Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Cost Of Real Life And Love

With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Observed) on Monday, the day before we inaugurate the first African-American President, I was thinking of James Baldwin. A writer of immense talent and passion, a man of multiple identities - a writer, a black man in a country where those two words didn't seem to go together very well (to put it mildly), a gay man in a world that thought such a person was diseased, a seer with more clarity precisely because he saw from so many angles at once - his words have always inspired awe in me. In a small paperback volume entitled The Fire Next Time, Baldwin included both that long essay, and a shorter letter to his nephew. Both concern the human toll of racism on the Baldwin family. Both concern Baldwin's dawning realization that, while anger is certainly understandable, the organization of hatred in to an ideology for African-Americans would leave them no better than their white oppressors. Thus, while fascinated with the Nation of Islam, for example, he writes in "The Fire Next Time" with a deep sadness concerning his interview with Elijah Mohammed, a man he wanted to admire, but for whom he felt only pity.

There is a nice little page with various quotes from Baldwin. I thought I'd just toss a few out there.
Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?

Baldwin lived his mature, declining years in France, because America, his home, the land he loved even if that was not returned, was too small for him. Even as we celebrate Barack Obama's ascension to the White House, and remember Baldwin's contemporary, King, who also understood the high cost of love and hate, and would pay for both with his life, I think it is important to remember James Baldwin who could see so clearly what others thought was only shadow.

Love is the most dangerous, almost impossible thing in the world. That is why it is the most necessary thing in the world.

Saturday Rock Show

The early 1980's were probably an interesting time to be, say 18 to 24 years old in Britain. Some of the most interesting, inventive music was emerging from the wreckage of punk. One of those groups that managed to crawl out from under that particular pile was Midge Ure's Ultravox. Ure would go on to help write, record, and produce a little song called "Do They Know It's Christmas" and organize BandAid and later LiveAid. Ultravox's biggest UK hit - to the point that it drove some folks nuts because it just seemed to be everywhere - was "Vienna". I have the multi-disc set from LiveAid, where they performed this and their other big radio hit, "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes", and this song is just better, even though the electric violin is painfully out of tune.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Down The Road A Bit Further

I was a wee young seminarian was the time I first heard the story of St. Thomas Aquinas; after many years working on his Summa Theologia, a compendium of all theological knowledge, he gave it all up, unfinished, and spent the few remaining years of his life in quiet contemplation. All those who came to ask him "why" were turned away with a single comment: "It is all straw."

I was horrified. "Straw"? "STRAW"? Anyone who has ever picked up and read even small portions of this masterwork of Christian thought - and for all its daunting reputation, it is one of the few pieces of deep theological writing that is eminently readable - would hardly describe it as straw. Yet, its author did.

Thomas was educated at the University of Paris. His teacher, Albert the Great, Albertus Magnus to give him his Latinate honorific, was perhaps the most subtle thinker of his generation; he divined a relationship between light and water as the source of the phenomenon we call a rainbow, being the first westerner to seek a natural explanation for what had been understood to be, until that time, a Divine act. Under Albert, Thomas soon found himself teaching where he once studied. Medieval theological education consisted of studying the Questiones, and writing a commentary on them. Yet, Thomas went much further. He wrote Biblical commentary, philosophical treatises, including a sustained metaphysical argument for the primacy of being over essence. His Christian apologia, Summa Contra Gentiles sought to answer any and all arguments against the Christian faith from doubters and heretics.

His final project would be nothing more and nothing less than the final word on the Christian faith. Yet, it remains unfinished to this day, a monument not only to his intellect and ambition, but also to the moment he cast it aside for reasons he never revealed in detail.

For years, I rebelled against the idea that it was folly to seek this kind of knowledge. I read voluminously, counting each finished work as another notch in my belt, another check mark against the notion that it was all straw. Barth, Brunner, Bonheoffer, Tillich, Gutierrez, Cone, Gilkey, Moltmann, Augustine, Thomas himself, Luther, Calvin, von Balthasar, Wesley, the Niebuhrs, Schleiermacher, Boulaga - my library is a testament to my insistent belief that it was far from straw, but the solid foundation for an edifice of faith.

