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River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  


The Investigation

The other day the World-Herald had three good pieces of commentary on the Mueller investigation and the fallout.

There was a piece by Marc Thiessen called "The Trump-Russia Collusion Hall of Shame."   It quite rightly (though with charged language) asked about all those politicians and former intelligence officials who promised us that there was evidence of collusion that was yet to be made public.

Another piece was by Mona Charen, a conservative who has not yet jumped on the Trump bandwagon.  Her column was entitled "Mueller did the Right Thing." Her criticisms were leveled against the President and his cohort for their attacks on the investigation all along and how they ended up being wrong.  Her conclusion, "Honorable people did the right thing. Politics did not taint a criminal investigation. But that reality is buried under an avalanche of bad faith."

The final piece wasn't a national columnist but a local piece by former Senator Bob Kerrey in which he asked "How did Department of Justice get the Trump-Russia investigation so wrong?" It was interesting and refreshing to read a Democratic leader so critical.  He wants a non-partisan commission to investigate this whole sordid episode, "Our democracy will survive the hostility of Vladimir Putin. What it may not survive is distrust of our system of justice. At the moment that distrust is deep and wide. We need a nonpartisan national commission to tell us what has just happened and to advise us on what we need to do to keep it from happening again."


Brilliant interview with Arundhati Roy

The Boston Review has published a brilliant interview with author Arundhati Roy discussing her books, her politics, and the state of the world.  I encourage you to read it.  An excerpt:

While it is easy to take lofty moral positions, in truth, there is nothing simple about this problem. Because it is not a problem. It is a symptom of a great churning and a deep malaise. The assertion of ethnicity, race, caste, nationalism, sub-nationalism, patriarchy, and all kinds of identity, by exploiters as well as the exploited, has a lot—but of course not everything—to do with laying collective claim to resources (water, land, jobs, money) that are fast disappearing. There is nothing new here, except the scale at which its happening, the formations that keep changing, and the widening gap between what is said and what is meant. Few countries in the world stand to lose more from this way of thinking than India—a nation of minorities. The fires, once they start, could burn for a thousand years. If we go down this warren and choose to stay there, if we allow our imaginations to be trapped within this matrix, and come to believe there is no other way of seeing things, if we lose sight of the sky and the bigger picture, then we are bound to find ourselves in conflicts that spiral and spread and multiply and could very easily turn apocalyptic.


President Bush

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More than one congregant has asked me this week about President Bush, "Didn't you say once that he was your favorite President?"

Yes, I did.  And he is.  My favorite from my lifetime.  I deeply respected and admired him and this week have mourned his passing.  When on Saturday morning my husband informed me of the death, I began to weep and our preschool-aged son consoled me "That's sad."  Over the last few days I've shared stories with our son about George Herbert Walker Bush.

I grew up in a small town in northeastern Oklahoma where most local races were settled in the Democratic primary.  My family were New Deal Democrats like most of the people around us.  The only Republicans we knew were liberal Episcopalians.  

I had always had a fascination with politics.  Mom tells the story of my backing Jimmy Carter in the 1976 race as a toddler--I think it was because he was a peanut farmer and I loved peanut butter.  But it was finally as the 1988 primaries loomed that I became focused on presidential politics.  I followed that race very closely, at the beginning liking such candidates as Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Jack Kemp, and Al Gore.  

That was a great race to follow, especially as I was just beginning to form my political opinions.  There were 6 major candidates on both sides, and particularly in the GOP they each represented a wing of the party.  Bush, of course, emerged as the nominee.  I watched almost gavel-to-gavel coverage of both conventions that summer and weighed considerations between Governor Dukakis and Vice President Bush before deciding to support Bush.  

This was almost anathema to my Democrat family.  My Mom told me I couldn't be a Republican because we weren't rich.  

