Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Best Kids Book Title of the Day

I noticed the book that Squirrelly Girlie the Younger is currently reading and thought it was one of the most clever and funny children's book titles that makes a play on a well-known adult pop culture artifact: The Fast and the Furriest. I got a hearty gut laugh out of that one, and I don't even know really all that much about either the children's book or the Hollywood film production.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Social Media, Social Justice Panel at Rising Tide 6 Conference

Here's video of my Social Media, Social Justice conference panel:

Rising Tide 6 - Social Media, Social Justice from Jason Berry on Vimeo. Rising Tide is the owner of this media.

Lonesome Dove Character Profile of the Day: Augustus (Gus) McCrae

Out of all of the character in Larry McMurtry's novel Lonesome Dove, Gus McCrae is, in my estimation, the most compelling character by far. He's not only the intellectual (such as they came then and in those parts), but he's also perhaps the wisest, and certainly the most generous and selfless, character of the bunch. And in spite of his booming self-confidence and his sometimes cockiness, he's also really perhaps the warmest and truly kindest character in the novel. And that doesn't even get into his amazing skills with a horse and a gun. He's just one of those intuitively all-around good guys with unparalleled talents, but with enough genuine modesty about it, too.

I loved that there was always an air of carelessness and seeming recklessness in his actions. He was a risk-taker; but one who knew the limits of his abilities and one who also had an acute ability to measure up a situation with precision accuracy, to always make the best decision in crisis situations, and to accept fully the consequences of the deck he was dealt without a single complaint or without a loss of his infectious positive attitude and good humor.

The one and only disappointment I had with the character of Gus McCrae, and the one action of his, that just seemed totally inconsistent with his expansive love of life was his decision not to have his gangrenous leg amputated in order to save his life. For a man who never gives up the fight in tight spots, the fact of giving up the fight for life when the saving of his life was there for the taking just seems totally out of character.

McMurtry seems to imply that when Gus accepted the fact that he just couldn't have the love of his life, Clara, in the way that he hoped, he simply gave up on life. Gus would rather have died physically whole rather than live a life with an amputated leg without Clara. Maybe he just finally got tired of it all, accepted that his time had come, and was o.k. with that. Even if this were true, it still would seem out of character.

Gus's death was the watershed moment in the novel. You just knew that without Gus around, not only would nothing ever be the same again, but also that what did remain just didn't seem to matter all that much, or seem to have that meaningful lustre.

In the character of Gus McCrae, McMurtry gave the literary world of novels in the frontier Western tradition their epic hero. Although I'm not very well-versed in westerns, I can't imagine there being any character more iconic than Gus McCrae. To the western literary genre, Gus McCrae is the equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

A Nice Story about the Pastor

What has gotten lost in this whole heartrending situation at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church is the recognition of the many wonderful things that the pastor has done in shepherding his congregation. I'd put the pastor's record up against any of the complaints that have since dominated the debate. And I invite anyone from the congregation pastored by this individual, even those infuriated and offended by my previous posting and those among the pastor's critics, to see if he can find it within himself in the spirit of Christian grace to say something nice, in public, on this blog in the comments section (or really anywhere that's publicly visible), about this pastor. I'll start with just one example of the many that I could list ...

As many of you know, my B-2/3 (that would be my wife, whom I like to refer to as my "better two-thirds") is a potter. At the end of just about every month for the past 3 years or so, my wife sets up a booth at the Palmer Park Arts Market where she not only sells her pottery, but also demonstrates how to make pots at her pottery wheel. And every month when the Arts Market rolls around (usually the last Saturday of every month), it falls upon me to be the muscle in packing up and transporting the heavier and bulkier items that make up her booth from her studio in our house to Palmer Park. This includes her pottery wheel, her booth tent, the tables and shelving display materials. My wife is simply not physically strong enough to do this on her own.

If by some unavoidable reason, I am not available to help my wife with the Arts Market set up, then it becomes a real question as to whether my wife will be able to participate in the Arts Market that month. This almost never happens, but sometimes my work requires travel that conflicts with an Arts Market date. This happens every summer when I need to spend 5-7 weeks abroad running a study abroad program -- so my wife usually takes a hiatus during those months. No problem.

But there was this one time, just this once, when I had an unavoidable work conflict over an Arts Market weekend in which I simply wasn't going to be around to do my usual set-up and break-down duties. By the time we knew about this conflict, my wife had already made a prior commitment to participate in the Arts Market, and had pre-paid the booth fee. So her options were to find some other muscle, whether paid or unpaid, or skip out on the Arts Market altogether that month. Well, you can probably guess what happened.

Instead of my wife skipping out on the market and having to forfeit her booth fee, or having to find some random paid labor to do the task, our church pastor, upon hearing of the situation, voluntarily gave up his entire Saturday morning to help my B-2/3 pack up, transport, and set up her booth. And then he voluntarily gave up his entire Saturday afternoon/early evening at the end of the market to help break-down, pack-up, and transport back home the entire booth. I can tell you, that is hard, sweaty work -- and no small favor.

Remember that this pastor himself has a family of three youngsters; and those of us with children know how exceedingly valuable Saturdays are for quality family time. And remember that Saturdays are also the last prep days for pastors before the demands of Sunday services and sermonizing unfold. This pastor, without even a second thought or a blink of hesitation, stepped up and came through. And he did so in a spirit of good humor, grace, and unconditional friendship and fellowship. I think he might have even bought a pottery mug from my wife after the hard, dirty work of setting was done! Helping my wife to make up our booth fee with a purchase, when it should have been us paying him!

I can't tell you how much that effort meant to me and to my B-2/3 at the time. I will never, ever forget that selfless act of Christian and pastoral kindness. I don't know of ANY pastor or priest who either would step up like this for a congregant, or who physically even could do so. Let me tell you screaming from the treetops, that this is exactly the kind of church and pastoring I want for me and my family, and the example of Christ in action that I want my children to see on display. That's the kind of man and pastor that I have come to know, and that's the pastor who was serving the congregation of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church.

And I can't even remember if we formally thanked him for helping out, though I'm sure he knew how thankful and grateful we were. Moreover, he's the kind of person who would never hold such an innocent oversight against us. What that man was to us on that particular day was a visible reincarnation of Christ himself, in the sweat and toil of "doing" Christianity, and not just preaching it.

I can offer you many, many more examples just like that one. And I know others can offer many such stories as well. I invite you to do so.

If it is true that we all want to show our pastor and his family that they walk with our love and our Christian companionship in this difficult time, then say it publicly, right here, right now, through a story of your own, in the comments section of this blog posting.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Random Thought on Church and Transparency

As someone raised in the Catholic faith, I come out of a Christian Church where the modus operandi for a long, long time was to circle the wagons around what the Church claimed as its internal affairs and to keep its dirty laundry from a public airing and within the secret and protected confines of the Church walls. I understand the protective impulse behind this approach; but look where this led the Catholic Church. In my opinion, it is not a wise policy. Public transparency and honesty, as raw and painful as it may be, is, I believe, always the best way forward.

