Saturday, February 26, 2011

Whores, Scumbags, And Other Miscreants

My mother, God bless her, taught many valuable lessons in life. Along with learning how to mop properly as well as the necessity of porch-sweeping to a happy marriage, one of the most valuable is a simple one - don't call people names. Now, my mother took that to the extreme that she wasn't thrilled with nicknames. None of her siblings, with the exception of her oldest brother, had them; Eugene was always "Junior" because, well, he was Eugene Johnston, Jr. My father's family, on the other hand, referred to one another only by nicknames. For example, my father, whose first name is "Daniel", was until the end of his father's and brother's lives, "Boone", as in Daniel Boone. My mother always considered that slightly insulting, I think. Woe be unto anyone caught referring to a friend by anything other than their given name. Again, she didn't quite understand that the use of certain words is always context dependent. It is one thing, for example, to refer to one's best friend as "Dork", and refer to a member of a special education class in school as "Dork". Her attitude seemed to be that, if you avoided using them even in jest toward those you liked, you would be less likely to use them in all seriousness toward others you didn't even know.

Now, I would never claim I followed my own modified version of this teaching to the letter. All the same, exposure to the sheer variety of human life I have witnessed in my short span of time has driven home this most basic lesson. Whether it is an unmentionable word to be used in reference to a member of a religious or ethnic minority, a woman, or certain class-based epithets, I make an effort to steer clear of them. In particular this last, most commonly using phrases like "trailer trash" or "poor white trash" (PWT is a common acronym) I avoid for one simple reason. My generation of my family is barely one generation removed from what most would label that way. Furthermore, back during the 1990's, the treatment Paula Jones received from some of Pres. Clinton's supporters was horrible. I shall never forget one - it might even have been Paul Begala, who I never liked much anyway, even greasier than the President - who said, in reference to what was considered the baselessness of the charges, "Well, you know what happens when you drag a $20 bill through a trailer park." At that moment, I knew what was in the hearts and minds of these folks; nothing but contempt and disgust at a whole segment of the American public - the working poor - to whom the President not only offered sympathy, but for whom he and the rest of them should have been working tirelessly.

Now, I have a right-wing interlocutor who tosses around all sorts of epithets with relative ease. Phrases like "cheap whore", "scumbag", and "bastard" flow effortlessly from his fingertips. I have mentioned on several occasions that I find these terms objectionable, not least because they dehumanize those to whom they refer. At heart, really, that is my objection to the use of such extreme terms. Anyone who can compare a young woman using vulgarity to someone speaking like a cheap whore must, in that person's mind, have a class of persons who exhibit characteristics that person label's "cheap whore". Now, I'm not going to pretend there are not people of both genders who are free and loose with their sexual favors, for any number of reasons. On the other hand, calling such persons a whore strips them of their individual integrity, removes them from our center of care and concern. We no longer have to trouble ourselves with questions as to why that person may be acting that way, if their actions present a danger to themselves or others. A cheap whore is, well, just a cheap whore.

Whenever someone uses a term such as these - and there are plenty of others - to refer to a human being, they are not only, in their own mind, classifying such persons as existing within a group of persons whose existence is morally questionable. Such people are also, as I have pointed out, revealing themselves and the way they look at the world.

The world is full of all sorts of people, all individuals, with their own quirks and foibles, their own strengths and weaknesses. For me, it is far better to treat others as having all the integrity and dignity I believe I have. Labeling others, calling them names that reveal an attitude of indifference due to alleged moral turpitude, or socio-economic class, or racial, ethnic, or religious background is one of the few things I find morally reprehensible and worthy of calling out as such. To my mind there are no such things as "whores", cheap or otherwise; a bastard is an outmoded legal term that dismisses another person as of less worth because that person's parents weren't married at the time that person was born; I could continue on down the list, but I think you get the idea.

Jesus said that there are two things that fulfill the Law and Prophets - loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. When some who claim the name Christian toss around terms like this, and defend it in the name of an alleged Christian morality, it discredits the ministry of the churches to all persons. When we look out at the world, we should just see children of God, worthy of love and respect just because they exist; calling them whores and bastards in the name of God's morals makes it that much harder to reach them and convince them that they are, indeed, beloved of God.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Public Protests Here And There

Before the Mubarak regime collapsed in Egypt, David Ignatius - a Washington Post columnist who writes on foreign affairs with all the aplomb and expertise of a chimpanzee discoursing on Aristotle - appeared on Diane Rehm's radio program and allegedly quoted some of his "sources" who were complaining about the possibility that the United States might well stand with the Egyptian people against their government. Essentially, Ignatius' argument - or, rather, his alleged sources' argument - was that "a few thousand protesters" did not represent a country of 85 million people, that undermining a long-standing ally was against our national interest, etc., etc.

