star , a Mormon website expressed the Mormon position on creedal beliefs as follows: 

So, philosophy is not necessarily bad. Doing theology isn’t necessarily bad. Creating creeds and dogmas IS bad, as it nails the coffin shut on receiving any new light. (My emphasis.) 

So what is my point? Simply this. We live in a religiously diverse culture and nation. If we insist on blending our religious creeds and belief systems – declaring them to be no different in essentials from each other – for purposes as paltry as attracting votes to one candidate or another, we are “casting our pearls before swine,” selling our “pearl of great price” for a mere four (or eight) years of political power. No religion that takes itself seriously would do that. It would be an admission that they have no purpose in the world, that their “faith” is not a faith at all, but merely a convenient gathering point for people of no particular faith.

Let us elect our leaders on the basis of their integrity and ideas regardless of their religious affiliations. And let us continue to follow the dictates of our hearts, unalloyed and uncorrupted by political aspirations, honoring every man’s right to believe as he wishes until the sorting of creeds and doctrines is accomplished by the God whom we profess to serve.