Poem of the Day: (Carrion Comfort)

I am heartsick at how much my family has been consumed by a deep and profound pain of spirit that has been visited upon us by and within what should be a comforting sanctuary. Not by any one particular person or group of people, but simply by unfortunate circumstance. Why? Where is God in all of this? I don't require God to exercise power, to heal, and to make things right. I don't require God to actively do anything. I just want God simply to be present. But I don't feel that presence. Kierkegaard was so right about that "sickness unto death." I don't want to despair, especially to despair of faith and despair of God; and I hate that despair can't be helped; and, worse, that despair recreates itself and feeds itself. And so I've been turning not to Nietzsche who believed a will to power could subdue despair (how wrong he is!), but rather to that Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry embraces despair at the same time that his gorgeous words and imagery beautify it: a recognition that despair cannot be conquered but that it can be adorned. A bit of hope within the hopelessness. This particular poem has been a comfort to me recently:

(Carrion Comfort)

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Social Media and Social Justice

One of the things that came up in my panel at the Rising Tide 6 conference yesterday was the value of social media as a way to counteract the narratives and modes of thinking about news and information that we get through corporate media and other institutionalized sources of information. And I kept pondering how powerful social media has become as a very effective way to push back against these other, more established and controlled forms of information dissemination.

I'd like to take a moment to link this notion of Social Media back to the controversy over at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. It seems I have created a bit of a firestorm with my blog posting. I won't hide the fact that I had hoped and intended to stir the pot and, perhaps, upset the cart a bit. But that firestorm has also produced a flurry of comments directed to me (both publicly and privately) that I expected, but really not to the degree to which is has actually taken place. Some of the comments are very supportive of my posting and express agreement with both its tone and its content; but other comments I have received have called me out and expressed disappointment with the tone of my posting.

I think in both instances, my use of the blog (and Facebook as the distribution network for my blog posting) shows the power of social media in dealing with a very particular issue that I believe is a matter not only of justice/injustice, but also an issue that is fraught with a lot of personal baggage. Being sensitive to this personal baggage side of the equation is something to keep more in mind. But what I really want to address is the power of social media in this instance to push back against the unhealthy tendencies of organizational secrecy and group exclusion. Some may ask me why my blog post was necessary. To that, I would answer (1) that it was the only path to have my voice (and that of anyone else who might share the opinions expressed through my posting) considered in a process of deliberation that was closed off and kept hidden from a community that had every right to know about what was going on; and (2) it was the only way that I could see to hold power in check, to demand public accountability by powerholders, and to force transparency and openness in dealing with conflict and division.

The success of this use of Social Media? I know it got the attention of people in positions of power who weren't so interested in hearing from legitimate stakeholders who didn't have the power. I know it has elevated the issue of transparency to another level. I know it had some effect on making marginalized voices relevant to the issue at hand. I know that, even though it won't change the ultimate outcome of this particular issue, it will force the community to operate in a different way. Social media has that kind of power to effect organizational change, and even policy change. Secrecy, backroom deals, and keeping unpleasant things out of the eyes of public scrutiny are not possible in this age of Social Media. I happen to think that this is a good and healthy thing. The fewer people that are kept out of the loop among who have an interest in how certain things go down in organizations to which they belong, the better off that organization will ultimately be. What does it say when a person in a particular community committed to community-decisionmaking writes to say that the first notice he/she is getting of his/her community leader's departure comes from a blog posting? I'll tell you what it says: it says that certain members of this community are disenfranchised and kept out of the loop, that such community members have been marginalized. And that is an issue of social justice. But Social Media, at least, can work towards ending this disenfranchisement, this marginalization. And maybe it will even spur democratic action. So, for these reasons, Social Media is good and can lead to successful outcomes.

The problems with Social Media? It can be insensitive and manipulative, not to mention hurtful, too. Using Social Media on behalf of justice, to the degree that it is effective in giving voice to the marginalized, is certainly much more likely to produce and enhance friction. Let me parallel a mantra floated by Ed Chambers, who himself was borrowing from part of Saul Alinsky's organizing philosophy: where there's friction, there's heat; where there's heat, there's pain; where there's pain, there's change to mitigate the pain. So the use of Social Media is much more likely to cause pain, albeit in the interests of change on behalf of justice. And even though the cause of justice may be worth the pain, that doesn't mean the pain isn't real and that its consequences aren't real.

But, on balance, I tend to value the positives of using Social Media on behalf of issues of justice and to give greater voice to the marginalized.

Busy Day

Since I can't seem to get myself back to sleep (I always have these bouts of fitful sleep the weekend before the start of a new semester), I figured I'd summarize my hectic Saturday, not because it's any more special than any other day, but because there were some unusually memorable moments about it.

First things first: I started out the day observing both the viralizing spread and the subsequent fallout of my post about the sad and nasty business at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. By referencing my blog post on my Facebook page, and having sympathetic FB friends link to the post on their own FB pages, my blog had its single best day of activity in its 9 year history. I reached up to some 150+ visits just today, which (sadly!) represents a 600% increase in my average daily blog traffic, with the vast majority of these visitors being referred to the Upchuck via Facebook. Given the rather tragic and sad nature of the events discussed in that posting, I'm not sure such a dramatic increase in blog traffic is something to be happy about. But I guess it's always these kinds of moments that draw the most attention. Anyway ...

Then, I helped my B-2/3 set up her booth at the Palmer Park Arts Market, which was a hot, sweaty affair so early in the morning.

After that, I did the regular Saturday morning chauffering duties with my Squirrelly Girlies, transporting them to the NO Academy of Dance for their many Saturday dance lessons.

And from there I rushed directly over to Xavier University, arriving with just a handful of minutes to spare before I needed to be on stage to participate in a Social Media, Social Justice panel for the Rising Tide 6 conference.

I accomplished all this by 10:15am. For once, I felt like I lived up to that military motto: we get more accomplished before 7am than most people do all day.

The RT6 Conference was awesome this year (as it usually is), at least the parts of it I was able to experience. Having the conference at Xavier this year gave it a conference feel that I am more accustomed to. I actually liked the venue extremely much, to be honest. And the folks at Xavier, in collaboration with the planners of the RT6 conference, did a truly outstanding job of putting this conference together. And the content of the conference was as fascinating as always. I thought my particular panel went well enough. [ASIDE: I had a revelatory moment about the theme of my panel, the content of my own presentation, and the whole situation with St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. Here I was talking about the importance of the use of Social Media in promoting Social Justice for the undocumented immigrant community having just witnessed the power of Social Media to inform, mobilize, and editorialize around the controversy taking place at SCABC, and the immediate and far-reaching impacts that Social Media tools possess.]

Back to the details of my day: I was able to stay around the RT6 conference for the Oil Spill panel, for the delicious pulled pork lunch buffet provided by J'anita's (I believe), and for David Simon's (one of the creators of the HBO series Treme) keynote talk. I also took a few minutes to check out the vendor area. I was happy to see a lot of familiar faces and even to reconnect with an old High School friend, screenwriter, and film producer/director, Charlie Brown.