That autumn in our speech class Mrs. Webster assigned as a project that we create a scrapbook to follow the election.  I poured myself into that project and produced a final result that shocked Mrs. Webster in its detail and thoroughness, far exceeding the scope of the assignment.  Every day I poured through multiple papers and grabbed the major weekly magazines all to clip for the scrapbook which kept growing in size.

Also that autumn our speech class put on a mock presidential debate for a junior high assembly followed by a mock election among the students.  I was chosen to represent Vice President Bush, Ronnie Maple was Governor Dukakis, and Lance Reece was the moderator.  I remember that my main point was that Bush was the most qualified person to ever run for the office.  Bush won our mock election.

And, so, at 14, I became a Republican.  But a Bush Republican.  A moderate, New England, liberal Episcopalian sort of Republican.  And just at a point when the culture was shifting and that sort of Republican was about to decline and the place I had grown up would, in short order, become a bastion of Right Wing, Christian fundamentalist politics.  I assume most of the liberal Episcopalians in Miami, Oklahoma these days are not Republicans.  And I left the party in 2004 for its repeated hypocrisies.  

Bush's served as President during my high school years.  And I watched in admiration as all the accomplishments were achieved, particularly in foreign policy.  Many of my friends were still old school Democrats while others were these new Evangelical Republicans, so I found myself often defending Bush from attacks from the right and the left.  I loathed Newt Gingrich and the despicable ways he attacked Bush.

But I also noticed the weaknesses and failures, and have appreciated this week reading those criticisms as well as the honors.

In 1992 I could finally vote, and I voted for George H. W. Bush, despite the fact that many friends my age were supporting Bill Clinton.  Clinton repulsed me.  My roommate Matt Cox and I hung our American flag upside down as a sign of the nation in distress when the networks called the election for Clinton.  A few days later the university president sent the president of the College Republicans to ask us to turn it back rightside up.

I simply couldn't believe that a President who had accomplished what Bush had done and once enjoyed a 91% approval rating was losing to this inexperienced person of bad character, even if the economy was in a mild recession.  But I had also watched Bush squirm through the debates, clearly a figure from a different era, as politics and the media were changing (not for the better, of course).

My admiration has continued.  I read Bush and Scowcroft's book on the history of the administration, and Jon Meacham's good biography.  

Bush ran one of the most ethical administrations, firing people at even the hint of scandal.  He hired experts who were themselves admirable people, highly skilled.  My respect for folks like Scowcroft and Baker is as high as that for Bush.

But he was also highly ambitious and that led to a vicious 1988 campaign.  I didn't fully grasp how nasty it was at the time, but did upon later reflection.  He could at times be cynical and self-interested.  He and the members of the old elite he surrounded himself with were tone-deaf to many things, most notoriously racial issues, HIV/AIDS, and the LGBT community.  

Yet he also oversaw the largest expansion of civil rights in our history with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  He acted to eliminate acid rain, our greatest environmental achievement (remember he ran in 88 as "the Environmental President").  His budget compromise laid the groundwork for the economic successes of the 1990's.  Sadly his very good education bill languished in Congress.  And these are just among his domestic accomplishments.

But what matters most is that he was a person of character.  His character was rich and complex, including significant flaws and weaknesses, but also great strengths.  So watching yesterday's funeral, I thought of Hannah Arendt, who reveals that goodness has depth and dimension.  Evil is shallow and little.  

What we saw yesterday was a celebration of character, with depth and complexity.  George Herbert Walker Bush was a good man.


Eluding Responsibility

I was drawn to some of philosopher Mary Midgley's comments on how we neglect our responsibilities in her book Wickedness.

The general recipe for inexcusable acts is neither madness nor a bizarre morality, but a steady refusal to attend both to the consequences of one's actions and to the principles involved.

And this

It seems clear that a great many of the worst acts actually done in the world are committed in the same sort of way in which the battlefields of the First World War were produced--by people who have simply failed to criticize the paths of action lying immediately before them.  Exploiters and oppressors, war-makers, executioners and destroyers of forests do not usually wear distinctive black hats, nor horns and hooves.  The positive motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfillment and professional conscientiousness.  The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these--in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it.  That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance.

