Thursday, March 31, 2005

Or is China Coming After Us?

There, I fell for it again. The chance to take one more easy shot on the circus of the month rather than write about a denser but more important subject. I hope you're satisfied...

David Morris also recently referred to Nixon's China trip, but in a more sobering context, global oil policy, noting that Canada (our largest oil supplier) and Venezuela (number four) have signed deals with China.

Earlier this week, Thomas Friedman wrote about a "'geo-green strategy' that would marry geopolitics, energy policy and environmentalism." He points out that refusing to make meaningful reductions in energy consumption locks America into betting on a dangerous trifecta. One, that we can continue propping up distasteful regimes while also financing terrorists with our oil habit. Two, that we can somehow out-maneuver the world's most populous and fastest growing economy in the competition for global oil stocks. And three, that the air will still be clean enough to breathe on that retirement ranch up in the mountains, above the flooded coastline.

Once all of China's new coal-fired power plants kick in along with the cars that will inevitably follow the jobs to India and China, there won't be enough breathing tubes to go around, so why are we worried about Social Security?

But seriously folks, Friedman suggests shaping national policy position around addressing climate change, creating new jobs and revenue sources, and defusing international conflicts — all in the name of caring for God's green earth.

And why shouldn't the Democrats take it on as a defining issue? At least it would be coherent, and we could count on the far right not to coopt it. You saw in the last election — and especially the presidential "debates" — how far the party will get with its current strategy of failing to differentiate itself from the Republicans on the big stuff, and then getting sucker-punched on all the little stuff.

I think I'm starting to see a new positioning: Green without the Greens.

Nixon in China?

Is the Rev. Jesse Jackson's descent on Pinellas Park, Florida, truly "kind of like Nixon going to China," as Gov. Jeb Bush asserts?

Or is it more kind of like MC Hammer going on "The Surreal Life"?

Or is it even more kind of like Jackson himself appearing on "The Source" hip-hop awards program to present Ray Lewis a Sportsman of the Year award? (This, in 2001, after Lewis pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction in connection with two murders in Atlanta, and Jackson had tried to paper over a paternity problem with funds from his Rainbow Coalition.)

What better place for a spiritual leader in search of uncritical adoration to find the cameras, now that the politicians have abruptly abandoned the prime time spots?

Next stop, the Vatican?

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

More Takes on Red Lake

The latest sad news from Red Lake is that Tribal Chairman Floyd Jourdain's son has been charged with conspiracy in connection with the killings at the high school. If you have kids, and they're awake, get off this blog right now and spend the time with them.

Last week, I reflected on once being an outsider at Red Lake , but you'll get a much better understanding from Mark Boswell's piece about "Looking like a local, but being an outsider" while reporting on the Red Lake tragedy. It gives a good sense of the tight community and the difficulty an outsider finds when trying to impose his needs and schedule on people who live in a different world. (It also provides a not-often-seen view of a reporter doing his job, even when it may be personally uncomfortable. Liberal media, indeed!)

Then turn to a viewpoint on the story that has not yet been explored satisfactorily — the curious links between white supremacists and a troubled Native American teen. David Neiwert is a Seattle journalist who writes long and deeply on topics of extremism, hate crimes, terrorism and issues related to the Pacific Northwest. I've added him to my regular reads.

Monday, March 28, 2005

In the Party of Panderers, the Man Who Keeps His Mouth Shut is King

I can't say Dick Cheney is on my top ten list of politicians, but I think it's telling that he was nowhere to be seen or heard as the Bush Brothers, Frist and Delay scrambled all over each other to stand up for life last week.

We saw a glimpse of the same man during the Vice Presidential debates, when the question of gay rights arose, and again during the state of the union address, when, instead of springing out of his chair as the President began to defend marriage, he sat impassively.

I still disagree with him and he makes me uncomfortable in so many ways. But just when I'm tempted to think he's an irredeemable Great-Santini-like hard ass who has contempt for anyone left of Attila the Hun I remember this. The man doesn't pander.

Collect Now, Pay Later

You'd think supporting our military would be one place we could agree across the divide. But once you throw in reducing the cost of government, protecting the sacred interests of creditors and keeping the pipeline filled with fresh bodies, it ain't that simple any more.

Cutting military retirement benefits to reduce the federal budget has been a bipartisan affair stretching back to the Reagan era. They've already served, making their leverage minimal, so why not find ways to squeeze entitlements? (If you've just joined us, this is sarcasm.)

But why stop with the vets? Surely there's money to be saved or made futher upstream.

From the New York Times, we see how troops called for duty may be punished by their creditors, despite laws to protect them. Military families are having to assert their rights because many lenders don't know the law, or don't know the family is entitled to protection. And with the new bankruptcy bill under consideration, it's unlikely things are going to get easier for those folks with low incomes and relatively high credit balances. (You didn't think we were getting our fighting forces from the people who pay off their balances each month and just use their cards for the miles, did you?)

Now that reality is beginning to set in for many potential recruits — the National Guard is no longer the way to avoid the war zones — the Guard has had to employ new tactics to sign up the young, gullible and desperate. High school juniors can now earn thousands of dollars for what amounts to summer camp with live ammo, in exchange for committing themselves to at least six years in the military. The National Guard's Recruit Sustainment Program pays kids today for what must seem like the remote chance of receiving an instant message from a roadside bomb 18 months from now.

Sure, they may be told the real program, but how many 17-year-olds do know who plan to live forever? Or at least who wouldn't take a few thousand to upgrade their wheels or their sound system right now against possible deployment so far, far in the future?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Ghosts of Easters Past

It's Easter Sunday and today I saw a ghost.

Cycling along a trail with no particular destination in mind, I realized I was close to a once-familiar street. I found a way off the path and worked my way back to the building where I'd started my first put-on-a-tie-and-show-up-at-8-am job nearly 30 years ago.

As I approached from the west, I saw a tower and trucks indicating it now housed some sort of corn sweetener business — ironic, because it had been a sugar warehouse before my employer had moved in during the 1950s. I'd interviewed employees who pioneered the move. They remembered playing volleyball in the cavernous space, watching out for rats attracted by the bags of sugar still stored there, and having to hold up an overcoat to shield themselves when using the toilet, before a proper women's restroom was added.

The door where I'd once come in was gone and new, unmatched bricks covered all traces of the entrance.

Around the front and across the street — where once there'd been parking lots and a small park where the bigwigs cooked hot dogs at the company picnic — a row of newer townhouses stretch for several blocks. A sign indicated this side of the building was leasing offices and suites. A mini storage company occupied the east side.

There was nothing to indicate this building had once been the nation's primary lightweight torpedo factory. A few miles away, a sister division ran another giant munitions plant. Today, it's the site of a Home Depot. Farther north, a former Army Arsenal and Ammunition plant is being returned to nature and to developers — as soon as they're confident the pollution has been cleaned up.

