Saturday, February 27, 2010

The case against term limits

I get into a number of on-line discussions, most recently about "special interests" getting hold of members of Congress and failing to do "the people's business" in the process. Others' solution? Limiting the number of terms they're in office so that other people will have a chance to serve and break the gridlock in Washington.

I understand that. But, if their goal is to get legislation moving more quickly, term limits are the last thing we need.

We don't live in the early 18th Century, where over two-thirds of Americans lived on farms and thus had the wherewithal to take time off if needed to take care of other business. Today, only about a quarter of the population is rural with the rest being urban, suburban or exurban and needing to go to work everyday, generally outside the home. Like it our not, our day requires a political class committed to public service as a career; as such, there's no sense in even running for office if you know in advance that you're going to spend only about a decade there.

And to do that effectively takes time. Leaning the rules; building relationships with other lawmakers, party leaders and lobbyists -- the constitutionally-protected "special interests" that people love to hate -- and responding to constituents' concerns just cannot happen overnight. I wish that those of us who complain about a "do-nothing" Congress would spend a day in a legislator's shoes just to see the pressures he or she has to face consistently.

We also need to remember that our nation comprises, in effect, 435 different regions, often with competing interests. I live in a metropolitan area that, ideologically speaking, is deep, deep blue; however, travel an hour in any direction and you land in territory that is blood red. Term limits won't change that -- if anything, things would get worse because lawmakers will be dealing consistently with people they simply don't know or understand.

I occasionally read stuff on the wire about the highly dysfunctional legislature in California, specifically when it comes to passing budgets. What I didn't know until this week was that it had instituted term limits for legislators -- and, as a result, government often grinds to a halt because only the lobbyists know what's really going on.

That's a sign to me what would happen if term limits were instituted in Congress.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lessons from 'Rocky III'

The 1976 movie "Rocky" ended up with the Academy Award for Best Picture. And with such a blockbuster effort the sequels -- many of them quite forgettable -- follow very quickly.

That said, however, one exception for me was the third in that series, which I saw in 1982. It has become my favorite movie and in fact, as I think about it now, provides a lot of life lessons.

Of course you may remember the plot: Rocky Balboa, "comfortable" as a heavyweight boxing champion and cultural icon, went into the ring with trash-talking challenger Clubber Lang, who knocked him out in the second round. After Rocky's trainer Mickey died, Apollo Creed, with whom Rocky had had two memorable bouts, decided to train Rocky for the rematch, which he won by third-round knockout.

But here are some things to remember:

1) The theme song, of course, was Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" -- a synonym for heart, guts, passion, focus -- and it was a synonym for what Rocky had lost in all those years as a champion. Indeed, Mickey had told him, "Hell, you ain't been hungry since you won that belt!" You see, Rocky had forgotten what had gotten him to the top in the first place.

2) Lang's boast: "I live alone! I train alone! I win the title alone!" Big mistake -- because no one achieves anything worthy without help. Lang also insulted Creed, causing him to tell Rocky before the first bout, "Give us all a present and drop this chump" -- apparently he felt that Lang disgraced the sport.

3) Don't allow yourself to be goaded into a fight that you might not be able to win. Rocky accepted Lang's challenge only after he had propositioned Rocky's wife Adrian.

4) Sometimes you have to change your MO. Creed took the flat-footed Rocky to Los Angeles to train, teaching him to "dance" in the ring.

5) A pep talk from a loved one doesn't always hurt -- after Rocky was struggling with memories from the first bout during training, causing Creed to haul off at him, Adrian said to him, "If you lose, you lose with no excuses." (The "Rocky" theme came after that -- and you knew what was coming.)

6) With all his braggadocio, Lang in the second bout proved to be an undisciplined fighter, allowing Rocky to tire him out due to moving around and avoiding punches.

7) Most importantly, when you do find your groove, you may inspire other people -- notice that Creed was throwing some shadow punches of his own when it became clear that Lang was going down for the count. (In fact, I think it was a much a catharsis for Creed as for Rocky.)

