Sunday, November 21, 2010

A new identity

Today's message in church came from the book of Genesis, specifically the 35th chapter, when God changed name of "Jacob" (roughly translated "slick") to "Israel" (one who strives with God). The idea, of course, is that a person's identity is transformed when he or she meets God.

I understand the concept -- and not just because I've been an evangelical Christian for 31 years.

Indeed, the first time that I recall that happening to me was in 1974.

That year, when I was in seventh grade, I transferred from a Christian academy, where I was being bullied regularly and had major issues with that teacher, to a Catholic school. For a number of reasons which I won't get into, that turned into an excellent move, both in the short- and long-term. The short-term was that I was away from him, whom my parents and I all knew hated me.

The long term: The Catholic school offered two things the Christian school didn't -- music and sports programs, both of which not only benefited me immensely but also helped to change my identity.

That fall, I started doing something I'd always wanted to do since I was six years old: Play the saxophone. (And, of course, except for my college days, I've never stopped, getting more serious about it in the late 1990s.)

The other was connected to playing basketball, as one of the cheerleaders had asked me for a one-syllable name to use during cheers. You see, my legal name is Derrick, which back then was somewhat synonymous with "a problem to be solved"; I later became "Rick" and still use that name today, even professionally.

But that's the way God often works -- He brings out vital things that were always there but that we weren't even aware of. And, if we let him, He also will you away from that which would destroy you. Praise be to Him.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

More musings on Washington ...

-- House Democrats would have done themselves no favors by jettisoning Nancy Pelosi from their caucus leadership the way some suggested. She, of course, was blamed for the debacle of losing so many seats to the Republicans earlier this month. Here's the problem: She would never have been targeted had she not been so effective, especially with the health-care insurance bill that GOP conservatives did their level best to kill largely out of spite. Those more conservative members, especially Heath Shuler (N.C.), who opposed her to "prove" their independence from her were only playing politics.

Anyway, Newt Gingrich probably wished he had her luck in the mid-1990s, and I don't see John Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming Speaker of the House, doing much better. Many of the freshman Republican congresspeople simply aren't in the mood to play the political game, working across the aisle on the "people's business"; they certainly weren't in 1995. Trouble was, they walked right into a Clintonian trap later that year in wrangling over the Federal budget that insured then-President Bill Clinton's reelection the following year. Take that for what you will.

-- Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) recently called for the Federal Communications Commission to revoke the broadcast licenses of the Fox News Channel and MSNBC for causing a toxic political climate. As a First Amendment devotee, I'm not sure such a move is feasible or even desirable, but I understand and sympathize with his frustration because these days it seems that you can broadcast anything you want regardless of consequences for the sake of ratings, which means $$. (For that matter and for that reason, I never watch cable TV news.)

Of course, many Fox apologists retort that the mainstream media are biased -- against them -- in their own right. Sorry, but that represents the height of hypocrisy, especially considering that Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum all draw a paycheck from Fox for serving as "political analysts." They would pillory any network that hired active Democratic candidates in the same fashion, and rightfully so.

-- Take note that Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will apparently retain her U.S. Senate seat after a write-in vote, defeating tea-party candidate Joe Miller, who won the primary and was endorsed by Palin. I don't think that's a coincidence, as the two women have had a running feud for some time, and I also see that as a sign of Palin's political weakness in her own state.

-- I think that President Obama is making a mistake in not allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire. One, it will increase the deficit, which everyone understands is a major problem but that no one seriously wants to tackle because it will mean cutting popular programs. Two, the opposition has no agenda except to roll over him by any means necessary; Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) has said that the conservatives in the GOP want to make Obama into "a one-term president." Read: They respect nobody.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The real meaning -- and the implications -- of the parable of the 'good Samaritan'

Then Jesus laid into him and said, "A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.

"Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by.

"Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas.

"Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, 'You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here's the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can't pay it, I'll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.'

"Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three -- the white preacher, the white song leader or the black man -- would you consider to have been your neighbor?"

If you're wondering what you just read, that was the "Cotton Patch" rendition of the parable of the "Good Samaritan"; I had come across that paraphrase of part of the Scripture when I was in Atlanta over 30 years ago.

I bring this to light because there's more to the parable than we often believe. Much more.

For Jesus' purpose in telling the story was not simply in telling people that they should be merciful in a purely personal sense. Rather, the religious "leaders" mentioned in both this version and the "legitimate" Scriptures were part of the cultural establishment of their respective days and had no contact with those who were "beneath them," which is why Jesus made the a Samaritan -- who in that culture was considered "less than" -- the hero.

