Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peer Pressure for the Good of America

Due to some scheduling serendipity while visiting family, I was in Chicago last Saturday for the big peace march (which happened in 11 cities throughout the US). I was wavering on whether to go until Patrick Gabridge publicly implied I would be a coward if I didn’t. Technically, he was talking about himself, but Pat has always been an inspiration for me on social action, so I can’t let him call himself a coward without including myself too. I also can’t let him one-up me on social justice causes.

Competition and peer-pressure may not the best motivation for attending rallies, but it worked pretty well for me this weekend. I was going to go by myself until my peacenik niece Britta decided she really wanted to go too. But she wouldn’t go unless Jasmine went, and if Jasmine and Britta went, then Anthony wanted to go, and if Anthony was going, Jeff wasn’t going to stay at home, which meant that Uncle Marcus needed to go as well, to provide more adult supervision. This was the peer-pressure situation at breakfast.

By earlier afternoon, after two soccer games, Jeff had melted down too much to go anywhere, and peacenik Jasmine still wanted to go, but only if Britta went, although now Britta only wanted to go if Anthony went. Anthony decided it would be fun. So, four extra people were delivered to the Chicago rally via peer pressure (five if you include me via Pat). This is critically important, since we need the extra people in order to be accurately undercounted.

Like Pat, I was disappointed with the media coverage. I didn’t get the Sunday Tribune before we left, but the on-line story was quick balance out the 5,000 people at the march with the 20 counter-protesters making the usual silly claims about not supporting the troops. The Champaign News Gazette, unsurprisingly, did not mention anything about it.

You’d think that an estimated 100,000 people gathering in 11 different synchronized rallies would be newsworthy, especially for the liberal, America-hating media, which we all know would do anything to poke America in the face with a stick.

Marches like this may not accomplish much, but I think they are still important to attend. We need to stand up and be counted, even if we are ignored by those in the power. The powers win when we completely give up.

In any case, the march may have been worthwhile just for the cute kid pictures it generated.

Here's me and Jasmine and Anthony. Someone gave Anthony fake money to symbolize corporate greed as the root cause of global conflict. He is holding it up because he thinks it is cool.

Here's Marcus with Jasmine, Anthony and Britta. The march isn't as much fun at this point as they thought it was going to be.

Here's what the march looks like while we are marching. We have no idea of scale, of how many people are there. But the Sears Tower is cool to look at.

Here are our little peaceniks on the way home, happy to have done their part, and happy to be on their way home, where they will take a break from resisting global domination by eating pizza and watching Shrek 2.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Charity and Justice

My friend Bob, in an attempt to expose what he believes to be liberal hypocrisy, inadvertently highlighted something that many conservatives don’t get: the difference between charity and justice.

Bob wants me to pay for his health insurance because I advocate for universal health care. He thinks that because I believe in justice (enacting social policy that is fair and humane) that I should be willing to take on any case of charity (a one-way act of benevolence).

This often comes up in arguments about social policy (not with Bob, necessarily, but in general): "If you want to help poor people so much, why don’t you give all your money to them?" This is only slightly more mature than the schoolyard taunt: “If you like poor people so much, why don’t you marry them?” Or, the conservative version: "If you hate government so much, then don’t drive on public roads and don’t call the fire department when your house is on fire."

Taunting aside, the answer is simple: One person giving away all their money doesn’t really help poor people all that much. It will temporarily help a few poor people, which is good. But without structural changes in how resources are distributed, its main effect will be to make the person who gave away their money less able to influence society in ways that would help everyone.

More importantly, it is charity, not justice. Charity is a good thing a lot of the time, but it is not an unmitigated good. Too often, it is demeaning to the receiver and provides the giver unwarranted feelings of superiority. Charity depends on the whims of those who have the money, and on one’s access to them, which is not a very effective way to provide justice in the world. Charity merely allows those with power to grant favors to those without power, without really challenging the basic inequity of power.

Charity is not a substitute for justice. In fact, it often gets in the way of justice, because it allows those in power to wipe their hands from larger problems, pointing out that, after all, they gave money to a friend of theirs. Justice is taking the decision out of the hands of the powerful, and guaranteeing that everyone be provided basic protections, rights, and material well-being. Justice needs a social policy that will require all people to abide by their social responsibilities. It does not depend on random and sporadic charity.

This is a good thing, because you don’t want justice to depend on charity being doled out by someone like me. I’m too biased. For example, if I decided to offer my benevolence to someone, like, say Bob for his healthcare, it would be according to my own criteria. The problem for Bob here is that I have a bias against giving my money to those who would advocate for conservative causes that give more money and power to those who already have it, as well as those who don't have much respect for multiculturalism. My biases matter when it is “my” money.