I walked the corridors of all these buildings when they were humming. There was no war going on then — a decade after the peak of Vietnam, when national defense consumed 46% of the federal budget and 9.5% of the GDP — but life was still good for defense contractors, so to speak. In addition to the torpedoes, engineers were developing new armor-piercing shells and anti-tank mines to combat the latest Soviet tanks.

This was an era when a company like ours could employ a PhD whose primary job appeared to be contemplating Soviet tactics for attacking Western Europe and devising defenses against a likely invasion led by tanks through the Fulda Gap. His classified duties also involved imagining the countermeasures the Soviets would take to defeat our mines and then how to counter the countermeasures and then how the Soviets would counter the counter-countermeasures, and so on.

It may feel like our world is a less safe place today, that our spending priorities are out of whack, and that we are still too militaristic for the world's good. In current year dollars, our 2004 defense budget was more than 10 times the budget in 1979, when all these factories were full of people, but as a percentage of the total budget (19.9% vs. 23.1%) and of the GDP (3.9% vs. 4.7%), we are spending less. (I can't quite figure how to factor in Bush's extra-budget spending on Iraq.)

True, the enemies our leaders most fear now won't be coming at us with submarines and tanks, so maybe these factories were destined to disappear, even if our military spending continued to expand.

But on this day, I choose to take the Home Depot, the abandoned arsenal and the row of houses facing the office suites as a positive sign. I don't know if we have risen, but we are not here.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

I Want Milk!

Two generations of pets ago, we had a particularly vocal Maine Coon cat who would come into the kitchen whenever I took the milk from the refrigerator, afix me with her most expectant look, and mew: Ah-wah... Ah-wah. Since adult cats are lactose intolerant, I declined to give her any milk. But she was so insistent — Ah-wah sounded close enough to "I want" and meow was close to "milk" — that I decided to try to teach her to say "I want milk."

I pursued this experiment with far more obsessiveness that you would expect from an otherwise rational, educated and fully employed adult. Yet after a year, I had gotten nothing close to Ah-wah-meow.

As Terri Schiavo's parents go back to court again, I heard Barbara Weller, the Schindler family attorney, say on MSNBC this morning that Terri Schiavo was asked by her mother to repeat the phrase "I want to live." According to Weller, she responded with an "aaaah" and then, after a pause, a loud "WAAAH."

What is wrong with this word picture?

The Schiavo case is full of instances like this, where people confuse what they want or think they know with reality. This temptation to see what we believe is what physicist E.T. Jaynes called the Mind Projection Fallacy — "the oldest of all devices for dealing with one's ignorance." Marketers, scientists and judges are conditioned not to project their own thoughts onto the world. But others, faced with a silence or an unintelligible jumble of events, will project their own thoughts into the void.

Projecting the creations of one's own imagination onto nature may often be a harmless act, and it can be profoundly comforting. But it is not the style of reasoning I want from the people making decisions that affect my life and the lives of others.

Isn't it telling that, either randomly or in response to the leading question, Terri Schiavo did not utter the operant syllable? So the witnesses must speak for her. Once again.

What if she'd next moaned, EYEEE? Does that mean "life" or "die"? No wait, AAAH means "I." So would the correct response to the mother's command have been AAAH WAAH AAAH? Or AAAH WAAH IHHH?

Is this anyone else's view of hell?

With all due respect, there's a very big difference between "I want" and "I want milk."

Friday, March 25, 2005

Letters to Wendy's

Browsing in a now-defunct bookstore, I came across a curious little book of prose poems called Letters to Wendy's, by Joe Wenderoth. Its conceit is that an obsessive loner — maybe harmless, maybe not — takes seriously the cheery instruction on the Wendy's restaurant customer comment card...



He goes to Wendy's nearly every day over the course of 13 months and writes a reply to the Heidi-like cartoon hostess. The only limitation to his ruminations, it soon becomes clear, will be the dimensions of the card.

March 2, 1997

Barely able to move today, some sort of virus. Almost decided not to come in. Could only stomach a Coke. Still, glad I came. Glad I limped sweating into the loud line. I have come to appreciate, from afar, the force that stands volume, bright. The booth as good as a bed, at first —until I think of a bed. Satisfaction, for the sick, comes so fast and hard it doesn't register.

As weird as the book got, there were no fingertips found in the chili.

By the time I sat down to write this, Daily Kos and others had already leaped on the news item that a finger joint had materialized in a mouthful of chili at a Wendy's in San Jose — a story at once comic, revolting, sad and criminal, depending on whether you're reading, eating, slicing beef or not reporting OSHA violations. (The finger apparently arrived in the chili precooked from a Wendy's supplier.)

Packing houses and food processing plants employ a high proportion of recent (and possibly illegal) immigrants. Since none of Wendy's suppliers appear to have reported such an incident, as required by law, we're left to consider two possibilities: The employer covered up the accident or perhaps more likely, the worker, fearing she'd be discovered as an illegal by the feds, wrapped up her hand and went home quietly.

One hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, exposed the abuse of immigrants and blacks in the meat packing industry, and a shocked public pushed for reform. Today, even our respectable newspapers are making jokes about finger food.

And that makes me want to puke.

Political Wedgies and Voluntary Grimaces

I've lost track of the original photograph, but you don't have to be a doctor to understand this one, even after cursory examination: Clearly a voluntary grimace, a non-random expression of emotion.

The man is compact and tightly wound, with close-cropped Marine hair — the shaved sides and little top patch they let you keep after you make it through boot camp. His face is too red for this time of year, but he's in Florida, and they have more sun and more emotion down there right now. The veins in his neck stand out like cables trying to restrain a zeppelin. A zeppelin ready to burst and wipe out the surrounding humanity.

Or at least wipe out the big pony-tailed guy facing him who raises a placating palm in the international sign for "chill dude." In the background a woman holds a red sign, its message obscured.

Is this American, 2005? Again?

No, this is not about the Schiavo case. It's about trying to figure out the disease from the symptoms, and more important, determining a course of treatment.

You could imagine the photo with the expressions and political polarities reversed. Bush lied about Iraq! Chill, dude, we're there now and taking out a tyrant. Or both faces screaming. Bush skipped out on his National Guard duty! Kerry betrayed his fellow soldiers!

But not two dudes chillin' across the divide. Not much news value there.

It's not in the spirit that I am striving hard to maintain to say who started this, and both parties are guilty of giving political wedgies. But we know who the bullies are, and we know how a few of them can take over the school unless we stand up to them. It would be nice if the grownups could manage the situation, but the bullies know how to work around the system, and the authorities too often step in after the fact.

It's not the cops or other bullies who stop the war of wedgies before it goes nuclear. It's the decent kids.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Leaving Red Lake

It has been 36 years since I last saw Johnnie Beaulieu. Flickering in and out, his face comes back to me, like a bird across the water. Like the radio reception in the woods near Red Lake, Minnesota.