Except, the idea nagged. Surely, at some point, all these different ideas, written at different times by men usually long dead, sometimes in languages just as dead, or at least incomprehensible to me, had to cease their hold and some little mark of my own was necessary, right? Yet, as the wordiest of them all, Karl Barth, said, all theology is prolegomena, only the initial clearing away of brush and debris in order to make a clear path through the bramble. If Barth, whose Church Dogmatics exceeds Thomas in length and depth, but resembles the original Summa in one regard at least - it is unfinished - could insist that all his work was nothing more than the initial tentative steps necessary for much greater work to come, what possible contribution could another make? Indeed, at what point does prolegomena stop and the real stuff, the tough, almost impossible work, begin?

The intellectual pursuit of understanding the Christian faith is a valid calling, a noble task, and most certainly a humbling one. Joining a conversation with some of the most gifted and brightest minds of the past two millennia is a privilege. Yet, at some point I discovered that I was not conversing. I was only listening. Furthermore, much of my listening was guided by a lack of any grasp of my own place in this line. I discovered that the "straw" could be blown away at the merest touch of a breeze of doubt, or the challenge of those whose perspective might have the virtue of being more deeply rooted in their own lives than my own.

I no longer hold that reading theology, and thinking the faith, are worthy pursuits for me. I can do it, and enjoy a good theological read for its own sake. The disputes between Bonaventure and Aquinas, the writings of William Ockham, the philosophical theology of Paul Tillich and Langdon Gilkey (especially his Reaping the Whirlwind) still inspire awe in me. I find myself enjoying the simple fact that I sat across the table from a man, John Godsey, who took his doctorate from Karl Barth. Indeed, John Godsey did me the honor and privilege of coming to my wedding. But, and there is always a "but" somewhere, what good is all this study and reading if it doesn't bear fruit in living?

I realize that, like Kierkegaard, I may just be setting up a false dichotomy. Indeed, it most likely is a false dichotomy. One can pursue theological knowledge not only for its own sake, but as a guide to faithful living.

At some point, for this Christian, the debate and discussion, the disagreements and diatribes all had to cease. While I do not hold that it is straw for each and all, for me, right now at this point in time - it is straw. There comes a time when one realizes that all one is doing is reading words. Anyone can read words.

How many people can live their own lives as fully and freely as possible?

That is the real challenge. That is the real question.

What Krugman Said (UPDATE)

With a generous hat tip to Eschaton, all I can say is high thee to the Times and read.

UPDATE: John Amato manages to capture the essence of the Bush years.
Bush gave his last speech to the American people tonight and finally his reign is coming to an end. He looked haggard and old after never fulfilling his promise of eight years of compassion. Instead we got corruption, cronyism, unaccountability, wars, lies, torture and a virus that has infected the entire government that leads us.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Meta-Politics Of Children

Art Linkletter used to have this television show, back when I was a wee little lad, called Kids Say The Darndest Things. It featured children, well, saying the darndest things. It was meant to be both charming and funny. Very often we treat the words of children as mere sounds without meaning other than pure entertainment. "Isn't that funny?" we say.

Well, not all children say the darndest things. Some say things that go beyond anything we might dream of saying, cutting through the niceties and polite rules we set for ourselves, rules that are, in the end, nothing more than conventions to be flaunted. Nation Public Radio featured a story this morning about a group of children at a school on a Navajo reservation in Arizona who were given a class assignment - write a letter to President-elect Barack Obama. The results are remarkable for their bluntness. Once one gets passed the fact that these come from some of the poorest Americans, or perhaps precisely because of that fact, I think it may just make us look at the world, and politics, a little differently than we had.
Dear Mr. Obama,

My name is Christopher Tinajero. I live in a brick house. All my family needs is food. Whenever I get home and I'm hungry I cannot find anything. We can't go anywhere because we always have no gas to drive. My mama voted for you, Obama, because we are a big fan. When you won we went crazy. I would want you to take away guns so our people don't have to die.