I was called away from the RT6 Conference by the Squirrelly Girlies right after David Simon's Keynote, and so had to leave to pick them up at the NO Dance Academy after their lessons. Which was just as well, because it was also creeping up on the end of the Palmer Park Arts Market, where I had to be to help my B-2/3 break down her booth. (She's a potter who makes beautiful functional pottery pieces.) Which, again, was another hot, sweaty affair. By the time everything was unloaded at the homefront and stored away in its proper place in my wife's pottery studio, it was getting towards evening time and I was exhausted.

And tomorrow promises to continue the madness (which is why I'm a little concerned about this bout of insomnia). We'll be hosting an alternative prayer/faith gathering tomorrow morning among the SCABC folks who can't (or won't) attend regular services at the actual church. Then, I'll be heading up to Tulane to participate in a bit of Freshman orientation events. And I'll end out the day by taking my Posse group (some incoming Freshman for whom I'll be serving as a mentor over the next couple of years) out to dinner before classes start in earnest on Monday.

So there you have it. Busy, busy, busy. But not unusual and to be expected for this particular weekend of the year.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Sad and Nasty Business at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church

Well, I've received word that a group of reactionaries in my wife's church have ousted the pastor in a coup that will destroy a church that was already struggling to keep itself alive, but which was slowly showing some signs of a turnaround. That turnaround has been stopped in its tracks. Instead of building on this turnaround, these reactionaries have instead placed the final nail in the coffin. A significant chunk of the church congregation will be leaving the church, taking their checkbooks and their many other talents with them.

The reactionaries, who are mostly of the lawyerly persuasion and mostly of an older generation, simply could not abide the church's efforts, led principally by the pastor the church hired to do precisely that, to innovate in an effort to keep up with the changing social and cultural dynamics of the moment. Although they would say that their issues had to do more with their disappointment with the pastor's performance, I would not be fooled by that. It is an excuse to mask the fact that this pastor, a young man with a beautiful family, was transforming the church into a more welcoming and open place of worship. Of course, these folks are mostly conservative in their theological disposition (if not in their politics), and the resistance to change, even necessary change, is the achilles heel of the conservative inclination.

In any event, the younger generation that represented the future of the church is the contingent that is preparing for a mass exodus. Overnight, St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church has gone from an average congregational membership age of about 40-yrs-old to one that is now, I would guess, about an average of 60-yrs-old. It is what it is.

But what amazes me, as someone who is mostly an outside observer, is the fact that these reactionaries are pretending to be shocked at the prospect of such an exodus and some are scrambling to try to stem the hemorrhaging. There is no small irony in the fact that now, after the coup, these people are reaching out desperately to other members of the congregration pretending to care about them and imploring them through an effort at dialogue (really mostly trying to guilt them) into reconsidering their decision to leave. Where was this interest in these congregants, and their thoughts and feelings, during the coup process? The time to engage my wife and others is over. They blew it, and it is too-little, too-late for the reactionaries to try to convince those resigning that they really do matter to the church, that their voices (and their pocketbooks!) will be missed. It is clear that such efforts are nothing more than the words of wily snake-oil salesmen and saleswomen. In other words, lies, lies, and more lies. It's actually rather insulting, not to mention infuriating. It beggars belief that you would have these folks tell members of the congregation in language dripping with condescension and spite that they have no right, nor business to express their views at a Congregational Council meeting, then trying to tell these very individuals that their presence is sorely needed and that they will be sorely missed in the congregation. It strikes as empty and insincere. One would think that what they wanted in going after the pastor on such flimsy pretenses was really to cleanse the church of those members who actually liked what the pastor was doing. I mean, really, what did they think would happen? That they could shut out people in the congregation like my wife and others, execute their coup, and then expect my wife and others to simply roll over, shrug their shoulders, and accept their coup as a "fait accompli"? They need to get real and at least have the courage the face the obvious consequences of their actions. Lies, lies, and more lies. Anyway ...

They need to know that their pleading won't work. And their myopia simply won't allow them to grasp the reason why their pleas won't work. But I'll try to explain to them why it won't work right now.

It has to do not with the fact that they expressed a critical viewpoint of the pastor and his failure in meeting their expectations, but rather the way in which they went about carrying out their coup and running off the pastor and his family. In short, this group of individuals was secretive, duplicitous, impulsive, and dismissive of others in the congregation. What my wife and others wanted was nothing more than a reasonable period of time to try to work out in a spirit of support, love, and sensitivity to the dignity of the pastor and his family, any of the concerns or issues that may have been raised about his performance as pastor. And what they also wanted was the involvement of the entire congregation in a debate and discussion about the issues surrounding the pastor's performance, not a "fait accompli" ousting of the pastor that was launched on an unsuspecting congregation. They wanted nothing more than the church family to act as such. But the reactionaries acted as autocrats who thought that they knew what was best for the congregation as a whole and simply shut out any member of the community who had a different take on things and who tried to reason with them.

Disagreements over church leadership are not uncommon, and many congregations survive such disagreements -- but only if they are handled in a spirit of respect for the value of the entire congregation in the decision-making process. What these reactionaries can't seem to understand, though I imagine they must know it because of the way they went about it, is that their "coup" violated the core and central spirit of the congregational community.

My wife, who has invested a significant amount of her time, energy, and love in this church community, is dumbstruck and very hurt at how cavalierly she and others have been treated in this whole sordid process. They were not only ignored, but were told repeatedly by small-minded people that their voices were irrelevant to decisions about the pastor's employment and tenure because they weren't in nominal positions of power -- because they didn't currently hold such "important" and "esteemed" positions as Chair of the Family Ministry Committee or Chair of the Student Ministry Committee. That my wife served as a deacon for at least 7 years before assuming a 3 year tenure on the Board of Trustees, with two of these three years serving as Chair of the Trustees, just didn't seem to matter. Really, all that should have mattered in a church that claims its authority lies within the whole congregation is that my wife was a member of the congregation. It's really as simple as that. But my wife's voice as a congregant not only meant nothing to this reactionary faction, but it was actively demeaned and arrogantly dismissed.

This group met in secret. It attempted to exclude members of the congregation from its meetings. It took unilateral actions and made unilateral decisions that the Church Constitution and By-Laws give exclusively to the authority of the congregation as a whole. This group did everything it could have done, even violating the tenets of its own governing documents, NOT to involve the larger congregation in such serious matters. Rather, even more insidiously, they actively sought to exclude people and marginalize any viewpoints that differed from their own. Well, in the end, this faction prevailed -- not because they exercised a majority opinion, but because they poisoned the well such that any pastor (hell, any human being with a modicum of self-respect and who values his dignity and his sanity) would be unable to continue to pastor a community in which some of its members would not only subject him and his family to such an inquisitorial, adversarial, and openly hostile process, but actually seek relish in it. Roast pastor instead of fish fry, indeed! Yes, one of the reactionaries, who now has the audacity to pretend that this whole process was difficult and painful for all, actually said that. I mean, really, who even jokes about such things? Nevertheless ...