I see Johnnie's face now because it wasn't all that different from Jeff Weise's. The kid who killed nine people, including seven at Red Lake Senior High, before shooting himself. Johnnie, if he's still alive, is pushing 50, which is a lot older than it sounds to you and me.

I see Johnnie's face now because some of the stories profiling the victims in yesterday morning's paper lack photos, even the obligatory out-of-date school pictures or out-of-focus snapshots that get dug out for this sad purpose. Could it be in this media-saturated culture, where cameras are disposable and cell phone cameras are a standard accessory, there were simply no portraits of the dead?

Well, yes, you could imagine that if you'd seen Red Lake. Not just the school, but the government-supplied prefab houses back in the woods and all the rest.

During Christmas vacation, 1968, I was part of a small group of anthropology students who took a field trip to Red Lake Indian Reservation. We were a diverse crew, including a Hungarian professor, a South African, a Chicago black, a New York Jew and a kid from Grand Rapids, Minnesota — the one person who should've known better — who spun our college station wagon into a snowy ditch.

The principal personally introduced me to a class of middle schoolers because my long hair didn't conform to the dress code. I'd gotten a waiver, he explained, because I was in a play back at college and needed the long hair and vandyke beard for the part of Kit Carson (in Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life.")

One mischievous kid looked at me and said, "Didn't Kit Carson shoot Indians?" This was Johnnie.

I can't claim to be an expert based on a few days at Red Lake so long ago. But I remember the elder's tales of being sent away to boarding school to have their language and Indianness ground out of them. I remember one teacher, the first Red Lake native to come back to teach, talking about how the students in the class would not volunteer to answer to my questions. To show you knew the answer was putting yourself above others, and that was not done.

He introduced me to a high school student who was considering college. She was bright and Homecoming beautiful. He was encouraging her by introducing her to college students like me, but we were not like her, he said. He wasn't sure if she'd go, and if she did, if she'd persevere. Leaving family, the tribe, the rez was difficult, and most came back — if not for good, then again and again. Despite the poverty and the lack of jobs. Here they could be Indian.

We went to a high school basketball game. The kids were thin and undersized, but reasonably skilled. They'd never play in college, but for now this was one way they could affirm themselves, one place they could succeed. Their uniforms, individually sewn by family members, were all slightly different. (This past season the boy's and girl's teams from Cass Lake-Bena, another predominantly Indian school, finished well in state championship tournies.)

We did not get to some of the more remote parts of the reservation. Even today, the online interactive maps come up blank when you search for Redby and other villages up there.

But most places I went, I met the irrepressible Johnnie.

On my last day at Red Lake, he gave me an enameled medallion he'd made in art class, strung on a chain. A poor college student, traveling light, I had nothing to give him in return.

"Just come back," he said. "White people come here all the time, but they never come back."

"I will," I promised. I wasn't like other white men.

It has been 36 years since I last saw Johnnie Beaulieu.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Terri Schiavo: Second Opinions on Second Opinions

Last night in a post-playoff basketball stupor, I caught a discussion of the Terri Schiavo case on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight. Dobbs had on two medical ethicists as well as Jay Wolfson, Terri's guardian ad litem, an independent party appointed by the court to advocate for the best interests of an abused or neglected person — most often a child.

Wolfson was impressive for his obvious compassion for all parties in the case and for his refusal to make any personal judgments. He stated that he spent prolonged periods in Terri's room, trying to assess the reality of her condition throughout the 30 days of his investigation on behalf of the Terri and the state.

Because he was so careful in what he said, I'm reluctant to paraphrase, so I will quote from a 38-page report Wolfson made in December 2003 to Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the 6th District Court.

"There are instances where she appears to respond specifically to her mother. But these are not repetitive or consistent. There were instances during the GAL’s visits, when responses seemed possible, but they were not consistent in any way.

"This having been said, Theresa has a distinct presence about her. Being with Theresa, holding her hand, looking into her eyes and watching how she is lovingly treated by Michael, her parents and family and the clinical staff at hospice is an emotional experience. It would be easy to detach from her if she were comatose, asleep with her eyes closed and made no noises. This is the confusing thing for the lay person about persistent vegetative states.

"Theresa’s neurological tests and CT scans indicate objective measures of the persistent vegetative state. These data indicate that Theresa’s cerebral cortex is principally liquid, having shrunken due to the severe anoxic trauma experienced thirteen years ago. The initial oxygen deprivation caused damage that could not be repaired, and the brain tissue in that area continued to devolve. It is noteworthy to recall that from the time of her collapse, and for more than three years, Theresa did receive active physical, occupational, speech and even recreational therapy."

On PoliBlog, there's an excellent digest of Wolfson's report by Dr. Steven Taylor. Read it before you're tempted to put any credence in the diagnosis of Dr. Bill "4-minute Videotape Exam" Frist, or the latest new evidence of misdiagnosis from Gov. Jeb "Found Me a Good Christian Doctor to Give a Second Opinion, Though He Hasn't Actually Examined the Patient" Bush. (For a diagnosis of Dr. Frist, using the good senator's own hands-off technique, see Night Light.)

Dr. William Cheshire is the doctor who asserts Terri Schiavo is "most likely in a state of minimal consciousness." Since so many reputable physicians and court officers like Wolfson have weighed in on the case, I was curious about the medical credentials of the Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville) neurosurgeon, who has lately come forward with this new information that suggests she may regain consciousness, according the Florida authorities.

A link to recent medical publications from his official Mayo page yielded only one draft paper — by another author. It was in response to a Cheshire paper entitled, "Human Embryo Research and the Language of Moral Uncertainty," which appeared in The American Journal of Bioethics and is only available free online in abstract.

The article appears to examine where there is bias in reporting about embryo research. "Concerned readers should take notice when any category of humanity becomes subject to prejudicial and disparaging language and the value of vulnerable human life is trivialized alongside sensational assertions of anticipated medical cures."

This statement apparently refers to anticipated benefits of stem cell research, although "sensational assertions of anticipated medical cures" could just as easily describe the latest transparent attempt to revise Terri Schiavo's prognosis.

More digging revealed Cheshire as a speaker at "Stem Cell Research & Human Cloning: Where Do We Draw the Line?" — a symposium sponsored by New England School of Law, a bottom quartile law school in Boston. And he published "Returning to the Judaic Roots of the Christian Faith" in Restore, the publication of the Restoration Foundation.

It turns out Dr. Cheshire is also Director of Biotechnology Ethics for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity which appears to have strong links to Focus on the Family, Dr. James Dobson's special mission, Moody Broadcasting and the Moody Bible Institute. The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity gives a more in-depth biography than the Mayo Clinic, the only employer cited in the news accounts.

By the way, the Center's Speakers Bureau niftily provides a key to evaluate potential speakers as to religious affiliation, whether they believe the principles of the Bible offer counsel to all or most ethical decisions, and whether they would be considered pro-life. Dr. Cheshire isn't listed there, so we can only guess.

