Trumpian Evangelicals Crucify Jesus All Over Again

I grew up in the shadow of what I see now as the historical precursor to “Trumpian Evangelicalism”.

Two important points about that: First, back then we didn’t call ourselves evangelicals. That moniker was far too liberal and freighted with “modernist” tendencies and best reserved for the more conservative parts of mainline Protestantism. We were fundamentalists and proud of it. It turns out this is all kind of important historically, as the NPR Throughline podcast “Apocalypse Now” lays out so accurately (give it a listen).

Second, when I say “in the shadow” I mean that both literally and figuratively. I attended youth conferences in the literal shadow of Thomas Road Baptist Church, where Jerry Falwell (the elder) held forth each Sunday and on random days when he was beamed into our home.

Those youth conferences were a mix of (I realized later) aggressively promoted civil religion with gala concerts featuring songs like “I’m Just a Flag Waving American”; lots of conversation about how sex (outside marriage) was kind of an ultimate evil; and lots of preaching on how the “end times” were upon us and being saved—something that was constantly being called into question—was the only way out of horrific suffering and ultimate damnation.

In the shadow figuratively, we listened to and watched Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” on a weekly basis; developed a “bus ministry” following his model about how to bus lost kids to church; and swallowed wholesale the increasingly political positions as outlined by his burgeoning “Moral Majority.”

Maybe the Moral Majority (and home schooling) are the threads that link that era’s fundamentalism with our Trumpian-Evangelical own. Arguably that is true, but that is not what I want to talk about. I am just laying out my evangelical creds here (even though I am not one today).

The point is, in all those years we heard a lot of teaching about all manner of issues related to sin and salvation. In some ways Jesus had to be at the center of it all.

In most ways though, he was just a bit player.

In that teaching Jesus’ raison d’être was basically to die. While he had to be flesh and blood to have his body pierced and his blood flow, he was really not of this world. And while most evangelicals then and now would squirm at the notion that God killed Jesus, that is pretty much my takeaway from all that teaching: People were sinners. God was angry and needed someone to pay. God sent the perfect man Jesus to pay the price. Ergo, God killed him to satisfy God’s anger. (I was about 12 when I basically put THAT proposition to my dad—who demurred)

The fact that Jesus was never fully human fit (and fits), by the way, in the broader gnostic tendencies of that kind of religion, which denies the value of the physical and counts only the spiritual as real and of consequence to the ultimate questions of reality.

That teaching about Jesus meant, in concrete terms, that we never saw Jesus in a sociological way—we had a very undersocialized kind of Jesus who taught in strange parables, had few human emotions (he wept once), and basically accepted his fate that he was here for one gory purpose. At the limit, thinking about it now, Jesus was clearly “on the spectrum”—he just did not really connect to the world around him and he really did not need to.

In the same way, we never saw Jesus as having a political agenda, and we certainly never thought about how enmeshed his whole story ended up with the politics of that day.

Jesus was a-social, a-political, a-human.

This all matters to the topic at hand because, in reality, Jesus’ death was due to a kind of tacit conspiracy, and one of which Pilate symbolically washed his hands, between the religious leaders of the day and the power of Rome.

The religious leaders then had everything they wanted: they got 1) wealth (remember the temple cleansing); 2) freedom to practice their religion (within the confines of not making too much of the fact that they did not accept that the emperor was god); and 3) power to run their geographical backwater in Palestine.

Now Jesus and some other rabble rousers of his ilk were constant threats to that order. They talked revolution, of kingdoms greater than Rome, of God’s wrath upon soldiers, of a time when the empire would crumble. Most of these folks were cranks. And so would have Jesus been had he not created a wave of support across the breadth of the land and then audaciously ridden into Jerusalem jerking the chain of the religious leaders by mobilizing centuries of symbolism about a coming Messiah.

In doing those things he became a threat to the order and so he was handed over to the proper authorities. The religious leaders were forced to proclaim they had no king but Caesar (pretty blasphemously of them it turns out), and everyone got what they wanted: dead zealot, Rome in control, religious leaders keeping all the benefits of their Faustian bargain.

Oh and Jesus was killed.

This is the socio-political story of Jesus I was never taught in my youth.

And the really key part of this story is that the religious leaders denied the power of what Jesus had to say (stuff about healing, and forgiveness, and love of enemy, poor being rich, and meek inheriting kingdoms, etc.) in order to advance a self-serving political agenda.