Christopher Garcia Tinajero

Dear Mr. Obama,

Hello, my name is Alisa Talor Yazzie. My maternal clan is Deer Springs, born for Bitter Water, and my paternal clan is Red Bottom clan, born for Towering House. I am full-blooded Navajo and I am 9 years old. At my school I voted for you, I wanted you to win. I was also a princess at my other school but I gave up my crown. There are a lot of things that are happening in my life. My uncle has kidney failure on both kidneys, but he'll be all right, won't he? I hope so. I just wanted to say hi, and I hope I will be able to see you once. When I get a new phone I will tell you my number.


Alisa Yazzie

While some of the letters feature requests for money - not exactly a surprise considering the profound poverty and lack of any resources whatsoever - they still feature a refusal to buckle under the weight of the cares these children, at least, are aware of. It is all mixed together, the good and the bad, the horrible and the magnificent.

What struck me most when I heard these letters being read by the children who wrote them was the simple reality that, as much as we like to console ourselves that politics is mostly a sport that has to do with who is on top, who holds the whip hand, etc., in the end, what politics is really about is having the power to achieve something for people. Doing stuff. Power for its own sake is worse than useless, because if power is not used for something, it isn't really power, now is it. These children are cutting through the debate about ideology, Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative, and asking the new President of the United States to do something. Obviously, they are asking him to do something for them; some of them include the information that they pressed their parents and other adults to vote for Obama, so they are canny enough to understand the game does work a certain way. Yet, in the end, there is something that transcends the mean and petty bickering of so much of our public discourse here. These children believe, as I think we all should, that our national politics is only a means toward the end of accomplishing results that benefit real people.

For far too long, conservatives have repeated that government is inefficient, that government doesn't work, etc., etc. Except, of course, this is not true. Not only does it work, some - perhaps many - expect it to work at least as well as private industry, and to do so with the goal of helping citizens who cannot help themselves.

I'm not suggesting that Barack Obama should order the Treasury to send a blank check to the Navajo Nation (although that might be nice, you know?). I am suggesting that there is a wisdom on display here that we adults, in our endless bickering over trivialities, have forgotten. This isn't a game; this is about leadership, real leadership with real results for real people.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Muslims Call For Investigation . . . No, Wait, Anti-Semitic Americans Demand . . . Shoot, That's Not Right, Either

Oh, that's right. It's Israelis who are calling for an investigation in to whether or not Israel committed war crimes in Gaza.

Silly me. Here I thought all right-thinking people just supported everything Israel did without question.

Supporting The Troops . . . Or Not

Over the weekend, I heard that the military would not give out Purple Hearts for those whose PTSD was a direct result of combat; apparently mental injuries aren't real to these people. Now, it seems that Marines are committing suicide in record numbers. Not just any run-of-the-mill jarhead, mind, but those who are combat veterans.

Heck of a job, Bushie . . .

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The End Of Days

Starting form the granted info that Feodor was over at ELAshley's blog, I thought I'd check it out. I'm providing a link because I'm pretty sure Eric would simply erase any comment I might make (what a man!), but I thought I'd make some general observations.

