Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Treason Of The Intellectuals

Few things are as remotely fascinating to (western) intellectuals as themselves. They marvel at their erudition, their cosmopolitan pretensions, the breadth and depth of their empathy with those unlike themselves.

In other words, few groups are as tiresomely narcissistic as western intellectuals.

One thing that many take for granted, indeed seems to be an axiom of intellectual life, is that by its very nature it abjures the kind of close association with one's native land that is exhibited by others. In the frantic, emotional days leading to the opening of hostilities in World War I, a large group of German university professors published an op-ed that was signed by over one hundred professors from all over Germany (it was penned by Adolf von Harnack, the great historian of Christian Dogma; Harnack also wrote the speech given by the Kaiser on the eve of hostilities). During the Nazi period, philosophers, theologians, scientists, and others gave themselves willingly to the cause.

Post-Civil War southern historians cornered the market on antebellum histories of the south and slavery, creating many myths that have taken generations to dispel. Similarly, early post-Cold War historiography is rife with paeans to hard-line anti-communism, with apologias for all sorts of excesses, from McCarthyism to Ronald Reagan.

David Halberstam's history of the decade, The Fifties, details the way ideology and crass politics played a part in the development of the hydrogen bomb. In particular, Edward Teller's insistence on his approach, including really bad mathematics, led to personal battles that included getting Robert Oppenheimer stripped of his security clearance and ejected from the work.

Those not caught up in these moments and movements seem to stand and wonder how it is possible that so many people who seem dedicated to a life of ideas can become so caught up in moments of crass jingoism. A recent work on Japanese intellectuals' responses to the Second World War seems modeled on this same sense that there is something in need of explanation when people who are learned, erudite, have an understanding of the larger world would succumb to the clarion call of nationalism.

I think the answer is simple. They're human beings.

The notion that intellectuals have some kind of exemption from being all sorts of different people, reacting in all sorts of different ways to events is so deeply embedded in intellectual life that this simple, elegant solution continues. Part of it is an old notion, rooted in Greek philosophy, that the life of the mind is the highest, most profound calling human beings can answer. Far more than their proletarian fellows, intellectuals share in something unchangeable, something far greater than the passing of each moment, with its changing wind directions and fads.

Yet, there is another way to look at intellectual life. Accountants are excellent at what they do. So, too, plumbers. I wouldn't expect a plumber to have a deep understanding of Habermas, any more than I would expect most philosophers to know how to weld, or run PVC pipe. That is to say, intellectuals are just folks who are trained in a particular craft - reading and thinking - in the same way that woodworkers are trained with various tools and football players are trained in their varying skills.

The real treason of the intellectuals occurs when they feel their "principled critic" position gives them an angel's eye view of their world, free from the fleeting passions, granting to their words an aura of truth. Whether earnest or disdainful, the idea that there is some dispensation granted folks who think for a living creates false problems, and questions that not only don't need to be asked, but if they are, are easily answered.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Why Liberals And Progressives Are Losing

I ran across this article via a link from Eschaton. I think it is wrong on any number of levels. The money quote, for me, follows:
Progressives have no shared story, no strong brand. So every constituent group -- enviros, unions, immigration reformers, education reformers, financial reformers, social justice advocates, feminists -- fights its battles more or less alone, clamoring for attention, implicitly competing with the others. Each constituency can muster facts and policies, but as a coalition they are strangely reticent to evoke a larger story about values and purpose. (This is of course what message dudes like George Lakoff and Sean Wilentz have been telling the left for years.)

Only in a political jungle where each interest group fights solely for itself could it make sense for greens to try to take out a president fighting a flawed battle for progressive values to put in place one that will mean suffering for virtually every progressive constituency. Only in a jungle could greens feel justified putting the gains of those who will have better access to health insurance or student loans at risk because they didn't get what they wanted.

