Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sharing and Bearing the Economic Burden

What is economic security?
What is economic insecurity?
What causes both?
Do we understand these issues and the causations behind them?

We are living, as Americans, as well as citizens of other country's, in an environment of economic instability which pits one against another like we've seen all too many times before. Left against right, religious against irreligious, white versus black, or any other ethnicity, and of course, the rich versus the poor. But these various partisan contrasts are all too convenient distractions and diversions from deeper issues driving our economic lives.

If we stand still for a moment (admittedly very difficult to do in this hyperactive internet culture we live in) and look for a moment at some wise voices from our past, just as our former President Dwight David Eisenhower, in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, where he spoke of the danger of the Military Industrial Complex, we'll hear a deeply needed wisdom we desperately need today.

But while he spoke of a military/economic threat from within in this speech, he also was working from a framework that assumed a certain baseline that we now no longer see assumed. For instance, in Ike's day, the income tax was extremely graduated. The top earners paid over 90% of their income to the feds, and as the income went down, the tax rate also went down. And yet, strangely enough, this was for many considered to be a "golden era" of America's economic prowess.

Was this era as "golden" as some would have it be? No. As in anything the picture is of course more complicated. But we should remember that this "golden" period was also the time when unions were also at their strongest, both public and private. At that decisive time, both corporations, government, and the power of workers through their unions were much more evenly divided. This division of power exemplified perfectly the political philosophy so well expressed by our founders in the Federalist Papers which I so highly regard.

But an issue which the American founders didn't fully consider (understandably so) was the full expression of the industrial revolution combined with legal corporatism as understood by the US Supreme Court. This legal issue of corporate "personhood" (please check out the amazing DVD "The Corporation") is, to this day, an unresolved question of what it means to be a "person" under the US Constitution.

Till we deal with this issue both politically and legally and constitutionally, the problem of sharing and bearing the economic burden will not be dealt with adequately. Either we are all equal under the law or we are living under a Huxleyan world where some are more equal than others.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Would you want to live in a world of only plains? Or maybe a world filled with only mountains? Or even a world filled with only cities? Or only small towns? Or only the ocean? Would you want to live in a world with only vast stretches of desert? And of course we can extend this image to other areas of life: Would you want to only taste sweet foods? Only spicy foods? Only salty foods? Would you want to live in a world filled with only extroverts? Or introverts?

And here it starts getting trickier. Should we want to live in a world filled with only Christians? Muslims? Jews? Atheists? Liberals? Conservatives? Post-Modernists? Libertarians? And then what about those within our particular "camp" who still disagree? Shall we only live in a world filled with our particular "vision" of atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, etc, etc.

We have a very natural human tendency to want to shape the rest of reality to our own already set beliefs and behaviors (can we say confirmation bias?). Thus we also tend to want the rest of reality to reflect our own sensibilities. We can do this either by outright rejecting any competing claim to the epistemological terrain or by reframing (and usually distorting) those competing narratives so that they end up suiting our own desires. I know this tendency well, since I've engaged in it on a regular basis myself.

I've lived in a number of different "terrains" both physically and ideologically and spiritually and emotionally. If I only ever saw a city landscape, I'd either get bored with it or see it as the only possible reality. And my all too natural instinct would be to either deify it or demonize it. In that sense, I guess I'm extremely grateful that though I did grown up in NYC, I also grew up on the south shore of Staten Island, which was and is still quite wooded and rural. So while we climbed trees and traversed many wooded paths, we also were a stone's throw from the concrete canyon of Lower Manhattan.

I often only half jokingly say we were the Beverly Hillbilly's of NYC.

But along with being culturally rural so close to a city environment, my family was also quite politically liberal in a very conservative neighborhood. We learned early on that not being in sync with the political majority held it own costs.

Another beautiful benefit of my very broken family was that we knew and interacted with those different than us. I was exposed to friendships with Jews, blacks, Latinos, Asians, the developmentally disabled, the homeless, etc. from early childhood. Though, in the midst of our own brokenness, it was always tempting to retreat into an interior reality blocked off from outside experience, experience, and I believe God, gave me a sense what it's like to walk in other people's shoes.

So again I appeal to my conservative friends to get to know and learn from liberal friends. And likewise, my liberal friends need to truly listen to what conservatives have to say and why. And on another spectrum, my atheist friends need to know more religious folks, so that you don't only see the caricatures presented by the supposedly "new" atheists. And of course, my religious friends also need to know, as in actually know, those who don't share your own convictions, and listen with a spirit of generosity to those who deeply differ.

