Saturday, May 19, 2012

History Is Bunk!

I was going to title this post "Shit Really Does Happen!" but I thought that might offend people. Instead, employing Ford's quote in an ironic way might make the main point more clear - events occur, things happen, things happened in a certain way, things happened because other things happened (albeit not in a simplistic cause/effect way; rather, there are relationships among various events that make sense). We can have debates and discussions over, say, the relative importance of the British enclosure laws on the growth of poverty and decline of religious practice because we are so far removed in time and space from the events in question that the weight and relevance of various matters are less clear. The financial collapse and the matter of regulating the financial industry, however, is not a process that occurred hundreds of years ago in a foreign country of which we know nothing. It is something that occurred within our lifetime, within the past few years. The documentation is both clear and available.

We had an inquiry commission that released a final report. I even wrote about it.

I was listening to NPR's Weekend All Things Considered - the website does not include a mention of the dueling interviews so I have no clue if I dreamed it or not - and there were back to back interviews with Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, on his latest piece on the horror that is Dodd-Frank. 

Immediately after interviewing Taibbi, there was one with Peter Wallison, who, among other things, insisted there are "competing narratives" about the 2008 economic collapse, one involving the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1998, the other seeing what happened as little more than one of the bumps in the business cycle that occurred, in part, because banks made a bunch of bad loans. I was wracking my brain while I was in the car, trying to remember why the name "Peter Wallison" was so familiar. I came home and discovered why.
T]he fourth dissenter, Peter Wallison - who uses his own dissenting report's title page for purposes of self promotion as ARTHUR F. BURN FELLOW IN FINANCIAL POLICY STUDIES, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE, and helpfully appends his email address to the bottom of the page - wrote 98 page [dissent], all on his own! Right away, Wallison's dissent seems to contradict, in a fundamental way, the conclusion of the majority. Specifically, he places the onus of responsibility for the financial collapse not upon the myriad of factors sited by the majority, but to a single cause - the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.
The post from which this comes offers competing "narratives" from the FCIC report. The differences could not be more striking. Wallison insists on defending a prior conclusion that it was a series of government policies that led, directly, to the economic collapse. The majority report, however, investigated the actual facts of the matter and concluded that, since the specific government-backed home loans were both a negligible proportion of the high-risk loans involved, and that these loans were less than half as likely to have gone in to default, there is no way they could have played any significant role in the economic crisis. Toward the end, I sum up what any sane person reading the competing reports would conclude:
So, the majority agrees with Wallison that housing policy was far too aggressive in its pursuit of ever-greater home ownership. Yet, this in and of itself hardly could have led to the other causes the majority noted as contributing causes - everything from lax corporate oversight to outright illegality, predatory lending practices, and the dismal failure of what little financial regulation was left. In this regard, citing federal housing policy, and in particular the Community Reinvestment Act as the prime, or perhaps even sole source, of the financial crisis disregards the rampant risk-taking, disregard for financial solvency and fiduciary responsibility, and outright criminality that is a part of the public record.(emphasis added)
"[P]art of the public record." A record, I might add, Wallison studiously ignores as he doggedly pursues the ever-elusive goal of proving that CRA was at fault. Now, NPR treats this fabulist to a solo spot interview in which he sings a completely different tune, inventing "competing narratives" as a way of showing how silly it is to have different views on what is, clearly, an open-and-shut case of too much government regulation. This flies in the face of ninety-four pages Wallison wrote not that long ago; it also flies in the face of the reality that no one that I know of has said there is some kind of direct connection between the 1998 repeal of Glass-Steagal and the financial collapse of 2008. I have said, on several occasion, this odd correlation of events is interesting; I think the evidence in the FCIC Majority Report, however, shows a far more complex, but far more chilling, case of a combination of idiocy, criminality, and simple incompetence within the private sector.