(By the way, Cheshire's Christianity isn't the point here. It's the lack of any other evidence of scholarly or clinical research in the field where he is being held up as an authority by citing his affiliation with a brand-name medical clinic.)

Just who was Terri's mother addressing when she pleaded, that legislators not play politics with her daughter's life? Surely not Tom DeLay, who remarked of Micheal Schiavo: "I don't have a lot of respect for a man who has treated a woman in this way," he said. "What kind of man is he?"

According to Jay Wolfson, Terri's Guardian ad Litem, this is the kind of man Michael is:

"Proceedings concluded that there was no basis for the removal of Michael as Guardian. Further, it was determined that he had been very aggressive and attentive in his care of Theresa. His demanding concern for her well being and meticulous care by the nursing home earned him the characterization by the administrator as 'a nursing home administrator’s nightmare.' It is notable that through more than thirteen years after Theresa’s collapse, she has never had a bedsore."

[For four years] "he had insistently held to the premise that Theresa could recover and the evidence is incontrovertible that he gave his heart and soul to her treatment and care. This was in the face of consistent medical reports indicating that there was little or no likelihood for her improvement."

Do these politicians really believe now they can just say anything at all and not be called to account? Terri Schiavo's great legacy could be tilting the hypocritical wing of the Party in Power toward self-destruction.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Million Dollar Ragdoll

[Editor's Note: This series on the case of Terri Shiavo was originally posted in chronological order over the past two days. It has been reordered so you can read it in the correct sequence.]

Hey, God,

It's me again. Have you been watching the news lately? I guess you make the news and kind of know what's coming already, so maybe not. Or maybe you're like those people who set a fire and then come back to see it and then stay up late to watch the news and then buy a bunch of copies of the paper the next day. Then they want to set another fire 'cause they love the feeling.

Probably not, though.

Either way, you must know what's going on. How my parents' home movies are all over the Internet, starting with their Web site. I don't actually know what a Web site is, since 15 years ago was the last chance I would've had to see one, and there weren't any.

Sounds cool, though. From what I can gather (it's hard, believe me, with no cerebral cortex), the Internet holds practically everything that ever was and it just keeps going on forever and ever. You can go there and be anybody you want to be. Not physically, of course. You just stay where you are and your spirit just goes there and you can stay as long as you want because it never closes.

Sort of like heaven, I imagine.

But anyway, there I am on the Web. I hope they at least they picked a cute picture, 'cause I looked sooo fat in my wedding dress. I was just getting to look hot when I had that heart attack. What I look like now, I can only guess, but I know they haven't been plucking my eyebrows.

Actually, it sounds kind of gross, having millions of people looking at me and talking about me and debating over me and they don't know me at all except what other people say about me. How do they think I got in this mess? I hated people looking at me a judging me and wanting me to be something for them.

Something perfect.

And now I'm stuck here, worse than ever, but all over the Web. More than a million hits on Google, stuff about me multiplied into the millions more. Google. A nonsense garble gargle word for infinity. I can relate.

That's all for now. Mom's here with some doctor and they want me to look at another balloon.

Bye for now,


Why is everybody so scared of death? Why do I have to be their ragdoll? Why don't you comfort them at night?

Just Kidding, God

Okay, God, I got a little carried away.

I shouldn't have compared you to a firebug, even as a joke. But you see, when you don't respond except with random jerks and smiles and thunderclaps, I don't know if you're really there or it's just all coincidence.

But I think I get it. It's pretty hard to punish me even more, so you turned loose those Republicans. Threatening to have me come before them in Washington to testify. That was really scary. One of those guys used to be an exterminator and the other one claims to be a doctor. You can't really tell which is which by how they act, though.

Haven't they ever been in an ICU or a hospice? If they were really serious about their compassion for human life, they'd come to me, instead of treating me like some lying steroid-pumped millionaire baseball star. But those Congressmen want to be able to act in front of the cameras — tough one day, compassionate the next. But it's hard to get a good angle in here. You can see how mom has to pull my head around instead of moving the camera.

Still, I'd love to have the Congressmen come down here and ask me questions, and not leave until they get answers. I'd love them to talk to my real doctors. I'd love to let in the protestors outside to bring me a drink of water and watch it dribble down my neck.

Have they sat in a hospital room with someone who can't respond? Boring. Try lying here 15 years. I know that doesn't sound like much to you, God. But it is.

It really is enough.


Just Some Body

Dear Jesus,

I'm having a little trouble getting through to God and vice versa, so I thought I'd try you, being's how you've had first-hand experience in the mortification of the flesh department.

Like you, I used to be somebody before I became a symbol. Now I'm just some body — used by whomever for whatever (including this guy who's usurped my voice). Others have taken the parts of my story they like. They hold me up like a hitchhiker sign, trying to collect people going their way. The daughter. The wife. The survivor. The vegetable. The beauty. The bulimic.

I liked being a person better than being a symbol. Is that how you feel, too? How do you deal with people who don'tknowyouneverdidneverwillknowyou saying who you are and what you represent? Using you for their own ends. I know a lot of women will know what I mean, but I was hoping you would, too.

Don't think I'm ungrateful. I understand that principles are important, and some people really and truly believe they are fighting for principles. But if I have learned anything being in this screwed up state, it is this:

Labels don't matter. Actions do. I no longer judge people by appearances or their words. Conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, Brain/Retard. Meaningless. What matters is this. Will they sacrifice a principle to save a person, or will they sacrifice a person for a principle?

Too many people are offended in principle these days. They yell at strangers walking across their metaphoric yards. They feel phantom pain in limbs they never had. They wring out tears outside my hospice, outside Michael's house, in the halls of Congress. Even Mel Gibson — now, he knows mortification of the flesh big-time — feels my pain! They claim to want to save me, but all they care about is their principle.

In those videos, if it looks like I'm laughing, it could be I'm thinking about this. They just care about their principle. Except mom and dad and Michael. Family has to care about family over principle. They have to love you no matter what, right?

What am I talking about? Your father sent you to die for sins you didn't commit.

Any insights would be appreciated.



Catching Up on His Correspondence

Dear Terri,

Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner, but we have been busy here adding a new Congressional wing to the 8th circle of hell. Our original expansion plan had room for normal growth into infinity, but the sudden (in millennial terms) exponential growth of hypocrisy and cant meant we could face serious overcrowding within the next 30 years — or well before Social Security goes broke.

I know it seems odd we should care about overcrowding in hell, but this is a region that needs lots of room. The whole point is isolation. No adoring crowds, no advisors, no peers, no pollsters, no cameras. Just hypocritical leaders seething under their beautiful lead-lined robes.

Work still isn't proceeding perfectly. Although we continue to receive a steady supply of labor from the jihadist martyrs, we're still a bit short in the management ranks. Satan has been lobbying for a couple of the Wal-Mart labor relations boys, but he only gets to sign the pacts, he doesn't decide when to call them away.