And that is pretty much where we are today. Of course sons-of-Falwell and -Graham are going to tell you that they are Christians (they probably won’t say they follow the teaching of Jesus though). But the reality is that they have made a pact with Rome.

They deny all the essentials of the teaching of this socially-embedded and compassionate Nazarene—a man living fully within a social and cultural reality that he challenged with his message of radical forgiveness—and they are going to hand him over to Rome so they can keep their political privilege.

Let’s be clear. Trumpian Evangelicals are defending their Caesar and saying “We have no king but Trump”. They have achieved their political ends by denying the teaching of the one they say they follow. They have killed Jesus because his clearest teaching would threaten their privilege and political benefits.

For Earth Day: An Automobile Bill of Rights

Amendment 1

– Freedom to Drive, Speed, and use Cellular Technology

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of restrictions to use one’s automobile for any purpose or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of driving or of parking, or the right of the people peaceably to all go to the same location, at the same time and arrive with zero delays, and plentiful free and convenient parking, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances if they are made to wait in traffic or park more than 5 minutes walk from their location. The use of cellular technology while en route should not be limited in any way.

Amendment 2

– The Right to Free Rights

A well-regulated highway system being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to use all public streets in ways that cause the least inconvenience to them as drivers (personally) shall not be infringed. In particular, free right turns shall be the norm for all street designs to permit the speedy passage of automobiles.

Amendment 3

– The Housing of Cars

No car shall, in at any time, be quartered in any garage but should benefit from free parking in streets, alleys, and public spaces without restriction of any kind. Adequate free parking shall be available in proximity (<5 minutes walk) to desired destination for all drivers.

Amendment 4

– Protection from Unreasonable Slowdowns and Diversions

The right of the people to be secure in their cars, taxis, Lyfts, and Ubers against unreasonable slowdowns and diversions shall not be violated, and no waiting shall occur but upon catastrophic crashes and attendant rubber necking, supported by flashing lights or security vehicles, and particularly the place is to be affirmed by helicopter live shots, appropriate news reporting, and traffic updates on public radio.

Amendment 5

– Protection of Rights to Waze, Free Roads, and the Public Right of Way

No person shall be held to take a designated route if Waze or other service suggests they take another (no matter the inconvenience of others), unless Waze malfunctions and directs all drivers to a cul-de-sac; nor shall any person be subject for waiting more than twice per month or put in jeopardy of daily waits; nor shall be compelled to defend his/her decision to engage in boorish behavior if they get impatient in traffic, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or their desired speed without due process of law; nor shall private cars be limited in turning right on red, slowing in schools zones, or coming to a full stop at stop signs.

Amendment 6

– Rights of Accused Persons in Speeding Cases

In all speeding cases, the accused shall enjoy the right to be given a break “just this time” by a compassionate cop of the state and district wherein the speeding shall have been committed; to be able to describe s/he was speeding because s/he was late; to have his/her passenger witness in his/her favor about the lateness; and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense that s/he is really a good person who just did it just this one time and doesn’t usually act this way.

Amendment 7

– Rights in Bike and Pedestrian Crashes

In suits at which cyclists or pedestrians have been injured, the right of trial by a jury of people who have had bad experiences with bicyclists or pedestrians shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment 8

– Excessive Waits, Tolls, and License Fees

Excessive waits in traffic shall not be acceptable, nor shall excessive fines be imposed if drivers do crazy things because they are impatient, nor shall cruel and unusual punishments inflicted—except for those who impede automobile drivers.

Amendment 9

– Other Rights Kept by the Drivers

The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights for automobile drivers SHALL be construed to essentially limit the rights of pedestrians and bicyclists.

Amendment 10

– Undelegated Powers Kept by the Automobile Owners and Other Motorized Vehicle Drivers

The powers not delegated to the automobile drivers by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to automobile drivers. .

Interesting Reads February 17-23, 2019

I will start again this week with an article on climate change. This one is a book review but it seems to spell out a way of thinking about how we can unite across our current divides to face this global threat.

With so much noise (useless) about the Green New Deal, Bruno Latour does us a service by stepping back and asking what is really going on with climate change denial and how we might re-think our relationship to the planet.

He grasps the challenge of those who retreat into the “local” or “global” to state their case by challenging all of us to be “terrestrial.