And precisely because the Samaritan was considered "less than," he understood from personal experience what it was like to be ignored, marginalized, pushed to the back of the bus; he knew what suffering was about and what it took to alleviate it.

Thus, Jesus' real message in the parable was: "Identify with those who are up the creek; get in touch with your own suffering and help those as you would want to be helped."

I bring this up because of the entire "justice-vs.-charity" debate when it comes to how best to help the poor. Those on the political right have tried to convince folks that private charities rather than political action represent the best way to do that. While I'm all for private charity, it just doesn't, and in some cases can't, go far enough. (Note that the Pharisees in Jesus' day made a show of the alms that they gave to the poor.)

While in many cases the poor are where they are because of bad choices, in others the conditions in which they live make things difficult, if not impossible, to change. Much of the African-American community, for example, simply didn't have access to the same opportunities for education, jobs and social contacts as everyone else and in fact aren't even aware of certain things that many of the rest of us take for granted.

The issue then becomes "What do they really need?" as opposed to "What do we think they should have?" or "What can we spare to give them?" (Notice where the emphasis is placed.) Ultimately, "identifying" with the poor may lead to political change, which usually is resisted by the "establishment." That's why the streets of the South flowed with blood during the civil-rights movement. That's why the late newspaper editor and anti-apartheid activist Donald Woods was forced to flee South Africa. That's why right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart and Fox News Channel talk show host Glenn Beck teamed up to take down ACORN (which was registering the poor to vote -- and guess with which political party).

You see, justice the way the Scripture teaches it is threatening to the status quo. It's one thing to give of your excess to those in need; it's another entirely to give of your core -- the things that give you status. And that's why the parable of the Good Samaritan would have jarred Jesus' audience -- and, properly understood, would do the same today.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Is that all you got?"

Over the last couple of years a number of women have approached me on-line -- in most cases through some dating/introduction service I didn't realize I'd signed up for but also on Facebook; I usually don't respond because I don't like to meet them like that. Recently, however, two women I didn't know sent me messages with profile photos that were at least partially nude. (I blocked them from contacting me further and deleted their messages.)

But that raises a bigger issue. I don't care for nudity anyway -- I've seen my share of pornography but have no desire to see any more -- but, well, what about these women, most of who are young enough to be daughters if I had children, who feel they need to advertise in that fashion? Do they really think that they can get the attention of men by baring all?

Well, maybe that will work with some guys. But certainly not me.

For what it's worth, I'm certainly as visually-oriented as any man; however, I like to see women fully clothed because how they dress is a true reflection of how they carry themselves and thus their ability to maintain a relationship. My own preferences lean toward "elegant" and "flirty" (for the sake of any women reading this, I won't be any more specific than that). And, deep down, I think most men feel the same way -- they may "look" at cheesecake but prefer to settle down with someone more substantial. There's something to be said about "leaving something to the imagination."

So, ladies, please -- no more nude photos. They may look enticing but represent sizzle, not steak -- and I like mine medium-well.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

African-Americans and the "tea-party" movement

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page noted that one of the "underappreciated, overlooked" stories coming from last week's election was the number of black candidates who ran as conservative Republicans and even as "tea-party" sympathizers; two even won. ABC News aired a similar story, and my right-wing former colleague Ruth Ann Dailey, who still writes for the Post-Gazette, was giddy that the Democratic Party might finally be losing its stranglehold on black voters.

Don't be fooled one bit, however -- because it won't change a thing. These two new black Congressmen were elected from majority-white districts, which means that, while they may represent their respective districts, they likely didn't have many fellow African-Americans voting for them.

And here's where it's important to understand that, contrary to popular conservative opinion, blacks do not vote for black candidates based simply on color; like everyone else, African-Americans vote their interests, which are rarely -- if ever -- aligned with the conservative political agenda. The black community isn't really enamored with the Democratic Party or doesn't hate the Republican Party, truth be told; it just has a deep contempt for the political right dating back to the 1960s. Keep in mind that the political ancestors of today's conservatives, North and South, opposed the civil-rights movement, and they still have not dealt with the latent racism that even today is considered part-and-parcel of the political right.

And, to a certain extent, conservatives actually understand this. Over the years they have been willing to pay top dollar to African-Americans willing to ally with them and try to sell their program -- not to other African-Americans, mind you, but to white "moderates" not well-versed in history to demonstrate that, well, they don't deserve that reputation of racism. Twelve years ago a right-wing group reached out to me after I wrote an op-ed for the PG that not only espoused a "conservative" position but was also critical of the NAACP, which the right hates with a passion. (I never responded.)