As a side note, it might have been nice if the folks at NPR had prefaced the interview with Wallison by noting that, as a member of the FCIC, he wrote a dissenting report that ignored significant and highly salient facts of the matter all the while pushing a case that was wholly false on the merits. Coming out now, saying an entirely different set of things - things, I might add, that bear no relationship either to the reality just a few short years ago, let alone in subsequent discussions of the events of late summer and early fall, 2008 - makes Wallison look, at least to me, not only like an ideologue, but a liar as well.

Ford was wrong. History isn't bunk. Especially when we have access to abundant material to discover what happened and even in some way why, this is important. People like Wallison play off a public that has largely forgotten not only the details of the events in question, but the subsequent investigation and conclusions by a committee appointed to find the sources of those events. If I had no conscience, I could go out in public and just make stuff up like that. It must be fun to get paid for it.

The Offensive Politics Of Defense

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the next fiscal year (here's a summary). With American troops still in combat in Afghanistan and Yemen and Africa, even as the United States faces an historic economic downturn - a situation that no one in a position of authority seems to address in any coherent, comprehensive way - the matter of funding the Department of Defense is of no little concern.

Over the past few years, as the military has disengaged from forward combat operations in Iraq; expanded its role in Yemen and central Africa, sending special operations forces and military advisers to Uganda to pursue international criminal Joseph Kony; begun the readjustment to the full acceptance of open sexual minorities in its ranks; continued large-scale operations in Afghanistan, with multiple forays in to Pakistan including a special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden; wrestled with on-going problems with some combat systems, most notably the F-22 fighter; struggled to create better standards of care for combat veterans wounded either physically or psychologically in a decade of war; in the midst of all this, there has been an on-going debate, domestically, concerning fiscal probity. The senior officers at the Pentagon understand this reality, and have repeatedly offered plans for near-term and long-term funding that recognize these fiscal and political realities without harming or even threatening our security.

The House Republicans, however, would far prefer to play election-year politics with the Pentagon's budget. While recognizing the realities that there is a political dimension to every budget, as they are as much a statement of priorities and plans as a rundown of spending requests, the document the House passed yesterday deals not at all with the requests the Pentagon has made. For example, it strips further funding from a long-range plan to create jet fuel from bio-fuels, a plan that not only is cost-effective in the long run, but also creates a more effective military capability.
On Monday, the Navy will announce the ships for its demonstration “Great Green Fleet” — an aircraft carrier strike group powered by biolfuels and other green energy sources — but, as reported by Wired’s Danger Room, the House Armed Services Committee is banning the Pentagon from buying alternative fuel that costs more than a “traditional fossil fuel” in its report on next year’s budget. That’s a standard that the upstart biofuel industry will find hard to meet and could well spell the end of the Pentagon’s early efforts to end a dependence on fossil fuels.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey made the case last October that military use of green energy technologies “saves lives” and an Army study in August found “A fighting force that isn’t restricted by the reach of a tanker truck or weighted down by heavy batteries is more nimble and, as a result, more lethal.”
What's hysterically funny about this is it was done in the name of cost savings, in a budget that was eight billion dollars more than the caps set in a budget resolution passed last year by this same Congress. That resolution, however, has been rescinded as the House prepares for an election year game of chicken over spending and the debt ceiling in hopes of making the President look bad. Doing this by spending more money, forcing the Pentagon to scrap a multi-year effort to refit our forces in ways that are both better for the environment and better for the military, should, were ours a more sane country, make clear how little House Republicans care about what the Pentagon wants and doesn't want.

There are many other tidbits in the NDAA, including expanding the powers of indefinite detention of American citizens, a provision that has already been suspended by a federal judge because it is so expansive it violates the First Amendment.

Lost in all of this is any sense that the Republican members of the House of Representatives care a jot or tittle for what the Pentagon might actually want. Were I in a position of authority, I would be spending long hours banging my head against anything solid because it has become impossible in our current political climate to know what is going to be funded and what isn't; whether or not it is possible to deal with contractors on various items because the projects might well simply cease to exist; and, finally, wonder if someone in a position of political power would at least make clear they understand the Pentagon's first priority is the safe and successful completion of our current military operations.