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Evening Ride

The bottom line here is that we need to understand two things: one, that we ARE intimately connected to our watersheds, our local natural resources, and the things in our nearby that make for life. Two, we need to understand also that we are part of globe-encompassing systems that either enable life or stand against it

Sigh… another book to add to my shelf…

And now onto some themes.

 

Economics

Here is an unexpected article from an unexpected place (an investment magazine), that, much like the previous one, asks us to move away from our meaningless categories and focus on the real question. In this case it is phrased as the distinction between a market economy and a market society. Here is a short piece:

So forget capitalism versus socialism. The more revealing debate for business, the issues executives and investors have to struggle with, is why and how, in the language of renowned Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, we have “drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” In other words, has the logic of profit and loss, winners and losers, insinuated itself so deeply into all aspects of society that we have eroded the sense of shared experiences and common bonds that once held together people of different means and backgrounds? Have we become a culture that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing? When the unforgiving logic of Wall Street occupies Main Street, when everything has a price, do we create divisions we can’t afford?

A market society… Something I have thought about in the way that very wealthy people have found ways to simply “opt out” of concern for others–and how all of us scramble to do the same. There is much to reflect on here: from the defacto Ayn Randian dream of retreat into an alternate society (Atlas Shrugging), to the Joan Didion “dream we won’t admit” (Howard Hughesian absolute autonomy).

And there are more links here to the the Latour explanation of climate change denial’s roots than might first appear. Are we living in a world in which each of us seeks our personal escape capsule from the destruction below. Reminds me of a recent science fiction book I read (Judas Unchained by Peter Hamilton) in which the uber wealthy built escape stations to leave destroyed star systems.

 

As promised, I am keeping my eye open for interesting articles on the issue of deficits and debt–especially from economists claiming that neither are big problems for an economy like the US’s. After all, now that the Republicans have officially abandoned their opposition to deficits (Democrats apparently never had that aversion), who IS left to claim that there is a problem here?

It turns out that there is a growing “school” of economic thought called (in lower case letters) “modern monetary theory” that rejects the alarmist “deficit scolds” who were so prominent until very recently. This article in the Times is a useful reminder of what has happened with deficits and debt–and economic growth–since the Bush I years. I will be curious if this really gets traction and what it will mean for debate of things like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All that we have been hearing about.

I am going to put this one under economics too… though it could easily be public health. Indeed, the actual study of the effects of Berkeley’s soda tax 3 years on is in the American Journal of Public Health (subscriber!). But there is an argument, that at least in part, people are drinking less sugary stuff because of cost. From the author

“When you implement a soda tax, there is a bunch of media around it, so people start to think, ‘Maybe soda isn’t too good.’”

The second thing that happens is that the public stops buying soda.

Go here for a summary of the research and reach out to me if you want the original study. The bottom line is that Berkeleyites have gone from drinking 1.5 services per day to 0.5. Our oh-so-progressive city could not even see fit to put this on the ballot to allow voters to decide 3+ years ago (one of many ways in which my vision for our city did not move forward), and now the state has put a moratorium on such taxes. Maybe this study will start shaking things up again.

 

Make America ___________ Again

Okay, this is a lame category but two offerings here remind us of who we are (and are not).

The first is who we are in relation to our cars. Not having had one for going on 16 years, I am, perhaps, uniquely positioned to see how much a religion automobile ownership actually is. I will let this article in the American Conservative speak for itself. This is who we are…

So it is that for some Americans, any discussion of the ills wrought by the car or by the automobile-dependent mode of development that defines most of the American landscape is merely a verbose substitute for “communism.” A smart, young conservative friend of mine once listened patiently while I explained New Urbanism to her: that it was a design philosophy focused on building walkable, dense, mixed-use communities in place of suburban sprawl. “That sounds communist,” she replied. She is not alone in her general estimation. Never mind that it is also the default manner of building human habitats before circa 1950.

We forget, or perhaps more accurately never learn, that almost the entire set of characteristics that constitute suburbia—from the population densities to the lawn sizes and setbacks of houses to the features of those houses to the commercial strips that replaced Main Streets and their accompanying oversized parking lots—was a project, more or less, of Keynesian economic policy and social engineering. An old professor of mine, quite correctly, called the Interstate Highway System the largest subsidy ever given to the automobile industry…

This is not to say that, in the absence of certain government policies between roughly 1930 and 1960, suburbia would not exist. But the history of suburbia, as it actually unfolded, is bound up with such policies. Suburbia was, at least in part, something resembling a crony capitalist public works project. The notion that it embodies the pinnacle of freedom and free enterprise is not much in evidence.

