Saturday, September 04, 2010


Started a small discussion at Facebook when I asked for thoughts on an evening program at my older daughter's school. In a couple weeks, they will be featuring an author of two books, writing on how she "survived" bullying. The new "thing", well, over the past few years, has been focusing on bullying as a serious problem in schools to be dealt with far more vigorously and self-consciously on a policy level than heretofore.

I just cannot get behind it.

First, an adult who writes not one but two books on "surviving" bullying has issues that go far beyond the result of schoolyard pranks. Seriously.

Second, in general, the larger social discussion over "bullying" muddles real distinctions among different phenomena, roughly distinguished with the labels "teasing,", "bullying", and "harassment". While they are all related to a larger, mostly unconscious, creation of a social hierarchy that even kids do to set the boundaries in the milieu of their own, somewhat separate, society, they are very different things. Yet all get tagged under the rubric "bullying", which is actually a fairly narrow phenomenon, and can be dealt with easily enough by parents, teachers, and school administrators.

Finally, I just don't think we are doing right by our children when we not only offer the chilling prospect of life-long psychological damage done by "bullying", but offer the services of state functionaries (teachers and school administrators) as intermediaries in the social world of children. While I am all for even children's social life to be more open and accommodating to difference, the reality is that it is little different from any other society. It takes time - which includes getting older - for the society of the school yard to learn to be open. Legal intervention to force an openness it might not be ready for will not create openness, but rather resentment.

This is not to say that there aren't instances where such intervention isn't warranted. On the contrary, the harassment of girls by boys and sexual and racial minorities are instances when such intervention - up to and including involving law enforcement - are necessary. That, however, isn't bullying, unless you are willing to extend that word's definition beyond recognition.

When my older daughter was in third grade, she came home sad one day. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that some kids were teasing her because she was shorter and thinner than everyone (she will be grateful for the whole thin thing in just a year or two . . .) and I told her that, the next time some dork called her "shrimp" to just say, "Well, I may be short but you're ugly and I'll grow". This adaptation of a Churchillian bon mot was not well-received, but the principle I was trying to instill, I think, is good. First, such teasing is really not worth getting one's panties in a wad. Second, it is important to push back a little. While teasing is usually done seeking some kind of response, ignoring it doesn't necessarily work; pushing back, however, is a pretty clear signal that it isn't going to be tolerated, and the particular target isn't necessarily a good one.

Giving our children the tools to function in society includes giving them a little bit of a backbone in the face of social conflict outside the boundaries of clearly defined guidelines of legally-accepted understandings of right and wrong. That, too, is a part of parenting. It isn't always easy for a parent to hear that his or her child is either the victim or perpetrator of bullying; on the other hand, giving our kids tools to deal with success with these situations is far better than turning to our schools and screaming at them to police in fine detail all the going's-on during recess.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Memo To Michael Gerson

In your latest column, you write of "[p]rotests against the construction of mosques". In Tennessee, it wasn't a "protest". It was harassment and arson.

This isn't a quirk of evangelicals and fundamentalists. Quoting someone from an ostensibly "Christian" organization (in this case, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association), has little to do with the Christian faith. You are as much a part of the problem, fuzzing the lines between specific instances - a Church in Florida seeking publicity by burning the Holy Q'uran) - with a larger phenomenon - anti-Muslim hysteria on the right that is rooted more in the usual bigotry and ignorance than in any religious ideas.

It is the fires of hate, always smoldering in this country, that are flaring up in these instances. Just call it what it is, man. That's all you need to do.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Heart Of The Matter

President Obama is hosting face-to-face talks between the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President. Listening to discussions of the President's speech last evening after an introductory dinner (that included the President of Egypt and the King of Jordan, the only Arab nations to have full relations with Israel), I heard quite a few commentators talk about how Obama was pushing hard because he sees himself as a "transformative figure". Quite beside whether those two words have any meaning, let alone how they specifically refer to Obama or Obama's view of himself, the President's approach is one I believe is long overdue.

It is really quite simple: Deal with the central issues between Israelis and Palestinians - the West Bank occupation; the status of Palestinian property confiscated after the founding of Israel in 1948; the status of Jerusalem - as well as secondary but no less important matters such as access to natural resources (most especially water) and the current blockade of Gaza.

Since, first, President Carter's successful peace negotiations between Pres. Sadat of Egypt and PM Monachem Begin of Israel in 1978, then the Oslo Accords, final agreement on these most basic and contentious issues has been postponed, although both peace processes saw themselves as constructing a framework within which larger, long-term issues and a final settlement of outstanding matters could be worked out. Both have been abandoned. The Camp David framework was rejected completely by the Reagan Administration when it came to power, leaving nothing in its place. The Oslo Accords became a tool used by Israeli hardliners to beat the late PM Yitzak Rabin with (he was assassinated by a hard-line Israeli during a peace rally), and was completely ignored by the Clinton Administration, in particular in Clinton's last-hour, personal push for a comprehensive accord in late 2000.