This last would mean that, rather than just spout off whatever nonsense enters their heads about taxes and priorities and on-going threats not only to our troops but to the nation as a whole, Congress would get serious about reordering our fiscal priorities such that they reflected the reality that we are a nation that continues to send tens of thousands of its young men and women in to combat - sometimes with our supposed allies (considering the increasing threat Afghan military forces pose to American troops, including those who are supposed to be training them). If we started any and all our discussions of our fiscal and economic problems with that in the forefront of our minds, we might well have a very different discussion, no less political, but far closer to the realities we face.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Making A Short Story Long

I've been in the midst of one of those occasional bouts when I wonder if this whole thing is worth the time and mental energy. Several things came in to play, bringing on a week's worth of near-paralyzing existential angst. For one thing, I passed the 3500 post mark. That's a whole lot of stuff I've put out there. Day in and day out, with a few breaks here and there, for over five years. Speaking for myself, I think there have been a few of the posts that are actually quite well done; not just well-written, but transcend the typical commentary, trying to say something important and actually succeeding. A person can't produce this amount of material without doing seriously mediocre stuff, though, a charge I accept. I'm guessing Rod Serling's self-assessment of his output on The Twighlight Zone - overall, equal thirds quality, place-holders, and stinkers - is a good overall judgment on my output over the years.

With absolutely no humility at all but in all honesty, I think when I've done stuff that's really good, there aren't many who can touch me. That's rare, though. Most of the time, I do the best I can within the restrictive bounds of the format and medium. I hit that 3500 mark when I was writing my little series in which I described my intellectual development over the past thirty years. That was a lot of fun, quite a bit of work chasing down various texts, arranging memories, aiming for clarity of narrative as much as explanation. The end was, I think, a bit anti-climactic (at least as I thought about it as I read and re-read it), and missed a vital part of the whole story. While it may well be the case that, for me, the world and human existence aren't so much a series of questions to be answered - always with the only right and true answer! - but, rather, experiences and events and things and people and creatures that are funny and sad and strange and terrible and beautiful and sorrowful, to be understood without getting to caught up in worrying about what any of it means. What does my love for my wife and children mean? Beyond some personal and existential realities, it means little to nothing. Lest you think I'm downplaying my own life here, remember: I think the same thing about your life, and yours. Yours, too, there in the back. It doesn't mean anything. Which doesn't mean it isn't important, that you aren't a creature of worth and importance, worthy of love and acceptance. It just means that I'm just not all that fussed about the whole idea that any of it has any meaning. That's something we human beings, or at least some of us at various times in history, thought was an interesting question to ask. It turns out, though, not to be all that interesting or fruitful at all. So, why ask it? We stopped wondering about all those cycles and epicycles of the planets when we realized it just didn't work as an explanation; so, I've given up asking about meaning without ever once surrendering my wonder and fascination and joy at the panorama.

That's the thing I forgot to mention. I was talking to Lisa last night, trying to work through some of what I was feeling, and I said, "Nothing is unfascinating to me." It's true. Back in February, I wrote a review of Alan F. Moore's Rock: The Primary Text. When Feodor came around troubling me with questions that seemed, to me, to be less about my post than about the book, I did the easiest thing in the world: I emailed Moore. A few weeks back, I received an email response, very gracious and kind, and he made a casual offer of a review copy of his latest book, Song Means: Analyzing and Interpreting Popular Song. In my reply I included my mailing address, never thinking I'd really get sent a free book. Well, it arrived a couple days ago, and I'm enjoying this far larger, more detailed book, and you can expect a review when I've finished it. This immersion in musicology is a symptom of that endless fascination with pretty much everything. It's really quite fun, at 46, to be learning something new, to be offered a new way of thinking about something I love so much.

