7.13.2012

Heretics and Tyranny


History draws me, not because of a "condemned to repeat it" fear but rather out of basic humility. Surely someone at some time has wrestled the questions with which I wrestle and there may be answers, or at least clues, in the past. Unfortunately, the "everybody knows" history we superficially apply to quick opinions is not well suited to important, big questions like "how did we get here?", "where are we going?" and "what do I believe?" Fortunately, we have Ross Douthat and Jonah Goldberg to help out.

I've recently completed Douthat's "Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics" and Goldberg's "The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas." (For the record, I didn't even have to slip a Vince Flynn or Terry Pratchett book in between them). I enjoyed both books for the writing, the education and the reflection. They are quite complementary and I recommend them both.

Douthat spends the first half of his book describing the post World War II history of Christianity in the United States. My personal reference points on Christianity began in the late 60's and early 70's when my mother was taking me to the Church of Christ, seemingly, as they say, every time the doors were open. For me, like many, leaving home also meant leaving the church and, predictably, returning to church when I became a father, though this time at a Presbyterian church. Douthat's history rang true for me; it fit with my experience and perceptions and there seemed to be no twists or contrivances to make the history fit a theory or to exaggerate a point.

From that historical foundation, Douthat proceeds to describe four critical steps on the path of American heresy. First, there is an effort to define Jesus in our own terms, converting him from God to human, making him a historical figure under our control. Through definition we confine Jesus to our perceptions and prejudices. We remove the mystery. We own the holiness. Second, there is the effort to redefine the Gospel to something more palatable, more populist. We wouldn't want to make faith too difficult or the potential parishioners too uncomfortable. And, if you want to build a megachurch empire, a 'name it and claim it' prosperity gospel is a market proven winner. Then there is the great god substitute that we all do. It is the idea that we are god, that we can save ourselves, through science, through reason, through 'self actualization' ... whatever that is. If we only had the time and resources to do the 'hard work' of self-discovery, we could answer those big questions, at least for ourselves, which is, of course, the most important thing. Finally, as the natural extension of this self worship, we strive to become god for everyone else, using our faith to justify our politics with the idea that the right policies with the most well-intentioned outcomes will convert the masses if not to our specific faith, then at least to our ideals. Douthat describes two aspects of this urge. Democrats employ the messianic approach ... "our policies will save you!" Republicans use the apocolyptic approach ... "Repent!" Douthat writes, at the conclusion of his explanation:

... There is no single Christian politics, and no movement can claim to have arrived at the perfect marriage of religious faith and political action. Christianity is too otherworldly for that, and the world too fallen.

The intersection of faith and politics has been a frequent, and often gloomy, topic  here. Our church is part of a mainline denomination suffering with declining membership. Our congregation struggles to survive. Both would do well to ponder the big questions like "why are we here?" and "where are we going?" while considering the history and analysis in this book. Finding an answer would require an uncomfortably honest self appraisal and acknowledging that sometimes, when you're on the wrong path, the best thing to do is stop and turn around.

The tricky bit, as they say, is the honest self appraisal. Deluding yourself when defining the problems and premises or obscuring the truth behind your arguments, for whatever reason ... ignorance, laziness, apathy, tradition ...  may not prevent you from finding an answer, but it probably won't be the answer you need. This is where Goldberg comes in. The Tyranny of Cliches is an easy and entertaining read, but underneath the flippancy ( "We are indebted to Napoleon for many things. My personal favorite is canned goods." ) and the attention getting snipes ( "There is a little discussed fact, well established in the social science literature. Young people tend to be stupid." ) Goldberg is dealing with one of the big questions, Honesty.

The subtitle, "How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas," lets you know that the point is to expose the dishonesty of leftist politics, but don't make the mistake of categorizing this book as simply an attack on liberals. This is not a response to Al Franken. It's really dealing with the bigger questions of the premises behind and the arguments supporting the modern liberal, progressive agenda. It's not "your policies suck and you lied about them anyway," it's more like Vizzini and Inigo in "The Princess Bride" ...

Vizzini: HE DIDN'T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

... though Goldberg goes on to explain what the words mean, and more importantly, how the (intentional?) misrepresentation of meaning props up their arguments. When the cheating lies are exposed, you begin to see how easy it is to mislead in the marketplace of ideas. The "Let Them Eat Cake" chapter is especially eye-opening. It's INCONCEIVABLE that Marie Antoinette wasn't being an aristocratic elitist with the 'eat cake' comment ... or is it?

Golberg entertainingly explains the amorphous concept of social justice, the smug superiority of the spiritual-but-not-religious, the underlying push to conformity in the name of 'Diversity!' and many other liberal bumper stickerisms. But don't slot this book in the 817's because what he's really doing is undermining every major liberal "everybody knows" argument supporting their ideas. In the process he is also giving us pause to think about big questions like "how did we get here?" and "what do I believe?"

