Friday, November 27, 2009

What's happening?

Hey, what’s happening?  We
always want to know “what’s happening” when in fact, more often than not, nothing
is.  We have evolved into an emotionally
infantile generation with notoriously short attention spans and an obsessive
need for activity.  We have little
or no patience, demanding instant gratification even in the face of the most
complex problems.  Like children on
a long car trip, we’re incessantly asking that familiar question, “are we there
yet?” The news media, with our full blessing and support, obliges us by playing
into and feeding this state of affairs. 
So dependent upon and addicted to the idea that something must always be
happening, it often shamelessly invents news
to fill a totally arbitrary 24/7 cycle.  Much has been made of the precipitous decline, some would say
free fall, of our once robust newspapers. 
What may have gone unnoticed is that as The New York Times and others
shift online, they too have fallen into of
the moment
reporting, with stories appearing and disappearing on their home
pages with the blink of an eye.  Much
of this feverish pace is kept not so much to inform as to feed their often mega
corporate beast and insecurities.

Hey, what’s happening?  Of
course, there are times when something really is happening.  In fact, at present I would argue that
less is happening than should be, far less than is needed.  Following critical healthcare and
climate change legislation make its way through Congress is like watching paint
dry.  It’s an arduous procedure, one
purposefully designed by the Founders. 
Laws that may materially impact on our lives, they reasoned, should not
be taken lightly, dare not be rushed. 
That said, it’s highly unlikely they had in mind what’s currently playing
out in Washington. Congress and consequently our government have become
effectively dysfunctional, as grown and supposedly responsible people are
involved in a purposeful and methodical process of destructive engagementOn one side are the proposers on the other naysayers.  Consider the source rules the day; substantive
content or need seems irrelevant. 
To say witnessing this process is frustrating would be to grossly
understate the situation.  It’s grotesque
on its face, deeply depressing and potentially perilous.

Perilous is what Tom Friedman thinks and on this I could not agree
more.  In a democracy everything
depends on compromise, meeting each other at least half way.  In the best of circumstances, there are
enough people of good will and with the national interest at heart, to rise
above parochial concerns and find more than sub-optimal solutions, which is all we are doing these days, if at all.  At present, those charged with
guiding the ship of state don’t seem to share even the pretense of a common
goal.  It seems that only the
threat of Armageddon, as was the case when the financial system faced the
brink, will result in even a minimum of joint action, and that with a
substantial amount of bluster and posturing.  So, in those infrequent moments we often reach too far and, terrified
of losing the opportunity, too fast. 
The Patriot Act came that way, as did TARP.  But those moments are just that and soon the inmates descend
into their now assumed stance of governing
by irrational divisiveness.  That
can’t sustain us.

In assessing President Obama’s recent trip to Asia, a number of
analysts pointed to the fact that the Chinese take a longer view of things that
do we.  They think they have time,
and don’t like getting ahead of themselves.  In a sense, navigating the new world means facing deep and
multiple cultural divides on all fronts. 
For us, who like to begin each encounter with, Hey, what’s happening, it is tantamount to speaking a language whose
difference transcends, say English and Chinese.  It is a language difference of mindset not characters and
words.  When our side is comprised
of people with infantile impatience compounded by an inability to communicate,
much less work, with one another, it’s fair to wonder if the very democracy that
we’re practicing today remains viable. 
Can it get anything important done?  Let’s face it, the winners in the twenty-first century are
likely to be grownups.  I’m not
sure our current behavior, what’s happening and what is not, always makes the

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Render unto Caesar

Oh, that fragile wall of separation, so prone to dents and leaks.  Conventional wisdom has it that we are the
most religious Western democracy.  How
deep, widespread and enduring that religiosity is can be debated.  What’s clear is that some among those
seeking to maintain religion’s preeminence continue their assault on the
barriers erected by the Founders to separate church and state.  Nowhere was that more evident than in
the healthcare bill recently passed by the House.  Nowhere was the incursion more blatant.

Emblematic of that (as reported
by the AP’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis) was Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick’s call
made from Rome to Speaker Nancy Pelosi shortly before the final vote.  McCarrick, and staffers of the U.S.
Conference of Bishops who spent three subsequent hours lobbying the Speaker,
wanted to make sure that the bill specifically excluded the public funding of
abortions, with a provision that, in its sweeping application, exceeds the
restrictions embodied in the 1976 (Henry) Hyde Amendment.  Pelosi was told in no uncertain terms
that her Church was ready to withhold support of healthcare reform if its
demands were not met.

This is not the first time Catholic or other clergy have been involved
in matters of public concern.  Father Theodore Hesburgh, President Emeritus of Notre Dame,
along with other priests, ministers and rabbis were forceful advocates of civil
rights.  President Eisenhower
appointed him a charter member of The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a body
he later chaired.  Catholic clergy
and lay leaders, as noted in earlier posts, have advocated tirelessly for the
poor and indeed for universal healthcare. 
Without question, Hesburgh and others like him rooted that advocacy and
activism in their individual faiths. 
But their views on those issues were hardly exclusive to religious
teaching.  Rather they could be
characterized as universal and faith agnostic, with civil rights more specifically
Constitutional than Biblical.  Even
there, activism among clergy always risked wall infringement and indeed I left
the active rabbinate during that period feeling my political engagement might ultimately
cross that line.