The hemorraghing that is in process right now is because of how they managed the process of dealing with their grievances and issues with the pastor, not that their grievances and issues with the pastor were either right or wrong. And how they went about things would make anyone who values a loving and supportive faith family terrified of what could happen to them and their families should they get on the wrong side of these people. I will not subject my family to the predations of such people. Christians they are not.

It might take some time for this dying church to take its last gasp of oxygen; but there is no doubt as to the final outcome. St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church is finished. And that's too bad and so sad.

UPDATE: I'm sure some are wondering what it is that this pastor could have done to incite such a reaction. One would think that such drastic efforts, involving a coterie of lawyers brandishing their pathetic law degrees like some Don Quixote lance, must be in response to some egregious behavior on the part of the pastor. Could it be gambling away the Church's money? Could it be a sordid sex scandal? Could it be some pyramid scam of deceiving elderly congregants into turning over their money to the pastor's Swiss bank account? As if. No, the complaints that merited such drastic and immediate action had to do with a pastor whose egregious offenses involved: (1) missing some mid-week Wednesday services over the Spring and Summer months in order to coach his son's little league baseball team; (2) spending more time out and about recruiting members instead of parking himself in his stuffy office in the church every day from 7am to 7pm; (3) having an independent-minded wife who didn't act like a submissive co-pastor, and a family who developed an independent life outside of the church and who didn't place themselves at the immediate disposition of the church congregation at every church function; (4) chastising the pastor and his wife for not sending their kids to Sunday school every week to be "instructed" in matters of the Christian faith by, get this, some of the very people hostile to the pastor and critical of his performance. Some unforgivable and horrifying sins requiring the services of multiple lawyers, no? Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It's quite sad, really.

Quote of the Day

Another salvo in the "pithy quotation" war:

"It is not the constructive criticism of human behavior, but the respectful, dignified, and loving treatment of the human being that is the essence of Christianity. A true Christian can practice the former while maintaining the latter; but the person who practices the former at the expense of the latter is no Christian." -- Jimmy Huck (1968- ), contemporary activist, righteous moral philosopher, defender of the marginalized, and expert "pithy quotation" warrior.
And, yes, there's a bit of arrogance in the whole idea of quoting myself, but it's really part of my effort to poke a bit of fun at the pettiness of expressing conflict not through direct and forthright honesty, but through the self-righteous use of cryptic and pithy quotations.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lonesome Dove Character Profile of the Day: Lorena Wood

It is hard not to be enamored of Lorena Wood. She is obviously beautiful. And she is clearly a sweet, good-hearted person. Neither her bad luck with men, nor her hard life as a prostitute have hardened her like it had with other prostitute characters in the story. And you just can't help but ache for her upon reading her treatment while in captivity with the outlaws that Blue Duck turned her over to after he kidnapped her.

McMurtry really captures the innocence, beauty, sorrow, and kindness of Lorena in his characterization of her.

That said, one also can't help feeling very frustrated with her. I know this may sound misogynist, but she sometimes comes across as naive, stubborn, and downright stupid at times. For all of her hardened experience, she doesn't seem to really understand the difficulties or dangers for a woman living in that part of the United States at that time in the country's history. However, in my defense, I think this take on Lorena as a kind of 19th Century "blonde bimbo" is partly how McMurtry wanted to portray her.

I also think it's pretty clear that Lorena is a rather one-dimensional character. Other than some vague idea of her dream of wanting to escape to San Francisco and live a more refined life, we really know very little about her inner workings beyond her confused emotions about Jake and Gus. It is interesting, though, to note that her identity is completely wrapped up in the men around her and who have an interest in her. She, herself, wraps her identity in the male figures of her life. She is not an independent woman, nor is she a very sophisticated or deep-thinking woman. She's actually very simple, which is quite a contrast to both of the other main female characters in the book, Clara and Elmira. Even Elmira was a conflicted and more complex person than Lorena. But perhaps if McMurtry had painted a different picture of Lorena, the reader wouldn't be as sympathetic to her as the "damsel-in-distress" requiring her rescue by the heroic handsome prince that Gus turns out to be.

Sudoku Mastery

I have been an on-and-off sudoku practitioner. Right now, I am in one of those sudoku fixation periods. I've gotten to the point that the challenge for me, even for the most difficult sudoku puzzles, is to complete the puzzle without making any notations in the margins or in the boxes themselves. I try to keep the patterns and counts in my mind. And I've gotten pretty good at it. So good, in fact, that it is not a question of my being able to solve any puzzle, but rather how quickly I can do it. So, if I really want to push myself with the game, I time myself to see how many minutes it takes me to do a puzzle from start to finish.

I got to this point, though, not because of any particular intellectual ability. Rather, it is through repetition and increased familiarity with the patterns of logic particular to this specific kind of puzzle. If I would give a tip to any sudoku aficionado who would like to improve his or her facility in puzzle solving, it would be this: don't work with single numbers, but with clusters of numbers, as many as you can hold in your mind's eye. For example, when you look at a row of nine squares, perhaps there are 3 numbers that are visible in that row. If you can memorize the 6 numbers that are missing in that row and hold that number combination in your mind as you cross tabulate those six numbers with all of the numbers in the 9 columns, you will more often than not be able to go through a process of elimination that could give you the one number of the six that fits in a particular square of that row.

I know it sounds kinda cryptic, but just keep in mind the idea of working with sets of numbers as opposed to single numbers and I think the value of doing that will become apparent and your sudoku puzzle solving abilities will grow exponentially.

Human Nature Versus Christianity

One of the things that has always both impressed and mystified me is the real radicalism in the example of Christ. A Jesuit priest, Fr. Harry Tompson, SJ, once explained to me that the power of Christ (and of the Christian God) was precisely in his powerlessness. That really struck a chord and made me think. It's such a simple idea, yet so meaningful, too. And when you really look at the story of Christ in the Bible, it's really all there. Christ never lifted a finger against his crucifiers. He preferred the company of the weak and the marginalized. He admonished Peter to put away the sword. He ignored the taunts of the cynic being crucified next to him and who told him that if he really were the Messiah, he could just save himself. Time after time, the example we have of the real Jesus is one of powerlessness. In fact, even when miracles were performed that were ascribed to Jesus, it behooves us to remember that Jesus himself never said that he was the source of the power behind the miracles. Rather, Jesus always openly acknowledged that it was the conviction and the faith of the person seeking the miracle that was the power behind the miracle.

Yet, so often Christians speak of a powerful God. An "omnipotent" God. They couldn't be further from the truth If there is a God, powerlessness is his defining characteristic. Why doesn't God end suffering in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn't God intervene to right wrongs? The answer is simple: God simply doesn't have the power to do so.