And if that is who we are… Bacevich is here to tell who we are not. Again, from the American Conservative we have a reminder that the US is no longer the “indispensable nation.” Will we find a way to talk about this? I kind of doubt it.

So the coming campaign will no doubt be entertaining. In some respects, it may also be enlightening. But in all likelihood, it will leave untouched the basic premises of U.S. policy—the bloated military budget, the vast empire of bases, the penchant for interventionism, all backed by the absurd claims of American exceptionalism voiced by the likes of Madeleine Albright and her kindred spirits.

 

The Politics of Fear… (or border dilemmas)

I don’t know what else to call this section. Both the Brexit and the “panic” over the border were born of cynical politicians using fear to get their way.

God only knows what will come of the Brexit. Most agree that it will not be good. Most over here have no idea what it is about or the key sticking point–known as the “Irish Backstop.” If you want a fairly quick read that lays out the recent history of Ireland and why the Brexit has floundered on the rocky shoals of the Irish border (between Northern Ireland, part of the UK and the Repulic of Ireland, a member of the EU who is not exiting), read this. It cleared up the whole mess for me and is timely through the end of March.

And then we have our very own border emergency here in the US. If I were to bet I would say that the Supreme Court majority, issuing a narrow decisions as they did in the case the “Travel Ban” will hand the President a “victory” in the border wall thing. I used the words cynical before. This is now a dictionary definition of that term.

This article lays out why such a ruling will take us backward (WHAT EXACTLY did happen to the Republican rage over Presidential overreach? Oh right, see what happened to their rage over deficits/debt).

 

Hors Categorie!

I don’t know where to place this science fiction-like article. Researchers working on AI that produces text based on basic prompts are fearful about releasing their entir project for fear of what it might do.

Read this one to remind yourself that you need to actually THINK when you read. A cautionary tale.

 

Lunchtime Riffs on… homelessness and housing

Went to my very first City Council meeting since my term ended last July.

What I saw is what I had seen. A privileged group of neighbors decrying a low-income housing complex as dangerous, degrading to their way of life, not a place they would even let their kids go past… And on it went for an hour.

To one person it was evidence of the “ghettoization”of his neighborhood (we have so many low-income housing complexes in this part of town–they are clustered here).

The same night, different part of the meeting, the discussion turned to homelessness and the city’s efforts to deal with its challenges.

People are (have been) demanding action on this growing problem.

One person said it was time to admit that some people were beyond help, didn’t want it, weren’t going to change, and, therefore…

What?

I mean really… what?

In the room sat two of the irredeemables, apparently now redeemed. But would the speaker have eliminated them from the “largesse” of the community back then when they were ensconced in the downtown with no hope?

One wonders.

The bottom line is that people in this educated town prefer their own beliefs about homelessness to what the evidence actually shows.

In this they demonstrate themselves to ascribe to a faith-based approach to homelessness: faith in themselves because they JUST KNOW that if you provide services more homeless people will crowd in and overwhelm our town, that homeless people are dangerous, bearers of disease, and beyond help: people who are not even from here–not ours, not our responsibility.

The facts, of course, are different. The majority of homeless people in town are “our children.”

Homeless people don’t come here for services (except perhaps a bed in the coldest months–but even that appears to be waning). They come here for the same reason everyone else does: jobs, family, education.

The facts, of course, say that if you want to make a dent in the most difficult forms of homelessness (the chronic variety, accompanied by trauma, untreated mental health conditions, and the attendant self-medication that chains people to hopelessness), you need housing first. Put people in houses and then we can deal with Maslow level two (as our homeless outreach coordinator eloquently stated).

But this is California and our “progressivism” melts in the face of the messiness of housing these folks in our “nearby.”

And that brings us back to the first part of the meeting–the low-income housing “problem”.

DO SOMETHING about homelessness but don’t provide them with housing close to me because, I will have to see things I don’t like to see.

DO SOMETHING about homelessness but don’t provide services because that will just attract more of “them.”

