Saturday, August 22, 2009

Decline I Can Live With

Checking out FireDogLake's Book Chat, it turns out it's this book. Which, in its turn, is similar to this book, which I bought soon after 9/11, and dealt with that event obliquely (the event occurred after the book was finished).

As a general rule, I am not a huge fan of "USA No. 1!" nonsense. There have been great nations in the past - from Sumer and Babylon and Egypt and the Mongols up to the British, the French, and the Germans - and all have fallen. It's just the way these things happen. Like our relatively short history thus far, our sojourn as the dominant global power was brief and fiery. I think, however, we can look at the post-WWII British example and learn much from it, most of which can be summarized thus: It's good no longer to be a world power.

I can live with my grandchildren being part of just another country in a world with another world power calling the shots, or perhaps no single leader, or perhaps some kind of mixed supranationalism. I can live with it because being a world power has been detrimental to our national psyche, our republican institutions, our democratic processes, and our sense of ourselves. Only those unsure of their own status and stature yearn to be better than others. I, for one, have no problem simultaneously praising the US as the best hope for the world and believing that our decline from world-power status is a good thing, perhaps the best thing, for keeping that hope alive.

While the question of "Who will be number one?" seems to occupy some publicists interminably, I couldn't care less about that question. The British and French have managed just fine, as have the Russians and others.

It will be nice to be just another country again, with unique opportunities to be sure, but no longer "bearing any burden" because those burdens have become far too cumbersome for our broken polity to carry.

Saturday Rock Show

Without a doubt, my favorite song writer is Pete Townsend. He's also one of my favorite performers. This performance of "Won't Get Fooled Again" is an object lesson in how good a rock band can be even in the midst of being unhealthy and on the verge of collapse. Keith Moon would die not long after this. Townsend was in the midst of multiple addiction crises that would come close to killing him. Yet, if you watch this even with that in mind, it's pretty astounding.

If We Stick Together

I got thinking about this scene from It's A Wonderful Life not because of the relevance of the economic collapse. Rather, it is George Bailey's response to the panic that I find important. In light of the insanity of recent events, it seems even more important to consider some facts in light of a context that might just make us embarrassed by our behavior.

It was quite evident before the first eruption at a town hall meeting that we were in for some rough times this month. Right-wing leaders had made it very clear they would co-ordinate with various local individuals to organize protests to disrupt town hall meetings members of Congress would hold on health care reform. The scenes have become so typical as to pass from event to myth in less than a month. Groups holding signs denouncing the President as, variously, a socialist and a Nazi. Groups shouting down any attempt to communicate. Accusations that became more and more divorced from any serious reading of the various bills before Congress.

Then there are the various bits that show the ignorance and irony of our situation. Senior citizens insisting that "government" not mess with Medicare, which is government-provided health insurance. A young man who is part of a right-wing group insisting he was injured by "union goons", then setting up a drive to collect money because he has no health insurance. For two weeks now we have actually had to repeatedly hear talk of "death panels" and "government pulling the plug on grandma". The media has tried as best it can - and I really will give our national media credit - to take all of this in and make sense of it, including taking apart various accusations that have no semblance of reality to them, even as some pundits and journalists continue to traffic in easily disproved nonsense.

The President's poll numbers have slipped; the poll numbers of Congressional Democrats have slipped. The only bright side to this slip is there has not been a boost in the numbers for Republicans of any sort, which while heartening, also makes the case that Democratic reluctance to be more forceful and stand up to the rhetorical onslaughts of the right has weakened the party. The President and some senior members of Congress (especially of the Senate) insist they want Republican support for health care reform even as it has become abundantly clear that the Republicans have no intention of supporting any bill whatsoever. Compromise and cooperation with a group as intellectually dishonest as this is impossible; the American people seem to understand that even if members of both houses of Congress still seem to think that collegiality demands compromise.

One would think all this hubbub concerned a near-revolutionary change in the social contract, or perhaps a debate on whether or not to go to war. The question that has spawned this spectacle of outrage is this: Will we, the wealthiest industrialized nation on the planet, provide access to quality health care to all its citizens? The loudest voices, even if still a very distinct minority, is quite clearly, "No!"

