Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Looking Forward To The Call

Unless America is invaded by Pakistan after getting nuked by both Iran and North Korea, I do believe Mitt Romney has managed to destroy his last, gasping hope at becoming the next President of the United States.

Honestly, Mitt should just call the President now.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Space For Wonder

Faith does not mean professing what we hold true in a ready-made formula, it means holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life, and which cannot be comprised in any formula. It means that, from the very roots of our being, we should always be prepared to live with this mystery, as one being lives with another. Real faith means the ability to endure life in the face of this mystery.  -  Martin Buber

We live in a world filled with horrors.  Yesterday, I heard part of Hearing Voices' program, "Prisoners of War", in which Americans held by Germans in the Second World War recount their experiences.  It would be impossible for anyone hearing these old men talk about their lives without being moved.

Yet, we need not move that far back to encounter the many horrors we know exist.
On January 15, 1974, a chilly winter day, 15-year-old Charlie Otero began his afternoon walk home from school.  Charlie, his parents, and four siblings had recently moved into a quiet peaceful suburban neighborhood in a small frame house located at 803 North Edgemoor Street.

Charlie, happy that another school day had come to an end, walked gingerly up the side walk towards his home.  As he opened the front door and walked into the living room, nothing immediately seemed out of the ordinary. "Hello, is anyone home?" he called out into the quiet house.  There was no response.  Not even a bark from his dog. Such quiet was unusual. With some trepidation, Charlie walked toward his parents' bedroom.  A strange feeling of dread welled up inside him.
Charlie's father, Joseph, 38, was lying face down on the floor at the foot of his bed; his wrists and ankles had been bound.  His mother, Julie, 34, lay on the bed bound in similar fashion, only she had been gagged.  For a few seconds, Charlie could not move, he didn't know what to do.  Moments later his senses came back to him and he rushed out in desperation to get help for his parents, not realizing that he had experienced only a portion of the horror that the house had in store.
A neighbor who came over to the house to help realized that when he tried to call the police, the phone lines had been severed.
As the police searched the house, they were shocked to find nine-year-old Joseph II in his bedroom face down on the floor at the foot of his bed.  His wrists and ankles were also bound, the only difference being that over his head was a hood -- and according to one reporter, he had three hoods covering his head.
The worst was yet to come. Downstairs in the basement, Charlie's eleven-year-old sister, Josephine, was discovered hanging by her neck from a pipe; she was partially nude, dressed only in a sweatshirt and socks, and she had been gagged.
In Syria, the Civil War has taken the turn most such conflicts take.  The results are horrors that are both overwhelming and all too familiar.
According to the UN, Syrian armed and security forces have been responsible for: unlawful killing, including of children (mostly boys), medical personnel and hospital patients ("In some particularly grave instances, entire families were executed in their homes"); torture, including of children (mostly boys, sometimes to death) and hospital patients, and including sexual and psychological torture; arbitrary arrest "on a massive scale"; deployment of tanks and helicopter gunships in densely populated areas; heavy and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas; collective punishment; enforced disappearances; widescale and systematic destruction and looting of property; the systematic denial, in some areas, of food and water; and the prevention of medical treatment, including to children.[3]:20–4[6]:4–6[7]:2–4[8]:10–20 Amnesty International reported that medical personnel had also been tortured,[11] while the UN said that medical personnel in state hospitals were sometimes complicit in the killing and torture of patients.[8]:11 The execution and torture of children was also documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.[1]:30[10]:31–2[12][13]Most of the serious human rights violations documented by the UN have been committed by the Syrian army and security services as part of military or search operations.[6]:4[7]:1 The pattern of the killing, coupled with interviews with defectors, led the UN to conclude a shoot-to-kill policy was operative.[3]:20[8]:10 The UN mentioned several reports of security forces killing injured victims by putting them into refrigerated cells in hospital morgues.[3]:22
Rage would seem the order of the day that such a world exists in which human beings seem both capable and free to act this way.  Hate would seem the obvious response toward those who would torture and kill others.  Even death at times seems far too easy, not so much a punishment but an escape from the justice those who commit such acts deserve.  Were we to dwell on these and so many other stories of human brutality and violence, it would no doubt leave little inside us but bitterness, a species-wide self-hatred that would have us sneering at our fellows, knowing there is little separating the man sitting next to us on the bus or walking past us on the street from the psychopath, the soldier following orders, or just another face in the faceless mob that attacks and kills without reason or remorse.

Were we to stop here, where would we be?  The odd thing, as should be obvious, is that our life is filled almost to overflowing with beauty and love, with simple acts of kindness for others, with art that rips us out of our humdrum lives and lets us glimpse behind the veil at the beating heart of the world.  In our most intimate person-to-person relationships, we come to know that those who hold our lives in their hands are those with whom we cannot live fully without.  We see in the eyes of our children the possibility of life, the promise that someone will be there once we're gone to dust.