However, just because conservative organizations may hire and promote blacks (ironically, practicing a form of "affirmative action" that they say they oppose) doesn't mean that they have actually repented. One example was the American Enterprise Institute, which had hired African-American economists Glenn Loury and Carter Woodson as fellows; however, they quit in 1996 after Dinesh D'Souza, another fellow, published the book "The End of Racism," which they considered racist in its own right. Black conservatives are often considered by other African-Americans to be "sellouts" because, in practice, they often are; if you see or hear any African-American spouting the conservative line, you can bet that he or she is being paid. Handsomely. (It doesn't matter whether he or she actually believes it, only that he or she says it.)

That's the backdrop of last week's election results -- and why this supposed breakthrough shouldn't be taken all that seriously; African-Americans already know or suspect what's behind it, so don't look for many to cross the line. Former congressman J.C. Watts Jr., who once represented a largely-white Tulsa district and had risen to the No. 4 position in House leadership, eventually understood that; before the 2008 election he announced that he was considering voting for Barack Obama because the Republican Party had ignored black voters and their concerns. Cynicism? Not really, because that history can't be ignored.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The fallout from yesterday

The general election took place yesterday, and based on the responses I've seen on Facebook no one is sure what that all means of what we have to look forward to; my conservative friends are rejoicing because the Republicans retook the House of Representatives in what they feel is a rebuke to President Obama, while liberals and Democrats are all gloomy. That said, I think we should all take a deep breath and wait to see how things shake out. Really.

My concern is that in past years when conservatives gained power they have displayed a tendency to misinterpret their victory as a mandate for their policies and thus run roughshod over their opponents. That might change now because, even though they lost on balance this time around, for the first time Democrats actually took the fight to Republicans and, so to speak, "played their game." Joe Sestak, who was a prohibitive underdog and narrowly lost to Pat Toomey for the Senate race here in Pennsylvania, actually cut into Toomey's double-digit lead in part by emphasizing Toomey's support of financial derivatives (saying, inaccurately, that he pioneered them) and special trade status for China (which I understand to be true).

Basically, the political left has finally taken off the gloves and fought for its positions and, while it was largely unsuccessful, it will be ready for the next fight -- er, election.

All this might very well cause the parties to work together in Washington for the good of everybody, for the first time since the 1990s. Might, I must emphasize. Some X-factors:

1) The conservatives who run the Republican Party have to demonstrate that they know how to govern. They lost in 2006 in large part because, as the majority party and also holding the White House, they put the actual practice of such on auto-pilot and focused upon consolidating their own power, leading to the lobbying scandal; if they want to avoid a repeat of such hubris they need to realize that if they mess up again they might lose -- permanently. To do that, however, will require compromise on the part of everyone, which to many conservatives is anathema. (Bill Clinton got this, which is how he was able to use two government shutdowns to his advantage in 1995 and ensure his reelection the next year.)

2) Ideological purity must be de-emphasized. Last year Neal Gabler, a biographer for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, in a piece published last year in the Los Angeles Times referred to conservatism as "religion" -- and it's not hard to see how. The problem is that ideology transformed to orthodoxy ignores basic facts. (This doesn't apply to "liberalism" because it isn't hard-core in the same way.)

3) The influence of talk-radio needs to be minimized, in large part because it has skewed the discourse, often promoting wild charges against its targets because -- surprise! -- doing so drives ratings. Many conservatives complained about the Obama Administration's "unwillingness" to negotiate concerning the health-care bill that passed in March; however, David Frum (who was fired by the American Enterprise Institute for saying that its passage was a disaster for the conservative movement) suggested that Republican leadership couldn't afford to negotiate in good faith because the like of Rush and Hannity, whose listeners are engaged, would accuse them of selling out. (Again, the likes of Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann don't rise to that level.)

4) All bets are off if the economy, the No. 1 issue, doesn't improve. And I don't think it will because the problem isn't the amount of government involvement; it's, as I suggested in a previous post, an unwillingness on the part of those with the means to means to do so to invest for the long haul. A recent segment on CBS's "60 Minutes" profiled the town of Newton, Iowa; one person who was interviewed couldn't get credit, which he would have needed to start a business. He said ruefully that the only time that he could get a loan was when he didn't need the money.

We Americans are often schizophrenic in our voting habits; we say they want change but aren't sure what exactly we mean. Obama gave it to us -- and we rebelled. Now the Republicans are offering change, back to the way things used to be, and I submit that won't work either. So what will that mean? I guess we'll find out in 2012.