Rather than settle for nibbling at the edges, Obama's approach - stop dicking around and get serious - is a marvelous change. There is no way either of the parties involved can duck or hide, blame the other for failure to deal with the central bones of contention when that is all that is on the table.

On that note, let me say that one thing the Bush I Administration did that I have always admired, and wondered why it was never repeated, was carry out a threat of withholding foreign aid to Israel if it continued to build settlements on the West Bank (and, also, destroy Palestinian homes there to make room for the settlers). Then-PM Yitzak Shamir tried calling Bush's (and then Secretary of State James Baker) bluff. In a brief meeting at the White House in 1991, Bush told Rabin that the money tap was now "off". Rabin stormed out of the White House, and Washington and America, in a huff.

It is this kind of hard-line that needs to be taken. No more acrimony; no more airing of grievances, either current or ancient. The laundry list of charges and counter-charges is well-known, and recalling all of it does nothing to advance the process of negotiations. Obama is doing what Bush did, on a grander scale. He is going for the long bomb, precisely because, at this point, that is all that can be done. A final settlement will, in the end, be a boon for the two states, Israel and Palestine, as well as for the United States. No longer a running sore, the Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians will cease to function as a propaganda point.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

It's Not Just The Economy, Stupid

As the discussion with Feodor suggests, I neglected an aspect of the appeal of Glenn Beck and the "Restoring Honor" rally that I should have made part of the discussion. The racial and cultural changes, based in demographic shifts, is an undercurrent of much of our contemporary moment, as it was a decade and a half ago. An aging white upper-middle class, dominant since the founding of the country, has found itself in numerical retreat demographically. The rise of popular movements granting greater social and civil rights, therefore access to power, to minorities, has offered opportunities to all sorts of folks who once stood outside the corridors of power. This whole dynamic - of a declining white power structure clinging to the last threads of its authority, by any means necessary - has has gone from a grumbling to a screeching with the Presidency of Barack Obama. While many of his supporters were and are moved in part by his place in history as our first African-American President, his detractors are even more aware of the significance. Thus, "Restoring Honor" includes "Restoring White Folk".

The so-called "culture wars" of the 1990's were at least as much about the decline of a certain version of secularized Protestant mores and the social and cultural as well as political power of white Protestants as they were about the morality of abortion, sexual morality, and the depiction of various themes in popular and fine art. Shifts in demographics have led to the gradual decline in the efficacy of appeals to these particular matters (with the exception of the general social acceptance and approval of same-sex marriages). The cultural expression of difference and its acceptance or rejection, has become far more a generational than a racial matter these days; younger whites are far more inclined to have social and cultural attitudes akin to others of their own age cohort rather than to defer to racial identity.

These shifts were bound to happen, and the reaction of the old-line power structure was predictable. Considering the violence of the southern power structure to the rather modest demands of the Civil Rights movement - there is the indelible image of spittle-flecked whites haranguing a young woman attempting to integrate the Topeka Schools; Bull Connors' dogs and fire hoses set upon a group of young people marching for voting rights for their parents - the recalcitrance of the white power structure in its dotage is understandable. Of course, the general targets now are "illegal immigrants", Muslims, and gays and lesbians.

This general cultural wariness and fear has been exacerbated by the economic malaise in which we find ourselves. I focused a bit too much on that aspect of the matter the other day to the detriment of any understanding that fills out the picture. I hope this rectifies the situation.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


These two songs are the ending of Spock's Beard rock opera/concept piece Snow, about a young man whose life becomes a muddle because he is seen to be a miracle worker. Falling in love, only to be spurned, he comes close to death only to be rescued by the God he previously preached without much belief. "Wind At My Back" is a recapitulation of a theme from the end of the first act, only performed with deeper feeling because it stems from a real faith. These two pieces have served, over the years, as a way to return me to the most basic reality for me - the call of God in the midst of trouble, and that the strength for making it through comes from resting in that comfort, rather than any virtue or strength I might believe I possess.

Just wanted to share this, is all . . .

Proverbs Of Ashes

12 Your maxims are proverbs of ashes,
your defences are defences of clay. (Job 13:12)

As Job girds his loins, first against his so-called "friends" who insist that he must have done something to deserve getting crapped on by God; and second, to demand an audience before God to answer his plea, he rebukes the three who sit just outside the midden-heap, "defending" the LORD's actions.