Fast forward to a column by another member of the WaPo's stable of typists-in-residence, George Will, and this time it isn't "a few thousand Egyptians", but a few thousand Wisconsonians who are trying to overturn an election. Except, of course, they are actually exercising their constitutional rights. The last time I checked we weren't a parliamentary system; in Britain, say, or Israel, or France, a party is elected and has the opportunity to pass certain key legislative programs at the heart of the electoral process. In the United States, while elections do indeed have consequences, the rights of the minority to protest, and even disrupt the legislative agenda of the incoming majority, is protected by the constitution. Furthermore, one wonders if the voters of Wisconsin actually elected Scott Walker to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Considering certain facts - that pay and pensions are not part of negotiations but of statute; that the unions were nevertheless willing to accept temporary accession to certain benefit cuts due to the economic situation - the only thing the governor and Republicans in charge of the state legislature seem to have to fall back on is they want to break the public employees union because they can.

It seems that the formula political figures have for dismissing protests come from the same playbook. Ben-Ali, Mubarak, King al-Khalifa, Pres. Saleh, Col. Qaddafi, and now Gov. Walker with some help from former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, all insist that those protesting not only are not representative of the public at large, but may well be (wait for it) . . . outside agitators! Bussed in union supporters and Democrats from outside Wisconsin, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, wherever. Because, see, local folks love the government, whatever it does, so discontent has to lie outside the borders and boundaries of the state or nation. It was outside agitators who were responsible for the Civil Rights marches, for the anti-Vietnam War marches, for protests against the invasion of Iraq, for Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the list is endless.

Public protests are the sign of a healthy, vigorous, engaged citizenry. They are, therefore, despised, belittled, and otherwise marginalized by those who hold power. Whether that power comes from bullets or ballot boxes, it is always a threat. For that reason alone, it should be encouraged.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Typical Day

In general, the sight of a governor attempting to break a public employee union is enough to make me want to dope-smack someone. I can't speak to the way public-sector unions operate in Wisconsin, nor can I really speak beyond my own second-hand experience as the child of a teacher, NEA/NYEA member, and contract negotiator who has been retired from teaching for twenty-two years. By and large, however, much of the published animus seems directed at teachers unions in particular, so I thought I would set out a teacher's typical day, as our schools are currently run.

First, however, it is important to remember that, as most states require teachers to have a Master's Degree, yet usually pay far too little to repay the massive debt that comes from the way we finance higher education in this country to make ends meet, so when my typical teacher wakes up around 5:30 in the morning, he or she may well have gone to bed close to midnight because of a second job.

Anyway, after waking up and getting ready, as the coffee is being drunk and breakfast is being eaten, notes from the upcoming day's lesson plans are reviewed (my typical teacher is a literature teacher, because that is what my father taught, although I will mention other subjects as appropriate). For one class, it is the day to introduce Huckleberry Finn, but there's a memo attached concerning some parents' complaints because the book contains inappropriate language. The permission forms for the honors lit class are turned in and almost half of the parents object to the use of John Gardner's Grendel, so some other work has to be sought out, soon.

The teacher leaves home a half-hour early because he/she needs to stop at Target or Wal-Mart and pick up some school supplies because they are running low and the school just doesn't have the budget for them. Some erasers, chalk for the blackboard, book covers for some students whose nearly-20-year-old textbooks are showing the results of wear and tear. For a writing assignment in one class, he picks up a ream of printer paper so the students can print out their assignments on the single class-room printer.

After arriving at school, there is a note in the mailbox from the school nurse and counselor. The girl who seemed to be exhibiting signs of anorexia refused treatment and the parents were threatening legal action because the teacher had showed the temerity to follow the law and intervene in a situation where such intervention is demanded. The year before, a boy had admitted to being the victim of domestic violence after this teacher noticed some large bruises on his upper arms and the teacher reported it. Now, this young man was in foster care in another city, and his father had been leaving harassing phone calls on the teacher's answering machine.