Reading that chapter of the book left me musing on Trump as an example of what she was writing about.  Then that was clearer in a later chapter on "Selves and Shadows."

Influential psychopaths and related types, in fact, get their power not from originality, but from a perception of just what unacknowledged motives lie waiting to be exploited, and just what aspects of the world currently provide a suitable patch of darkness on to which they can be projected.

And this

To gain great political power, you must either be a genuinely creative genius, able to communicate new ideas very widely, or you must manage to give a great multitude permission for things which it already wants, but for which nobody else is currently prepared to give that permission.

 


Muhammed Iqbal Day

Today, November 9, is Iqbal Day in Pakistan.  On a Facebook philosophy group I encountered this post about Iqbal and his philosophy, which delighted and interested me.

A few choice excerpts:

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) would be the first to remind us that in the 21st century we have a very high calling: to exercise our inescapable freedom, in constructive ways, for the well-being of all, in a spirit of world loyalty.  By freedom Iqbal means decision-making: choosing among diverse possibilities in the immediacy of the moment, in the context of the wider web of life.  As creatures among creatures on a small but beautiful planet, decision-making is part of our very essence. From the day we are born, we carry within our bodies potentials for empathy and hatred, creativity and blind reproduction, cooperation and cruelty, respect and callousness, good and evil. We feel these potentials within our very being as promptings and urges, as affective lures. But it is we ourselves, not the urges, who actualize the urges – some of them so destructive and others so life-enhancing. Indeed, we actualize these potentials, again and again, individually and collectively.  

For Iqbal, the future does not come to us already settled, as a pre-existing order. We help create the future, moment by moment, by the decisions we make within our own context. Sometimes we make terrible decisions at great cost to others, ourselves, and the earth. And sometimes we make wonderful decisions, adding a beauty that did not exist beforehand. We can be agents of terror or wonder. Either way we are free.  Our noble calling is, for Iqbal, not simply to be free. It is to create futures that are good for people, other creatures, and the earth: to become, as the Qur’an puts it, vicegerents on a small but beautiful planet. This is what it means to be a human being and to be a Muslim. It is to accept and live from the calling to add goodness and beauty to the world.  

***

so must we, in the name of an all-embracing principle of creational dignity persuade our fellows to transcend narrow and parochial interests in the quest for spiritual democracies in which people live with care and respect for each other and other creatures. 

I think our most important current project at Americans is restoring community by building relationships through institutions of civic engagement.  So, for example, this week I attended a meeting of mostly LGBTQ people getting an update on an assessment of the needs of our local LGBTQ community that we might better targeting our funding.  Later I attended a meeting organized by mostly moderate clergy, new to activism and advocacy, looking to unite Christian clergy in response to racial and religious hostility.  I also taught, in our local Catholic university, about how we respond to a world of uncertainty--through fear or with a sense of adventure.  And I attended a variety of events related to my service on the Salvation Army Advisory Board, where a number of the folk, including the Salvationists, are significantly more conservative than I am.  But I'm enjoying my time on that board.  Reading this blog post about Iqbal helped me more fully understand the fun I had this week.


The Paradox of Public Service

I believe Judge Kavanaugh faces a paradox.  

If he is the noble and upstanding person that he and his supporters claim him to be, then even if innocent, he would withdraw because public service means at times making a sacrifice for the good of the Republic.  The people deserve to have trust and confidence in those who serve upon the highest court.  The nation needs people who unite us across our divisions.  

At minimum he should demand a thorough investigation and a slowing down of the process for this to occur.

Because these have not been his reactions, I am left to conclude that he puts his personal ambition ahead of the good of the Republic.  Therefore I find it difficult to believe he is the noble and and upstanding person he and his supporters claim.  He loses credibility.

There once was a time when such republican virtues as self-sacrifice instead of personal ambition were common among those who served our public.  