DO SOMETHING about homelessness but don’t spend my money, ask for my assistance, disrupt my life… (Isn’t this the “state’s” responsibility?)

DO SOMETHING about homelessness but don’t forget I am the one that pays taxes here and so don’t make the “doing” anything unpleasant for us “good folks” (they don’t have to say “makers” and “takers” but… Ayn Rand lurks at our door).

When we are expected to squeeze down the margins within which we can legitimately act in these ways, the only true solution is removal, banishment, and the final dehumanization of people who are not “people” to us in any significant way.

Interesting Reads Feb 1-15, 2019

I am going to get back to some categories for these articles in a bit, but I want to start with two articles that I think, rhetorically, capture some essential elements of recent debates in our nation that are worth having.

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Davis, CA February 15, 2019

I like them because they are well-written, thought provoking, and because they drive to the heart of some important issues.

 

1. The New Green Deal

I know, I know… you have already made up your mind about this one.  It is either a bold move towards the future or Stalinism cloaked in New Deal (or Marshal Plan) language.  Whatever the case, this article lays out some simple points about our built environment and what it would take to create something that is not fossil fuel dependent.  Here is the key point (please read the whole thing):

Our carbon emissions are not mainly about the price of gasoline or electricity. They’re about infrastructure. For every human being, there are over 1,000 tons of built environment: roads, office buildings, power plants, cars and trains and long-haul trucks. It is a technological exoskeleton for the species. Everything most of us do, we do through it: calling our parents, getting to work, moving for a job, taking the family on vacation, finding food for the evening or staying warm in a polar vortex. Just being human in this artificial world implies a definite carbon footprint — and for that matter, a trail of footprints in water use, soil compaction, habitat degradation and pesticide use. You cannot change the climate impact of Americans without changing the built American landscape.

Okay, if you are denying that human-induced climate change is a thing then this article is not for you.  But if you even suspect that our lifestyles have something to do with the “weirding” of our climate then you have got to grapple with this argument.

It is odd to me that the idea of mobilizing the nation for war (see WWII) is not at all controversial (nor, apparently, is the idea that we need to feed the war machine to the tune of trillions every couple of years despite the fact that we are NOT at war), but that public expenditure on our built infrastructure to lower our collective carbon footprint is somehow anathema, sophomoric, and beyond the pale… Color me red (or green) I guess.

2. The “Emergency” Declaration

This whole article by Jeff Greenfield receives a YES, YES, YES from me.  Why?  Because I am a hopeless liberal?

No, because I grew up in a conservative family and this is what I learned:

  1. Leaders must be morally upright.  Kennedy and King were shams, I was taught, because they had sexual relations outside marriage.
  2. Big government is bad because it robs us of essential freedoms.  Only war itself should lead to the central state acting to take control.  Everything else is tyranny.
  3. “We balance our budget and so should the government.”  Deficits are the result of moral failure and no right-minded politician will support deficit spending–only the “Cadillac Liberals” act that way (and they spend to keep power).
  4. We saved Europe and we need NATO as a bulwark against all that is wrong in the world (Soviet Union, then later Islamic fundamentalism).

And that conservatism had the Grand Old Party as a sacred vessel to hold these essential truths.  Now we have this:

If you think the Republicans in Congress are going to stand up to Trump’s fake national emergency in order to defend the party’s long-held principles, or to assert the constitutional authority of the legislative branch, you haven’t been paying attention for the past three years. Trump said he would win so much that you’d get tired of winning—the lone arena in which this is objectively true is how he has imposed his will on his fellow Republicans, who have surrendered abjectly to him…

At times, it’s possible to imagine the president almost willfully testing his party, musing about whether there is any part of its belief system that he cannot compel Republicans to abandon. Is character key to a good leader? White evangelicals, who once overwhelmingly supported that proposition, now reject it by landslide margins. Are deficits a mortal danger to the national economic health? Are international alliances crucial to national security?

Yes, all the way around.  The Republican Party is not conservative. Not in any way.  Glad I can finally put that to rest.

Now, on to the rest…

Peacemaking

My dear friend Lisa Schirch has been boots (okay, shoes) on the ground in Afghanistan for a good long while.  A person committed to the way of non-violence, she has bravely entered the halls of military academies to try to help the makers of war wrestle with what “nation building” really requires.  I admire her commitment to peace–it is practical, open-eyed, and grounded in an understanding of our shared humanity with folks like the Taliban.