When I think of "mystery", it is this coexistence of terror and beauty, of mass death and love that I remember.  It should be impossible that such opposites should nest side-by-side in human life and history.  Were "justice" interwoven in the fabric of existence, the momentary eternity of the glance from one's beloved, the feel of a child's arms around the neck, the awe as we look upon a work of art could never count up against the horrors of Khmer Rouge, the lived-out fantasies of the serial killer, or the day-to-day inhumanities far too many of our fellows know.  Yet, somehow, they do, indeed.  Perhaps those moments we experience as love and beauty, as sublime peace and hearty laughter are so fleeting precisely because, unlike the seemingly endless horrors of the POW camp and torture chamber, state-sponsored terror and mass death and dehumanization, were we to experience them fully, we could not live to tell the tale.

The Christian faith, for all it would seem to answer any question on any topic some would put to it, at the end of the day, rests easy with that we call "mystery".  Not the mystery of gravity or the unanswered questions about "the good life" or which social organization best suits a fully human life.  These are not so much mysteries as either questions for which we don't have answers yet but shall or questions that are inherently unanswerable and thus best ignored.  In the incarnation, death, and resurrection, we have enacted the Divine Word on the mystery of existence.  That it is.  That it is taken up in to the Divine Life in the most personal, unique moment, as God becomes human, Creator becomes creature, and as such says, "Yes" to this most deep mystery.  It is now a part of God's life, part of the way we as those named and called by this God are to live our lives.  We are to live within this mystery as it is, that it is, no longer offering a "solution", but rather affirming it as it is, and declaring that it, too, is part of who God is.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Election Season, Part II: Cleaning Up The Messes

For some reason, one of our cats has decided to stop using the litter box.  He pees and craps, well, wherever, whenever the urge strikes him.  My wife, whose equanimity is a thing to admire most of the time, loses her nut about stuff like this, and with good reason, I suppose.  Trying to keep up with the constant flow (no pun intended) is at best daunting.  We do the best we can, keeping our cleaning stuff handy and ready to deploy when the need arises.

It's much the same in politics.  More and more platforms for communicating provide more and more opportunities to communicate crap.  While some folks insist "'twas ever thus", there is something brazen about this fact-free campaign.  When people working for a major party candidate for the office of President of the United States is on record saying that fact-checkers aren't going to control the campaign, we all know the tide has turned.  When Mitt Romney, whose parade of poop is well-documented, tells George Stephanopoulos that the President is going to stand on the stage and "say things that aren't true", how is anyone who pays attention supposed to respond?

Most newspapers have an office, called either "Ombudsman" or "Public Editor", who handles comments and complaints about their news stories.  The New York Times' Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, addresses our post-truth campaign, and gets off to a good start.
Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.
Then, readers notice she starts steering toward the cliff even as they're shouting at her to get back on the road.
 The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth. Editors and reporters say that is not always such an easy call. And sometimes readers who demand “just the facts” are really demanding their version of the facts.
Red Alert!
“There’s a temptation to say there are objective facts and there are opinions, and we should only use objective facts,” said David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief. “But there’s a big spectrum. We have to make analytical judgments about the veracity of all kinds of things.”
What’s more, reporters and editors often have to make these calls on tight deadlines, as they did just after Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention last month.That speech carried some assertions that have been shown to be misleading, and other speeches at both political conventions have become flash points for the fact-checking and false-balance discussion. 
Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
Several who wrote to me thought there was an element of false balance in a recent front-page article in The Times on the legal battles over allegations of voter fraud and vote suppression — hot topics that may affect the presidential race.
In his article, which led last Monday’s paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements — rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.
“I hope it’s not The Times’s policy to move this matter back into the ‘he said she said’ realm,” he wrote.
The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.
“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.” 
When the bus exploded in flames, many analysts said it resulted in needless deaths.

Seriously, let's consider the particular example Sullivan uses here.  For a national editor at what is regarded as our national newspaper to say there is "reasonable disagreement" about voter fraud is . . . well, I'm not sure what it is.  There are people, largely Republican legislators in various states, who are quite brazen in their attempts to purge voter rolls, create various legislative barriers to exercising the right to vote, all because, in the words of the Ohio Secretary of State, they don't want minorities voting because they will vote for the Democratic Party. There are studies, including reports of studies carried by Sifton's newspaper, demonstrating there just isn't voter fraud occurring out there.  It isn't "litigating" anything to make clear that the machinations in various state legislatures to restrict voting rights is a brazen attempt to suppress the vote among traditionally Democratic constituencies, because some at least of the Republican politicians involved have been quite up front about what they're doing.  Are the Republicans who are doing this reasonable people?  Are they reasonable?  Are they, in fact, people?