First, I do so love someone who claims to understand the Bible typing out the following list:
* The Rebirth of Israel --Matthew 24:32 [Open in Libronix (if available)]
* The Increase of Knowledge --Daniel 12:4 [Open in Libronix (if available)]
* The Birth of Nuclear Bombs --Ezekiel 14:12 [Open in Libronix (if available)]
* Russian Jews coming from the North Country --Jeremiah 3:27 [Open in Libronix (if available)]
* Jerusalem in the hand of the Jews --Zephaniah 3:16 [Open in Libronix (if available)] , Luke 21:24 [Open in Libronix (if available)]
* International Television --Revelation 11:9-10 [Open in Libronix (if available)]
* Deception by Secular Humanism & Cults --Matthew 24:4 [Open in Libronix (if available)]
* Famines, Earthquakes, Aids, etc. --Matthew 24:7 [Open in Libronix (if available)]
* Marriage and Materialism --Matthew 24:37-38 [Open in Libronix (if available)]

International television was predicted in the late 1st century? Nuclear weaponry by an exiled Hebrew prophet? Not understanding that "prophecy" and "prediction" are two distinct phenomenon, the latter frowned upon by most Christians, the former the exercise of pronouncing God's judgment based in the Law, grace, and love, Eric manages to offer a fourth-grader's reading of the Bible. When taken to task on it by Feodor, his response?
My motivation is their eternal destination. My motivation is partly Ezekiel 3:18 [Open in Libronix (if available)] , and a desire to hear, 'Well done thou good and faithful servant.' I have no desire to lie to the lost and tell them their lives will be magically better, that their troubles will miraculously lift from their shoulders. Not that it can't happen, but if anyone is going to follow Christ, they have to know that it will not be an easy thing to do. Far from it. Their reward as you say, is a marriage feast... and that's stating it rather simply. No marriage ends with the reception. Likewise, what awaits them in heaven is far more than a sit down meal with their future husband and King.

You have misconstrued much of my intent here. Perhaps I'm not articulating it well enough.

How's this... "Bridge Out! 100 Yards!"

All I'm saying is, "His return is imminent. Get Ready NOW before it's too late!"

Now, I don't think Feodor missed Eric's point at all. I think he was making fun of it, or at the very least pointing out some pretty big errors in his Biblical reading-comprehension.

Personally, my favorite part is Eric's admission that all he cares about is getting a pat on the head from God for being such a good little boy. At least he is honest enough to admit that his Christian belief is all about him.

New Levels Of Crazy

Sometime when I read about right-wing Christians doing stuff, I think, "These folks just can't top themselves." Then, I read this, and I realize I should never underestimate the ability of these people to commit idolatry in their efforts to put politics before God.
It seems that Rob Schenck of Faith and Action and Patrick J. Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition took it upon themselves last week to bless the Capitol passageway through which Barack Obama will make his way to be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. Turned back by Capitol police, they happened upon Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who shepherded them to the place. There, as you can see, amidst the praying for the president-to-be and his family, Schenck anoints the door posts with holy oil from the Holy Land, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

What's up with this? In the video, Schenck declares that he is consecrating the passageway "as they did the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the Temple to the use of God and to His will and to His Word."

So . . . the Oval Office is now the Holy of Holies, to be entered only one day a year, where Pres. Obama will whisper the secret and Holy name of God three times amidst a cloud of incense?

These people are whacked out it is unbelievable.

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!

If you're an old fart like me, you might remember the Iran-Contra scandal back in the late-1980's. A few years before it broke, Congress discovered a spine and managed to make illegal sending funds to the Contras in Nicaragua. Oliver North and others took a brief from Pres. Reagan to continue support for these drug running terrorists and solicited money from various rich Americans, ultimately getting a windfall from a covert arms shipment to Iran, made at a time we were also providing classified intelligence to Iraq (nothing like playing both ends against the middle in a fruitless war of attrition, I always say, especially when you really don't have a dog in the fight). One of the players in this sleazy little D-grade political thriller was Elliot Abrams, a State Department official ultimately convicted of lying to Congress (back when that was a prosecutable offense). At one point during his rather contentious hearing before the special House-Senate committee empaneled to investigate this tangled mess, he insisted the entire thing was a farce, an effort to criminalize what was nothing more than policy disagreements. This particular framing was picked up by many on the right, and continues to this day. Every time some conservative gets harassed by the media and others that they might just have done something not quite legal in the course of their official duties, it's another example of mean, stupid liberals wanting to make doing conservative stuff illegal. Why do we do it? because we're mean and stupid and liberal, that's why!