Yet, it is precisely in that concept of powerlessness where power is paradoxically exercised. It is the radical attribute of Christianity.

But human beings are wired differently. We seek power through assertion of will. Through expression of authority. Through an ability to control. And what I've come to see all the more readily these days in the behaviors of people who call themselves progressive Christians is the antithesis of the true Christian example of powerlessness, and the unconditional love, forgiveness, and humility that is necessarily associated with it.

In the past few weeks, I have seen so-called Christians behave abominably not just towards another fellow member of the human race, but to their very own church pastor and his family. I have seen an unwillingness to embrace the radical and progressive example of Christ in how they are managing their discontent or disappointment with their pastor. What I have seen is a kind of meanness, spitefulness, and almost even hatefulness in working through their issues with the pastor. I am simply stunned by the callousness and swelling of self-righteousness that some members of this church community have exhibited in their quest to assert and exercise their "power" over their church and their pastor. And it comes as somewhat of a shock to me because I thought very differently of these power-consumed members of the church. I thought they had embraced the radical example of the powerlessness of Christ, not the reactionary perversion of Christianity as some legacy of an authoritarian omnipotence.

But then I remember that these are human beings -- that we are all human beings. And our human nature (call it the "fall from grace" if you will) leads us always down the path of behaving in ways that are the antithesis of the Christian example. It is hard work to go against our nature and to live the example of Christ -- to "put away the sword" and to not cast stones. I, myself, fail at this difficult task much more often than I would like. I just wish we could be better at it. And I remain disappointed that some apparently not only fail to even see the need to be better at it, but actually think that they are being Christian even when they are clearly not.

Yet another disappointment in my encounter with Christians and Christianity.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What My Kids Are Listening To: Pink - Raise Your Glass

I have to say, I rather like this myself:

And I like the Glee version of the tune, too:

Sex in McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove"

One of Larry McMurtry's more charming and clever turns of phrase has to do with the many colorful ways he was able to describe the male sex organ and the act of sexual intercourse. I wonder if he just came up with these phrases on his own or if this really was a kind of 19th Century slang that he uncovered in his research. Either way, it was one of the more amusing elements of the narration.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Lonesome Dove

I've owed this blog a review of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove for God knows how long now. But it's never been that far in the back of my mind. And it's been even more front and center there recently. The problem is that it's such an epic, long novel that to do it justice in a review seems kinda daunting, especially after so much time has passed. So I think what I'll do is review the book in piecemeal fashion: a bit here, a bit there, until I get what I want to say out there. Let me start with a couple of general observations that I've made before about the book, and then I'll do a kind of character assessment. First, the novel is extremely well-written. The narrative style is engaging, witty, and very coherent. It is sophisticated and, at times, actually masterful. The dialogue is especially noteworthy for its ability to capture the kind of slang and speaking mannerisms of the 19th Century western United States. I promise you that if you pick up this 800-900 page book and don't let the length of it deter you from starting it, you'll find that it reads easily and that the length of it becomes less daunting over time.

I've said this before and I'll repeat it again here: it is an epic story where the characters, their personalities, and their relationships are much more central than the actual storyline itself. Essentially the storyline is simple: it's about a cattle drive from South Texas to Montana. But my criticism is not so much that the plot is very basic, and that the focus is on the characters; but rather that the plot is contained exclusively by the characters. What do I mean by that? I mean, essentially, that if you read this book, you'll come to think that the only people who constituted this vast expanse of territory were the 25-30 folks who make up the various characters introduced in the story. There is not a single character that we are introduced to with some measure of development that isn't just some passing personality in the whole epic story. This just seems incredulous to me, especially in an epic story. I mean, really, there must have been plenty of side stories and marginal personalities that flitted in and out of this epic story, and surely some of them were probably important for brief flashes in the story timeline. But we just don't hear much about them. Even the cattle driver who shows up at the Hat Creek Ranch at the beginning of the story factors into the story in a significant way later. The actual reality of the epic of human existence is that some people enter into narrative story arcs, have important roles to play for brief periods of time, and then just disappear into the unknown afterwards, never to be heard from again. But in Lonesome Dove, you hardly ever get this picture of reality. There is not a single character that I can think of that you are introduced to in the story who isn't, at some point, of vital importance to the storyline. And that the characters we meet are all neatly threaded together in ways that simply defy one's sense of what the real course of human interaction is like. How likely is it, for instance, that July Johnson will hunt for Jake Spoon, then give up the hunt for Spoon to go after his pathetic wife, but bumping into Gus McCrae along the way, only to find himself making his way to Clara's ranch (Clara, of course, is the erstwhile love of of Gus McCrae's life) and becoming one of her ranch-hands, where his pregnant, fleeing wife just happens to have also landed and given birth to his son. I mean, come on!! That never happens in real life. It's all so tidy and neat! Anyway, that's my major criticism of the narrative style. It's just too impossible and unbelievable. That said, it's still a riveting read.

But what I'd like to do, since the novel is character-centri, is to focus on individual character profiles and to review them a bit. To give my thoughts on what each character means and symbolizes to me. And I'll start with Jake Spoon.

He has to be one of the most tragic and pathetic characters in the whole novel. The genius of McMurtry's creation of Spoon is that you never can reconcile yourself to the character. You can never really decide if you like the man or if you despise him, if you feel sorry for him or if you think he's a heel who got what he deserved. What you do get with the Spoon character is a strong sense of the real tragedy of human existence. He is a character who is charming, talented, and full of potential, only to be brought down by his human weakness. His vanity, his pride, his loneliness drives him into situations that he simply can't escape from and which ultimately become his undoing. The fact that he ended up being hanged for cattle and horse thieving by his lifelong friends Gus and Call was surprising to me. That kind of indiscriminate justice, without due process of trial and judgment according to constitutional rights, seems so foreign and merciless; and yet we know that Gus and Call are reasonable and merciful people. It just didn't square with modern sensibilities. I suppose McMurtry did capture here a lost sense of justice that pervaded the wild west of 19th Century America. It was a time of different moral codes and different ideas of constitutional rights. But, back to Spoon ...

You always want to like the man, but just can never bring yourself to do so, even though you know that his luck is always so damn rotten. And yet, in spite of the fact that he faces lots of bad luck that is not of his own making, there is a lot of bad luck he encounters that comes of his poor decisions, too. And here is another element of the tragedy of his character. His undeserved misfortune degrades his mental state such that he gets down on himself and gets depressed. And then it is this self-loathing and depression that leads him to consciously make bad decisions and choices that also contribute to his bad luck. You get the sense that he is one of those people whose fate has been predetermined to always be bad and that he is just condemned to a miserable life. No matter how much he tries to fight against his fate, it's almost just pointless. And this is where the reader feels a bit of empathy for the character. There is an unfairness about his life that almost approaches injustice; and it's hard for a reader to therefore condemn Spoon for anything about the bad things that he does or gets caught up in. In short, Spoon is the classic tragic figure in the story whose life ends without any sense of redemption. We can contrast Spoon with July Johnson, who is another tragic character, but one whose inherent goodness brings his tragic reality to a point of redemption. More on July Johnson later. For now, I'll just end it here with this little evaluation of Jake Spoon. If you've read the book, I welcome your comments.