In an age when it is increasingly easy to find pretty much anything, for reporters and editors to pretend fact-checking is some difficult operation is ludicrous.  Political speeches are handed out to reporters before hand. While they sit and watch and listen, following along the prepared text, they can use their phones to go on-line and check and see if a factual claim is accurate.  It's so easy to do.  When Mitt Romney says that Barack Obama says things that aren't true, check it out.  Does the President, in fact, have a history of speaking falsely to the public?  Does Gov. Romney?  Because a person or even a large number of persons insist something is the case - say, that global warming isn't caused by human beings overusing fossil fuels - doesn't mean reporters have some kind of duty to pretend their views have any validity.  So their feelings will get hurt.  Shrug, and move on.

It can be a difficult task keeping up with the volume of crap flooding our homes, the airwaves, and newsprint.  It seems noble, I suppose, to say, "What can I tell you?  One person says one thing, another person says another, who am I to judge?"  Actually, it's a dereliction of the fundamental duty of the press, in my opinion, to take such a position at an historical moment in which one side has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned any pretext of factual campaigning.  To move forward, knowing full well the Republican candidate for President is on record disdaining facts and fact-checking, as if the campaign has any integrity whatsoever, does a disservice to the public for whom the newspaper exists.

Ms. Sullivan puts responsibility for the demand for greater attention to factual accuracy on the internet.  She's correct.  All political sides are, indeed, demanding that the words of the opposition be tested against facts.  I think that's a good thing, as does she; I also think it's an easy thing, which she insists it is not.  With the first Presidential debate just a few weeks off, I think it would be a great thing for reporters covering it to pay attention to Twitter, various news sites, Facebook, and other social media to get a good read on how well and accurate the candidates actually speak.  They can keep the browsers on their phones open, type in anything a candidate says that might sound "off", and check it out in just a few seconds.  It isn't hard, and it takes very little time.

There is a whole lot of nonsense out there.  Sorting what is and is not nonsense, however, has never been easier.  Lazy bloggers like me do it all the time.  I think reporters shouldn't lag behind us.

Election Season, Part I: A Piece Of Advice

As the calendar pages are torn off, time inching ever closer to Election Day, the amount of political writing will increase exponentially.  Like a funnel, time is forcing more and more crap in to less and less space until, come November 7th, one side can lick its wounds and the other can celebrate a bit.  No place is safe from people talking, shouting, demanding, propagandizing, or otherwise stumping for one side or another.  While the stupid question, "Does this election really matter?", gets bandied about by people who talk about politics without caring about it, there are millions of Americans who understand we have a vested interest in who wins and loses.  Every election matters.  Every vote counts.  Whether it's town council, county commissioner, state comptroller, House member, or President - what these people do in office effects every aspect of our lives in some manner.  We may not like that, but it's just reality.

As the tidal wave of politicking rises ever higher, the demands on Facebook not to say anything about politics are becoming just as deafening.  I respect the fact that not everyone concerns themselves with matters of public life.  I also respect that there are people for whom the welter of political stuff on Facebook can be overwhelming, especially if one gets bombarded, as I do, with many images and writings that span the spectrum of American politics.

If you are one of those people who post political things on Facebook and friends are asking, then demanding that you stop, then unfriending you because you refuse (it hasn't happened to me yet, but it might), I would urge you to just keep going.  If you are one of those people who just want Facebook to be about funny pictures and memes about women shopping and demonstrating to the world how awesome your children are (and you, as their parent and therefore by extension, share that awesomeness; let me just say I am VERY guilty of this particular habit, as I shout praise about my daughters all the time, knowing full well I want some of the credit for their greatness, even when I say otherwise), all I can say is the following:

Don't read them.  You see a status update about the election, or a link to an article about a candidate, or a meme or photo or something else about politics, and you just want to grab the person who posted it and scream, "Knock it off!", just close your eyes, take a couple breaths, and keep scrolling through your news feed.

A related note.  If any of the people who are doing this kind of thing are people you encounter on a regular basis, don't let it spill over and change how you relate to and with them.  That really cool guy who likes the Chicago Bears and posts links to microbreweries but also posts a ton of stuff in support of Pres. Obama is only doing what anyone in America does: expressing themselves freely and passionately about things that are important.  Likewise, the accomplished accountant and mother of four and wife whose husband is homebound due to an injury might go on a rant about liberals and their crazy ideas, and that's OK.  Politics is not personal, at least not "personal" in the sense that folks should get offended when others express opinions that differ from ours.  At the very least, we now have an even more rounded and full understanding of the people with whom we relate, and that is never a bad thing.

I guess what I'm saying is this: Lighten up a tad, folks.  It's an election year, and some folks care a great deal about these things.  No one believes the political stuff on Facebook is going to change anyone's mind; I certainly don't.  It's just sharing who we are, which is kind of what Facebook is supposed to be about.

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