In short, life's victories come not to the swiftest or most talented but often to the person who is the best prepared -- and the most committed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The party's over ...

Don't look now, but it appears that the so-called tea-party movement has jumped the shark.

Now, that may disappoint many of you who were hoping for some kind of revolution that would get America back to "what it used to be." Despite all its hype and even getting former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to speak at its convention earlier this month -- or perhaps even because of it, depending on your perspective -- it's become clear to me that the movement is going virtually no further than it is now.

The reason is simple: Since last April 15, its supporters have been trying to manufacture outrage that most people just don't and never will feel. Even in a land where suspicion of authority (let alone government) has always been part of the culture, it still takes a lot to get people fired up about such matters because they believe it doesn't affect them all that much.

Those of you in Pennsylvania may remember some hijinks that took place about three years ago courtesy of our state legislature, which pushed through a midnight pay-raise -- if I remember correctly, specifically a padding of its members' expense accounts -- for itself and the commonwealth's judges. The result of that action, which turned out to be illegal anyway, was serious bipartisan rebuke; the person who led the charge locally was a usually mild-mannered columnist who leans Democratic. While I don't know how the rest of the state reacted, eventually the editorial boards of both my newspaper and our GOP-leaning competition condemned the maneuver and a number of legislators who voted for it actually lost their seats as a result. (One is actually on trial as I write on unrelated corruption charges.)

Not helping matters, however, are violent acts against the government. Of course, Timothy McVeigh was executed for blowing up the Federal building in Oklahoma City, and considering that the Federal budget was being discussed then his timing was terrible. Let's also remember the Texas man who just this week flew his plane into a building in Austin that housed the local office of the Internal Revenue Service. When you do things like that, rational discussion and possible engagement and adjustment simply become impossible.

That's the biggest problem with the "tea-party" movement -- there's no unifying theme other than "oppressive government," which is based on only the opinion of a few people who, frankly, lean toward extremism anyway. I'm not saying that tea-party supporters are preternally given to violence; however, much of their rhetoric can and probably should be interpreted as such -- as Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy recently wrote, "Waving monkey dolls with nooses around their necks at tea party rallies, having signs with Obama's face in the sights of a sniper rifle and chanting, 'Kill him,' has nothing to do with reducing the size of government." And, ironically, with all their talk about "freedom," they appear to be enslaved to an irrational ideology.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

'Strict constructionism'

Lately I've been involved in some testy Facebook discussions about the health care bill now being debated on in Congress, and one of the complaints from its opponents is that it's "unconstitutional." On what grounds? Generally, the 10th Amendment, which reserves certain powers to individual states. The upshot is their fear of "government intrusion" -- at least, that's what they say.

I'm not so sure about that -- I suspect that they're trying to use the excuse of the law to maintain a sense of their own authority. With all their bellyaching about "too much government," I never hear about how they use the power and authority they have to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate.

Know who that reminds me of? The Pharisees.

To the uninitiated, they made up a lay school of Judaism in Jesus' day that prided itself on maintaining traditions that had been supposedly handed down from Moses and were seen as to go-to men when it came to religious commitment. Trouble was, to the 631 commands that were actually written in the Scriptures they added thousands more, making maintaining the religion itself more important than following God. In other words, they missed the point of the Law.

That's why Jesus locked horns with them regularly, exposing their alleged commitment as fraudulent. In one case they were so intent on discrediting Him they ended up even breaking the law (John 8 -- the woman "caught in adultery").

So what does this have to do with the present day? Well, let's consider the last 40 or 50 years or so, going back to the civil-rights movement. Early on, African-American activists in the South recognized the only path for overthrowing injustice as going through the Federal government, first with court decisions but later with Congressional legislation.