Can we take a look at ourselves for just a moment? Can any of us, good, solid Americans of right, center, and left, take a look at what we have become for just a moment or two and see and hear and, perhaps, wonder at what we have become? We have allowed the forces of the status quo to divide us! We are allowing individuals and groups who lie outside the general consensus to drive the debate on the question of reforming health care. It takes nothing more than a whispered rumor by someone most Americans know has no grasp of serious national policy to take the debate in to territory that has relationship to reality whatsoever. We hear people advocating bringing weapons to meetings. We hear intimations of violence. We see people screaming in rage and fear at the prospect of some bogeyman called "socialism", which has no relationship to what is actually being discussed. We waste precious time and resources attempting to steer the discussion back toward the question at hand, only to have the debate go off the tracks over this or that or some other accusation that is in no way relevant.

What kind of a nation are we? Where are our religious leaders, our civic leaders, our citizens demanding an end to the panic and fear? Where are the voices of sanity and comity insisting that the debate over health reform is about all of us? Divide and conquer has always been the best strategy for victory, whether in war or politics. We are being divided even as the question before us is one of coming together not only to provide assistance to those most in need, but also to provide for sound fiscal and financial health for a sector of our economy that is bloated, out of control, and capricious in its relationship with the public.

The snarls of hatred, the glare from a polished weapon, the denunciations of politicians as enemies of the state do nothing but weaken us. The gradual erosion of support for our elected leaders to do the one thing they were put in office to do - to lead - should be a wake-up call that it is time to remember that all of us, regardless of political ideology have a stake in the outcome of this debate. All of us will benefit. We will be a better country should we no longer make the ability to pay the gate-keeper for access to health care. We will be a more compassionate, more unified country if we no longer recognize some arbitrary standard such as income, social class, or wealth as the magic formula that open the doors to better health.

This is not a request for comity, or an attempt to silence opposition. It is nothing more and nothing less than an attempt to get people to see what we have become. We are, right now, so far away from addressing the simple question before us, and seeing the possibilities for general national betterment inherent in this question that we resemble nothing more than that crowd at the Bailey Building and Loan. We are all scrambling in panic and fear, not realizing that the forces that have far too much control over our lives already see an opportunity for gaining even more. If all of us, Democrats and Republicans, left, right, and center, can return to the question at hand and consider it on the merits, we might be surprised that we can, indeed beat "this thing" if we all stick together. Panic in the streets is an opportunity for the powerful to increase their power; a mob is nothing more than the expression of whatever status quo exists exerting its unchecked desire for power against whatever forces might be trying to alter that status quo. The irony, of course, is that the subsumed ego within the mob mentality is quite literally atomized, cut off from real social intercourse with others. This walled-up ego, separated from others, serves only the interests of power, a power that even now can break us as a people.

I don't know if this attempt to get people to look at the situation we are in will find fertile ground. I'm not sure I really care. I recognize there are many individuals and groups that are not only vested in the status quo, but also vested in the ongoing insanity. Yet, not to do so would be a surrender not only to those vested interests, but a supreme act of cowardice. At some point, some lone figure needs to stand before the panicked mob and insist, "Will you take a look at yourselves?"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Healing Ministries

The debate over health care reform is very often framed as an issue relating to money, i.e., it is about how we pay for health care, rather than the quality of care received. Yet, it seems to me that there is a relationship between what care we get, what care we can afford, and what this says about the kind of society in which we live. As a self-professed Christian, the relationships among these questions become even more pointed precisely because part of the ministry of Jesus was a healing ministry.

People came to Jesus for any number of reasons, but quite frequently he encountered people in need of physical healing, which he treats as having spiritual roots. A paralytic is cured by being lowered through the roof of a crowded house. Jesus is challenged by some over the root cause of a man's blindness and sees the possibilities for God's glory to be revealed, rather than any sin this man, or any of his ancestors, may have committed. A woman with "an issue of blood", not only suffering physically but socially as well (she was ritually unclean), is healed through her "faith", her boldness in being willing to risk the uncleanliness of another by touching the hem of Jesus' garment.