So, for me at least, I choose to walk a path that includes mountains and plains, oceans and rivers, cities and towns, liberals and conservatives, atheists and believers. It doesn't mean I deny a particular sense and sensibility of reality. But it does mean that, even though we may deeply disagree, I will listen to you, because you do have something good and important to say to me.

So in this spirit, let's talk. Truly and truthfully.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What Do We Mean By Economic Rights?

How should we consider the ethics of economics? Ask an economic
"conservative" what they mean by "economic rights" and ask an
economic "liberal" the same question (at least in the American
context), and you'll get an affirmative answer from both. Yet
both will mean deeply different things in their seemingly identical answers.
To the "conservative", "economic rights" means individual liberty
in our individual interactions with other individual actors.
To the "liberal" this same term means something quite different.
To the modern liberal, to speak of economic rights is to speak of a baseline of equality that presupposes commonalities that sees social systems as being as much involved as individual actors.

Since I speak as both a conservative and liberal in different respects, in so much as I'm deeply conservative in my anthropology (seeing us a deeply fallen species), but also deeply liberal in so far as I see us as deeply bound together as one species recognizing that we are united, tied together, ultimately envisaged as all human, ultimately equal.

In light of this disparate reality, let's explore how we can move forward. We can differ in all of this without becoming disparaging?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

James McGrath and Conspiracy Science

James McGrath has a fascinating piece about the interrelationship between those who believe in Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The mindset that drives belief in nonsense science, such as Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism, or the anti-Semitic "Protocols" conspiracy theory, seem to all derive from a desire to easily explain the complexity of the world through either arcane conspiracy theories or overly simplistic narratives that use cherry picked parts of history or science in order to preserve a preconceived notion, whether anti-scientific, anti-Semitic, or racist.

This isn't to say that the destructive force of each of these is identical. Those who believe in YEC or ID aren't typically inclined towards violent imaginations or actions, while many who buy into the "Protocols" do harbor a deep seated hatred towards a specific group (in this case Jews). But the consequences of this kind of thinking is to perpetuate a way of seeing the world that is deeply at odds with how it actually works. Real history and real science, while never perfect, have nonetheless given us a reasonable assessment of the role of specific factors in how the world works.

In both cases, whether in science or in history, these conspiratorial ways of seeing reality betray a deep hostility and fear of complexity. In the case of anti-Semites, they fear/hate Jews and project their fears and all of the world's woes onto an easily identified group, and ironically see them as both preternaturally intelligent and demonically evil, even though historically Jews have been consistently the out group no matter where they live outside of Israel, and have suffered terribly because of that.

In the case of science, the YEC or ID perspectives both posit a mechanism that sees any allowance of naturalistic causes to speciation, especially homo sapiens, as being inherently anti-Christian. And beyond this, there is the argument that modern evolutionary (and for some, astronomical) science is a cabal of academic insiders bent on keeping up scientific orthodoxy even in the light of contrary findings which supposedly subvert the basics of Darwin's theory. But this view is once again a conspiratorial way of seeing how science is done.

Both of these camps consistently fail to understand how proper historiography or scientific research is done. Ultimately it's a rather concrete and static understanding of historical and scientific investigation which is deeply Manichean and won't allow either any gray between the black and white, or an apprehensible reality, whether religious, scientific, or historical, between total comprehension or complete agnosticism. It seems reality is lived in the not quite satisfying middle ground of knowing enough to make sense of most of life.

On Being Called "Queer"

I told a short story tonight at school about being called queer when I was in elementary school back in NYC. When I was growing up on Staten Island I lived in a neighborhood that was very conservative, but my family was quite liberal. So while all the other boys in school had short hair or even crew cuts, I had long hair and had a denim jacket with various peace patches and environmental patches on it.

Needless to say, I got beat up a lot.

I generally didn't like hanging out with the boys in school because they were overall pretty stupid, so I preferred hanging out with the girls. First off they treated me better and secondly I was raised by women more than men so I "got" women/girls better. I was also painfully shy and deeply introverted. Whether in school or at home I preferred living in my own thoughts more often than not. That, and the disfunctionality of my family made me very fearful of any outsiders, and many times insiders.

But my family, for all its faults, knew language. My mother was a poet and my father, though largely absent, was an English professor. So in that regard I understood from a very early age what words mean. So when the day came in fourth or fifth grade when a fellow student thought he was dealing me a death blow of linguistic accusation by calling me queer I realized that he had bit off more than he could chew.

I'm sure he made the accusation in order to cut me down. I have no idea what his own story is; whether he had been called names himself by fellow students or even in his own family. Maybe so or maybe not. It may have been as much the social ethos of the era that allowed kids and adults to call someone a name in order to other them so as to avoid dealing with difference in their midst. But nevertheless, he felt it was appropriate to call me queer in order to shame and embarrass me.