Quote of the Day

"There is nothing admirable about silence in the face of either bullying or injustice. In such cases, silence is neither courteous nor polite, but rather an indication of acquiescence to or complicity in the bullying or the injustice." -- Jimmy Huck (1968- ), contemporary activist, righteous moral philosopher, defender of the marginalized, and expert "pithy quotation" warrior.

[NOTE: This is a bit of an inside joke. There's an internecine struggle taking place at my B-2/3's church and it's bubbled over into a battle of "pithy quotations" on Facebook. I just thought I'd throw my part silly/part serious hat into this ring.]

Rising Tide VI

On the local news:

I'll be participating on the Social Media/Social Justice panel. More info at Hope to see you there!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Goodness of Illegal Immigrants

The next time you hear some anti-illegal immigrant blowhard make reference to a story in which an undocumented immigrant commits a crime that results in the injury or death of an American citizen, point them to this story, in which an undocumented immigrant saves a life.

If we're going to count up the good and bad deeds of folks to determine their worthiness to be in this country, I can promise you that among the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, there are millions more acts of kindness, and probably thousands of such acts of kindness that actually directly save lives, than the miniscule number of cases where an undocumented immigrant harms or kills another person.

Among all the possible reasons for being an immigration hardliner, pointing to crimes committed by undocumented migrants is not a legitimate one. It's really nothing more than a red herring. Remember that.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Beneficiaries of Food Stamps

Are not just the people who need them to survive; but the grocery stores who need them to increase their profits.

If you think food stamp recipients have the power or the wherewithal to lobby Congress to protect their undeserved "handouts," think again.

The power that keeps the food stamp program alive and well are the grocery stores who are just as dependent upon them as the poor people who qualify for the program.

I've always believed that social safety net programs are even more beneficial to the "have plenties" of our society in the sense that it keeps the lid on social discontent with the added benefit of relieving the private sector of the expense of time and money in having to manage the poor and their problems. Much easier to pay taxes, wash their hands of the responsibility, all the while creating a convenient scapegoat in government to blame for when social relations don't always end up harmonious.

John Stewart Strikes Again

It doesn't get any clearer than this:

The Fiscal Irresponsibility of the "Don't Raise the Debt Ceiling Crowd"

What the folks who argue that the debt ceiling should not be raised fail to understand is that the money the Federal Government needs to borrow is essential not to pay for future liabilities, but to pay the bills already incurred. The federal government already had already taken out the credit card and used it to incur liabilities for certain expenses. Now that the credit card bill is coming due, and the federal government is short on cash, is the fiscally responsible thing to do simply to tell our creditors that we can't and won't pay, even when we can secure the funds to do so by increasing our debt ceiling limit?

Many of these absolutist "don't raise the debt ceiling" zealots, chief among them Michelle Bachmann, often use the argument that we Americans have to manage a fiscally responsible household and live within our means. But their attitude towards the debt ceiling is fiscally irresponsible and actually is the worst attitude to hold if fiscal responsibility is the supposed goal.

Let me explain it in the individual household finance terms they can understand. Let's say, in a family, the husband discovers his wife has a shopping problem and has maxed out their credit card credit limits. The credit card bills are coming due, and there's just not enough funds coming in to the household to make the minimum payments on these bills and also to pay the mortgage, feed the family, cover the doctor's bills, pay the roofers for the work they just did in replacing the old roof, and pay the neighbor's kid his fee for having just mowed the lawn, etc. The wife has acknowledged her problem and has agreed to cut back on the usual extras in the household budget in order to help regain the household's financial footing. But, that promise won't do anything about the current predicament. So, what does the family do about the current predicament?

Well, the family has a couple of options. First, the family can simply skip out on paying some of their bills. Maybe the doctor? Maybe the grocer? But, regardless, skipping out on paying some bills means damaging the family's credit rating and ruining the fiscal standing of the family in the marketplace. It may also mean that the grocer or the doctor might simply refuse to deal with the family in the future -- and that's true even if the family pays the grocer or the doctor if they know that the family is overextended and is NOT paying someone else. It could be them next time around. Second, the family knows that its income-to-debt ratio is such that if it can get the bank to loan it some more money while it tightens its household fiscal belt, it will be able to meet all its current obligations. And the bank, looking at the households financials, agrees. It's willing to loan the family more money (1) because doing so is sustainable, and (2) because not doing so would be damaging to the health of the economy that is dependent on the family's ability to meet its current and future obligations. The only thing getting in the way is the family's willingness to accept the loan, which crotchety old uncle Joe (who lives frugally within the family) has to sign off on. But crotchety old uncle Joe would rather teach the family a lesson by refusing to allow it to accumulate a bit more debt and forcing the family to make do with the first path of default, thus ruining the family's credit (including his own) and its fiscal standing in the marketplace. You tell me: is crotchety old uncle Joe acting responsibly? Or is he being a damn fool? I think the we all know the answer.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Tea Party, Religious Fundamentalism, and the GOP

Now that some time has passed and social scientists are beginning to accumulate significant and meaningful research data upon which to understand and evaluate the Tea Party movement and its adherents through the prism of foundational social science research methodologies:

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What My Kids Are Listening To

What I plan to be a somewhat regular feature that gives a glimpse into the pop culture dynamic of the moment in my household:

Sunday, August 14, 2011

From the Archives: Advice to Young Conservatives

I have a habit of re-running this particular blog entry at the start of every new college school year.

What Christianism Has Wrought

I couldn't have said it better than Andrew Sullivan.

It's all too true. I look at what the GOP has become, who its main frontrunner candidates are for the Presidency, and I remain simply baffled.

If anyone of a similar ideological rigidity and fundamentalist disposition on the left emerged as a frontrunner for the Presidency, I would be mortified. Conservatives like to complain about the groupthink of radical leftism, about its fundamental requirement of adherence to an unquestioned orthodoxy, about its zealotry to the cause of secular socialism; and yet that is exactly what I see as constituting the frontrunner candidates of the GOP, at least in terms of disposition if not in terms of exact content.

I just asked a conservative friend of mine, a good friend going all the way back to high school, and a person who is one of the smartest people I know, how he rationally defends these so-called "leaders" of the GOP, he can't do it. He simply cannot advance any reasonable defense of these individuals and the reckless behavior they promote.

I have a healthy respect for a conservatism I can find rational. I'm sorry, but I just don't see that conservatism on display among the current leadership of the GOP.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Constitution of the Super-Committee

So now we know who's on the Super Committee:

Republican Appointees:
Sen. John Kyl (R-Arizona)
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania)
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas)
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Michigan)
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan)

Democratic Appointees:
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington)
Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts)
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana)
Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina)
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-California)
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland)

Democrats appointed one white woman, three white men, one black man, and one Latino man. One from the Pacific Northwest, one from New England, one from the Mountain West, one from the Deep South, one from the West Coast, and one from the Mid-Atlantic.