Stylistically these books couldn't be more different. Where Douthat slowly builds from history to a reasonable interpretation to a calm analysis, Goldberg has a brief introduction and then wades right in like it's Han Solo and Greedo at the cantina. Douthat makes you want to get on your knees and pray for divine guidance. Goldberg makes you want to bitch slap some unthinking, smug liberal with a Maya Angleou anthology in a sock. The point of both books, however, is identical. Honesty. Douthat wants Christians to be honest about their faith, the sacrifices it requires, the otherworldliness of its origin, its application in this world. Goldberg wants honest political debate, a mature, even scientific approach that segregates policies that work from those that are easily sold as good intentions.

We cry about money and influence in politics, about how big "something" is "buying" an election, while most vote based on soundbites and supposition instead of principle. Are they voting honestly? We witness the decay of our religious institutions not because they have no value, but because we cheapen them and make faith (or the more culturally hip lack thereof) a checkbox on our Facebook profile. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God. Only twenty percent go to church on Sunday. Do you think the missing seventy percent are at the synagogue and mosque? Honesty, in faith or politics, is required to find the answers to the big questions. These two books are helpful if you're interested in honestly reconciling your faith with your politics.

3.08.2012

The Line

The Super Bowl is a cultural event these days, so despite the lack of a rooting interest, I dutifully tuned the television to the appropriate station about an hour before kickoff. The pre-game shows were playing in the background on the small TV in our kitchen while I was cooking. The experts predicted, the ex-players pontificated and no one seemed the least bit concerned about the energy, effort and expense required to put on this extravaganza. If America produces anything these days it's entertainment. The Super Bowl is quite a production, but is it really that entertaining?

Once the matchup is determined every aspect of the game is analyzed, every potential scenario spelled out and every controversy, imagined or real, is discussed in two weeks of unrelenting press coverage leading up to the game. By the time the pre-game shows get started, there is nothing to say that hasn't been said and all that's left is to see the show. The game, the commercials, the halftime show are all predictable and dependable. The game will have unique highlights and the outcome will initially be uncertain, but no matter who wins, no one will be surprised for long. The commercials are never as funny as hoped to be and the halftime show is usually as bad as expected.

Why do we watch this, what do we get out of it? Only a small percent of viewers are actual fans of the teams playing. We see the same routes and runs and tackles and kicks each week in any random NFL game. Players and coaches become overshadowed by the stage. The are no special Super Bowl rules. There are no fresh, new musical acts at halftime (just go back 10 years and grab a random greatest hits CD) and we all know the punchline to every advertisement (buy this beer, this car, this thing). Do we think we are watching history? Do we crave the shared experience? Are we honoring competition and effort and excellence? Or, do we simply have nothing better to do and need an excuse for a party.

Puttering around the kitchen, the pre-game percolating in the background, the reason behind our watching emerged from the reliable ramblings of the coaches, commentators and clowns, each as insistent as the last about their particular insight. In the end, it's all about the lines.

Betting lines.
Offensive lines.
Defensive lines.  Goal lines.
Side lines ... Yard lines ... End lines.

The line of scrimmage.

Players are judged for crossing the clean hit/dirty hit line,
   the good defense versus pass interference line and
   the team player or selfish player line.

Quarterbacks and coaches manage lines of communication,
   while linebackers adjust their line of attack to compromise the quarterback's line of sight.

We don't watch expecting to see something new, we watch because it's predictable. We don't want the extravaganza, we want the structure. We don't want to be challenged, we want to be reassured. The rules will be followed, excellence will be rewarded, the ritual will be completed. The Super Bowl, like what we serve for it, queso and wings and chips and beer and pizza, is comfort food. The lines that define the game give us comfort the same way that children feel more secure in a structured, predictable environment.

An anti-American rapper flips the bird to millions of Americans and the reaction is a collective yawn. It's just part of the show, it doesn't mean anything, does it? The half-time singer lip-syncs her way through the entire set, and that's okay, too, because the presentation and production is more important than talent and art. The unmarried star quarterback father's a child with an actress, then later marries a super model. That's okay, too because, well, times have changed and doing what we want takes precedence over doing what is right. Obscene gestures broadcast world-wide, technically perfect but soulless performances, children growing up without their fathers ... that's all okay because who are we to define the line between right and wrong? There is no rule book for life, right?

Real life does have lines, however, they are sliding down the slippery slope of all the things we've carefully piled up in the name of equity, social justice, "progress," political correctness and guilt. The lines of relationship and responsibility have all been paved over by expert good intentions. Social Security undermines saving. Affirmative Action excuses achievement. Welfare subsidizes dysfunction. Regulation requires risky lending. Zero down minimizes committment. Student loans encourage impracticality. Free condoms bless teenage sex. Charity mutates to public program, excusing private obligation. Elder care is institutional. Anger is art. Cursing is comedy. Progress enables tyranny. The 'Walk of Shame' is honored, while a walk of faith is ridiculed. Over time the bits and pieces of selfishness and giant chunks of entitlement have been wedged in and around the line of proper behavior that defines a civil society, distorting it beyond discernment.