Rather than flipping a bird to other progressive constituencies, I'm more keen to figure out how to bridge the strange distance between them. For my part, I think of climate/energy policy as deeply enmeshed in and of a piece with progressivism. I favor action on climate change and clean energy because I'm a progressive. It puzzles me that lots of enviros and lots of progressives seem to think (or at least act) otherwise.
Since the days of communists supporting all sorts of regressive politics in order to "heighten the contradictions", and bring on the coming glorious proletarian revolution, left-wing factions have figured that if they can't get what they want in the exact way they want it, they would rather screw the pooch for everyone as an object lesson in what happens when others don't listen to them. Whether it is environmentalists or feminists or gay activists or civil libertarians or what have you, there is a belief that each constituency actually lies at the heart of some grand scheme of national restoration, if only others would listen. When arguments ensue, it becomes to each group that the others are not just failing to learn; they are actually betraying the entire society by focusing on something thought to be tangential to the real problems we all face. Thus, feminists whose struggle for equal rights for women lose sight of the necessity of working for environmental quality; civil libertarians believe that any failure on matters of constitutional freedoms is a betrayal of fundamental Constitutional governance, a direct path to tyranny. Socialists and social democrats see a failure to bring about greater power and numbers to organized labor as being a sell-out to corporate America.

There is, in the new-fangled medium of the internet, the ego-factor. Four years ago, in the run-up to the mid-terms, when it was clear the American public was quite tired of Republican governance, several individuals became important players in (loosely) organizing disparate constituencies in the anti-Republican coalition. Then, heading to the '08 Presidential elections, these same individuals started lining up behind various candidates (Edwards! Hillary! Obama!) and held off (for the most part) criticizing one another because the stakes in the election were far too high.

For some reason, rather than seeing Obama's victory as the beginning of a larger project for progressives to solidify their gains, they celebrated the multi-level historic win, then returned to their various corners. Rather than deal with the messy reality of coalition building, pushing back against Republican obstructionism and talking about how to push a fundamentally centrist Democratic Administration toward more progressive policies, they started to accuse one another of failure to support this or that most vital issue. The left-wing feeding frenzy was small at first, but has since turned in to a blood bath.

The results are manifold failures. The President's shortcomings, clear enough to anyone even in the midst of celebrating his victory, became reason enough to doubt that he would pursue a serious progressive agenda. He became a sellout on any number of levels, from selling out to big money contributors to the Democratic Party to selling out to those within the Executive Branch who wish to hold on to various gains in the exertion of Executive authority that seem to violate traditional notions of limits on federal power. His spokesman, Robert Gibbs, made disparaging comments on "the professional left" that, while irritating, rang true enough. Rather than work with the Obama Administration, they would rather take Glenn Greenwald's "principled critic" stand and piss on pretty much any- and everything it does. As if it earns one points to name the obvious, viz., that neither Obama nor the major players in his Administration are progressives of any stripe.

While the Democrats are facing serious losses this fall across the board, much of the blame can be laid directly at the feet of those ideologues who, as usual, place principle above people, faction above fact, and their own massive egos over and against the very real needs of the people of this country. While there is certainly a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of Obama and the members of his Administration, liberal and progressive activists also share a large portion of the blame as well for the impending disasters (first the electoral disaster for the Democrats; then the disaster for the country).

I hope they all sleep well amidst the rubble.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The War's Over

Embedded in this transcript of yesterday's Fresh Air interview with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is a little statistic that, once it sinks in, frames so much of our current economic woes much better than any sterile arguments over fiscal or monetary policy.

In 1970, the top one percent of wage earners took home roughly 9% of the total earned that year. In 2007, they took home about 23%. When one hears commentators screech "class warfare!" whenever a modest tax increase is offered, or when there are discussions of how to come up with solutions to our current malaise, remember - corporations and the very wealthy waged a war against the middle and working classes, covering it up with that bright sheen of cultural and social politics that can distract people from the obvious. We all lost.


I've been thinking a whole lot about the suicide of Terry Clementi. I've been thinking about my anger at the stupid, thoughtless roommate whose "prank" led Clementi to take his own life. I've thought about the whole online culture in which, as I recently heard in a discussion on NPR, there is no longer an expectation of privacy among people who have grown up on MySpace and now Facebook and Twitter. Since they don't expect it, they feel no need to grant it to others.

I have been thinking about who, or what, is responsible. Can we just lay this at the feet of Tyler Clementi, pushed too far, panicking at the response of his family and loved ones if news got out? Can we lay this at the feet of his chuckle-head roommate, who gathered a group to sit and watch as Tyler made out with another man, then posted the video online? Can we lay it at the feet of a culture that no longer understands there is a wall between private and public? Did Ravi see no difference between what he was doing and the millions of people who tune in to Jersey Shore and the various Real Housewives programs?