When I created the universe, I knew that I was taking a chance by allowing evolution to select for aggressive, single-minded, duplicity over collaborative, nuanced, honesty. But at the time, I was envisioning small, tribal societies, where leaders would have to deal with issues they actually knew something about personally, and with people they had to face every day.

Who knew?

You might expect God to have foreseen the problems with this, but honestly, I didn't want to look ahead. You think 15 years in an ICU is boring? Try an infinity in heaven!

This all has a way of sorting itself out over the centuries, but I realize that's small comfort to the people who have to live with it in the here and now — even from a persistent vegetative state.

But you have to admit, it's pretty entertaining if you can watch from the clouds. The leaders saying: "We should investigate every avenue before we take the life of a living human being" are the same ones who would not spare a minute to consider a single living soul waiting to be executed. And where, I might add, the evidence is far more ambiguous. They get apoplectic over the sanctity of marriage, and then ignore what Michael is trying to do on your behalf. They decry the decisions made by "one judge in one state court" — a court which has studied your plight for seven years — and then bring their short-attention-span-roadshow to overturn what is going on in Florida.

You see now why I allowed you to go under. You would not find this amusing at all.

And you are right — it's no fun to be a test case, to be made into a symbol against your will. Jesus and I signed up for it, so we have to take the good along with the televangelists and the cultists and Congressmen. But you did not ask for this, and neither — despite their lawyers and Web sites and media appearances — did your family.

So here is my loving counsel to you.

Forget the hypocrites. They will receive their just reward.

Release Michael. He needs to get on with his life. Sometimes, someone is no longer the person you married, and you are no longer the person they married. Some marriages can survive this, some deny it and compound the injury. Others must end, and it's better for all concerned.

Finally, parents do not get to make such choices. No matter how you change, you will always be the girl your mother bore. Neither of you has choice in this, and only she can choose how she will continue to love you. She may feel remorse, complicit somehow in your living death. She may be unable to let go. She may believe in the possiblity of a miracle because your eyes open, your head wags, and your eyebrows contort.

Of course, there will be no miracle, Terri. Michael knows it. Your doctors know it. The courts know it. Even those posturing politicians — Dr. Frist most of all — know it.

You were so right. You are no one's ragdoll. Not even Mine.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Not Too Late

If you write enough stuff and just keep on going, it's possible to forget your offspring and then be surprised to meet one coming around the corner. This could be a sign of humility or approaching senility.

That happened to me this morning, hearing the opening chords of a song on a compliation disk from a friend who'd put together some of our greatest non-hits written and recorded over several decades. I'm annoyed by those people in concerts who have to applaud at the first strains of a song to show what aficionados they are. They're like the jerks who have to be the first to break the moment of silence to whoop "You da man!" after Tiger Woods launches a drive or "In the hole!" a microsecond after the ball leaves the putter face.

One of my songs was playing and I could not be one of them. Although the Alhambra guitar riff was familiar, I couldn't whoop. My brain honestly couldn't come up with the lyrics or the song title until my own voice came in. I had gone through a long period of writing songs in A-minor, ones I indiscriminately categorized as "sweet protest" or "Latin leftie" in the ITunes genre column, and there were simply too many possibilities to consider.

It was, you will not be surprised to learn, an antiwar song, and I found myself listening to it rather than singing along. And because it felt like something sent from the heavens, it doesn't seem too much of a self-referential indulgence to quote it here.

Am G Am
All the king’s white horses and all the king’s pale men
Unleash hellfire round the world to save us all from sin
F E E7 Am F E7
They call it treason if we don’t say amen

But it’s not too late
It’s not too late to come in
F E Am
It’s not too late to come in from the dark
Am F G

Canary in the coal mine, ostrich in the sand
Don’t know where to lay your head, not sure where to stand
Lies and confusion are the language of the land

But it’s not too late
It’s not too late to come in
It’s not too late to come in from the dark

Dm C E E7 Am

Dm C Am E/E7

Words of masked destruction sound like words of peace
While surgical precision dissects the Middle East
Our cause is righteous; God grants His full release

Is it not too late?
Not too late to come in?
Not too late to come in from the dark?

Taking Life Pass/Fail

By golly, let us teach what the most ignorant and the least studied among us know to be true, because we outnumber the scientists. And for good measure, let it be known to all nations as "intelligent."

Let us not teach science as being our best guess about what is true — a guess we know will improve as we continue to ask questions and organize in pursuit of the answers. Let us fill gaps in our knowledge with what we want to be true.

Let us invest in discovering what will sell, what will get us elected, what will confirm what is already "known" — and call it truth.

Let us not teach faith as faith or theology as theology. Let us teach it as science. And let us not just do it in our own church-sponsored schools, but require it in all, for the benefit of all mankind.

Let us not be challenged — by people who are prejudiced or by people who know more than we do. Let us go to school and not be shaken, not be transformed, not be elevated.

Let us burn books and censor teachers. Or vice versa. And let us put stickers discrediting those things we cannot burn or censor.

Let us close the libraries.

Let us see education as our triumph, not the triumph of knowledge.

Let us reject the results of the scientific method, built and tested discovery by discovery and experiment by experiment, subjected to inquiry over hundreds of years. Let us demand infallibility and attack as a weakness the strength of science —which is to continuously question its assumptions and explore the limitations of its understanding.

Let us seek evidence supporting our conclusions, rather than draw conclusions from the evidence, and call it neutrality.

Let us ignore inconvenient facts today and leave the consequences to future generations.

Let us shun rigorous inquiry and call ourselves shunned.

Let us reject evolution as a theory, but ruthlessly practice social Darwinism, celebrating the survival of the fit.

Let us call evolution "a theory in search of a soup" and put forth instead our theory of the Great Soupmaker, without subjecting it to the same skepticism.

Let us win at all costs, because might makes right.

Slouching Toward Rio

On the March 5th "Car Talk", Click and Clack took a caller from Rio de Janeiro who was concerned about being accosted by gun-wielding holdup men and wanted advice on bullet-proofing his car. The Tappet Brothers claimed no expertise on the matter, but invited listeners to weigh in online on their bulletin board. [You can view the responses on the Car Talk site by searching "bullet proof," but first, you'll have to register.]

Are we slouching toward Rio? The film "City of God" depicts the dismal poverty and despair of Rio's most notorious slum. Think of it as a preview of a society that erects barriers against its poorest members rather than addressing their education, health care and family support structure.

According to NPR, Brazil is now the world's second largest market for bullet-proofed cars. South Africa has introduced a flame-thrower car. And government buyers can browse online for armored vehicles (541 products when last I checked), adding them to their shopping cart if they're putting together a fleet.

As becomes clear from the listener responses, there's no shortage of after-market suppliers prepared to outfit vehicles for high-security uses. If you are wealthy enough, you can build a Kevlar cocoon, much like that enveloping our country's leaders.