Those in need came to Jesus for help. Jesus, in turn offered not just a cure for their physical ailment, but the comfort and grace and even glory of the presence of God. The artificial lines between the spiritual and the physical weren't a consideration for Jesus; making the sick and unclean whole, restoring them to communion with others, was not just a way of making these people better. It was also a sign, an example, of what Jesus meant when he talked about "the Kingdom of God".

The United States is a country with a long history of insouciance toward human life. Born in the violence of revolution, we have long histories of the violent social repression of various minority groups, the legal dehumanization of African slaves, occasional outbursts of extra-legal vigilantism, a Civil War that is the bloodiest such episode in our history. Even today, our violent crime rate is far higher than most other industrialized countries.

Not just do our social mores permit a certain amount of violence; so does our legal system. We execute individuals convicted of violent crimes, as do Iran, Syria, and Lybia, but unlike Great Britain, France, or Germany. Even as evidence of race and class bias in the apportionment of these sentences comes clearer every year; even as more and more persons awaiting the executioner are exonerated by better evidentiary techniques; there is still majority support for putting to death a group of citizens deemed beyond the reach of compassion by our society.

In the midst of all this, comes a debate over access to health care. We have this odd juxtaposition occurring. A society whose roots include a dedication to the Christian faith and practice, which also has a lax attitude toward human life, is struggling to accept the idea that access to health care is not to be limited by economic status, or other factors often weighed by private insurers for considering eligibility for insurance. It seems to me that we members of the Body of Christ should speak out of a commitment to the healing ministry of our Savior. Jesus understood no distinction between the physical, the social, and the spiritual; "curing" one was actually "healing" to all. Offering access to quality health care to all Americans would be a large step in the direction not only of ensuring no American is denied access to the best treatment options available do to a lack of availability to pay. It would also be a step away from our history of social violence, and our culture of acceptance of violence and dehumanization.

Allowing access to health care, including publicly funded health insurance, would not just offer the "cure" of the doctors and their healing work. It would heal some of the brokenness in American society. It would be a bold statement that class is no barrier to acceptance as part of our society. It would be a small whisper that the long history of violence no longer holds sway. Rather than accept violence, but excluding the victims from care, we have an opportunity to say, with Jesus, that one is a part of the society again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I hate navel-gazing about blogging, but this, referencing this, got me thinking about the whole "the bloggers are ruining the news!" trope you read a few years back. It's still out there, because reporters believe, based only on the fact that there are public affairs bloggers, that we are all a bunch of wannabe journalists. Also, as Duncan points out repeatedly, some nationally-recognized journalists pretend to an ethical standard they simply don't hold.

For myself, I do not desire to be a journalist. I enjoy writing about the things that interest me, and I try to do so with integrity - being as factual as possible, making sure that my position is clear and separate from whatever the facts of a given instance may be - if for no other reason than that is the one currency any writer trades in. You lose that, you might as well fold up your tent and go home.

The caricature of the loner sitting around in his or her jammies, getting Cheetos powder on the keyboard as they vent their frustrations to the world is not only old, it is belied by the sheer welter and diversity of blogs. This caricature holds, however, because those who criticize blogging per blogging tend to be the same folks who believe we are nothing more or less than frustrated journalists, yearning for respectability. Like all writers, we yearn for an audience, to be sure; professional recognition, however, is a wholly different matter. I've resigned myself to a small audience if for no other reason than it seems all I can attract. I'd rather do things my own way than compromise in order to get higher traffic.

So, I think the adjective (or perhaps noun?) "numbnut" just doesn't fit anymore, if it ever did. There are such out there, to be sure, sending barely readable screeds to the universe to puzzle over. Yet, there are also many, many excellent places where there is the thoughtful expression of opinion balanced with a serious dedication to the facts of the matter. The numbnuts, I believe, are the folks who believe having a blog is a license to trade in whatever crap crosses their path.

Kind of like CBS News.