Republicans appointed six white men. Three from the Midwest, one from the Mid-Atlantic, and two from the Southwest.

Make up your own mind about which group looks more like "real America."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rising Tide VI

I haven't given any blog love to Rising Tide VI, and that's truly a shame, especially given that I'm a panelist this year. But it does promise to be a really fabulous event. Although I'm not a huge fan of Treme, I know a lot of folks are, and given that David Simon, the creator of the TV show, is headlining at RT6 as one of the keynote speakers, I think folks might be even doubly interested in attending.

I'll be participating as part of a "Social Media, Social Justice" panel, where I'll be talking about the use of social media in counteracting the legislative initiatives here in Louisiana to impose some harsh Arizona-style anti-immigrant legislation.

There's also a food panel as well as a brass band panel. Promises to be a truly N'awl experience. Register and come by if you are around and if you are so inclined.

80's Pop Culture ... On The Other Hand

There's this:

Oh ... wait ...

Yep, I still feel cheated. Very.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


If you want to see what I consider to be exemplary of the vacuousness of 80s pop culture, watch this:

This is not to say that there weren't some diamonds in the rough in the 80s, but by and large, in my mind, the 80s were a wasted, empty time in the history of pop culture.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Hunger Games

I have been reading The Hunger Games series and am enjoying it very much. Easy young adult fiction that my oldest daughter says is her favorite series ever. So I figured I'd give it a go. Just finished the second book of the trilogy and have started the third book. I can see why folks like it. It's an engaging story line that is very easy to read and digest. But I think the narrative gets more strained as the series progresses. The first book, so far, is the best.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Palin's Perry Problem

Texas Governor Rick Perry's pending entrance into the GOP Presidential primary contest poses a particular problem for Sarah Palin. Perry is making a passionate pitch for the evangelical Christian vote, particularly evident after his powerful prayer meeting. Sarah Palin's predicament is obvious. Her base consists precisely of such people who are perhaps the most influential Republican primary voting constituency. But, such people are also the most likely to prefer a conservative male candidate who meets all the other basic Tea Party criteria. It's just the gender hierarchy of fundamentalist Christianity. Because of this, Sarah Palin's criticism of Rick Perry's role in increasing Texas's debt load makes perfect sense. If Palin has any plans to run for president, she needs to pound Perry on such issues to weaken his appeal to the evangelical base she will so desperately need in order to prevail in the GOP primary contest. Even though Palin hasn't formally declared yet, I think her latest assault on Perry is perhaps the clearest evidence to date, at least to me, that she plans to run.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Funky Little Flower: Loud Sugar

I really grooved on this Enviro-hippie pop group when their first and only album was released in 1991; but I doubt anyone I know has ever heard of them or remembers them.

The Myopia of Knee-Jerk Conservative Opposition to the US Department of Education

A meme I hear a lot on the budget-slashing bandwagon of the conservative Tea Party express is the push simply to cut the entire U.S. Department of Education. Just obliterate it without a second thought. When I hear conservatives jump on this "cut-the-entire-Department-of-Education" bandwagon, I know that these folks have really no clue about the U.S. Department of Education and its various programs. It leads me to think that such bombast is nothing but an ill-considered visceral opposition to what is perceived as an agency of worthless liberal brainwashing programs. The ignorance that envelops this radical position is so very clear to those who have even a cursory knowledge of what the U.S. Department of Education really does. Conservatives who claim that the federal government has a constitutional obligation to protect the security of the United States fail to even look at how the U.S. Department of Education has been vital to that critical constitutional function over the years. When I hear such blathering conservative antipathy to the U.S. Department of Education, I ask those holding such positions if they have ever considered the national security ramifications that such a position entails. And I'm often met with a blank, open-mouthed stare. I see it in their eyes and I know what they are thinking. They're thinking: What could the U.S. Department of Education possibly have to do with national security?

And so I always lay out for them just one example of many that I know very well about: the Title VI program that provides federal funding for global area studies and foreign languages instruction. Without this federally funded program, and given this country's linguistic and cultural ethnocentrism, we'd have very few people who would be able to speak Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Swahili, Tamil, Quechua, Guarani, or any of the other dialects that we really need to have some competency in to protect our national security. If left to the states, do you really think that the individual states would think about national security concerns enough to fund the study of Arabic in their state universities? Come on! Get real! Most states would think that teaching "ethnic studies" and those "terrorist" languages are just un-American! And yet the security of the country so desperately depends upon developing knowledge of global cultures and foreign languages. Additionally, without Title VI funding from the U.S. Department of Education, we'd have even fewer people in our country, in an already dismally ignorant environment when it comes to understanding the world (see Sarah Palin as exemplary display number 1 on this front), who could identify where Libya is on the map, much less understand what the different tribal groups are in that country's sociopolitical makeup. [Aside: Do you really think conservative patriots who can sing the Marines' Hymn can even identify what countries the "halls of Montezuma" or the "shores of Tripoli" refer to, much less the historical moments they address?]

And I haven't even mentioned U.S. Department of Education programs like the Fulbright/Fulbright-Hayes program, or the myriad other international research and cultural exchange programs that the U.S. Department of Education funds, or the collaborative role that the U.S. Department of Education plays in providing resources that make the Foreign Area Officers program of the U.S. Defense Department successful. So, if you ever hear any conservatives argue for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, don't take them seriously, especially if they fashion themselves as supporters of the constitutional mandate for the federal government to protect the national security. They're just probably swept up by a visceral hatred of state-led education initiatives as nothing more than a vehicle for liberal brainwashing, an attitude propagated by the likes of David Horowitz. They haven't studied what the U.S. Department of Education is actually doing. Not one iota. They represent nothing more than the thoughtless ravings of anti-state-originating education troglodytes. A real national security, constitutionalist conservative would at least look at what programs the U.S. Department of Education has in the service of national security interests -- programs that wouldn't likely be done well by any other agency -- before calling for the entire agency's head on the chopping block.

Krauthammer Attacks the Rich?

I just read Charles Krauthammer's latest op-ed on the possibilities of a "grand bargain" on fiscal reform.

I frankly couldn't believe some of the stuff I was reading. I mean, really, did Krauthammer really write the following about "true tax reform" that eliminates loopholes?

Fairness — because a corrupted tax code with myriad breaks grants deeply unfair advantage to the rich who buy the lobbyists who create the loopholes and buy the lawyers who exploit them.
Did he just say that tax breaks that disproportionately benefit the rich are unfair?

My ears are burning!