Having said all that, however, saying that I just don't believe I have any special competencies, any particular gift, and that I cannot communicate any reason why my particular point of view should be something others consider was made pointed in large part by my conclusion. It is one thing to say, "I really like lots of stuff!" It is quite another to turn, then, and shout at the world, "Pay attention to MMMMEEEEEEEE!!!!" I am convinced that, since all the things in which I am interested are out there for anyone to discover, it really isn't any big deal. I hear Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men at this point, growling at Robert Redford, "Someone read a book! So what?" Exactly. So what? Anyone can read books and figure out, even if only partially and in a rudimentary way, what the author is trying to say. Which has always been part of my point; it isn't about knowing stuff, or thinking stuff, or believing stuff. It's about living out of love for others, surrendering one's ego for the sake of others. That's the whole point of this thing called life (quoting Prince may not be a good sign). All the rest, as Parke Godwin wrote, is either bullshit or treacle.

Saying all that last night, Lisa asked me, "So, why do you want others to read you or hear you?"

"I don't have an answer to that, which is what I'm going through."

That is the whole thing, right there. If none of it has any meaning; if I really mean what I say when I write that I do not believe I have any particular gift or competency or perspective to which others should pay attention, it does kind of invalidate not only this little hobby of mine, but my efforts over the past six months at fiction-writing. If I can't articulate any reason for others to hear what I have to say, then . . . um . . .

The specific event, however, that triggered all this was asking for advice about getting started in public speaking. I was bombarded with some pretty traditional advice, most of it sounding like every cliche in every bad business advice book and column ever written. Then it hit me. This stuff, as horrible as it is, is the way people actually think about these things. The world expects us to behave in particular ways, all the while knowing they are shallow and ridiculous. I find vulgar the very idea of promoting myself to others; there is nothing I despise more than people parading around telling the world to pay attention to them, that others need to hear what they have to say (or read what they have written). My encounters with this kind of self-marketing have been pretty consistent - their self-advertising convinces me I need to steer as far from them as possible. Yet, it is impossible, it seems, to break out without doing this very thing to which I am constitutionally and principally opposed. So, yet again, why carry on?

I realized, however, that precisely because I cannot give a justification for carrying on, I don't have to! I am quite happy carrying on without either reason or justification because, well, this is who I am. Despite the occasional internet troll, which is little more than a hazard of life, I get a great deal of personal satisfaction out of this whole thing.

All the same, it would be nice if I got some feedback on occasion. I toss these things out there for the world to see, and wonder if it matters; I may suffer from too little ego, but that doesn't mean no ego. So, I guess I'm asking now for folks to let me know: Am I doing this right? Are my words, is my perspective, something that gives you even a moment's pause? I have no illusions that I've made a difference in the workings of the world; it would be nice, however, to hear from one or two of you that, yes, I have said something that made you angry enough or happy enough or surprised enough to think about something - anything - in a way you might not have before.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Offered With Introduction And Without Comment

Eberhard Jungel was a student of Karl Barth, an accomplished theologian in his own right, and took the opportunity to provide as concise a summary of the verbose Swiss's thought as any can find. The following passage, which I stole from here, says everything anyone needs to know about how I understand God and Jesus and the passion and how we can and do come to understand God and Jesus and the passion. Without forgetting Bonhoeffer's criticism of Barth's "positivism of revelation", Barth's single-minded insistence that revelation is not a thing we consider, but a person whose life and death and resurrection sets the boundaries and categories for our working out of our encounter with this person and the event his life presents to us clears away so much of the muddle from so many seemingly contested arenas as Biblical interpretation, ethics, even Church polity. Enough from me. Here is Herr Jungel:
[God's being] is a being in a becoming threatened by perishing. For humanity in opposition to God is condemned to perish. And in the existence of Jesus Christ God suffers this very condemnation. 'The more seriously we take this, the stronger the temptation to approximate to the view of a contradiction and conflict in God Himself.' Barth takes the passion of God very seriously. 'The Almighty exists and acts and speaks here in the form of One who is weak and impotent, the eternal as One who is temporal and perishing ... The One who lives for ever has fallen a prey to death. The Creator is subjected to and overcome by the onslaught of that which is not.' But he categorically rejects that we must draw from this the consequence of a contradiction through which God would come into conflict with himself. For Barth this consequence is blasphemy. However, his rejection of this consequence does not lead to any toning down of his discussion of God's suffering, but conversely, to a critique of the traditional metaphysical concept of God, according to which God cannot suffer without falling into conflict with his being. In this critique, Barth's opposition to every kind of natural theology received its most pointed statement. No concept of God arrived at independent of the reality of Jesus Christ may decide what is possible and impossible for God. Rather, we are to say from what God as man in Jesus Christ is, does and suffers: 'God can do this.' For 'who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. ... It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, to reconstitute them in light of the fact that He does this. We may believe that God can and only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can and must be only the "Wholly Other". But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ.
Eberhard J√ľngel, God's Being is in Becoming, 99-100