Monday, August 17, 2009

In Defense Of "The Crazy Tree"

The scene would be familiar to anyone watching video feeds of recent Town Hall events. A group of people, some carrying signs denouncing the President as a socialist, others calling to an end to tyranny, some screaming, others demanding a return to the constitutional principles of the founders, some just incoherent. This isn't a scene from our recent town halls, though. Rather, it is the prescription for obstruction sent out by Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, in the mid-1960's, to fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These instructions, as reported in George Thayer's revised The Farther Shores of Politics: The American Political Fringe Today, published in 1967, has several chapters on the American right at the height of the Goldwater insurgency. Yet, this right-wing insurgency included not just mainstream conservatives such as Goldwater. There were racists, states-rights supporters, the militia movement, and just plain weirdos, such as those who desired a revival of Nordic religion, including such inscriptions as "Odin Speed to Valhalla . . ." on orders sent out to various members (that's even the title of a chapter in Thayer's book).

The names and issues have changed. It is no longer Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson who are President, but Obama. It is no longer Civil Rights or Medicare, Vietnam (which some on the right saw as a way to distract attention from the graver threat in Cuba) or the nascent anti-nuclear movement that are the targets, but health care reform. One could read "Islam" in many of the quoted pieces in Thayer's book where the word "communism" appears. It's uncanny, really.

Bob Somerby is not a fan of Rick Perlstein's piece in the "Outlook" section in Sunday's Washington Post.
The analysts were filled with disgust at Perlstein’s sneering analysis. He name-called a lot of those “working-class people,” engaging in the very conduct he had described to Coolican. But he certainly didn’t spend much time naming the “elites” who drive this cynical culture. And Perlstein knows about those elites.

Unfortunately, Somerby does a little name-calling himself, pointing out Perlstein's upbringing in a tony suburb of Milwaukee, education at the University of Chicago, and what-not, as if any of that were relevant. Somerby also points out that one of the person's highlighted in Perlstein's piece is described in a derogatory manner; Somerby wishes that Perlstein had pointed out some other set of descriptors. Alas, this is a false choice. The man in question may, indeed, be a working-class rube, being played by high-flying elites to do their dirty work for them. At the same time, he is part and parcel of a long history of crazy, a portion of which is highlighted in the aforementioned book the George Thayer. Somerby may find it patronizing to call crazy people crazy. I find it patronizing to treat them as simple misguided souls who, if only given the proper information by a properly functioning press corps would work in their own best interests.

Perlstein is, unfortunately for Somerby, correct. The tree of crazy has been with us from the beginning. Before the internet, mimeograph machines and cheap postal rates made printing up newsletters to be mailed out to fellow-believers incredibly easy. These helped feed and water the crazy tree. Before the newsletter was the broadside and pamphlet; the internet is only the latest iteration in the long history of connecting with like-minded folk for political action.

We do ourselves no favors to be patronizing, treating the crazy folk at town halls as anything other than what they are - just plain nuts. Sure they're misinformed, too. But, it isn't a contradiction to note they are both wrong and loony.

Packing Heat

I don't even know what to say about this, other than someone is going to get shot.
About 12 people were carrying guns, including at least one semi-automatic assault rifle, outside a building where President Obama was speaking today.

I was always told that just because I could do something doesn't mean I should. These people are just plain stupid.

Music For Your Monday

With the death last week of innovator and inventor Les Paul, there was much discussion of the role he and Leo Fender made in creating rock and roll by creating the solid body electric guitar. Yet, before there was rock and roll, there was jazz, and jazz guitar became viable thanks to a young Kansas City musician named Charlie Christian. After Christian came others who showed how the guitar could move from a rhythm instrument (strumming the chords to keep the beat) to a melodic lead instrument.

While many jazz purists now downplay his influence, Wes Montgomery was incredibly important. His unique style, playing those octave leads, is echoed in guitarists today, as varied as Steve Howe and Joe Satriani.

After recording with Miles Davis, John "Mahavishnu" McLaughlin put together an all-electric jazz band, complete with an electric violinist, and managed to push fusion right to the edge. Mahavishnu Orchestra toured with the Allman Brothers and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and were very often confused with rock bands because of the sheer volume they produced, as well as the blistering playing of McLaughlin. Yet, for all that, they were just a jazz quintet amped up.