In light on my current frustrations with (a) the pusillanimity of the Church, and (b) the exploitation of fears over our current social state by those seeking personal gain, it might be well to consider Job's budding courage in the face of the counsel of the foolish. Listening to the words of the ill-informed only muddies the waters. It is long past time for persons who believe (rather than know) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who are accounted children of God through the power of the Spirit sent by the risen Christ to stand up and simply call out those who, through ignorance or a lust for power and control, would turn us from what we believe.

For someone like Glenn Beck (Glenn Beck!) to insist there is nothing "Christian" about Liberation Theology is almost unworthy of rejoinder. All the same, it would have been nice if Chris Wallace had asked Beck the liberation theology he had actually read and studied. Cone? Wilmore? Gutierrez? Boff? What about these authors is unChristian?

Beyond those questions, if he even had an answer, one should simply dismiss him. Beck is one of those people to whom Job is speaking when it is written in 13:5, "If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!" There are others, to be sure, but this rebuke, it seems to me, is sufficient.

That part of me that continues to struggle is strengthened by the courage Job shows in telling off the counsel of the foolish, demanding his place before the Divine throne. I doubt if Job's "friends" shut up, anymore than I doubt those who claim to speak for God in our day will quiet their words of ashes and defense of clay. All the same, the Church does have the duty to make clear that, like Joshua, our House will serve the LORD.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Word I Need To Hear

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’
John 8:31-32

Yesterday, I decided that I needed, for my own faithful sanity, to spend some time this week reflecting on the daily office. I am grateful that there is an easily accessible source for the daily lection readings.

In the past, when I have consulted this site, I have been amazed at the way some lesson has leaped off the page at me. Whether a Psalm, something from St. Paul, or one of the Gospel readings, a passage spoke to me in a way that was immediate.

Today, I am faced with the conundrum that this didn't happen.

Part of the problem is I was looking for something that would reach that place within me that is enraged by current events. I wanted something that would either dissipate or channel that anger. Instead, I got triumphalist Psalms and the beginnings of the Gentile mission in Acts; Job's apologia for God even as he sits on his midden heap covered in sores just doesn't cut it, because it is, in a way, a kind of naive faith. He hasn't challenged God yet, which would give a greater profundity and depth to his faith.

I kept returning to the passage from the Fourth Gospel, though, in particular the ending. Part of me wanted to pick it up and run with it in a particular direction, yet that just didn't feel right, so I sat and pondered the passage, and came away . . . empty.

So, I did something I realized was necessary. I prayed.

After praying, it dawned on me that I was with the crowd to whom Jesus was speaking that day when he says in verse 25, "Why do I speak to you at all?" Jesus was trying to tell these folks that he was the one they had been waiting for. They weren't getting the message they wanted, so they were all standing around saying to one another, and to him, in effect, "Huh?" This provokes Jesus to his last nerve.

That's the trouble, I think. All of us come to the Bible with baggage. Whether we are opening it for the first time, or spending time with it like an old friend, we carry our wants, our needs, our hopes, our fears with us in the desire to have our questions answered, our hopes fulfilled, our fears assuaged. Instead, we get cryptic crap like this: "I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come."(John 8:21) I will be up front - I don't want to hear this right now. I don't want a message of hope; I want a weapon I can use against others. I don't want to hear about the sacrifice I will have to make in order to be called a disciple. I want a word like a hammer to beat on those who mock the name of Christ for transient ends.

There. I said it.

Except, of course, that isn't what I really needed, I guess, because it isn't what I got. I got this passage, in particular the ending. Stripping away my pride, my self-righteousness, my vanity, I hear that I am to continue in His word to be a disciple. Before I can gird myself to oppose those who, in my estimation, drag the good name of the Church through the muck and mire, I have to hear what it takes to be a true disciple.

I need to be free of my rage, my fear, my desire to set the world aright. I need to reset my priorities, to remember that Jesus and the Kingdom he proclaimed and embodied is, in the end, God's. Not mine.

Not what I wanted to hear. Not what I want to hear. What I needed, though.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Yesterday's rally featuring Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial has brought out many of the worst traits of progressives. Not just an on-going outrage at every word or phrase that doesn't quite jibe with reality; not just with every individual holding a sign that promotes some nonsense about Pres. Obama; not just the obvious reality that many who do not share the basic beliefs (such as they might be) of the rally leaders and sponsors are going to use that opportunity to advance their own agenda and get their voices heard. It is one thing to point out the obvious that neither Glenn Beck nor Sarah Palin are intelligent enough, informed enough, or committed enough to turn their obvious disdain for the Administration in to anything other than attention for themselves. It is quite another, however, to insult the tens of thousands who attended the rally, for all their varying reasons, and the perhaps millions more who watched, with sympathy, from their homes.