Back to health care: I believe that a supposedly great and civilized nation should provide basic, universal health care for all its citizens. But such a policy should not be subject to my own personal bias, because tax dollars come from everyone. So, public policy should dictate that you can’t discriminate against anyone based on political beliefs, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, personality defects, or even against those who don’t agree that they should be getting health care from tax dollars.

So, sorry Bob, I’m not going to personally pay for your healthcare. I suggest that you engage in some social justice action with your employer or with your congressperson. Doing so might even look good on your next application for The Minor Mennonite Benevolence Fund for Do-Gooders. :)

Epilogue: So, I thought I was being pretty clever just now by typing “Charity is not a substitute for justice.” That’s quite good, I thought. Suspiciously good. After a 5 second google search, yup, there it is, none other than St. Augustine himself, 1500 years earlier, and also better: “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

Why can’t I think of anything new? It is almost as if there is nothing new under the sun, and while the truth will set me free, I have to be careful to not be an old dog learning new tricks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Crazy Talk

I got a call yesterday that was a pre-recorded message from the United States Chamber of Commerce. It was about the S-CHIPs program, which helps poor families afford health care for their kids. Bush just vetoed an expansion of it to working families who are not impoverished, but still cannot afford health insurance.

The USCOC claimed SCHIPs would give free health care to people making 80K/year (a lie) and then said something about it being government run health care (another lie). Then they ended with the request that I contact my congressman to support health care for poor people by not supporting S-CHIPS. I didn't know much about the US Chamber of Commerce before now, but I guess it is good to know that they are apparently evil.

Later I was in the car, and heard a clip from Bush about his SCHIP program veto, saying something like “we need to protect poor children.”

But even that isn’t the worst of it. The right wing slime machine (Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, others) then started a smear campaign, featuring more lies, against 12 year old Graeme Frost’s family, who delivered a radio address describing how S-Chip helped him after his brain injury from a car crash.

This is simply perverse. Why is the right so unhinged about this? Not content to merely veto and lie about the program, Bush and his minions must also claim that it helps poor people to do so, while going after a brain-injured 12 year old’s family. That’s insane.

I can't help but wonder if they are just terrified by the prospect that a government program might actually help someone, and that the person helped might not be completely destitute. I know that’s a crazy explanation, but crazy seems to be order of the day, and who am I to resist?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Beyond Metaphor

Has Secretary of State Condi Rice come down with a case power-envy?

The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has amassed so much central authority that the power-grab may undermine Moscow's commitment to democracy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

"In any country, if you don't have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development," she told reporters after meeting with human-rights activists."I think there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin ... Everybody has doubts about the full independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of the electronic media and there are, I think, questions about the strength of the Duma," she said, referring to the Russian parliament.

Luckily, the Bush administration has never tried to concentrate power in the presidency, so the moral weight of their criticism must really sting those backward Russians. After all, the Bush Administration would never do things like pack the judiciary with partisans, or intimidate the press, or use signing statements to undermine legislation, or invoke executive privilege to hide their tracks, or crassly break the law without fear of reprisal from a toothless congress. Their “commitment to democracy” is absolute, especially the kind where the Supreme Court forbids recounts.

Seriously, are these guys not aware of the delicious ironies they serve up on a regular basis? I remember when Bush was threatening Syria because they were “interfering in the internal workings of another country.” I can’t even come up with a metaphor that gives that justice, because the best description of it is that it is like Bush accusing someone of interfering in the internal affairs of another country. Or Rice accusing another country of increasing the power of the presidency.

At least they’ve finally accomplished something interesting – they’ve now gone beyond irony AND metaphor into a kind of Escher-like, self-referential, folding-in-upon-itself unreality.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Gore Wins Nobel!

Wow - Al Gore just won the Nobel Peace Prize (along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change):

The Norwegian Nobel Committee characterized Gore as "the single individual who has done most" to convince world governments and leaders that climate change is real, is caused by human activity and poses a grave threat.
Good for him. Instead of slinking away after the 2000 election debacle, he decided to devote his fame and power to advocate for stewardship of the planet. I think the Nobel committee is exactly right that he has been the catalyst for a lot of the political movement we are now (finally) seeing on global warming, largely because it is harder to ignore an Al Gore than a body of scientists (depressing as that is).

Of course, now we have to endure even more frothing at the mouth from the conservative blogosphere. But that's a small price to pay for more acknowledgement of the problem. Our civilization and our species need to confront global warming, or we run the risk of losing both.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tortured Logic

The Daily Show's report on Words That Have Bravely Sacrificed Themselves in the War on Terror, and who have lost the only thing they have to give: their very definitions.