And then, is it really conventional wisdom among conservatives to push this next line?
Start with the obvious boondoggles, from the $6 billion a year wasted on ethanol subsidies to your Democratic perennials — corporate jets, oil-company breaks, etc. That’s the fun part. Unfortunately, whacking that piñata yields but pennies on the dollar. The real money is in the popular tax breaks: employer-provided health insurance, mortgage interest and charitable contributions. Altering some of these heretofore politically untouchable tax breaks would alone be a singular achievement.
Did Krauthammer just admit that he agrees with liberal talking points about the "boondoggles" of tax breaks for corporate jets and oil-companies, not to mention the exemptions from taxation of income spent on employer-provided health insurance and mortgage interest? I have to say that this kind of language is mostly anathema among conservatives. You just don't hear conservatives even acknowledge that there is anything untoward or unfair in any policy, no matter how it comes about or who it affects, that has the end result of exempting personal income from taxation.

I usually find Krauthammer columns to be rather distasteful; but I have to admit that I didn't find myself disagreeing too much with Krauthammer's overall point in this particular column.

He essentially embraces Simpson-Bowles as an acceptable blueprint for fiscal reform. I'm definitely not opposed to that. However, I do have one point of disagreement with Krauthammer, but it's one that's more a matter of degree as opposed to one of principle. And it has to do with his baseline starting-point on revenue neutrality. I could easily find my way to supporting the idea of revenue-neutral fiscal reform as a precursor to a grand bargain in which both raising revenue and cutting spending are both on the table. But where we disagree is what the starting-point of revenue neutrality should be.

Krauthammer's whole argument for revenue neutral reform of the tax code starts under the revenue baseline established with the Bush tax cuts in place. I would argue that revenue-neutral reform to the tax code should begin after the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Why? Because, as even conservative economist Bruce Bartlett notes, revenue as a percentage of GDP is at its lowest levels since the cuts in 50 years. Revenues currently account for less than 15% of GDP, which is below the 18% historical average that has held from the post-WWII era until 2001, which is when the Bush tax cuts kicked in and then revenue as a percentage of GDP declined significantly. So, I say let's reform the tax code at a revenue-neutral baseline of 18% of GDP, and then have our "grand bargain" debate from that baseline.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Economy and the Costs of Technology

Looks like we're headed for a double dip recession. And it looks like people are becoming more and more frugal about their consumption behaviors. Service and consumer product providers also seem to be girding for leaner times by trying to squeeze down their costs and pare down their product lines. What I see happening is a real contraction in the free-wheeling use of the internet. As ISPs try to extract more revenues by charging more for data usage, or by eliminating generous unlimited data usage plans, consumers will also be paring back on their internet consumption. Many folks trying to husband their resources in what appears to be a looming time of scarcity will undoubtedly cut back on things perceived as luxuries. I suspect that having unlimited access to the internet will be one of the first things to go. We can all do without the 24-7 live-streaming of Netflix. We can all do without excessive access to as much data as we find convenient. We will be more selective with what we access on the internet and won't be "hogging" data on whims of fancy. So, in short, I think we are headed into a time when we'll be moving back to books and conversation, instead of text messages, online movies, internet chats, blogging, and Facebook. As much as I've become accustomed to and enjoy liberal access to technology, I don't think this would necessarily be a bad thing.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Andrew Sullivan and Obama's Leadership on Fiscal Reform

When Obama punted on Simpson-Bowles way back when, Andrew Sullivan came down hard on him for his lack of leadership then. And now Sullivan is contending that Obama’s behavior in this current round of debt/deficit debate was just awful. I disagree. Maybe I am hopelessly deluded by my rose-colored glasses when it comes to trying to understand Obama, but as someone who considers himself a die-hard liberal worried about the country’s real debt/deficit problem, I can’t help but be immeasurably impressed by Barack Obama.

This is how I read Obama on the whole debt/deficit situation, even going back to his punting of Simpson-Bowles. We all know that a big part of the solution to getting our fiscal house in order involves paring back government spending, and making serious reform both to entitlement programs and the tax code. All of those necessities require tackling the sacred cows of the liberal left. That means they are MY sacred cows. And they are. And yet … Barack Obama knows that to get movement from the left on reforming our sacred cows (hell, even just acknowledging that we are fanatically wedded to them), he’s got to transform the left’s way of thinking about our sacred cows.

Obama also knows (as does everyone) that his ability to influence the trajectory of fiscal reform is greatest on the left. He can get more done on that front than he can on the revenue side given the current state of the GOP. So he concentrates on where he can be most effective. But Obama also knows that he’s got to move deliberately and slowly lest he face a Tea Party revolt of his own from the more irresponsible of us on his left flank. So, what did he do?

He first created a crack in the entitlement program sacred cow on the left by building in the idea of Medicare reform as a means of cost containment into the overall health care reform plan. There was nary a peep from the left because the overall goal of health care reform was such a big deal that imposing cost controls in Medicare as part of a larger health care reform effort that would expand healthcare coverage to many more Americans was acceptable. So the idea of cost control reforms to Medicare got a positive presentation and reception on the left. Seemed reasonable to me! A small dent in one entitlement sacred cow that most of us among the left came to accept, if not embrace joyously.

Then he got Simpson-Bowles to put entitlement reform on the table. Yes, he promptly punted; but he still got the idea circulating out there in liberal land that entitlement reform had to be included in any debt/deficit negotiation. Once again, we on the left grumbled, but the left’s culture of entitlement reform intransigence inched a bit more towards the end goal of reform necessity. Simpson-Bowles didn’t get most on the left to buy into such reform; but it conditioned us not to automatically knee-jerk into opposition mode by the mere mention of reform to our sacred cows. Because Simpson-Bowles came from Obama, we on the left listened a bit more than we would have otherwise. I know I did. Now we get this debt ceiling situation and the current compromise deal, and we on the left still grumble loudly (and I think with good reason); but it is unmistakable that we’ve been brought to a much more responsible position regarding our entitlement sacred cows and their need to be on the reform table.

When I look at my own attitude and thinking over the past two years, I see an evolved person. I almost don’t even recognize it; but there it is. It’s been incremental. Almost imperceivable. But Obama has brought the only constituency that he really has much influence over to a position where we on the left are much more comfortable than we ever would have been with doing what we need to do with our own entitlement sacred cows to put our fiscal house in order.

As many others have noted, the country’s fiscal house cannot be put in order without attention to the revenue side of the equation. We simply can't cut our way into solvency without throwing this country into a demoralizing and disastrous economic depression. That’s where we on the left justifiably bitch and moan. But, frankly, that’s a problem that bedevils the Republicans; and it is responsible leadership on the right that will have to do the hard work of bringing their side along on their own sacred cow of “no higher taxes.” Eventually, Obama will have to push hard on that side, too; but he’s doing his part with the left. And he’s done it (and continues to do it) brilliantly. He hasn’t abandoned his liberal principles, but he’s tried to recast them in the light of a fiscally responsible liberalism. And though his popularity numbers are on the downwards slope, they’re not atrociously bad. He certainly hasn’t lost me (and I’d venture to make that claim for many others on the left, too). And win or lose 2012, he has done his part to win for America with the left. I just wish some responsible Republican would do the same on the right.