Fast forward a couple decades, and we have an entire Administration of Elliot Abrams. Shoot, we have Abrams himself, rehabilitated by George W. Bush, no less. The entire crew is set to ride off in to the sunset, unmourned by an American public exhausted by their desire to have this debacle of Executive mismanagement over and done with. Yet, there are many loose ends, as they say, that need tying up, many questions for which the answers aren't exactly comforting, many deeds that need a closer examination. Pres.-elect Obama has done the Bush Administration a favor and signaled his refusal to investigate with an aim toward prosecuting any alleged criminal conduct on the part of members of the Bush Administration. Many on the left are outraged; there are just some things - like, say, torture, indefinite detention, domestic spying for starters - that need to be brought to the light of day, and those responsible held accountable.

I am, in all honesty, of two minds about this. On the one hand, my fondest dream has been to see Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and many lesser lights of this already-dim group prosecuted in various venues, not least The Hague (having a former President and Vice President extradited to The Netherlands to appear before a war crimes tribunal would most definitely be a victory for real justice). If any group deserved such attention, it is this bunch who have served us so poorly, destroyed so much of our national confidence in the ability of government to actually achieve things of worth, to even do public Administration with a minimal amount of competence.

On the other hand, while I think making such a signal so early and so public has certainly confused a vocal part of Obama's constituency, it might also be part of a deeper game on Obama's part. It is important to remember a couple things. First, many of those calling for investigation with an aim toward eventual prosecution want the kind of open-ended investigation Lawrence Walsh gave us during Iran-Contra. It took years, with the final indictments handed down as Bush 41's term came to a close - Cap Weinberger's indictment in particular was a memorable one - with Presidential pardons hard on their heels. While that was pretty shameless, it should not have been surprising. Such investigations are necessarily lengthy, dealing with millions of pages of documents, memoranda, emails, classified information, and the interview of principles and secondary figures multiple times, sometimes numbering in the hundreds (why else would Oliver North's secretary have to be hauled before a Congressional committee). Obama has to put in place a minimally-functioning Administration on January 20th at noon, and part of that process is getting everyone to play nice, handing over documents, policy statements, email directives and all the rest beforehand. If some mid-level political appointee is afraid there might be something potentially prosecutable in this, that, or the other communique, he or she might just not play along.

At the same time, once all this paperwork and screenwork is gathered together and examined, isn't it just possible - and I say this with more hope than confidence it is true - that someone higher up the food chain might just shout in good Capt. Renault-like tones, "I'm shocked, shocked to discover illegality going on here!" Rather than pursue this or that lead, isn't it at least possible that as specific acts come to light, they will be prosecuted?

Even if this isn't so, we should never forget that the Republicans, elephants that they are, have long memories. Bill Clinton was impeached not only because the Republicans were never satisfied he had won the Presidency outright; he was impeached because, 20 years before, a Democratic Congress had its sights set on Richard Nixon. It was payback. Now, it is true enough, as the example of the Republican treatment of the Clinton Administration demonstrates, that such nasty antics not only distract an Administration from actually doing work. It is also true that, a good prosecutor working long enough and hard enough will manage to find someone somewhere violating the law. When Bush took over, the constant crowing about alleged Bush crimes sounded kind of tinny even to me, a repeat from the left what happened during the eight years of the Clinton Administration. To turn around and start investigating every aspect of the Bush years would take time, resources, and emotional and political energy needed for doing other things, not the least of which is simply executing the laws of the land. Should Republican, by some miracle, win the White House again in the near future, if Obama wasted a whole lot of time and energy investigating and prosecuting every little piece of dirt from the Bush Administration, please know that a new Republican Administration would be dedicated to one purpose and one purpose alone - doing the same to previous Democratic Administrations, only with gusto, flair, and more nasty thoroughness than any Democrat could dream possible. At some point, I think, we have to be realistic enough to accept the fact that, even though there is probably enough evidence in the public record to impanel a dozen grand juries, the political cost might just be too high. It's an ugly reality, to be sure, but that doesn't mean it isn't a reality nonetheless.