Abortion is totally different than civil rights.  Opposition to the termination of a
pregnancy has no medical foundation. 
Indeed there are times when doctors perform abortions to save the
mother’s life – which is why the House bill provides a specific exception in
such instances.  That’s important
to understand in the context of a healthcare bill and in fact the exception
itself only underscores the point. 
Blanket opposition to abortion is rooted purely in specific (and not
universally held) religious dogma.  It is not something motivated
by their faith but demanded by it on
theological grounds, on dictum not social conscience.  Cardinal McCarrick was speaking for that Church doctrine and
in his official capacity when he called Pelosi.  In doing so, he was willfully breaching the wall of

The abortion issue is perhaps the most explosive on our political
landscape.  People have been killed
over it.  It is also an issue that
blinds and often overlooks (on both sides) how very traumatic the decision to
abort can be for any woman (or couple for that matter), religious or not.  Women make decisions to proceed with an
unplanned pregnancy every day without any regard to religious teachings.  Conversely, other women bring babies to
term mandated by deep religious conviction, a right all should and do have in
this democracy.  Citizens must
always be guaranteed the right to express their views and to live by them; that
includes clergy and laity, the religious and the secular.  For some people, abortion is a question
of choice for others it is not.  I
may see your action as the result of choice but fully understand that you do
not consider it so; your beliefs afford no such option.  I am bound respect that view and most
importantly would defend it absolutely and unconditionally.

The wall of separation was not erected to undermine religion, quite
the contrary.  The Founders wanted
us all to be free to exercise religion or not as we saw fit and to be fully
protected by government in doing so. 
A key component of that protection is not to impose the religious
doctrine of one over the other. 
When it comes to abortion, the Church’s intervention does exactly
that.  The Roe decision didn’t
impose abortion on anyone; it simply didn’t deny abortion to a woman who chooses
to have one.  Think of this
analogy.  When someone eats roast
pork for dinner, she is not infringing on the rights of a Jew whose dietary
laws forbid her doing so.  That may
seem a trivial example, but in fact it is precisely its seeming lack of
equivalency the makes the point. 
We don’t get emotional about cuisine choices, but (leaving aside safety
hazards) they too are an important part of our fundamental rights.  Would a legislated imposition of eating
only fish on Fridays (a onetime Church dictum) or forbidding consumption of
pork be fundamentally any different than restricting the right (or covering the cost) to reproductive
choice?  I think not.

Before the Roe decision, abortions were performed across America and,
if the current Court ever reverses it, be assured that will continue to be the case.  The well off can always find solutions
to special problems and highly
competent practitioners willing to act behind closed doors when properly compensated for their service.  The problem then, and if the House
bill’s restrictions hold, was and is what happens to the financially disadvantaged.  They are those often most in danger of
unwanted pregnancies and least likely to have the resources to address them, not to
mention support an unwanted child. 
Many such women died as the result of back alley abortions, just as the
uninsured are dying today for lack of medical attention.  From that perspective alone, it is
ironic that a healthcare bill aimed to covering all will lead straight back to
those dark and foreboding alleys. 
Welcome to Cardinal McCarrick’s twenty-first century and to that
dangerously compromised wall of separation.   

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Caught in the middle.

In his recent piece entitled Benedict’s Gambit,
Ross Douthat, the NY Times’ young and thoughtful conservative columnist,
assesses Rome’s outreach
to dissident Anglicans.  Douthat,
himself a Catholic, speaks of the concessions his Church is willing to make to
accommodate these potential Anglican converts, including accepting their
married clergy into the priesthood. 
He points, as have others, to its meaning as a reflection of the Church’s
move away from the ecumenism started in the 1960s and of the Pope’s more overt attempt
to bring those on the fringes back into the fold, most notably his “controversial
outreach to schismatic Latin Mass Catholics”.  But Douthat sees this in a larger, and largely missed,
context. “In making the opening to Anglicanism”, he suggests,  “Benedict also may have a deeper
conflict in mind — not the parochial Western struggle between conservative and
liberal believers, but Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.”

His comments bring to mind George Bush’s instinctively evoking the Crusade
word in the early days of his war on terrorism.  While he backed away from it’s use, many believe it
accurately reflected his views about the real nature of the threat and consequent
response, both heavily laden with religious overtones.  And it isn’t only conservative
Christians who seem to hold that view. 
It is one shared by the ardent atheist Sam Harris who writes,
“The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a
dangerous fantasy”.  

This fear of the other and its real agenda is hardly one sided.  Times journalist David Rhode, in the account
of his seven-month captivity by the Taliban, describes young fighters who are convinced
that Christians (and Jews) are out to destroy Islam.  So we may have arrived at the digital age but we remain
mired in medieval conflict.  In the
same vein, ultra-orthodox Jews digging in on the West Bank see themselves
engaged, if not in an overt religious war, then certainly in a struggle to
prevent Muslims from occupying their God-promised land and ultimately for their
own religious survival.