I also have been thinking, again, about Tony Kushner's infamous/famous article in The Nation, written in response to the murder of Matthew Shepard.
A lot of people worry these days about the death of civil discourse, and would say that I ought not call the Pope a homicidal liar, nor (to be ecumenical about it) the orthodox rabbinate homicidal liars, nor Trent Lott a disgusting opportunistic hatemonger. But I worry a lot less about the death of civil discourse than I worry about being killed if, visiting the wrong town with my boyfriend, we forget ourselves so much as to betray, at the wrong moment in front of the wrong people, that we love one another. I worry much more about the recent death of the Maine antidiscrimination bill, and about the death of the New York hate crimes bill, which will not pass because it includes sexual orientation. I worry more about the death of civil rights than civil discourse. I worry much more about the irreversible soul-deaths of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered children growing up deliberately, malevolently isolated by the likes of Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich than I worry about the death of civil discourse. I mourn Matthew Shepard's actual death, caused by the unimpeachably civil "we hate the sin, not the sinner" hypocrisy of the religious right, endorsed by the political right, much more than I mourn the lost chance to be civil with someone who does not consider me fully a citizen, nor fully human. I mourn that cruel death more than the chance to be civil with those who sit idly by while theocrats, bullies, panderers and hatemongers, and their crazed murderous children, destroy democracy and our civic life. Civic, not civil, discourse is what matters, and civic discourse mandates the assigning of blame.

If you are lesbian, gay, transgendered, bi, reading this, here's one good place to assign blame: The Human Rights Campaign's appalling, post-Shepard endorsement of Al D'Amato dedicates our resources to the perpetuation of a Republican majority in Congress. The HRC, ostensibly our voice in Washington, is in cahoots with fag-bashers and worse. If you are a heterosexual person, and you are reading this: Yeah yeah yeah, you've heard it all before, but if you have not called your Congressperson to demand passage of a hate crimes bill that includes sexual orientation, and e-mailed every Congressperson, if you have not gotten up out of your comfortable chair to campaign for homosexual and all civil rights--campaign, not just passively support--may you think about this crucified man, and may you mourn, and may you burn with a moral citizen's shame. As one civilized person to another: Matthew Shepard shouldn't have died. We should all burn with shame.
Hard words. Prophetic words, too. Rather than lash out at the Ravis of this world, maybe I, for one, should look inside and realize I haven't seen enough of this to really get angry enough. This one event is horrible enough. The endemic nature of maltreatment of sexual minorities, in particular sexual-minority youth, demands more than just anger, even angry words.

It demands we do something about this. It needs to stop. People are dying. I don't care one whit whether or not it is line with Christian teaching, or western traditions, or whatever argument one wishes to make. Real people are dying because some people think it is OK to treat other human beings as less worthy, less acceptable just because they don't love the way most of the rest of us do.

Maybe God really doesn't sanction gay marriage. Maybe being gay is akin to being a murderer, or a pedophile in the eyes of God. My only response to that is, if that is so, I will still insist that we need to work to stop this. People are dying. Young men and women are drinking and drugging and cutting themselves and jumping to their deaths because they feel cast aside - by their families, their peers, and their churches. Their lives are far more important to me than whether or not I am "correct" in reading a Bible passage.

To blame or not to blame? Not quite sure where to go with that. Responsibility, though, starts with the only person whose life I can control completely - me.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More Horrible People

Another submission in the whole theme for today, "We Suck As A People":
According to reports, Ravi was Clementi's roommate in a dorm on the university's New Brunswick campus. On his Twitter account, Ravi wrote about turning on his computer by remote on Sept. 19 to watch Clementi:

"Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went to molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

In a later Twitter posting, he apparently invited others to watch with him:

"Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again."

iChat allows its users to share live audio and video while instant messaging over computers.
The "Clementi" in question, 18 year-old Rutgers frosh Tyler Clementi, found out what happened and jumped off the George Washington Bridge.

I know the law doesn't allow it, but I would love to find Ravi and beat the shit out of him. I am so disgusted right now.

What We Say Matters

For the first time in years, I have joined - albeit tentatively - a blog-community. Author John Shore has a marvelous website, with an engaged, thoughtful community interacting on any number of topics.