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Moral Cowardice

Like Tom Junod, I was somewhere toward the bottom of the pecking order, but discovering someone a bit further down, I vented my frustration, rage, and need to make another feel the way I had. As with so much else in my life, it is something that weighs on my heart every single day. Not least because, in the grand scheme of things, I realize I was not so much "bullied" as I was teased because I was different. Flaming red, curly hair, on top of soft features we usually associate more with a feminine physiognomy than masculine, it was a combination of curiosity and the kind of humor at the expense of another that does, indeed, hurt, but is not, alas for me, "bullying".

That I had my feelings hurt was more the result of me being a far-too oversensitive child. I watch my daughter and I see the same thing; being far too willing to wear my heart out on my sleeve, I had to learn the hard way that friends sometimes use humor at one another's expense. Not one understanding nuance, on a couple occasions I remember far too vividly, I took that bottled up rage (quite a bit of which was directed inward) and opened it up on another boy. The memory is full of bile for me, a disgusting reminder of what we can do to others. The one thing for which I am thankful is that sense of responsibility and self-loathing over my actions was almost immediate; understanding what I had done was cruel and wrong, while I didn't pursue the poor boy for forgiveness, I did make it a point never, under any circumstance, to act in such a way again.

I have no idea what Mitt Romney thinks about the alleged incident in question. I also don't care. I am far more interested in the fact that, yet again, we have a national representative of a political party that demands personal responsibility from everyone except themselves. Not just Romney's claims that he doesn't remember, or that the incident in question was just a "prank"; much the rest of the political and chattering classes are insisting that the entire matter be dropped as both long ago and far away.

How hard would it have been for Romney to say, "I do remember that. It bothers me. I was never strong enough or adult enough to admit it, let alone seek forgiveness, but it does haunt me." Or words to that effect. Why is it people faced with losing their homes due to economic circumstances far beyond their control are told to suck it up and deal, while an individual confronted with an incident from his past that paints him in a less than gleaming spotlight cannot find the moral courage to accept responsibility for his actions? And people wonder why I hold the whole conservative movement in so much contempt. 

Personal responsibility begins with one's own life, not turning around and telling the rest of the world how horrible they are. That's little more than running away from the horror that the real villain in one's life may well be . . . one's very own self.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not Our World

I'm part of a small group that meets the last Tuesday of each month at Cornerstone UMC. Called "Pushing the Envelope", the structure is simple. There's a bag filled with envelopes. Inside the envelopes are articles from the net on any topic whatsoever. The only rule is we discuss the topic. It's really that simple. Free-ranging, with only our sense of etiquette and mutual respect as guides, the group is a wonderful opportunity for a small group to tackle important matters without the distance and anonymity provided by the Internet for people to be assholes.

At the end of April, there was an article about complaints from the city of Crystal Lake, IL about their Wikipedia page. I chuckled to myself while the person read the article, because, well, it's Wikipedia. The discussion moved to the way information is shared on the internet, through the technological changes through which we've lived over the past decade and a half, to some personal reflections on those changes. I forget precisely what the specifics of the complaint were, but one person complained of the way the combination of technology and the evolving rules of interpersonal interaction were something this person refused to accept. In February, we had a marvelous exchange on the propriety of vulgarity. 