Sometimes, I think we have to settle for a kind of minimalist understanding that, yeah, the entire eight years was one long criminal enterprise with a combination of corruption, stupidity, ignorance, and blatant flaunting of the law that was breathtaking in its exuberance. At the same time, it's over, they're gone and this bunch, at least, won't be around to bother us anymore, so let's get some stuff done, and done right. While we're doing that, should we stumble across some evidence - actual evidence (which shouldn't be too hard to find) - that a crime might just have been committed by the Bush Administration ("Shocked, I tell you!"), well then, that's what we have a Justice Department for.

One finale note. I know that Democracy Lover, for one, and others often write about "principles". I am not dedicated to principles in politics, other than actually achieving stuff. Part of what made the Bush years so awful was we had a group of people in charge, in both the Executive and in Congress, who were dedicated to certain "principles" - conservative ideology, to be precise - and simply ignored public disdain and preference as well as the occasional law to achieve ends rooted in these principles. Whether it was the unitary executive or Tom DeLay threatening to subpoena a brain-dead coma patient to "testify" before Congress during the whole Terri Schiavo fiasco, that is what a dedication to principle leads to, in the end. Principles are for people who see nothing wrong with not actually achieving anything other than a moral victory. Politics isn't about moral victories, but real victories.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Music For Your Monday

I can't keep it straight, so I'll just give it a new title.

Arnold Schoenberg managed to set the musical world on its ear, in the same way and at the same time a bunch of painters were doing the same thing in the visual arts. Generally called "modernism", it was nothing more than innovation, taking the next logical step. Sometimes his music is considered "atonal", which it really wasn't. There just wasn't the same kind of harmonic order that earlier music had. His "12-tone" ideas are interesting, and would be picked up by jazz musicians later in the century. Here's an excerpt from his Piano Concerto 42, with Mitsuko Uchida on piano:

Another excerpt, from his Chamber Symphony, op. 9, from 1984, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting.

I think Glenn Gould is the perfect interpreter of Schoenberg, if for no other reason than he goes well with being a coke-head. Here he is with Yehudi Menuhin on violin, playing Fantasie, op. 47.

Eight Days

Not that I'm counting.

Will America survive?

Just so any right-wing Republicans who stop by may wonder, no, I do not think Obama is the salvation of the nation. Right now, I find him a bit too honorable toward the Republicans in Congress, who are owed nothing for their mismanagement of our national affairs. I think he is too honorable toward the Democratic leadership, for that matter, who are looking to earn points by standing up to a popular President-to-be from their own party so no one can accuse them of partisanship. I think he is aiming low with his stimulus plan - more money in a wider variety of ways (shoot, FDR even funded plays, poems, paintings, and novels) would be better - but since that's Paul Krugman's position and all he has is a Nobel in Economics, what do either of us know? My point is not that Obama is our savior (or, perhaps, Savior?). Rather, my point is that Bush is so bad he could still make things worse in eight days. He has the magic touch, after all.

Stimulus And Response

Being unqualified to speak on details of Pres-elect Obama's economic stimulus plan before the new Congress - I know what I read in the paper, and I also know that when we've reached numbers like "$700 billion" we have reached a level no one really can comprehend - I am interested in a report on "negotiations" between the Obama camp and Congress. When I first read about this, I thought, what leverage does Congress have in all this?

Then, it occurred to me. Obviously, Democrats have to cave in to every whim and fancy of the most unpopular Republican President in our history, because otherwise people might say bad things about how partisan they are. They win points, however, by standing up to an incredibly popular soon-to-be incumbent Democratic President, who is offering the American people an opportunity to lessen the damage and pain from the train-wreck of the Bush years.