A takeaway from my own recent experiences there is one of reinforcement. My own sense that what we say, how we live our lives, matters, is supported by a series of posts John has done recently on the relationship between Christianity and being gay. I have often said that I do not take myself very seriously at all; I do take the subject matter with which I deal very seriously, however, because it deals with life and death stuff, people's lives. Even my occasional forays in to issues of art - literature and music and film - fall in to this category because our art tells us who we are. This stuff matters. It is life and death stuff.

While bloggers are still the target of all sorts of disdain, we should never lose sight of the reality that we are just people. Yet, we are precisely people who are doing stuff that matters. It matters because we are talking about life and love and fear. Our words reach the whole world, whether we know it or not.

My hope and prayer is that we remember, each and every day, that the stuff we say matters. People can live or die because of stuff we say. It's a really tremendous responsibility to put our words out there for everyone to see. Even when we are angry, we should express our anger with love, and a sense that it is a righteous anger.

Conduct Unbecoming

My first time through this story left me angry. The second time through I figured that, at the very least, a little light can only help.

Alan, what is up with your state?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stepping Back

I had a great conversation this morning on Facebook with my nephew. At 33, he found himself facing a decision - do I keep my job that is frustrating, unrewarding, yet seems necessary in the face of all our cultural and social anxieties, or do I step back and take the huge risk of doing what I love, which is also what I'm good at?

I had a discussion with a church member on Sunday kind of on the same topic. We hadn't had the chance to chat much over the previous couple months, and I was telling him about going part-time at work. I made an observation that really just kind of popped in to my head, but it has a ring of truth about it that I just can't shake. I said that, while I hated to use the word, making the decision to take a step back from the general anxieties we all face concerning the economy and deciding to free oneself from these shackles is counter-cultural. While I recognize that I have certain advantages that allow this decision - a wife that has a career that provides a certain economic cushion and benefits as well - I think that even if this were not the case, making this decision in train with the conscientious decision to make do with less could have been made.

At this particular historical moment, with so much in flux, so much uncertain, it seems to so many people almost crazy to just stop and get off the crazy train. Yet, these very reasons make it necessary that now is that time. I feel more free, more at peace, even as I understand that risks are so much greater now than at some other time. I feel alive, really.

I haven't really dealt much here with the anxiety and frustration with which I was plagued as I went round and round on the question of "What should I do?". Talking with my nephew and the gentleman from church, however, I am more convinced than ever that the decision is right. More than any other feeling, what I feel right now is . . . free. Make it or not, correct or not, I feel free. The rules that say we are restricted by circumstances cannot be defied unless they are . . . defied.

What is most surprising, and pleasing, is how many folks at work have said to me, "Gee, if I could go part time, I would." My response to all of them is the same - "You can do it." Living one's life as a demonstration of what is possible feels good, I suppose. Being free, though . . . that feels like really living.

Circular Firing Squads

I stopped reading Jane Hamsher's website, Fire Dog Lake, a few years back. Ditto Glenn Greenwald. In both cases, I started to detect that most endemic of left-wing traits - taking fellow-travelers to task for alleged deviations from the true path as a greater threat to all that is good and true in the world than one's actual political opponents. Mix in a heady stew of chutzpah, hubris, and the sense of entitlement that comes from being feted as a "player" in this medium (as well, in Greenwald's case, as an ego roughly the size of Belgium), and the results can be pretty ugly.

Consider this post by John Cole, reporting on an attempt by Jane Hamsher to smear him that goes, well, slightly wrong. In the midst of a long comment thread that deals with details of Cole's alleged deviations from leftist orthodoxy as well as Hamsher's well self-publicized position that it would have been better to scrap the health care reform bill as it was written than to pass it, we have a marvelous summary of one of the many weaknesses of the left, complete with some ad hominem to keep one reading:
Here’s something that simple-minded twits like you are almost wholly incapable of understanding. Just because the Affordable Care Act does not contain every dream measure liberals wanted included in the final bill, that does not somehow mitigate the final legislation from having a sizable and very tangible impact in the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans. It’s a victory that, although incomplete, is still entirely worth celebrating.