Over the course of the day, the teacher sees students who are attentive and eager, stoned and dreamy, on the verge of lost in the grind of life, and overtly hostile simply because some people are that way. The teacher confiscates three cell phones from students who insist on texting during class. One girl wants to stop by after classes end for some extra help, but the teacher demurs on meeting in the classroom, because one of the teacher's colleagues recently was caught in a sex scandal with a student, so all after-school student-teacher conferences are held in a public area.

As students are filing in to one class, some are complaining because the biology teacher has been teaching evolution. One girl says, "My Dad is going to the next school board meeting to stop that." This same girl has been accepted to a pre-med program at a major university, yet she does not accept evolution, and wants it not to be taught in her school.

After classes end, the teacher meets in the library with several students who have requested extra help. Once those meetings are over, all the days papers are gathered in folders and put in a briefcase and the teacher heads home. He or she sits at a table and grades the papers from one class, then reviews the notes for the test being given in two days in another. Typing up that test takes about an hour, printing it another fifteen minutes or so. He or she leaves a sticky note on the refrigerator to stop and pick up a couple packet of Number 2 pencils before school the next day, because he or she knows about half the students will not have them, and the school does not supply them.

Then, he or she gets ready to head out to his or her second job. A quick kiss to the spouse, a pat on the head to the children, then it's off with a pit-stop at the school to check on the Literature Club who is running the concession stand at the basketball game that night as a money-raiser. Normally, the teacher would be there all through it, but with schedule conflicts, the teacher did manage to find another to stay there through the game, but the teacher is still required to make an appearance. Because of this, the teacher is ten minutes late to the second job, which earns a stern look from a manager who, a few years previous, was a student of this teacher's. After a four-hour, very physical shift, the teacher heads home, knowing there is still about an hour's worth of work waiting to get ready for the next day's lessons.

For all this, the teacher earns, roughly speaking, around the median national income of $50,0000 a year as a teacher. Supplemental income from various required extra-curricular activities - coaching softball in the spring, directing the fall play, earns another $1500. From the second job, part-time during the school year, full-time during the summer, there's about another $12,000.

So, yeah, teacher unions are a bad idea, don't you think? Teachers have it easy, soft, they don't care about our kids, and have no real outside pressure on their lives.

If It's Wednesday, You Better Be Ready To ROCK Randomly

I need some suggestions on good songs to accompany sitting and watching revolutions. Something a little off the wall, maybe? Not necessarily obscure, but certainly not the Beatles, God love 'em. With everything happening in North Africa and Arabia right now, I just feel the need for a good soundtrack.

Which reminds me. We all should be praying, or sending good karma, or have in our thoughts - whichever way of being attentive to others works for you - the people of Libya. It seems Col. Qaddafi has decided that he would rather kill his people than rule them While it would be nice if all the revolutions in that region could be relatively peaceful and orderly, it was just not meant to be. Oh, and a good word for the king of Bahrain, who, before leaving to confer with the King of Saudi Arabia (man, we just need to get rid of all these absolute monarchs, I hate writing about kings), released some political prisoners today. I don't know if it will help or hurt him, but it certainly makes the one's imprisoned happy, huh.

Enough of this talk. This is supposed to be about MUSIC dammit. So, batteries to power, turbines to speed, and Dire Straits was wrong; I do give a damn about trumpet playing bands. You should, too, especially if the band is The Budos Band, a bunch of kids from Long Island who play some seriously awesome Afro-funk.

Batteries to power, turbines to speed.

Ripples (Live) - Genesis
Doctor Diamond - King Crimson
Island - Julia Fordham
Mozart Horn Concerto #3, Second Movement - Orchestra of The Old Fairfield Academy
I'm Losing You - The Temptations
Strange Dreams - Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush
Harmony Korine - Steven Wilson
O Death - Ralph Stanley
Oculus Ex Inferni - Symphony X
Dragula - Rob Zombie

The other day the following song popped up on my player. A real blast from the past, it made me feel good, but also bad that I had forgotten about it. I always loved a mystery.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Some Thoughts On The Revolution

Twenty-two years ago, we in the United States watched as Poland held its first multi-party elections in the spring; as China teetered on the brink of revolution, only to have its dreams of democracy drown in blood and horror; as Hungary opened its border with Austria; as, first, people danced on top of the Berlin Wall, then took sledgehammers to it, bringing it down; as the people of Czeckoslovakia marched on St. Wenceslaus Square and their government collapsed like a rotten fruit; as Romania, the heavy-hand of the Ceaucescu clan desperately trying to cling to power, erupted in violence, with the images of their dead leaders beamed around the world; as Bulgaria, reading the tea leaves, quietly ended forty-five years of communist rule. The process, spread over the course of much of that amazing, frustrating, sad, and finally triumphant year, was relatively rapid, In the late spring, from China, there was much discussion over the role of new communications technology, as people discussed the role of the fax machine in the simmering pro-democracy movement. Once the first supports were removed from the first regime in central Europe, the rest toppled not least because the people not only understood that change was in the air. More important, even when they were met with resistance - in Czeckoslovakia and Romania - they proved they were no longer afraid of the threat even of violent death.