At that, many white Southern politicians, whose supporters already were conditioned to be suspicious of the feds, decided to play the "less government" card, using the legal terms "nullification" ("it doesn't apply to us") and "interposition" (state law superseding Federal law), particularly in Mississippi. Such resentment over the Federal government's "overreaching," and especially when it came to the "Great Society," became part and parcel of the modern conservative movement, which we see to this day.

Folks seem to miss that government exists to maintain order and administer justice, not simply to allow them to keep their status and their stuff. While the Scriptures aren't clear as to what kind of policies government should enact, it maintains a general sense of doing what's right by everyone, not just the people with money, organization or power.

When it comes to the poor, such people say, "Let the church handle it." Right now, however, the church can't. Most individual churches are too small, too poor and too myopic to do that job properly; one survey I ran across a few years ago noted that 97 percent of monies that the average church collects goes toward staff salaries or facility upkeep or expansion, with most of the rest to foreign missions. They also are generally divided by race, social class and theology, making the type of unity needed to be a comprehensive diaconal influence next to impossible. On top of that, the biggest problem the poor have, really, is access to resources -- jobs, education etc. -- that charity cannot solve. That's why you had the "Great Society" in the first place, and that's what the battle over health insurance is really about.

Besides, the church's first -- indeed, only -- mandate is to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which in the here-and-now represents an alternative way of living. That is to say, it has the commission to tell the world, "Here's how life is to be lived." The early church, completely shut out of the power structure, took that seriously, which is why even non-believers marveled and some even felt threatened because it just didn't "go along."

In the last 1,700 years, however, Christianity has achieved considerable political status, especially in the West. The question thus becomes, "Now that we have this authority, how do we use it for the glory of God?" I would answer that we Christians should use the power, including political, that we have for service -- not setting "principles" in stone.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Some thoughts on childhood, romance and Valentine's Day

You make me smile again like a child of three ...

-- "Smile Again," performed by Manhattan Transfer

Valentine's Day is coming up on Sunday, as if you needed any reminder -- especially with all the adult-focused marketing for flowers, dinners and "intimate apparel" that happens this time of year. But, now that I think about it, I sometimes think that we miss the true significance of the feast day which, legend holds, marks the date of death of a real St. Valentine for whom the holiday is named.

If the reports I've read are to believed, that St. Valentine used to send notes of encouragement to children. That's it. How it got mixed up with romance and sex is a subject for another blog entry, as I think we've missed the point -- it's about feeling "special." Which everyone needs from time to time.

In the book "What's So Amazing About Grace?", Philip Yancey mentions that romance is the closest thing that many of us experience of grace, defined as "unmerited favor." If that sounds crazy, what's the first thing you think of when someone says that he/she has fallen in love with you? Embarrassment, perhaps, but also charmed because you know you had nothing to do with it -- you are being offered a gift.

Though I haven't dated a whole lot, for much of my life many younger women and girls have taken a shine to me. The first time it happened I was in the fifth grade, my first year attending a Christian academy; on the bus home a first-grade girl instantly became attached to me. I admittedly didn't handle it well at the time -- what 10-year-old would? -- but, for what it was worth and looking back, her affection was genuine. Yes, she may have had "daddy issues," but she was probably doing what she knew. And because I wasn't receiving that kind of warmth from anyone on my family, part of me secretly enjoyed the attention because it was something I really wasn't "supposed" to get. (Why that was and how that has affected me as a nearly-50-something adult is a subject for another entry.)

That gave me a clue as to what we should be celebrating -- it seems to me that there should be a certain amount of childlike innocence involved in this particular season. I mentioned in an earlier entry about the cynicism I detected in the book "Loves Me, Loves Me Not," whose subject is unrequited love; the author said upfront that she was choosing to remain single for fear of heartbreak. The thing is, offering love and wanting to connect is risky business, and dismissing it out-of-hand in an unkind manner is devastating even if you know the feelings will never be mutual.

And when you open yourself to such gifts, special things happen.