But as became apparent from the Humvee armor debacle in Iraq, the Hummers bravely rolling into our cities from suburbia won't offer much protection without expensive retrofitting. As Joel Kramer of Growth & Justice argues, protection of private property is one government service that disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Perhaps paying for bulletproofing, gated communities, private schools and bodyguards beats paying higher taxes. But that is heading down a road fewer and fewer can travel.

Some dinner companions over the weekend put it something like this: "As other global economies achieve parity with ours, the American middle class will continue to shrink. There will be 9 billion people in the world and only 3 billion jobs. Here, we will have the very rich, plus the doctors, lawyers and other professionals who minister to them and then those who protect them from all the rest of the people who can't get a good education, a good job or decent health care."

Is this just more liberal negativism? Or is it a possible consequence of ascendent government and economic policies?

As a Minneapolis kindergarten teacher recently warned: "If the water's leaking into my side of the boat, then pretty soon it's going to leak into your side of the boat, too."

Just look at Rio.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Work, Wonks and Worship 2

Saying in “Work, Wonks and Worship” that state government might benefit from some legislators with corporate experience doesn’t mean the House and Senate should be over-populated with corporate types. Large organizations are not always the model of collaborative excellence, either. Whether organized in corporate tisk teams or executive blur ribbon commissions, concentrated corporate brainpower is equally capable of grinding on to irresolution and irrelevance.

But well-run organizations do have the benefit of a clear mission, vision and culture to help them manage complexity and achieve their goals. The monolithic Microsoft and Wal-Mart march inexorably forward, the Kool-Aid coursing through their veins and piped into their “partners.” Target Corporation sheds companies instead of acquiring them. Polaris continues to innovate around a core passion for motor sports.

Meanwhile, government plugs along operating on a system of checks and balances, with adversarial parties whipsawing an entrenched bureaucracy to an even greater standstill. It’s like a giant mergers and acquisitions program, bringing together implacable foes (think Oracle and PeopleSoft) and unrelated businesses that are supposed to create synergy, led by rotating CEOs who make nice speeches but are really focused on the Big Payday. This may result in maddening inefficiency, but it slows down tyrants and reformers alike.

And that’s the way we seem to like it. As employees, we might prefer to work for an enlightened, flexible and generous enterprise. But as consumers, we vote for getting more value than we pay for. And as shareholders, we prefer ruthless efficiency and competitive predation. When it comes to government, we can’t decide from day to day if we’re buying or investing. And we sure as hell don’t want to work there.

Huhtltltltltltltltuh. [This is the sound of reeling myself back to the boat.]

Anyway, it wasn’t the titans I had in mind. They have other ways to exert their influence. I was thinking more of adding people from the middle ranks, like those smart, disciplined, decent folks at the client meeting I attended. But it very rarely happens.

During the three days of the aforementioned company conference, I heard no discussions of politics, religion or current events — not even a crack about the Michael Jackson trial starting just up the road, or the capture of the BTK serial killer. We were all too busy to be reading or watching the news, and business etiquette generally discourages raising topics that could open up rifts or strain relationships. But if a discussion were ever going to break out, this was an opportune time, with well-educated peers spending 24 hours a day together in a veritable college dormitory atmosphere.

What’s going here?

People too busy to be political. Or, to be political about community concerns. Corporate politics may already consume a tremendous amount of psychic energy. Especially in organizations under stress, people disproportionately devote their attentions to reading changes in the balance of corporate power, divining appropriate paths for proposals that never get enacted and competing for control over matters they barely have time to understand as they race from meeting to meeting. They function as diplomatic intermediaries rather than producers, and their work hangs over them in a haze of perpetual incompletion.

"Information overload" only begins to describe the scramble. They are tethered to cell phones and Blackberries, juggling to retain and retrieve information scattered among voicemail, email, electronic and paper documents, PowerPoint handouts and Excel spreadsheets, CDs, Web repositories. The meetings are inexorable. The next group hovers outside the conference room waiting for it clear, and it does because the occupants know they must scatter and hurtle on to the next. Outlook says so.

The technology aids promise freedom. Instead, people find themselves yoked to the trivial, and the work commands ever more of their consciousness.

They respond to their messages at 11:00pm or 6:00am, when the children are in bed. They speed through work documents on airplanes, multitask in automobiles, and cut through the backlog on weekends. They compartmentalize with a vengeance and sometimes return to find the compartment empty. It’s difficult for organizations to retain their institutional memory — not just because of turnover — because memory is not a product of reflection, not archiving.

But there is no time for reflection. Farmers, factory workers and philosophers had time to think. But the farmers who are left have second jobs in town. The factory jobs have flown and union halls are becoming ghost towns. Teachers are social workers and traffic cops, counting the days. Knowledge workers need their brains available to nurture political thoughts. But what if the brain cells are otherwise occupied, or so deadened that only Fox or Hollywood or the NFL can gain admission?

Then we look for nostrums we can consume, not ideas that require us to work some more.

While workers may exhibit less loyalty to a specific employer, their income, healthcare, retirement and family benefits are more than ever dependent on the success of corporate interests. Any savings are likely to be invested in corporate securities — not so much securely put away as bet on the market. So they accept the vague equation of freedom for business equals personal freedom. They rely more and more on corporations for products, services and entertainment — and less on local farmers, retailers, craftsmen and artists. Wal-Mart may have decimated local merchants, pay lousy wages and send profits out of town, but the stuff is cheap, so what the hey?

Why wouldn't people be sympathetic to interests they spend most of their wakefulness advancing? It's understandable to support policies favoring your employer's competitiveness and stock's performance — even if those policies don't favor the environment, the local economy, the safety and quality of products or the supply of well-paying jobs in the future.

As others have pointed out, our real social struggles are not over gay marriage or abortion or religion in the public realm. These are sideshows. The more fundamental and far-reaching divide is whether we will invest in community or in the stock market. Whether we are in this world all together or as hermetic family units. Or, as Don Herzog asks in Market Fundamentalism: "The real question, I think, is:  what are the proper boundaries to the market?  What do we want to buy and sell, and what do we want to allocate in other ways?"

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Roll Models

The latest in local millionaire news is that Mike Tice, head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, is reportedly under investigation for acting as an intermediary between his players and ticket scalpers. In what would be a violation of the NFL's Super Bowl ticket policy, Tice or his staff allegedly collected tickets from the players and sold them in bulk to scalpers.

Of course, everybody does it. And it no doubt provides a valued service to those high rollers who need show up at these overblown sporting events in order to feel like they matter.

I'm not sure which is more nauseating. That these highly paid players (median Viking player salary in 2003 was $608,500) buy tickets and then resell them at profit reported to be in $1,110 to $1,400 region — despite signing an agreement saying they won't. Or that they'd rather pick a up few extra bucks instead of attending the ultimate event in their sport.