That you could be so gleeful and obtuse in demagoguing something that is providing long-sought after relief to your fellow citizens is a rather shameful display.
This latter position - that we are actually worse off with the passage of the Affordable Care Act than we were before - is simply not supported by the facts. One can believe it in the same way people believe there is no such thing as global warming, or believe in the tooth fairy. One can believe it so passionately that one is quite willing to jettison even more facts in support of the notion that ACA is nothing more or less than a corporate sell-out, was always planned to be a corporate sell-out, and that no one except the American people wanted a better bill.

Too sad. Those so passionately committed to a particular policy goal can become too blind to notice that progress - tremendous, beneficial progress for millions of Americans - has actually been achieved by our broken, limited system of governance.

This whole episode is very tragic. It is also just more evidence (as if any were needed) that the American left is constitutionally incapable of gaining, let alone wielding, power in an effective manner. When matters of process and procedure, attaining limited half-measures in pursuit of longer-term goals that are more generous, and highlighting the passage of the most significant piece of social legislation since I was a baby seem to be worse crimes than believing the President is a terrorist-pal, Muslim-liberation theologian-Marxist bent on destroying white America and making Amiri Baraka our poet laureate - well, as far as I'm concerned those folks cease to function as serious thoughtful commenters on our public life.

I have no desire to deny that I would have much preferred all sorts of good things in HCR. I also see the many good things that are in the ACA as it passed, and celebrate them. For some, it is just easier to pout, then shout, because one's own toys weren't included in the gift-giving, and blame all those phony fake-liberals for destroying this moment of victory for all the good things in this world.

Politics is a dirty, nasty business, and one should take one's victories where and when they actually come, rather than as we wish they had.

The Choice

In reading Matt Taibbi's latest piece in Rolling Stone I found a paragraph that sets before readers what is at stake with these mid-term elections.
You look into the eyes of these people when you talk to them and they genuinely don't see what the problem is. It's no use explaining that while nobody likes the idea of having to get the government to tell restaurant owners how to act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the tool Americans were forced to use to end a monstrous system of apartheid that for 100 years was the shame of the entire Western world. But all that history is not real to Tea Partiers; what's real to them is the implication in your question that they're racists, and to them that is the outrage, and it's an outrage that binds them together. They want desperately to believe in the one-size-fits-all, no-government theology of Rand Paul because it's so easy to understand. At times, their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart.
This yearning for simplicity, this primitivism, this fear which expresses itself in a rage against the Other, against those forces that push and pull us in ways we neither understand nor like, is certainly much of the attraction of the Tea Party and its candidates. Fear an oversexualized culture? Christine O'Donnell is there insisting that even masturbation should be subject to a disciplined life. Confused about the tax system? Rand Paul is there saying you are overtaxed. Wondering why there seems to be more concern for so many in places other than where we live, where we are hurting and afraid? So many candidates are saying that illegal immigrants are taking our jobs, our tax money in the form of public education for their children and emergency health care paid for by Medicaid.

It isn't that these answers are wrong. They kick against the pricks of our current reality. Yes, it is frightening that events in a far off country, perhaps one of which we had never heard, can end up costing us our jobs, our homes, our sense of security. This doesn't make it any less real; unplugging from this weird machine, while certainly an attractive possibility, isn't really tenable (regulating it in a more just, scrupulous, and judicious manner, however, is another matter).

Should the unlikely happen and the Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives (the Senate is just too far out of reach), the agenda for at least the next two years will consist of items that have nothing to do with the way our world is really constructed. We will wage fights, post items on FB and our blogs, on subjects that are, at best, tangential to the ongoing realities of economic stagnation and social malaise.

I am not saying that retaining a Democratic majority guarantees butterflies and rainbows. On the contrary, all the evidence from the past four years should convince anyone not yet convinced that, even at their best, the Democrats can be said to muddle through. All the same, the forces of reaction and fear, the desire to shrug off our contemporary lot for some idyll of our imagination is a recipe not just for disaster, but perhaps even collapse. So, we have the horrid choice before us - those who have the minimal virtue of keeping the worst of possible worlds from coming to fruition without making any progress; or, chuck it all and find ourselves staring in to a very real, very horrid abyss that stares back.


I have now seen the final season, and final episode, of Lost. I think it safe to say that, unlike far too many people, I found it not just satisfying, but moving.