Perhaps there have been periods in which the religious did not feel
threatened by those who worshipped different or differently named gods, but for
many who consider themselves followers of the authentic way, the days of mister nice guy seem to be over, if they ever existed.  In Europe, as Douthat points out, devout
Christians find themselves caught between widespread secularism on one side and
growing Islam on the other.  While
both are threatening, Islam may be more so in that it offers a powerful
alternative, rather than any loss of, faith.  The existence Islam, in its very being, somehow questions Christianity’s
core beliefs and thus its legitimacy, not to mention supremacy.  It’s an age-old back and forth challenge
manifest, among others in Ferdinand and Isabella’s 15th century brutal
Spanish Inquisition focused on both Jews and Moslems.  In that, because its adherents had ruled their country, Islam may
have represented the greater threat.

We don’t yet know if the Fort Hood shootings were religiously
motivated, but even the idea that they might be evoked words of urgent caution
from Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.   The potential for Christian-Muslim tinderbox tension
is palpable and ever-present in a post 9/11 United States.

To say that all the world’s conflicts are religion based would be a
gross overstatement, but that very many have a religious component is
undeniable.  To be sure, even those
that seem totally religious in nature have to be understood in a more nuanced
fashion.  The Taliban, for example,
are clearly motivated by extreme religious ideology and govern accordingly, but
also by nationalism.  Let’s
remember they aren’t merely fighting infidels but also an invasion by
foreigners.   That said, it is
the religious ideology that produces the passion and, in their case, with the
most cruel and lethal consequences.

Culture makes a huge difference in how we position ourselves.  Radical Islamists seem more prepared to
put religion forward as their standard bearer in conflict.  We in the West, which by virtue of
sheer numbers means the Christian West, are loathe to do so or even to admit
that religion plays any role in our actions – Bush pulled back on Crusade.  But we should not misread that cultural
affect.  To use an analogy, the
British are stereotypically known as people who don’t display emotions but that
doesn’t mean they lack feelings or indeed passion.  The religious tensions, labeled as such or not, are so close
to the surface that political leaders feel it necessary to regularly speak of
tolerance and inclusiveness.  From the day of his inauguration, President Obama
has sought to temper religious tensions and he continues to do so on a regular

Nonetheless, we find ourselves somehow caught in the middle of these religiously
tinged epoch conflicts.  The term
medieval wasn’t used lightly because for many of us the struggle we’re
witnessing and the turf being defended has little or no relevance to the
twenty-first century or to us.  It
is one of the reasons the Pope finds himself in a Europe much of which has
turned away from religion altogether and where even in Italy 75% of Catholics no longer attend mass.  It is perhaps why no-religion-at-all
is growing at a faster rate than any faith in America.   So Douthat may be right about Benedict’s real concerns, ones
no doubt shared in reverse by leaders of the Islamic faiths.  Many of us are just tired of being caught in the middle, collateral damage as the religious face off in unending no-win conflicts.  Their problem is the other’s faith.  Our problem is increasingly with all of them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Two worlds: a morality tale.

Here are two vastly different worlds.  You decide which is more attractive, more in touch with reality.

The Chapel Hill News lands at the foot of my driveway every Wednesday
and Sunday morning.  Like many free
periodicals, it’s sparse editorial pages serve mostly as wrappers for
advertising supplements.  So it
usually goes directly into the recycle bin with no more than a cursory glance.  But last Wednesday’s headline really got
my attention, Top school leaders forgo bonuses.  Citing funding shortfalls and a freeze on teacher salaries, Superintendent
Neil Pederson and his top deputies asked the school board not to pay their
contracted performance bonuses. 
The top payout would have been a modest $12,000, but a significant sum to
any public school educator.

Two days later a New York Times story carried this heading: Bonuses
Uncertain for Bloomberg Election Aides
It seems that, considering a razor thin victory, the Mayor’s campaign
staff are concerned they might not receive the kind of bonuses paid them by His
Honor in past campaigns.  In their
case, top bonuses had been an eye popping $400,000, often for but a few months
work.  That’s probably close to the
combined annual salaries of Pederson and his three deputies in Chapel Hill.  By the way, Bloomberg spent twenty-five
times as much on his reelection campaign as the total Chapel Hill funding
shortfall, “pocket change” to him, an essential lifeline for teachers and

Two worlds – they are as if on different planets with divergent mindsets
and distinct sets of values: selflessness verses selfishness.  In the context of a nation in pain with
still growing unemployment and the struggle of so many who, like those teachers,
face wage freezes, cuts in pay or are underemployed there is something obscene
about the fretting of Bloomberg staffers.  To put this in a broader context, consider that in Charlotte,
a two hour drive from Chapel Hill where Pederson gave up his bonus, Ken Lewis whose
“leadership” almost brought down Bank of America will be walking away any day
now with $125 Million including $53 Million in severance.  His bank, which has already made
drastic cuts, is expected to lay off some 30-35,000 more people in the years
ahead.  The vast majority will exit
with nothing but a pink slip.   That’s the world in which most of us live, the one
Pederson clearly understands and that seems a mystery to the tin-eared in the
land of make believe.