The events of that year are usually considered the end of the Cold War. One historian, John Lukacs, wrote that the events marked not only the end of a period of history, but marked the end of the historical cycle of the 20th century. The most famous and influential verdict on the events of that year was Francis' Fukuyama's claim that History was at an end.

Large swaths of humanity were surprised to hear these considered verdicts on the victory of freedom. Not only China, but Indonesia, to name two of the most populous nations on the planet, were in different ways still laboring under dictatorships. Much of the African continent was suffering the ravages of neo-colonial exploitation and the imposition of kleptocrats. Central and South America was only beginning to emerge from two decades of military dictatorship, with all the violence, official domestic terrorism, and repression that entailed. The Muslim world, stretching from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the East, was still groaning under the weight of regimes, many of which were imposed at the end of the First World War by then-fading imperial powers who sought to safeguard their access to resources.

This band, in particular running from Morocco to Pakistan, is now in turmoil. The last vestiges of absolute monarchy, of the military revolts of the height of the Cold War, of a new age of what Noam Chomsky called, in the title of one of his books, The New Military Humanism, and the beginnings of a theocratic democracy in Iran all simmer with unrest as the people of various nations demand an end to extrinsic definition and imperial dominance. Since the collapse of the Tunisian autocracy in January, the entire region has not seen a day without several of the states experiencing protests, violence, state-sanctioned murder, and the growing sense that this state of affairs has yet to play itself out.

Even as our troops sit in Iraq, on bases in Kuwait and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, our money pours in to Turkey and Iraq and Israel, and our covert military forces engage various "targets" in Yemen, the amount of influence the US actually possesses can be rated at or near zero. For all our might, for all our economic influence as a purchaser of the principle export of petroleum, for all that ours is still, by far, the major cultural, social, military, and economic power in the world, we have sat idly by as two long-time dictators went the way of the Dodo. In Libya, long a focus of American angst (and target of its bombs in the 1980's), Moammar Qaddafi's rule hangs by the slenderest of threads. The royal family of Bahrain is under siege. In Yemen and Algeria, Djibouti and Morocco, the people have gathered to demand changes that include a greater voice for the management of their own affairs, as we who were once called the "last best hope for mankind", sit around and argue as to what we should do.

Whether or not Qaddafi, or the al-Khalifa dynasty, or military junta in Algeria, or Pres. Saleh, or any of the others remain in power is, at this point, anyone's guess. Far more important is the reality that, no matter what happens, that stretch of the world we mistakenly call "the Middle East" will not be the same when these fires of revolution finally burn themselves out (as such fires have always done). We Americans have yet to grasp how profound, how important, how world-historical is the shift happening in the western half of the pre-dominantly Muslim world. Our leaders stutter and contradict themselves, trying to find their voices amidst the clamor for freedom and the sound of gunfire. In many ways, our hands-off approach resembles that of Gorbachev's Soviet Union as the former satellites down the heart of Europe shuddered then fell. For that, we should be thankful. All the same, it is my opinion that our leaders have not grasped the gravity and scope of the reality they face now, nor the new future that awaits on the other side of the democratic revolutions shaking the foundations of the Muslim world. As more of the vestiges of 20th century imperialism and neo-imperialism collapse, I wonder if we in the US will understand we shall awake one day to a world far different from that we have known. Better, to be sure, for the millions who had lived under the thumb of imposed dictators. Yet, perilous for anyone thinking we Americans can still work our will regardless of the cost.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Not Exactly A Knock-Down Drag-Out

[Y]our book struck me as so cheap and paltry that I felt profoundly sorrry for you, defiling as you were your very elegant and ingenious style with such trash, and quite disgusted at the utterly unworthy matter that was being conveyed in such rich ornaments of eloquence, like refuse or [shit] being carried in gold and silver vases.
Martin Luther, "The Bondage of the Will", a response to Desiderius Erasmus' "On The Freedom of the Will, A Diatribe", 1525
I first picked up Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation because, like much the rest of my library, I figured at some point I would turn to it to fill in the details, for more information, or general enlightenment. With my mind turning to the Reformation, I thought now would be a good time.