Far too much of our culture fears death so much it offers up only visions of torment or emptiness, a refusal to acknowledge its reality in the ubiquitous depiction of ghosts as "not having moved on". In this final episode, we have the depiction, not of purgatory, but rather the mind's coming to terms with the reality of death - going to the great length of creating an entire life as a defense against the reality. Bringing full circle not just the major cast players, but Juliette's dying words to Sawyer in the first episode, "It worked." Exploding the bomb did, indeed, work. It just didn't work in the way anyone thought.

I also think that Hugo was the only real choice for caretaker. He may have been a slightly slack, clueless bumbler; as Ben Linus tells him (in one of those moments that show that Ben Linus was more than a sociopath), Hugo will do well as long as he does what he does well, take care of people. That is what Hurley always did. Taking care of the island, running things not as Jacob did - some secret society with ever-descending spirals of understanding and knowledge. His constant demand for openness, his various ploys - from the Golf Course to the con on Sawyer to the demand for funerals for those who died - all show that in hi heart, Hugo cared not a fig for the deeper ways of the island. All he cared about was people.

All in all, this final season, with its twin story lines closed the final circle, answered the only question worth asking with a chuckle ("yes, the island is real, you dope"), and saw in the lives of the survivors of Oceanic 815 that most fleeting and rare of experiences - lives lived more fully and honestly (even in deceit) than might otherwise have been. Who they were before; who they were after they left (those few who did) did not matter. Sawyer and Kate and Claire get off the island, yet, as Christian tells Jack, the time spent on the island was the most important thing any of them ever did. Who knows how those three lived, and perhaps even loved, once they had gone; in death, they find themselves returning to those people whom they loved at that time, because their living, and their loving, was far more real than anything before or after.

I will admit that, even more than the moment Jin and Sun realize what is happening (and the moment this viewer understood, too, what was happening), the moment when Juliette and Sawyer meet at the vending machine and realize what is happening, I got teary.

Finally, I have to say that ending the series this way, for me, makes of it what it has always seemed to me to be - a variant on that 19th century serialized novel, appearing not in monthly installments, but yearly ones. Tying up all those odd loose ends in a way that always left the reader surprised was a feature of those particular ways of story-telling (consider the very final chapter of Crime and Punishment as emblematic of the type). With this ending, the creators achieved what they set out - to tell a complete story, from beginning to end, making of series television something more than it might otherwise have been.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The United Methodist Church - Older, Whiter, And Needing A Guide For The Future

I started seminary 20 years ago this month. At the time, aged 25, I was definitely on the low end of the age Bell-Curve for seminary students. Many if not most of the students were second-career individuals, in their mid-40's or older, and were recently returned to the church. Wesley, like many seminaries, actively recruited second-career students in part because of the declining numbers of young people hearing a call to ministry.

In the late 1990's, I attended, along with my wife, a meet-and-greet with the new Bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference. That Conference, the largest in the denomination, has 18 Districts, and the Bishop was moving to each district, talking about his vision for the Conference. As I sat and listened to the bland statements being uttered, I looked at the clergy around me. Most were older, almost all were men, and all of them - ALL of them - were white. The Petersburg District included both Sussex and Greensville Counties, two majority-black counties. Brunswick and Dinwiddie Counties had substantial African-American populations. Not a single black church, historical or new. I mentioned this fact during Q&A. The result was no one sat with Lisa and me at the lunch break.

These general ruminations are the beginning of my thinking sparked by an email my wife forwarded to me:
New research from the Lewis Center on Church Leadership reveals two facts about the UMC that have been part of the church's struggle for many years.

1) The median age of clergy continues to rise very quickly: More than half of elders are age 55 or older. In 2000, the midway point was age 50, and in 1973, the median was 43.

2) In a nation where racial diversity is increasing, the membership of the UMC is becoming even more white: 90% in 2008, up from 87% in 1998. During that time, according to 2009 Census Bureau figures, non-Hispanic whites decreased from 69% to 65% of the U.S. population.

What does this mean for our church?
Like the rest of the old mainline churches, the UMC saw a substantial decline in membership, starting in the 1970's. My home church, once a robust, active congregation with over 400 members and, at its peak when I was in high school, a worship attendance closing in on 200 a week. Less than a quarter century later, that church has ceased to be.

While we can discuss all sorts of reasons, from demographic shifts to the failures of the hierarchy, to the failures of individual ministers, to the general decline in church attendance and religion in general in the United States, there still remains open the question of how we move forward, constructively, as a denomination?