McCain

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I first remember being aware of John McCain when I was impressed by his speech to the 1988 GOP convention.  He was the first politician I ever gave money to, during the 2000 primaries.  Over the years he was as likely to frustrate and anger me as he was to do something I admired.  His speech on torture I play in my ethics classes when we discuss respect for human dignity after reading Immanuel Kant.

This weekend generated some very good articles about him and his funeral (and Aretha's too).

This article at the Guardian was quite good in discussing the complexity of his legacy.  I felt it was in bad taste for it to be published before the funeral--they should have waited till this week.  But the article is, nonetheless, good and accurate, I believe.

This CNN article discussed both major funerals--Aretha's and McCain's--and what meaning we could take from them.  The references to Pericles at the beginning remind you of the importance that a public funeral can play for a society. Excerpts:

While McCain's funeral recalled Eurocentric classical traditions (Athenian democracy, after all, did not extend to women and slaves), Franklin's evoked the scores of civil rights funerals at which she had sung, or at which her father had preached. 

***

There was one further question hanging in the air this weekend. Where do we go from here? Could we ever see Obama, Dyson and Williams organizing in the same civil rights movement? A rallying cry for voter registration is at least a start. At McCain's commemoration, former Presidents from the GOP and the Democratic Party were able to give speeches touching on the same virtues of civility and political self-sacrifice.
 
But on the frontlines of this November's election battles, the tone is still set by Donald Trump and his Twitter feed. To many American voters, the very bipartisanship of Saturday's gathering at the National Cathedral will testify to the herd mentality of a Washington elite.
 
Pericles had an advantage. If we believe his biographer, the historian Thucydides, his listeners shared his definition of his nation's values. They just needed an eloquent reminder. The broken body of Emmett Till exposed an evil so explicit that its presence in America could no longer be denied. But it is not clear that the vast TV audiences for Aretha Franklin's homegoing are all on the same page about racial justice. Nor that the millions who watched John McCain's funeral share his vision for America. Meanwhile, to many voters elsewhere in America, unity looks like weakness.

And the New Yorker reflected on the civil religion aspect of McCain's funeral, as it considered him "Americanism's High Priest."

Sublime happiness and metaphysical enlargement, achieved through the transcendence of self, are promises usually reserved for divine, not patriotic, worship, and McCain’s invocation of liberty, justice, and respect reads like the Jeffersonian shadow of St. Paul’s list of virtues: faith, hope, and love. He was an understated Protestant, not given to much mention of the Biblical God, but, when we understand Americanism as a church, we can see the true McCain, as religious a figure as has lately crossed the national stage.

This, I think, is the key to interpreting McCain’s funeral.

But this the article's dark conclusion:

But for all of the scorn heaped on Trump—whose name was never mentioned outright—there were questions left unanswered at the service. First: Is it really possible for a person to rise to power in a country with which he has absolutely nothing in common? Isn’t it more likely that Trump, whose most fervent devotees are white evangelicals and proponents of the fraudulent prosperity gospel, is just as archetypically American as McCain, embodying an alternative set of equally real national principles: anxious acquisitiveness, a distaste for deep thought, endless aggrandizement?

Then, too: Even if the American religion is good, and inclusive of certain eternal truths, if it can be thrown so quickly into crisis, turned so violently on itself, how sturdy was it, really?

My favourite parts of the funeral were actually when the words of the Episcopal ceremony were read about him, the same words read about every departing Christian.  This was a reminder that these same words are said about both the simple and the great, a truly Christian message.  So, I was most annoyed when the online footage from NBC I watched on Monday (on Saturday, the day after my step-father's death, I had not been in the mood to watch the funeral) ended with annoying historians and political commentators talking over the clergy's close of the service.  How incredibly disrespectful, as the service was not over, yet they seemed to think the religious words unimportant, a clear sign of the degradation of the nation and their fundamental misunderstanding that this was a worship service, not merely an act of civil religion.