Rather than sit and negotiate - and try to get Republicans on board - Obama should simply have drawn up a bill, had it introduced to Congress, let them vote on it up and down, and then if it failed, held a little presser saying the combination of Republican intransigence and Democratic ineptitude has led to the demise of a bill meant to help the American people. The outcry from the people might have been enough to get another, similar, bill passed without much fanfare. Obama is being far too deferential to the stupid Democrats in Congress and the obstreperous Republicans by holding "negotiations." Screw the negotiations. Play nice on stuff that doesn't matter all that much. Put and keep the Republicans in their place, the minority.

The politics of this thing is really maddening.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Double Standard?

NB: I saw this yesterday, and was going to write something about it, but was still recovering from a wonderful gastro-intestinal bug that hit me like a Peterbilt Friday morning shortly after I got home from work. I was still physically weak from the onslaught, but am feeling much better.

Poor Sarah Palin. She casts herself as a victim of horrid, evil, liberal journalists who used a double-standard in approaching her own family and that of either Barack Obama or Joe Biden. Obviously, if she had been a liberal Democrat no one would have thought to examine her private life.

Over at Fire Dog Lake, Julia takes issue with Gov. Palin's insistence that the scrutiny she faced on this front was the result of media bias. While she makes a persuasive case, I think Julia misses a larger point.

While it is true, as Julia notes, that both the media and the Republican standard-bearers managed to include criticisms of President-elect Obama's wife in their campaign rhetoric, I think everyone can agree there was a larger-than-normal interest in the private life of Gov. Palin. Part of that was due, I think, to the simple fact that she was unknown on the national stage. Sen. McCain had been around, and the story of his marriages, etc., had been told and settled for quite some time. Everyone knew Sen. Biden had suffered a tragic loss, and dealt with it bravely, early on in his life and political career. While new as well, there seemed little in Obama's current life to attract attention. There was some scrutiny by some right-wingers over his birth certificate, whether he was really born in Hawaii or not, and the role his Muslim stepfather may or may not have played in his life at one time, but since most of this was the result of political senescence on the part of the right, it resulted more in derision than anything else.

For my part, I believe the scrutiny Gov. Palin's family life received was rooted less in sexism and political bias than it was in the kind of schadenfreude many feel in exposing moral hypocrisy. Part of the wing of the Republican Party that continues to insist that personal private character traits are, or should be, considered as contiguous with our public commitments and lives, she seemed to invite those who might wish to get to know her to take a look at her family. She trotted out her baby son, Trig, as evidence of her strong family values (a late-life baby with Downs' Syndrome whose birth showed their commitment to pro-life values, so goes the argument). I was personally disgusted with all the attention paid to the pregnancy of her daughter Bristol, yet since Gov. Palin was part of the Republican Party that crows about the evils of teen sexuality, it could at least be argued that here, if nowhere else, there was a lapse in the continuity between her espoused beliefs and her actual practice.

I do not believe Gov. Palin received critical press, however, because of her family life. I think it might have been more intrusive if for no other reason than there seems to be an audience for these kind of private portraits. By adding in her own adherence to a certain set of political principles that see no difference between how one conducts one's personal life and the conduct of public business, however, I think the whole issue of "double standard" dissolves. She was held, not to a double standard, but to her own.

And found wanting.

Death And Dying

This past fall I've had to face a lot of death. My dear friend Steve Creech is gone. My Aunt, Joan Konicki, passed away just a few weeks ago. After a battle with lung cancer, Kathy Zoeller died just a few short weeks ago. Just yesterday, we received word that Ruby Jones, a woman who lived catty-corner from us and was a member of the first church to which Lisa was appointed, died recently after a stroke, at the age of 91. Her passing marked the end of an era of sorts in the little town of Jarratt, VA, and there are few who remain from that once wonderful, confounding congregation with which we shared five years of our lives, including the birth of our first child.