In both instances, I came down on what I tend to think is the anti-curmudgeon side. While I certainly do not understand all the intricacies of our on-going high-tech revolution, I consider myself a huge booster of all the ways the Internet provides the opportunity for more people to share with more people all sorts of things. Some of those things are false, sure. It isn't like there was never false information spread far and wide for a variety of purposes in the past; the only change, really, is the pace at which all this information sails around the planet then back again. If you don't believe me, look up The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Shoot, you can check that out on Wikipedia!

As for profanity, the specific was a bit of harrumphing about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel telling either the city's school superintedent or a member of the school board to "shut the fuck up." Not surprising at all, at least for those who know a bit about Emmanuel's history and reputation. He is, after all, known as Rahm "Fucking" Emmanuel for the liberality with which he sprinkles his speech with that particular gerund. I have to chuckle at people who search for the fainting couch whenever they read or hear such language. Are they such children? I grew up, like most everyone my age, hearing that such language betrays a certain cast of mind, a paucity of thought, a meanness of mind, on and on and on. 


Seriously. Grow. Up.

These two, somewhat related, phenomena are signs that the world, changing as it is, is doing so in such ways that it will not at all resemble the world in which people my age came of age, let alone grew up. Even more than the old saw that the world is something one generation holds in trust for the next, the "next generation" is already taking that particular bull by the horns and making it ever more in to a world that more accurately reflects their concerns, preferences, fears, and hopes. Even someone my age is, to be honest, quite out of touch with all the details of the ever-changing technological, social, and cultural landscape. And that's OK.

One part of this understanding of the world as changing that troubles me a great deal is this:
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers.
The United Methodist Church recently adjourned their quadrennial General Conference. Among the many things they did, two stand out. First, General Conference struggled with various competing, contradictory plans for restructuring the denomination. Finally passing one, most folks present in Tampa and reading news reports, felt far too much energy was expended on these matters. At the same time, they reaffirmed some sentences in the Book of Discipline which state, without qualification, that homosexuality is contrary to the teachings of the Church.

Even more than bureaucratic bloat, this single act may be costly to the future of the denomination; while the delegates in Tampa were insisting the United Methodist Church proclaim it continue to discriminate, they were simultaneously wringing their hands over falling membership and participation in various church-related groups and activities. That there might be a relationship between these two things didn't come up, unless by some of the delegates who voted to remove the offending passage. I know there are people who think the Church, any church, should continue to uphold bigotry and discrimination on the basis of some alleged doctrinal and Biblical "principle". Except, alas, as Christians, we aren't people who act on principle. Nowhere in any of Church history does it say we Christians make mountains out of molehills, then make our stand there.

Martin Luther didn't take his stand at Worms because of priestly concubinage or Papal politicking; he did it because the Mother Church had forgotten the basic Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith, which frees believers from the burdens laid upon them by a system of indulgences that had become onerous. Jonathan Edwards preached a Gospel of beauty and grace as the Divine attributes that prevent an otherwise just God from dropping us sinners from the hands of an otherwise angry God. These and so many more offered a vision of God as open, loving, accepting, and the people came.

Some in the Church of today are demanding we exclude, with words filled with hatred, some people. This has become so prevalent that the vast majority of non-Churched and non-Christians in the world think this is our defining characteristic. Considering that the United States as a whole - despite the Tampa vote and the passage of Proposition No. 1 in North Carolina - is becoming more and more tolerant and accepting of same-sex marriage, we are under a very real threat of losing an entire generation, at least from denominations that continue to practice discrimination and preach and teach exclusion.

The world is not ours. This is not some bland cliche but a very real social and cultural phenomenon, and we in the United Methodist Church owe it to ourselves to live out the Gospel of love and acceptance of all persons, precisely because we are principling ourselves to irrelevance and, perhaps, our collective demise.

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