Now I don't remember how I knew this. But somehow in that moment I remembered that queer, while in the context of what this child was calling me, was meant as an insult, I also remembered that the term had a more neutral meaning that didn't necessarily have a negative connotation.

So I asked him if he knew what the term meant. It was obvious he didn't really know. So I told him. I told him that queer meant that something or someone was different than the norm, the standard, the accepted way. And considering the state of the norm, the standard, and the accepted way, being queer to me was quite a compliment.

So I thanked him for the compliment.

He didn't try insulting me anymore.

As I mentioned earlier tonight, I didn't have the muscles to fight off bullies. So I did get beat up on a regular basis. But I did have words to defend myself, and so I used them to the best of my ability. As I grew older I learned how to use my words to keep me safe or defend me. Now, as an adult, I have to be careful in how I use my words today. As it's often been said, that which saves you as a child can kill you as an adult. So in that  regard I must be careful to use my words very carefully.

Other boys had their muscles as their weapons. I had my words. Both can be deadly if used in wrong ways. We each used them to protect ourselves when young. And if we're not careful we can just as easily use them to do violence to others today.

I turned a phrase intended to hurt into one that became a compliment. But it was a selfish pursuit. Appropriate in its context, but dangerous as a template for later use. Just as using your fists to fight off an attacker is appropriate, that lesson can end up becoming a continuation of the cycle of violence if not checked and understood rightly.

So with words used to protect can just as easily become words that coerce and manipulate.

It seems language is a queer thing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Moving Forward Politically

We live in tumultuous times. Gee, what a surprise! The partisans of the doctrinaire certainties tell us that absolute certitude is the only way. My friends on the left, who are many, tell me that anything from a "conservative" perspective is automatically wrong. And likewise, my friends from the right, who are also many, tell me that anything from the left is automatically wrong.

I understand this impulse. I do. It's all too easy to see reality in starkly black and white terms. Us/them, either/or, all or nothing possibilities. However, when we engage in this behavior, we allow ourselves to become captive to a construct that ends up imprisoning us to the frameworks presented to us. It doesn't have to be that way. Each of us can make a choice to break out of this false dichotomy.

Here's how:

Make friends with people who disagree with you. Listen to opposing voices. Consider opinions based on different assumptions than yours. If you're liberal, make a conservative friend and do the hard work of listening to them. If you're conservative, make a liberal friend and do the same. If you're secular, make friends with a person of faith and listen to what they say and how it guides their life. And likewise, if you're religious (like me), make friends with a secular person, whether an agnostic or an atheist, and take the time to listen to what they say and why they say it.

Wisdom exists beyond our own shores. Sights can be seen beyond our own horizons. Are all views equal? No. I'm not a thorough going relativist. I believe in basic human equality against those who argue otherwise. So some arguments must be engaged forthrightly.

But even in this, we must acknowledge our common humanity among those with whom we deeply disagree. In the days ahead, we must seek truth, engage truthfully, and engage firmly with those we seek to both convince and learn from.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Strangeness of the Isaiah 6 calling

I've read Isaiah 6 more than a  few times over the years. It's a very popular passage for those who sense a calling from God towards ministry. The part that always gets mentioned is the "here am I, send me" part. I love that part too. I really do. But like with so many other passages of scripture, when we read a part apart from the context that surrounds it, we end up doing violence to what God intended in these discrete words.

So in the interest of discretion, let's consider the whole passage as God and his prophet intended:

Isaiah 6:1-13 (ESV)

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." And he said, "Go, and say to this people:
'Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.' 
make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed."
Then I said, "How long, O Lord?"
And he said:
"Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste, 
and the LORD removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
 And though a tenth remain in it,
 it will be burned again,
 like a terebinth or an oak,
 whose stump remains
 when it is felled."
 The holy seed is the stump.

Does this sound like the kind of call you want? Tell the people you're called to preach to do exactly opposite of what they're willing to hear? God calls you and guarantee's failure from the outset? Or at least failure by "normal" standards? Yet it seems this is God's way, strangely enough. God never calls his disciples to follow the path of popularity. God never calls his followers to sing the song that resonates with the majority. He offends the popular opinion.

So if someone is actually called in this way, they're gonna be confronted with all of the idolatries that befall their people, whether political or religious. And it's pretty much the case that anyone truly called of God is gonna be hated by the vested interests, both political and religious. For those of us concerned with the things of God, this is something worth considering, today, and in the days ahead.