I have faced death in different ways in my life, from my childhood loss of my paternal grandfather - my first real encounter with death - to the suicide of my best childhood friend to the sudden, inexplicable loss of my wife's father a little over seven years ago. Now, however, I am entering the age where it will be, if not a constant companion, at least always a shadow in the background, waiting perhaps around if not the next corner, then down the street a ways. Dealing with death, with the reality of the final answer to all of life's mysteries, is never easy. Knowing it is real, knowing it sits there for all of us, yet takes us piece by piece in the deaths of those we know and love before it comes for us is hard. Of course, we are lucky because this is a nation- and culture-specific issue. Were we to live in, say, Zimbabwe (according to an article in today's Washington Post), the issue of death and dying would be far different. Were we living in Congo, the site of a war that has already brought much death and destruction to central Africa with no end in sight, we would face a whole different set of questions, issues, challenges, griefs, etc.

None of this is to say our challenges are not real, or of less urgency than others. Only to say they are different.

In any event, I was brought to mind of these issues and questions, fears and anger, in reading this article in today's Washington Post. Written by a Minnesota-based internist, Chris Bowron, the article explores one physician's frustration as he deals with issues surrounding what are now called "end of life" issues. As he points out, with interesting new medicines and technologies created to prolong life, very often doctors, nurses, and families face increasingly difficult choices as to how best to deal with and care for those who are declining toward death.

I have to admit I was first a bit off-put by the initial presentation, as well as the way Bowron framed the fundamental question - how do we, as individuals, as families, as health-care providers, as a society at large, to come to grips with burgeoning life-extending technologies, yet still coping with the fundamental reality that death comes to us all? Reading a doctor's musings on the reality that death is not the enemy, but perhaps dying, or even the prevention of death (in some though certainly not all cases), was eye-opening. Of course, for his question, I believe there is no final answer. There is no "one way" that fits all situations, and doctors and nurses, families and loved-ones all face difficult choices - despite his assertion at the end that this "choice" is largely illusory - for which we have little guidance. Even the assertion of preference - a Do Not Resuscitate Order in one case; an order to do everything possible in another, similar set of circumstances - can be meaningless in the face of loved-ones, or health-care providers in the heat of the moment (Dr. Bowron offers an example of a patient brought to his hospital from a nursing home when there existed an order that no such measures be taken; the nursing home administration probably just followed their Policies and Procedures without reference to individual preference in this case).

In The True and Only Heaven, the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch offers the view of the differences between two societies - early-Victorian Britain and contemporary America - as members of each faced death. He uses the death scene of Little Nell as a template; here is a little girl, dying (as many young people did) surrounded by family and loved-ones (a not-uncommon occurrence). He makes the point that this was a ritual played out innumerable times. When a member of the family was dying, the whole family was paraded past, to see and offer one last goodbye, to be with so the final moment is not one spent alone.

We, on the other hand, keep a certain distance. Dying is done less and less at home (although that is changing) and more frequently at hospitals and nursing homes. Even if family is present, they are kept at a distance through the intrusive technologies and the insistence of doctors and nurses whose intervention is not always wanted or even needed. We attempt to shield our children from the reality of death, believing it unnecessary to expose them to this final state because "they won't understand it".

Yet, none of us understand it. Not really. Yet, is understanding really necessary? Whether we understand it or not, or even accept its inevitability or not, death awaits us all at some point. Dying can be long and drawn out, with or without technological helps. Or it can come in an instant, unexpected, stealing others from us in a blink of an eye. Whether we understand it or not, it is there. How we deal with it, how we face it as families, as health-care providers, as supportive loved-ones and friends, comes down, I think, in the end, to our ability to stare the abyss in the face, allow it to stare back at us, and not fall in to it ourselves.

Virtual Tin Cup

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