I guess role models are entitled to fatten their rolls.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Twenty's Travels

Two months ago, I picked up a 20-dollar bill at a Timberwolves game. Every day since then, I've carried that same bill folded in my pocket, ready to dispense it to some worthy, and presumably grateful, recipient.

On days I was short of cash, I resisted spending it. It would be cheating somehow to replace it later with a different twenty.

The longer I carried it, the harder it was to give away. I resisted forming foundation-like criteria for giving, thinking that my heart would tell me when and where. But often, my head got in the way.

Is this really enough money to make any difference to any one?

How is my ego playing in this?

Who am I to judge who's in need or what's a proper use for the money?

Would it be it cheating to go out of my way to drop it off at the door of a non-profit I already support?

Should it go to someone destitute or someone working at a low-paying job?

Someone elderly or someone putting themselves through school?

Someone I'll see again, so I can reap recurring gratitude? Or someone I'm guaranteed never to see again?

And so on.

There were candidates who came close. A young man working the grocery pickup on a cold day. He just had the look of someone who had picked this path over a more crooked one. A geeky girl working at the movie theater. She was there often, and I began to paint a sympathetic picture of why she worked nights. She was saving money for college, not to pay her cell phone bill. But the night I arrived ready to bestow my largesse, she was on the cleanup crew, not taking tickets. A cashier was beyond friendly and helpful, and again I constructed an epic miniseries of pluck overcoming bad circumstances, helped along in a small way by a stranger's acknowledgement of her value. But there were always other customers around and I didn't want to embarrass her. Or myself.

Today, I took a different route to the elevators. Walked into the office of a job training organization in my building. Made up a small tale about finding the money on my way in. Said save it for someone who's in a bad spot, who needs it more than than I do. Can you take it? The man behind the counter deferred to the woman behind the counter. I don't think he wanted people walking in off the street and passing him twenties.

They took it. I hope they won't take as long as I did to pass it on.

I've found another 20. It's moving from my wallet to the front pocket, folded in quarters like the other. Not to give away this time, but to remind me. To watch out for other people on the street. To not go through this life unconsciously. It's not about giving away the money. It's about seeing others, for starters. I see you.

Work, Wonks and Worship

The next several posts will consider how work and politics intersect. I'm drawn to this topic precisely because, for the past week, work has kept me from thinking about anything like it. As a nation, we have been debating moral questions as if they are distinct from economic ones and as if Americans spent more time at worship than at work.

How might our work experiences influence how we view who should benefit from public policy? If legislators run their own businesses, are they more likely to favor business interests over the interests of employees, the poor and public sector workers? Will elected officials who have never worked for a large corporation be more or less sympathetic to the interests of these companies, and how will they make their judgments if none of their peers have this experience, either?

Recently, I spent three full days with 100 managers attending a company retreat. While I have been working with corporate clients for more than 17 years, and spent a prior decade in a Fortune 100 company, I am rarely in such close and prolonged proximity with an alien business culture. That is, a culture other than the one I created and continue to nurture in my own company.

These people were not part of a typical corporate enterprise because their company is employee-owned and engaged in scientific-related work. They were also more predominantly white and male, compared to many of my other clients. A third of the group had recently joined by acquisition, and they were not hard to pick out because they were likely to be agitating for change. But all in all, this was a remarkably cohesive community, welcoming to an outsider. They were used to solving problems together, united by a common purpose, and very likely to achieve it.

That isn't how we tackle big challenges in the public sector, and one reason may be that we simply don't have many people like them in our legislature. It's evident that corporate professional and managerial experience is poorly represented in our legislature; there's no reason to think Minnesota is atypical in its occupational makeup.

Here, for example, is the representation of the top five occupations in the 67-member Minnesota State Senate:
14 Law—20.9%
14 Business—20.9%
8 Farming—11.94%
6 Financial services—8.96%
4 Legislators—5.97%

Based on House-reported numbers, the similar breakout of its 134 members is:
21 Educator—15.67%
19 Attorney—14.2%
18 Business 13.4%
10 Legislator 7.46%
8 Retired 5.97%

The "business" label doesn't reveal much about specific employment or professional experience. How many of these business people work for one of the state's larger private sector employers? Note that half of all non-farm employment in Minnesota is in companies employing 100 or more, so we might expect a few representatives from these ranks.

Bear with my temporary bout of wonkishness for another minute. I actually cross-checked the state's summary data and looked at the House Election Directory, which reports occupation by member. Still not very revealing, except that it's clear business people from rural Minnesota aren't employed by the corporate titans.

A more precise picture emerges from the Campaign Finance Board's reports, which disclose the elected officials' financial interests, including occupation and employer name. This report reveals that "business" representation in the House is skewed toward sales people and small business owners. Two reported income from relatively low-level jobs with larger employers: Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) is described as a business analyst for Target Corp. and Rep. Pat Garofalo (D) is a network engineer for Allianz Life. But there were no managers, directors or vice presidents to be found.

So what does this mean?

We are being governed largely by people who have sought careers away from large, complex enterprises. By people who don't do well with hierarchy or supervision. Who have businesses that either don't require their full-time attention or are barely ongoing concerns.

Small business owners, insurance agents, educators, attorneys and farmers bring valuable experience and perspective, but they simply don't deal with the same issues or levels of complexity faced by the larger employers in the state — let alone the Fortune 1000 companies like Medtronic, Honeywell, St. Paul Travelers, Target, United Healthcare, Northwest Airlines and U.S. Bank.

Where are the big picture thinkers in public office, and where did they learn to think? The average non-profit board has more diverse and experienced members than the state legislature.

How does running a main street law practice, grocery store or heating and air conditioning shop relate to the concerns of the multinationals headquartered in the state? How likely are you to have worked closely with gay professionals as a homemaker or in a family-owned business? How concerned will you be about public transportation if you are a farmer? What are your concerns about maintaining an educated workforce if you're a Bible school grad who has made a decent living selling real estate? If your church prayer group is bigger than your company, why wouldn't it have a bigger influence on your view of what normal families are like?

More to come....

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Ten, Again

Yesterday's post did not have benefit of some of the Justices' comments on the Ten Commandments cases. Justice Scalia, quoted in Slate, takes the prize: "When someone walks by the commandments, they are not studying the text. They are acknowledging that the government derives its authority from God."

If I'd known this was what I was doing, I wouldn't have been quite so tolerant of the original Big Ten in the public garden. I was under the impression our government derived its authority from the governed.

I hope any Christians in the house will see this opinion for the delusional thinking it represents. But in case there's any doubt, read Brooke Allen's "Our Godless Constitution" in The Nation.

She recounts how the Founding Fathers "understood the necessity of at least paying lip service to the piety of most American voters" — much like today's politicians. But privately, most kept conventional religion at arm's length.

James Madison: "What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution."

If Washington referred to the Almighty, "he was careful to refer to Him not as 'God' but with some nondenominational moniker like 'Great Author' or 'Almighty Being.'" Just as the "Creator" endowed us with certain inalienable rights.