Two more different individuals one can hardly even imagine pitting against one another. Erasmus, the worldly satirist whose opinions on matters of faith were deeply held yet rarely surfaced; Luther, the voluble, passionate extremist; two such characters, if invented by a writer, would seem caricatures and an editor would probably demand something different. History is kind, however, and provides moments like this, if for no other reason than our entertainment.

As a matter of fact, the amount of theological light shed by both men on the questions of human freedom, grace, faith, and salvation is little indeed. Rather, what we do see is a clash of temperaments and styles, approaches not just to the specifics of theological dispute but some insight in to the personalities of each man. For that alone, the journey through the book was worth it.

Desiderius Erasmus was Luther's older contemporary. Renowned for his satirical attacks upon the leaders of the Church, for the scope of his learning, Erasmus is counted among the founders of northern European humanism in general, and a strain of Catholic humanism that stretches through the Jesuits right up to the Second Vatican Council. He was a man who appreciated the literature of antiquity, the arts, even - according to a quote Jacques Barzun includes in his From Dawn to Decadence - the habit English women seemed to display of kissing strangers. While highly critical of the excesses of the Roman hierarchy, he never went as far as Luther in his condemnations. Indeed, his arguments with the hierarchy were related as much to his preference for a quiet life, appreciating the glories of discovery and the beauties of art and literature and, apparently, English women as to the more abstruse matters of theology that Luther saw as the heart of the corruption of the Church.

With this in mind, it is the Preface of Erasmus' pamphlet that is by far the more important part. Luther's judgment, above, on the piece as a whole describes far more the latter part, in which Erasmus sets forth, rather half-heartedly (so it seem to me), various Scriptural passages regarding the freedom of the human will as regards our salvation. Far more important - and Luther recognizes it as well - is Erasmus' insistence that, in matters where dispute might well exist between persons of sincere faith and honest intent, his preference is, as he writes, to take the path of the Skeptics. Indeed, he sees in many matters - he mentions the Persons of the Trinity, the human and Divine natures within Christ, God's foreknowledge of contingent events - argument to be useless, adding more heat than light, and settles for the judgment of St. Paul in Romans 11, "How unsearchable are [God]s judgments and inscrutable his ways!" This preference for mystery over certainty in matters that are highly contentious is not only a personal one; he seems to be speaking directly to Luther in this regard. Rather than contend with the Church in these matters, and cast aspersions upon the faith and life of those whose opinions differ from his, a far wiser, more prudent course would be for Luther to address these matters in private, precisely because persons of good faith can disagree completely on all sorts of questions that still haunt the churches to this day.

Luther, whose life consisted of assertions against the authority of the hierarchy, the church councils, anyone who seemed to make the claim that salvation, efficacious through God's grace alone, in any way involved the individual as a partner in the process, would hardly consider a plea for restraint rooted in a preference for skepticism and a dislike of bold assertion where caution might better rule as anything other than cowardice or irreligion. In fact, he accuses Erasmus of both, although coming down pretty heavily in favor of the latter. His tone, as always, is rough; as one of the editors of this volume, E. Gordon Rupp, writes, Erasmus brought a rapier to this duel; Luther, a blunderbuss. Luther, for his part, sees the question of the freedom of the human will not as either a mystery upon which opinions can differ; nor does he see it as peripheral to a life of faith. Rather, Luther sees it as bound up with what was, for him, the central reality of the proclamation of the Gospel, salvation by grace through faith. To bypass claims on these matters out of a preference for peace for the mass of Christendom, Luther sees the choice as false. The peace would be, for him, the peace of the Devil, silencing the Gospel so that those who rule out of falseness can continue to do so.

These descriptions show the stark contrasts, not just in styles, but in personalities on display in these two pamphlets, by two giants of an age. While Erasmus surely would have been a marvelous manager of, say, a website like The Huffington Post, with his appreciation for all sorts of knowledge, his erudition, his wit, and his refusal to take himself too seriously, Martin Luther would make, in our day, an excellent troll on such a website. He baits, he praises, his ad hominems seem to flow effortlessly, and always with the insistence they are meant with the utmost respect. While not enlightening in any theological detail, the discussion in these pages surely ranks as an important document because we can gain some insight in to the minds of two figures who loom even over our own age.

Virtual Tin Cup

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