What would we do without the Daily Show...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Halo as Church Recruiting Tool

I was directed to this NY Times story via a post over at the Young Anabaptist Radicals site: Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Popular Video Game at Church.

It describes how churches are now using Halo 3 (an ultra-violent video game) as a recruiting tool to attract teenagers into church (who are often too young to legally buy it). Some excerpts:

At Sweetwater Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., Austin Brown, 16, said, “We play Halo, take a break and have something to eat, and have a lesson,” explaining that the pastor tried to draw parallels “between God and the devil.”

Players of Halo 3 control the fate of Master Chief, a tough marine armed to the teeth who battles opponents with missiles, lasers, guns that fire spikes, energy blasters and other fantastical weapons. They can also play in teams, something the churches say allows communication and fellowship opportunities.

. . .

John Robison, the current associate pastor at the 300-member Albuquerque church, said parents approached him and were concerned about the Halo games’ M rating. “We explain we’re using it as a tool to be relatable and relevant,” he said, “and most people get over it pretty quick.”

David Drexler, youth director at the 200-member nondenominational Country Bible Church in Ashby, Minn., said using Halo to recruit was “the most effective thing we’ve done.”

In rural Minnesota, Mr. Drexler said, the church needs something powerful to compete against the lure of less healthy behaviors. “We have to find something that these kids are interested in doing that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol or premarital sex.” His congregation plans to double to eight its number of TVs, which would allow 32 players to compete at one time.

. . .

In one letter to parents, Mr. Barbour wrote that God calls ministers to be “fishers of men.”

“Teens are our ‘fish,” he wrote. “So we’ve become creative in baiting our hooks.”

Sure, it is a just a video game. It isn't really violence. In exactly the same way that pornography isn't really sex. And movies with drunken teenagers doing mean and dumb pranks to each other is just fiction. After all, if you want to be "culturally relevant" in order to attract more bait, er, I mean teenagers, wouldn't an even more effective method be to buy them beer and let them watch porn? But of course that would be outrageous, because we all know that sex is so much more outrageous than violence.

Toleration for violence among modern American Christians continues to amaze me - it is as if most people are simply unaware that Jesus was an avowed pacifist. If the goal is to attract more people to Jesus' way of radical love towards everyone, perhaps it should be done in a way that doesn't feed on people's worst impulses for even passive violence.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Misunderstood Commercial

I had to watch this a second time to get what it was really about. At first, I thought it was just very, very funny. I should have known, though, since Germans are so much more than just natural comedians.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Meme: Five Things That Are Lame About Me

Finally, a meme I can sink my teeth into: List 5 things that are lame about you that you are nonetheless proud of.

My good friend Patrick Gabridge tried to get me to say nice things about myself earlier (list 5 of your strengths as a writer). But I would have none of it. I would have just listed all my insecurities and faults, and tried to pass them off as strengths. Or maybe I would have come up with some actual strengths and then explained why they are self-defeating or otherwise not useful or bothersome. Either way, it wasn’t in the spirit Pat was going for, so I studiously ignored it.

But 5 lame things about me? I could do that in my sleep. And I often do. The only hard part is paring it down to just five. Nonetheless, I think I can manage. Here they are:

  1. I am unable to publicly acknowledge 5 good things about myself. This makes me feel more Mennonite. Mennonites are only allowed to be proud of their humility, and they do it exceptionally well.
  2. One of my favorite movies is Return To Me. What can I say - I am a sucker for Minnie Driver and Bonnie Hunt. A sappy movie about good people doing nice things for each other is certainly both lame and secretly fulfulling.
  3. I am Eric Foreman from That 70’s Show. This is mostly just lame. I really enjoy the show, since it reminds me so much of my own high school experience in Indiana (except without all the sex). But I always found the Eric Foreman character to be totally annoying, and never understood how Donna would be even remotely interested in him. Then I was horrified when all my high school friends remarked how similar I am to him. Dang. I hate being Eric Foreman. I want to look like Kelso and have Hyde’s brains and self-assurance. The only silver lining is that I did actually marry a Hot Donna in real life, and am still mystified as to how that happened.
  4. I read Harry Potter to my kids even though they aren’t always into it. It is tough having kids in elementary school that are already cooler than me. But I don’t care. I still love to read it to them.
  5. I make other people answer the phone. I don’t like answering the phone – it may be someone who wants something from me. So even if I’m right next to it, I wait for someone else to pick it up. I can’t find anything in this to be secretly proud about, but thought it seemed like a sufficiently lame personality quirk.

I guess with Memes you are supposed to tag other people and then have them blog about it. I’ll just say that if you are reading this and want to join the fun, please do, and let me know about it so I can make fun of you on your blog. And for those counting at home, yes, that would be a sixth thing I am being lame about.