This is as much what Les Paul wrought as is Jimmy Page and Keith Richards.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Health Care Debate And The Reality Of Mortality

While it might be a bit odd to consider the silly "death panel" canard (changed slightly by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iows to the government deciding to pull the plug on grandma) as something indicative of a far deeper issue in the American psyche, I think it is. That a mainstream television personality, Chris Matthews on Hardball would get all bent out of shape because the current health care reform bill includes reimbursement for end-of-life counseling, not just for seniors, but for anyone ("Why would young people want this?") indicates that there is something deeply amiss in our discussions surrounding issues of life and death.

This has not been helped over the past generation by the creation of an ideology of life (for lack of a better phrase), in which life itself, the simple physical extension of the working of the organs that keep the human body functioning is seen not just as a personal or social good, but as a "right" that is not just inherent in us as enlightened, rational creatures, but a theological imperative as well. The right-to-life movement is rooted in the idea that "life begins at conception", and all sorts of tortuous arguments ensue about "beating hearts" and various fetal activities from thumb sucking to fetal masturbation. Similarly, as the Terri Schiavo ordeal showed us, the question of life for some becomes divorced from any sense of proportion or quality; even though Mrs. Schiavo was incapable of sustaining herself, that her heart was beating, her lungs and kidneys and liver were still functioning was all that was needed to insist she was, in fact, fully alive. Sustaining that life against the very personal and perfectly legal decision by her husband to terminate her care to allow her to die became a cause celebre that pushed many Americans away from the Republican Party.

While there has been little discussion on the related questions of "What is life?" and "What is death?", they are so intertwined in our current health care debate, even if they are not asked, that I think it important to address them.

While it has been popular to discuss our cultural fascination with youth as part of these intertwined questions, I think that is a far more facile expression of a more deep-seated refusal to face the difficulties that arise once we face squarely the realities that are bound up in them. While Chris Matthews may wonder why end-of-life counseling for young people is appropriate, that is linked, in many ways to the illusion that death is reserved only for the aged. We often hear people say that someone who has died at a relatively young age has died "before their time", or "is gone too soon." We bemoan the "unfairness" of the death of a child or youth. Just last night, my wife said that she could not face the death of one of our children and maintain her mental health.

As Christopher Lasch pointed out in an early section of The True and Only Heaven, this is in stark contrast to early- and mid-Victorian bourgeois scenes of death. Death was not something hidden, but in fact a multi-generational family event. Whether it was an aged grandparent, or a child, the extended family would gather around the death bed, sharing the experience of death and loss and grief. By contrast, the recent innovation of allowing terminally ill patients to return to their homes belies a long-standing idea that death is something secret, hidden away in hospital rooms and nursing homes, sanitary and overseen by medical professionals.

Yet, the hoopla over Sarah Palin's "death panel" comment shows that there is still a long way to go before we can have any kind of serious discussion about the place of death in our society. The very idea that there would be segments of our mainstream political culture that would consider some human life unworthy of care and concern is ludicrous. Yet, it is precisely because we refuse to think of death as a reality that confronts us all that such a position can be voiced at all.

As a professor of mine in seminary once quipped, the death rate is the same as it always has been, 100%. Our mortality is a reality, and death awaits us whether we are newly born or have lived a long, productive life. Death does not negate a life lived, whether a few short minutes or over 100 years. It can be a blessing to those who have suffered pain, or are no longer capable of maintaining their bodily integrity (persistent vegetative state, multiple organ failure superseded by technological innovation). It is as much a reality as recovery, and the end result of life in general, the one reality that transcends all the differences of time, space, class, and culture.

How we as a society face this reality, how we address it, and how we now have an opportunity to address our cultural denial of death through a serious discussion of health care reform might be a bit too much to ask of our superficial, occasionally crazy, public discourse. Yet, it is an opportunity we should not pass up simply because we think it too burdensome.

Death is not an enemy. It is the only constant in human life. There are no rules, no timetables, no guarantees. In the end, we will always lose our battle with death. Facing this reality in the context of reforming health care might be part of becoming a more mature society.

Virtual Tin Cup

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