Think Progress was by far the worst offender in the first category. A glance at the posts yesterday, and their headlines, shows them making of the rally far more than should have been done.
Tea Partiers Rally Against Sign Bans — Except At Glenn Beck Rally

Political Rally Or Not? We Report, You Decide

Beck Rephrases His Claim President Is ‘Racist’: Meant To Say Obama Believes ‘America Is An Oppressor’

REPORT: Glenn Beck’s Philosophy Is Opposed To Everything Martin Luther King, Jr. Stood For

This lastpost title, from Friday evening, is even more outrageous for two reasons. First, it assumes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Beck has something as complex as a "philosophy" beyond self-aggrandizement. Second, it drags the name and honor of a revered American, Martin King, down to the level of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

Now, Beck hosting this event on the forty-seventh anniversary of the March on Washington was clearly a provocation. He managed to get Al Sharpton to take the bait; Sharpton hosted an event at the other end of the Mall. The obvious intent, to provoke some kind of solidarity between that event and this one, should have clued in anyone with intelligence and foresight to ignore it. The bait, however, was too inviting.

Beyond prompting posts and headlines that seemed to make of this event far more than it ever could have been absent left-wing outrage, we have the further spectacle of some on the left insulting not just Beck and Palin (fair game, as far as I'm concerned) but those who attended the rally as well. Consider this from Thers, posting at Fire Dog Lake:
I didn’t watch or pay any attention at all to the Developing Story of the Glenn Beck Million MOPE* March, perhaps because I’m not a superannuated paranoid Caucasian crank afflicted with an overdeveloped persecution complex and uncomfortable underpants that constrict excitingly whenever I contemplate “socialism.” Why, I’m not remotely superannuated! (The rim, it is shot, execution-style.)

It’s not, of course, that I wish to downplay the most World-Historical Significantest event in the history of doughy insane cable television lunatic hucksters yelping soppy tedious halfwit whiny bullshit to morons.

Those who attended yesterday's "Restore Honor" rally may have been morons. They may also have been political operatives seeing an opportunity to recruit volunteers. They may have been ordinary folks, like you or me, frightened by events of recent years and hearing a voice that reinforces those fears and offers the kind of validation many of us need - "You are not alone in your fears."

There is nothing moronic in being frightened by events and circumstances of recent years. It seems we are all at the mercy of forces and events beyond our control. It further seems that, no matter how hard anyone tries, the situation in our country and world - economic stagnation and violent death, a drug-fueled civil war in Mexico and a religious-fueled civil war in Iraq, the collapse of the American desire to own one's own home - there is very little any of us can do to change things. Events outpace our ability to do anything other than react. I, for one, forgive those who hear in the words of Beck and others like him, regardless of his or other's stature as anything other than self-promoting attention-seekers, the kind of reassurance we are not seeing from the corridors of power.

The March on Washington, in the midst of social and racial changes that had been over a decade in the making, reaffirmed the sense among all those of good-will that their cause was just, their goals were in line with the best of our national traditions, and that victory would come, if not tomorrow, then at some point. In seeking to alter the social landscape by granting full rights of social participation, political participation, and economic opportunity to disenfranchised African-Americans, both the leaders and marchers on that long-ago August afternoon were united not in fear, but in hope; not in resentment but in mutual upbuilding. When King spoke of justice, he spoke of it for all Americans. He saw a day when Mississippi, that most recalcitrant of southern states, would be a picnic area for little black children and little white children. He saw a day when Stone Mountain, GA - the birthplace of the Klan - would echo not with words of hate, but with the cry of freedom.

Whatever other motivations they might have, Beck and Palin offer no hope to those who hear their words. They offer no way forward. They offer no guide to get us from where we are to where we might be if we all worked together. All they offer is the counsel of fear, of division, reinforcing the latent notion that striking out in rage at the forces that keep us down as a nation is right and correct.

Had we political leaders who were more intelligent, more savvy, more wise; had we a left that wasn't so willing to be outraged by every word or phrase that come from nihilists and con-artists; had we the ability to speak a word of comfort, acknowledge the reality and ubiquity of the fear we all share, and offer a way forward, instead of a backhanded insult of disdain to those who are most afraid; had we all these things, yesterday could have been an opportunity to change the nature of our public discourse.

Instead, it continues as it has, full of bluster and hype, all meaningless. Our real problems go unaddressed. Our economy, teetering less on "double-dip recession" and more on near collapse, is not mentioned by anyone. No one seems clear eyed, confident, or willing to risk what needs to be done in order to move us forward.

If Beck and Palin can energize enough people to bring back Republican majorities in Congress (I still doubt this will happen, but anything is possible), then the country deserves the fate that awaits it. The Democrats, through their timidity, their lack of courage in the face of a political opposition that sees only the opportunity to return to power without any clear guide as to rescuing us from our current moment of national despair, will have brought the destruction upon themselves.

One wonders what might emerge from the wreckage that would ensue.

Virtual Tin Cup

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