This article gets at the heart of what peacemaking in a decades-long conflict must include.  And Lisa is right:

Successful peace agreements emerge from comprehensive peace processes such as those that took place in South Africa, Tajikistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Liberia and the Philippines.

Comprehensive means that they are broadly inclusive of community (human) needs and focus on building broad consensus.

Closer to home we have (finally?) an awakening of our need for peacemaking in our communities.  This article is encouraging in this regard, but as my friend Bill (husband of Lisa) remarked to me “(I)t irks me that the article reads as if they just discovered structural injustice and the country was peachy keen until Trump became president.”

Indeed… these divisions, the need for local peacemaking, restorative justice, and conflict resolution are NOT new… Maybe we are just waking up to them.  Thanks Bill (the article IS helpful however).

All About Health

I am pretty sure you won’t agree with the basic argument of this article on suicide in the military.  It certainly made me squirm.  Here is the gist:

Military service members, while perhaps not fully understanding their own evolutionary idealism, enlist to escape a society where it’s every man for himself. Human beings instinctively need to be part of a tribe. There is something mysteriously satisfying about offering yourself for the greater good of others. An experience in the military followed by a life deficient in community, solidarity, and shared suffering is, well, depressing.

Frankly, I am open to any argument to understand this epidemic (like so much about the military, hidden from view).  I will say that what it suggests is that our de-facto mercenary military is not made up of a healthy group of people.

Ezra Klein writes excellent longish articles on key policy and economics themes and this one on the idea of “Medicare for All” is no exception.  Klein is unsparing in his criticism of the various Democratic “plans” (including Bernie Sanders’) and breaks down both what is meant by “Medicare” and what is meant by “All.”  A sample:

Medicare works, and Americans know it. That’s a political boon for Democrats. But it carries an implicit threat: If whatever ends up being Democrats’ Medicare-for-all bill feels risky to people, the same forces buoying the idea’s poll numbers now will sink the policy later.

As a companion to the Klein piece, I recommend this one, which talks about the role of private insurance in Europe and Canada: that is the role of private insurance in the context of strong and successful state-run schemes.  Lots of interesting models and approaches.

If you don’t read publications from the American Public Health Association, I strongly recommend you start.  They are accessible, include key links and provide key evidence of the arguments they are making.

This one on the fall of life expectancy in the US (for the third year running) blames suicide and opioids.  The article refers to these as “conditions of despair”:

Suicide and opioid addiction are not the same, with different causes and solutions. But as conditions of despair, both opioid addiction and suicidality are rooted in social and socio-economic adversities, many of which are widespread in the U.S.

Now I am not particularly satisfied with the catch-all of “social and socio-economic adversities.”  Those terms seem to hide more than they reveal.  However, how is it that in the wealthiest nation, perhaps in all of history, we have a declining life expectancy because of despair?

I think we need to have a look in the mirror here.

I lump poverty in with health because… well… just like poor people scrimp on food, they also scrimp on health care to get by.  A few weeks ago I linked to an article criticizing the way some development economists (and Bill Gates) describe improvements to poverty rates (that is, that they are falling globally).  That article questioned the poverty threshold Gates referred to and the dubious quality of data from the 1800s on poverty.

Turns out that the whole Gates thing has led to a pretty healthy debate about the whole issue of global poverty.  I strongly recommend this article because it is a true primer to the discussion of poverty and what it means on a global scale.

Bacevich

I know I am way over the top in my adoration of this guy… but he gets it.  In case you have missed all his incisive writing over the past several years (including his warning about the “imperial presidency”), this review of his collected works should be a link to encourage you to buy the book. 

He is that good…

 

I will close today from an extended quote from the Heritage Foundation’s website.  This bookends one of my opening articles and situates us pretty much where we are. The Ten Conservative Principles are by Russell Kirk, a respected figure in American conservative circles.  I point to Principle Number 8 in light of our national “emergency”:

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, (just) as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger.

Emphasis added…

Interesting Reads: January 2019

No time for weekly updates this month but here are some of the interesting reads for January.

Public Health

This article provides a useful visual on the distribution and concentration of gun violence in the US. In addition to helping to visualize a “rate” it demonstrates the limitations of rates and allows a finer-grained analysis of clusters of gun violence. Excellent resource.