Twenty-five years ago at the end of a church retreat, one of the women in this particular fellowship with whom I had a troubled relationship pulled me aside and played "Three Blind Mice" for me on the piano. Now, on the surface that may sound silly; however, she wasn't a musician but knew I was.

I knew what she was doing -- offering me the best she had at the time, and given the situation it had the desired effect. Indeed, it was one of the few things I remember about that retreat, and I still get misty-eyed thinking about it.

Perhaps that's the real significance of Valentine's Day -- honoring those who are willing to give their hearts. And if you get one of those unsolicited gifts, accept it graciously -- it may be something you actually need.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What's really behind the Tim Tebow flap

By now you are probably aware of the controversy surrounding an upcoming Focus on the Family-sponsored Super Bowl ad featuring former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the missionary kid who was the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy in 2007. It hasn't even aired yet and pro-choice groups are already complaining.

That was the goal, no pun intended.

The upshot: His mother had become ill while pregnant with him and a doctor in the Philippines, where they were ministering at the time, had advised an abortion, which she obviously declined. The obvious message, of course, is that a woman who has an elective abortion may be snuffing out the life of a future quarterback, among other things.

I get that. But the underlying message has to do with the times -- the so-called culture war is at an ebb and is in serious danger of petering out, in large part because of the economy.

This shouldn't surprise. The "culture war" flourishes when -- and only when -- things are going relatively well economically. Back in the 1920s, a time of prosperity, our nation saw controversies between Protestant and Catholic (read: small-town teetotalers vs. big-city "wets") and the theological wars between "fundamentalists" and "modernists/social gospelers" in many Protestant denominations. A similar situation happened in the 1950s with the beginning of the Cold War, spilling over in the the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War and which spawned the modern conservative movement.

However, when the economy falters such issues go on the back burner, leading people to vote their pocketbooks rather than their morals. The Great Depression basically put an end to those other flaps, with the fundamentalists basically dropping out of society altogether. The situation repeated again in the late 1980s when George H.W. Bush was president, at a time that many folks were abandoning conservative principles because they were losing their jobs. Fearing unthinkable defeat, in 1992 the Binghamton, N.Y church where anti-abortion activist Randall Terry attended took out a full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times warning evangelical Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton. (Of course, Clinton won anyway.)

By 2006 and the Jack Abramoff-fueled corruption scandal that stained the Republican Party the culture war was in pretty much free-fall. That became clear when Focus on the Family sponsored ineffective "Stand for the Family" rallies in battleground states where, if I remember correctly, all the candidates it supported lost. (One was held here in Pittsburgh, essentially a shill for embattled Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who still ended up being crushed at the polls.)

Still not getting the message, anti-abortionists during the 2008 presidential campaign went after then-candidate Barack Obama, highlighting his vote against a controversial late-term abortion bill while in the Illinois Senate. (The Times, however, pointed out that it had a companion bill that he knew wouldn't pass constitutional muster; after he left for the U.S. Senate, the Illinois Senate passed a much weaker bill.) Then, they made a lot of noise about a speech he made to Planned Parenthood vowing to sign the so-called Freedom of Choice Act that was supposedly making its way through Congress whenever it got to his desk. That turned into another urban myth, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in an interview in Time magazine last March that it had zero chance of getting through Congress. (And notice that he didn't sign an executive order having the same effect, either -- another unsubstantiated rumor.)

What's worse from that perspective, the idea of same-gender matrimony, which saw the apex of opposition back in 2004 (and probably the only reason George W. Bush was re-elected) is not only becoming more accepted but is now legal in six states, whether by referendum or court decisions.

That's the context for the upcoming Tebow ad. I suspect that the "culture warriors," many of who have become fairly wealthy in the process and were not affected much by the downturn, are actually trying to start another conflict to get folks' minds off the economy -- and incidentally, CBS (which usually doesn't accept advocacy advertisements) accepted it likely because of its own cash crunch. I don't, however, foresee a groundswell of anti-abortion activism.