Part of this, I think begins with understanding who we are. Part of it is instilling an understanding, and even a pride, in our Wesleyan heritage, the many contributions important and influential church leaders, theologians, bishops, and others have made to making our country a better place.

Another factor that needs to be addressed is our ministry to youth and young adults. It is pretty much settled that, even if an individual was raised going to church, between the ages of 18 and 30, church attendance declines substantially. After people settle in to careers and families, they start to trickle back. If we had serious, thoughtful, engaging youth ministry and ministry for young adults, we might just see a change. Not a substantial change; there are too many social and cultural factors that just wouldn't make that possible. Yet, if we could retain in active participation just a small percentage of the young people who go through youth ministry programs, and have waiting for them young adult ministry programs that meet their needs, the effects could become a multiplier.

With more young adults staying active in church, being involved in its ministries, the understanding of a call to ministry might come sooner than mid-life. More young people going to seminary and becoming local pastors under appointment would, in turn, not only reduce the potential burden on pensions and a ministerial drought; it would also provide a resource for new ideas. It would show other young people at the local level that there might just be something to this whole "church" thing, reducing the drop-off rate even a little bit further.

It starts, I think, with having serious, substantive, yet also engaging youth and young adult ministries. This is the crucial point in the lives of young people. Too much of our youth ministry is faddish, or rooted in an approach that denies the legitimacy of the very real question young people have regarding the relevance of God in their lives in the early 21st century. We need to be open to exploring the Bible with youth. We need to talk about sex and drugs. We need to talk about race and war. Most of all we need to provide a space for our young people to come and talk about these matters in a way that affirms their questions without dodging them.

We also need to be more serious about cross-cultural ministry. We need to give more than lip service to expanding our local church's potential membership by reaching out to the growing Mexican and Latino communities; to other geographically specific minority groups (it might be south Asians in Michigan, or Cambodians and Laotians in southern California).

Finally, on this matter, we need to address the very real problem of structural racism in the denomination and the individual bigotry of clergy. It is not enough to point to historically black United Methodist congregations; it is not enough to point to the recruitment of minority clergy and lay leaders; it is not enough to talk about this or that mission project in a community with a different racial or ethnic identity. We need to stand up and say, without fear, that there is still much work to be done to address the whole question of race in the United Methodist Church, both at an institutional level and at the level of the attitudes of local clergy.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Credible Threats

It is easy enough to make fun of Bill Kristol's constant calls for the United States to prepare for war with . . . fill-in-the-blank. It's like Tourette's Syndrome. He can't help himself.

Let us, for the moment, set aside the temptation to either ignore him or laugh at him or roll our eyes at him, or feel icky because he is so casual in his preference for violence. Some questions that aren't asked might be in order.

Let us consider his statements on the merits. His argument is that if the United States threatened war, or even some kind of military strike short of all-out war, with Iran, it would be induced to act in ways that are more amenable to our interests. I would ask him a simple question - why should Iran consider the United States a credible threat? Currently painfully extricating ourselves from a long, bloody occupation of Iraq that was ill-conceived, poorly planned, with no thought given to what would happen once the initial combat was over and we became an occupying force, Iran has plenty of evidence on its doorstep as to what our military is and is not capable of. On its other border, we are bogged down in Afghanistan, like pretty much every major power since Alexander the Great has been.

We are economically weak, militarily and strategically stretched almost to the breaking point, and would be if we actually carried out military operations in Iran, acting without any diplomatic cover whatsoever. Furthermore, it would seriously undermine our relations with Russia, of far greater import for any number of reasons than any benefit we might potentially gain from ending (if it were possible) the revolutionary rule in Iran.

What Kristol fail to understand - for reasons either of ignorance of simple stupidity - is that any threat of military action has to be credible. With the possible exception of launching some cruise missiles and attacks from remote-controlled drones, not to mention the unthinkable use of nuclear weapons, our threats just aren't credible. Half-measures, such as remote attacks by missile, would only bring down the wrath of most of the world upon us. The use of nuclear weapons might provoke a response that even Kristol, with his measured disdain for world opinion, would not like. How would it feel to instantly become a pariah, perhaps even the target of a concerted effort on the part of the world community to undermine our government?

Any threat of action has to be, at the very least, credible. Right now, ours would not be.

Virtual Tin Cup

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