Once again The Economist does a good job teasing out the absurdity of the seeming hell-bent elimination of any and all air and water quality standards by the current administration. This one, on mercury, shows how unnecessary and even unwanted such eliminations are.

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Coastal Hills Looking West towards San Francisco

Read this one to get a sense of how complex (beyond imagination) our health care system is. So complex that experts are not even sure how to explain it so people can demand changes.

I file this one under public health even though it is really about public infrastructure, the way we build our living spaces, and how transportation fits into that. If you haven’t paid attention to how your own living space either promotes or impedes a healthy lifestyle, check out this article. It really helps clarify things.

Economics

If you have read much Dean Baker, you know his main points: his objection to patents, his critique of maintaining high interest rates to “tame” inflation; his plea to always put large numbers ($500 million dollars!!!!) in perspective…

They are all here in his wish for clearer and more honest debate over economic policy. An excellent primer.

Coming to a city near you: attempts to lower tax bills by chain stores claiming their land should be valued at the sale price of their stores in other cities. The article also points out the problems of construction of purpose built stores that no one else wants. As a former local policy maker, I can tell you that moves like this are disastrous for small communities that rely heavily on sales tax for “big boxes” and the property tax that goes with them.

Robert Bork’s surprising role in rolling back anti-trust laws is the subject of this insightful piece. I have lived my entire adult life in the face of all out efforts by the Republican to remove “barriers” to businesses. They generally get a pass from business people of companies of all sizes. The general feeling is “there is too much regulation and the Republicans do something about it.” But in examples like this, and the air quality one above, we can see that these are not conservative values on display but revolutionary and disruptive ones. They will destroy small businesses, the environment, and competition—ironically in the name of “free competition.” There is here a denial of the failure of markets due to monopolistic (an monopsonistic) practices and inattention to externalities. Glad to see a conservative newspaper calling them out.

Is government debt always bad? I am keeping my eyes out for other articles on this theme because more and more are popping up fundamentally questioning how we think about funding government programs and the issue of national debt.

And now everyone is joining their voices in agreement about the dehumanizing effects of free-market capitalism. If the foregoing articles don’t fit your politics, how about this guy’s take. I can’t agree with everything Carlson says but that he said stuff like this seems to capture the essence of something important for all of us:

The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.

This articles summarizes some conservative responses to what Carlson said. Read both.

More Baker, this time on the tax cut. The basic story: all the promises about revenue growth (not spikes), reduced tax avoidance, and increased corporate investment, are not coming true. Is anyone shocked?

In case you weren’t reading Baker on patent monopolies, or anything I have referred to about deregulation (or government capture by large companies), read this one to better understand our opioid crisis. Guess who gets to clean up this mess? Yup, local governments everywhere.

 

Policing in America

The “thin blue line” was much on display in my hometown recently when a young officer was shot and killed while responding to a traffic violations. This article and video from the New York Times talks about another town’s encounter with this symbol, why it is necessary for some and opposed by others. Like any symbol, it can be used and abused for objectionable ends. Talking about its meaning, for all members of the community, seems to be a good example of how to effectively deal with symbols that have come to mean very different things to different members of a community. Symbols are rarely neutral.

 

Democracy

Bacevich at his best (he always is) with the one phrase that sums up this short piece on Brexit and democracy in the US—“curated” democracy.

It is no doubt true that the United Kingdom and the United States are democracies, with the people allowed some say. But to be more precise, they are curated democracies, with members of an unelected elite policing the boundaries of acceptable opinion and excluding heretics. Members of this elite are, by their own estimation, guardians of truth and good sense. They know what is best.

 

Food

I am not sure there is any good farm bill but this critique from a Jesuit magazine lays out the issues. Here is one key quote during which the author declares we are not facing a food crisis:

(T)his is not a crisis. It is true that farmers are working more and more hours for ever-diminishing returns, rural communities are hollowing out, and young people are staying away or are being boxed out from agriculture. It is also the case that farmers—exhausted, cash-strapped and with communal supports knocked out from under them—are experiencing a remarkable rise in instances of mental illness and suicide. In a great number of places, the rivers continue to grow more polluted, the soil is being depleted, and biological diversity is disappearing. Nonetheless, it is not a crisis, because food shows up with a wonderful regularity on our store shelves and on our plates, and most of us are well and happily fed. It is a fine thing to be so secure in our food. But if our patterns of production and consumption mean that we are squeezing every last drop out of the farm families and farmland only to discard them, then our priorities have become seriously, dangerously out of order.