Lucky for us, we have the Super Bowl, where the rules are known, the playing field is marked and for a few hours our chaotic world is distinctly black & white, complete with professionally trained black and white judges to take the blame in any questionable situations. This fabricated world, this game, is isolated, above reproach, a logical, rational place where any uncomfortable crimes or socially unacceptable behaviors can be conveniently confined to the 'off-the-field' buffer. The buffer is emptied when 'off-the-field' behavior outweighs 'on-the-field' performance. Performance must always be the priority because the line for acceptable behavior is too blurred, and performance is an objective measure. Animal cruelty? Domestic abuse? Drugs? Gun violence? Adultery? Injury bounties? Spy cameras? Gambling? Obstruction of justice? Performance enhancing drugs? Rape? Never mind all that, just look at the stats to make your decision on right and wrong. It's much simpler that way.

It's not just the Super Bowl, it's everything. We don't have the guts to say what we believe, what we think is right and what we think is wrong. Instead, we equivocate, we ignore, we excuse and worst of all, we leave it to someone else, some bureaucrat, some expert, some celebrity, some institution to define for us what is right and what is wrong. We abandon principle. It's too confining. We embrace the 1960's counter culture idea of "do your own thing" and equate it with personal freedom, never understanding that this concept of freedom, one with no boundaries, is directionless chaos. No direction means no purpose. No purpose means no fulfillment. No fulfillment leads to a frustrating existence and all this because we think freedom is 'do what we want' instead of 'do what is right.' We are such children.

We need lines to make us happy so we create an elaborate, structured game with every type of line imaginable, while for the important stuff, for real life, we steadily erase them.

Go Cowboys.

2.13.2012

Dear Public School

Dear Principal G----,

My son, ------- ------, is a freshman at ------. His World Geography teacher is Ms. W-------. He often discusses the topics they cover in class with me and I appreciate that. It says a lot about the teacher and the class when a fifteen year old young man is prompted to discuss history and current events with his father. That said, I feel compelled to let you know that I am quite concerned over some of the opinions he came home with on Friday, February 10. I believe he said there was a substitute teacher that day.

I am willing to admit that ------- may have mis-heard, or mis-interpreted, some things that were said, but there is a consistency about what he relayed to me that makes me believe he got the intention and implications correct, if not the exact details. Here are a few generalized comments reportedly said:

'America is a plutocracy, not a democracy.'
'The oil industry is greedy.'
'We get 20% of our oil from the Middle East and should stop buying from them, but oil companies will damage our environment if they drill here.'
'America is imperialistic and too involved in other countries internal affairs.'
'Iran shouldn't have nuclear weapons, but neither should the United States.'
'Capitalism doesn't help the poor.'
'We have a class system like India.'
'Doctors pay 7% of their income in tax, but teachers pay over 40%.'

When I asked if these were presented as facts or opinions, ------- said that the teacher made a point of prefacing most things with "in my opinion." I happen to disagree with those opinions, and I have no problem discussing with my son why. What concerns me are the student's that don't discuss these opinions with someone else, the students who are not exposed to an alternative perspective. I understand that eliminating bias and opinion completely is impossible, but I also think that a one-sided presentation of opinion is, at a minimum, poor teaching technique. The bigger concern is that this sort of class room political propaganda minimizes more important lessons, like critical thinking and the complexity behind world and political events. Frankly, from the obvious slant and the lack of balance, this seems more like indoctrination than education.

Criticism of the status quo is not the same as critical thinking.

I am not asking for any action to be taken, nor do I want this escalated in any way. I simply want to make you aware of my concern. ------- has been a PISD student since first grade and over those years I have consistently had to provide the alternative opinion to what he "learns" at school ...


'No, the polars bears aren't going extinct and changing our light bulbs to the squiggly kind won't save them.'
'No, President Bush didn't steal the election in 2000.'
'No, we did not go to war in Iraq to get their oil.'
'No, guns do not need to be outlawed to make neighborhood's safe.'
'I'm sorry, I do not know what the proper ethnic dress is for suburban white kid. Just wear your cowboy boots for Diversity Day.'

... and up until now I have never mentioned it to any teacher or principal. Throughout his years in PISD my son has consistently come home with the same, single political perspective. As someone with an alternative view, it infuriates me, not because I'm right and the teacher's wrong, but because there's no balance. We need to equip our children with knowledge and reasoning and the confidence that they can use those tools to find their way through a complex world. We don't need to handicap them with tired, confining political talking points. If a teacher is not confident enough in their opinions to present the opposing view, then their opinion is about as valuable as the effort they put into reaching it.

I just wanted to make you aware of my concerns. I have been silent about them for too long and I believe we are at a point where silence or apathy about political issues, letting things like this go without comment, is a dangerous thing to do for the success of our children and the future of our country. I would appreciate your efforts in working toward a better balance of political opinion in your classrooms.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Dexter Turner