Ben Franklin knew the political value of professing religious sentiments before the masses, but also cautioned: "A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under color of law."

Thomas Jefferson, the author of separation of church and state, saw churchgoing as a presidential obligation, but was careful to tolerate religion without advancing it: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

As Allen concludes: "All of our leaders, Democrat and Republican, have attended church, and have made very sure they are seen to do so. But there is a difference between offering this gesture of respect for majority beliefs and manipulating and pandering to the bigotry, prejudice and millennial fantasies of Christian extremists."

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Promoting the Ten Commandments Lifestyle

[Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases concerning display of the Ten Commandments on public grounds. One involved a monument at the Texas state capitol, the other, an exhibit at a county courthouse.]

Me, I'm agin' it on principle, but it don't bother me none in practice.

See, I come from a town that had one a them Ten Commandments right out in plain sight & I can't remember it botherin' me at all. Can't even remember it bein' there until the Righteous and the ACLU got into it, & the mayor didn't get re-elected over the deal. That's democracy. The people speak & even if they's kooks, they got rights, right?

Thin skin never pays.

I feel pretty much the same way about prayer in school & the Pledge of Allegiance. Builds character. I should know. I spent a year in high school doin' the invocation before every student assembly & I turned out all right. For those a you who grew up in the prayer-free era, an invocation starts out with Dear Lord & then goes into how we should be thankful & humble & use our talents & then you get to the Amen within a tolerable span. Better than Toastmasters, if you ask me, havin' to come up with somethin' halfway between original & platitudinous without lookin' like a total dork in front a your peers.

To the best a my knowledge, I didn't convert a soul & no one took it wrong, neither, so how much more proof do you need?.

Then senior year, I prayed for the football team before every game. It wasn't no religious thing, just a little extra preparation, like taking 25 more push-ups at the end a practice. We finished 5 - 5, which just goes to show you God don't take sides, assumin' the other teams was as good at prayin' as me.

Anyway, I was gonna say, official school prayer is okay by me as long as it's done by a cynical beer drinkin' non-believer who ain't gonna come around to your house with pamphlets later.

Every kid can say the pledge, under god & all, as long as they also learn that it was written by a socialist, at the instigation uva magazine bent on selling a promotional campaign to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Knights a Columbus lobbied to get under god in there back in the '50s, so we ain't exactly dealin' with old testament writ here.

& the Ten Big C's all over the country? Put there as part a the nationwide promotional sweep by Cecil B. Demille for his movie starring the NRA's own Moses. See, I think it's good we have constant reminders in our schools & public places. By all means, let's not tear 'em down, let's use 'em to teach how the commercial interests in America have been usin' the rubes' faith like this for more than a century.

Go Pick on a Crisis Your Own Size

An article in today's Washington Post [sign-in required] noted President Bush highlighted new legislation allowing "religious charities to hire and fire based on religious beliefs even while receiving federal funding."

A cynic might think this was a response to a former staffer's recent criticism that Bush was insufficiently dedicated to seeing his faith-based initiatives through.

But not me. I think it's a totally sincere effort to distract us from how his campaign to save Social Security is going.

In Praise of Reticence

"These boundaries between what is publicly exposed and what is not exist for a reason. We will never reach a point at which nothing that anyone does disgusts anyone else...

"If your impure or hostile or politically disaffected thoughts are everyone's business, you will have reason to express pure and benevolent and patriotic ones instead.  Again, we can see this economy at work in our present circumstances: The decline of privacy brings on the rise of hypocrisy."
–Thomas Nagel, Concealment and Exposure

"Those whose agenda it is to normalize homosexuality win when we don’t push back. Just look at the word gay for instance. Homosexuality has nothing to do with being gay or happy. As a matter of fact, research proves that homosexual relationships end more frequently than heterosexual relationships and homosexuals have a higher incidence of depression and suicide. The average longevity for a gay man is 45 years. No, it isn’t about being gay, it is about being homosexual. These people need help to return to normalcy, not acceptance of their lifestyles."
-“Mario”, Guerilla Reporter, Senator Bachman Speaks on Gay Manifesto

Thomas Nagel is not talking about the thoughts of practicing deviants like the Kansas scout leader/serial killer, the altar-boy-preying priest or the charismatic minister whose position supplies him with a perpetual stream of vulnerable women seeking his "counsel." He is talking to each of us when he says: "There is much more going on inside us all the time than we are willing to express, and civilization would be impossible if we could all read each other's minds."

Point taken. If you're fed up with the exploitation of morality for political ends, Nagel's long essay is worth reading. (Thanks to a post on Left2Right for recommending it.)

Nagel covers ground similar to Thomas Frank's in What's the Matter with Kansas?. (Frank chronicles how the right wing's recent political success has been precisely crafted around picking fights they can't ultimately win, but can be used to charge up the faithful to elect their candidates, who simply want to help the rich get richer, return to environmental exploitation, dismantle public education and remove any remaining social safety nets.)

Nagel makes the case for steering clear of unwinnable skirmishes over what's going on in other people's minds, advising "the persistence of private racism, sexism, homophobia, religious and ethnic bigotry, sexual puritanism, and other such private pleasures should not provoke liberals to demand constant public affirmation of the opposite values." It only inflames the righteous to insist that private behavior become a matter of public policy, says Nagel. And while it may be satisfying to tell them just how idiotic and bigoted they are, it reinforces the conservative's fantasy of persecution by a culturally dominant intellectual elite.

Instead, he suggests holding fire for the political battles over issues that are the real business of government — "about how people are required to treat each other, how social and economic institutions are to be arranged, and how public resources are to be used." 

Nagel again: "There are enough issues that have to be fought out in the public sphere, issues of justice, of economics, of security, of defense, of the definition and protection of public goods. We should try to avoid forcing the effort to reach collective decisions or dominant results where we don’t have to. Privacy supports plurality by eliminating the need for collective choice or an official public stance. I believe the presence of a deeply conservative religious and cultural segment of American society can be expected to continue and should be accommodated by those who are radically out of sympathy with it — not in the inevitable conflicts over central political issues, but in regard to how much of the public space will be subjected to cultural contestation."

So far, so good. In isolation, "concealment" — an agreed upon form of don't ask, don't tell — might appear to be a sound liberal political tactic and a reasonable, divide-crossing premise that would promote greater civility and focus public discourse on matters that are everyone's business. But What's the Matter with Kansas and other critiques make it clear that if gays were back in the closet, the conservatives would still have to invent them — just as Mario, Guerilla Reporter, and politicans like Minnesota's Michelle Bachman are inventing them now.

Would tolerance truly be easier if we knew less of each other and none of each other's secrets? Perhaps. But the "deeply conservative religious and cultural segment" needs evil to believe themselves good. Could it be the righteous are terrified not of the "gay agenda", but of revealing their own complex inner lives?