And while we are on food, do we ever think about how the concentration occurring within the food crop seed industry (see monopoly article above), might affect farmers, farm families, and food production—not just in the US but around the world. Some of these firms have research facilities in my home town and they are great people. But where does this all end? In particular, what does it do to the need to innovate?

 

Inequality

I have seen the good and the bad of elites trying to bring about social change. When they work with already existing entities with deep understanding of the problems, it can be positive. If they are willing to look at structural injustice and attack it, all good. If not… Well here is the critique:

(E)lites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases.

For the most part, these initiatives are not democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favour the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo – and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win – are the secret to redressing the injustices…

By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolise progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken – many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if society were working right.

This one caught me a bit by surprise but is an important read about how we think about poverty and what it means to live on “a dollar a day.” Has poverty declined in our world? If so, by how much? And what does that mean?

One lesson: if you take out China, the rest of the economically poor places around the world are not doing that well…

 

Immigration Arcania

If you don’t work with immigration issues every day (like I do), the sheer complexity of the whole system is largely hidden. If you are an American returning from abroad your trip through customs and border protection is usually fast and painless (unless you forgot and brought fresh produce in your luggage—NEVER do that).

If you are anyone else entering our nation and seeking the legal benefits of your “status” then things are not so easy—not so easy when you come, not so easy to stay, not so easy to make sure you follow all the rules. And your waits for benefits you have applied for (usually work-related) are getting longer.

 

Science Fiction (or not)

This does remind me of some science fiction I have read or watched. How the poor sell themselves and how their governments help, just so they can survive.

I had never heard of “ethics dumping” but it is a thing and if we allow it the path to using the poor as “petri dishes” for our organs and cures does not see too far away…

 

And a quote from Sarah Smarsh writing Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.  Speaking of the body, and labor, and how it is valued…

The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash.  The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it.  A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict violence upon you.  Working in a field is one thing; being misled by a corporation about the safety of a carcinogenic pesticide is another.  Hammering on a roof is one thing; not being able to afford a doctor when you fall is another.  Waiting tables is one thing; working for an employer whose sexual harassment you can’t afford to fight and risk a night’s worth of tips is another.

The Way of Remembrance

As I sat through the funeral of Officer Corona, slain on the streets of my hometown just a week before, I thought about the act of remembering.  Everyone who spoke that morning implored us to remember this young woman.  And in their words was more than a hint of what that might mean. img_0105

Her young life, by any reckoning, was extraordinary in how she touched people, how she lived, and how she led.  We do not want to forget her.  But after all the services are over, after the makeshift memorial on 5th street is removed, and after all the blue ribbons come down–by hand or by wind and weather–how can we remember this unique life?

The hint I heard on Friday morning is that we can remember Ms. Corona by living out, together, in our community, the best of who she was.  This is how we remember.

To remember is to act on memories.  It is a liturgy to those who are gone.

In this sense, a remembrance, a true one, must move beyond fading recollections to daily acts that form us to be certain kinds of people, and keep the person who is no longer with us, “with” us–before us, present in the day to day.

It is only thus that we immortalize that which is mortal.

And, from what I heard, Natalie Corona is someone we should desire to immortalize.

There is a local columnist who, from time to time, prods our small city to come up with a motto.  He often jests but there is a point.  A motto, according to the dictionary is “a short sentence or phrase chosen as encapsulating the beliefs or ideals guiding an individual, family, or institution.”  I could propose that we take what we have learned of Officer Corona and use it to create our City’s motto.  Unfortunately, what we learned is far too much to contain in a sentence or phrase.

So, I would propose, instead of a motto, an aspirational statement our City can adopt to lay out what we desire to be.  In this way we keep Natalie in our hearts, in our lives, and in our actions.

The following is based on what I heard on Friday morning, cast as a statement of who we want to be:

The City of Davis is

  • a city that serves
  • a city that always smiles
  • a city that is the first to arrive in a time of need, and the last to leave
  • a city of youthful energy
  • a city that works tirelessly to create a welcome place and safety for everyone.

Stay with us Natalie, in the words we speak and in the acts we undertake.