Monday, August 30, 2010

The Name, Beck, and the Black Robes

As Glenn Beck has it, God told the media superstar pundit how things should be at the rally in DC:
“It was about four months ago that we were still kind of lost, and we didn’t know what we were going to do when we got here,” Beck said. “And I was down on my knees, and we were in the office. And I said ‘Lord, I think I’m one of your dumber children. Speak slowly!’ And the answer was, ‘You have all the pieces. Just put them together.’ The pieces are faith, hope and charity and looking for those things inside each of us.’"

 I cannot help but shudder.  Assuming not only that Beck prays on his knees--I do too as a practicing Anglican Christian--but also that God actually spoke to Beck about his upcoming rally, and in a way that not only implies the Supreme Deity's approval, but also His outright support, it would behoove any rational person to rethink their politics.  In fact, one wonders whether or not an American flag now graces and enhances the glorious environment of the heavenly throne room.

Bringing God's name into this was the perfect foil (a lie, really) to mask the unspoken subtext of the rally--despite all me-thinks-she-doth-protest-too-much protestations to the contrary--that what the nation really needs are the right political viewpoints, candidates, and party to bring the nation back to its senses.  Rather than partisan protests imbued with bellicose vituperation, what better way to do this than to enlist YHWH to help in steering the nation back.  While invoking God's name, Beck assures the wary that this rally would not be about partisan politics.  But if God is the chief partisan in all of this--which seemed apparent at the rally--then those of us who don't hold with Beck's politics will apparently be in for a very unpleasant awakening on the other shore.  Boil it all down and you get it this way: better repent now, ask God for forgiveness, and embrace God's own conservative politics.

I think it is high time for Christians to have done with all of this.  God's name is not to be bandied about as if he were the chief enthusiast for a cheap and cynical religious nationalism.  The commandment that prohibits the taking of God's name in vain should bring all of us up short.  God's name is holy.  It is to be invoked with praise and adoration, thanksgiving and supplication.  I AM THAT I AM is not a political talisman.  Jesus Christ is not the nation's mascot.  These are names by which fallen human beings receive forgiveness, redemption, new and abundant life, and the eternal promise of future bodily resurrection in the new heavens and new earth.  With grateful hearts Christians are to be zealous for God's name. For there is no other name under heaven...

 Moreover, the various titles of God are actually subversive of all earthly political orders and systems.  To say Jesus is Lord in 1st century Rome could have gotten you killed, and in a most brutal way.  For the early Christians there was only one Lord and King; in their way of thinking, even Caesar must eventually bow down and give way to the name above all names, though they would have been horrified at the thought of picking up a sword to make this happen.  Instead, they renounced power, submitted themselves to the earthly consequences of allegiance to the only name that will ever matter, and the empire eventually crumbled.  The first shall be last, and the last first...  They knew who held the real power in the universe, and if He were humble enough to have renounced the power that was His by right for their sake, then they could only follow his example.

The most surreal part in all of this is that Christians are actually buying into Mr. Beck's power grab.  They are being played by this media superstar and his pilot-fish school of opportunistic politicians.  Isn't that just another way of saying that the rich and powerful are using the name of God to gather--and preserve--power to themselves?  Beck goes even further and enlists the help of clergy--the so-called "Black-robed Regiment"--to his cause.  Other earthly despots have done the same thing before, so this is nothing new.  Do these ministers not see the conscription?  Have they no sense that the name to which they are collared is not to be uttered in vain, especially the vanity of partisan politics?  Are they really that easily seduced by power?

Perhaps it is time for another confessing church movement to spring up and call Christians in the US back to their real purpose: Loving God and loving neighbors.  Such purpose needs no legislation, no rallies, no elections, no media cheerleaders, and certainly no politicians.  Christians will do more to influence and shape culture by simply loving God and their neighbors in deeds and words.  It isn't sexy, it isn't glamorous, and most of the time, it goes on quietly, behind the scenes, out of the limelight. and without any pomp and circumstance.  Unfortunately, this does not seem to be what Mr. Beck and his Black-robed Regiment desire.  I think they simply desire power.  Raw, sinful, earthly power.  To wield such power is to risk violence, bloodshed, and injustice.  All in God's name.

In the world of Mr. Beck, Christians like me are faced with a choice: adjust my politics in order to avoid incurring God's conservative disfavor, or risk incurring the legislative (and perhaps penal) wrath of populist passion whipped up by Beck and the Black Robes.  I think I will take my chances with the Almighty...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cynical But Necessary

     Crediting the United States with "a great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy.  It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis.  To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. foreign policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.--Andrew J. Bacevich (The Limits of Power, pp.19-20)

Winston Churchill, the iconic face of the European allies in the Second World War, once quipped that "history is written by the victors."  He expressed his personal self-awareness of this truism even more specifically: "history will be kind to me for I intend to write it."  It sometimes takes a cynic to see through such hubris, and this is why cynical observation can be a key component in the necessary correctives to the facile proclamations of our politicians in Washington DC.

It is true that cynicism often goes too far and spoils honest observations about noble human action in history.  However, since it is the victors who write that history--including political victors--we must be grateful to the cynics for calling people back to reality.  Set in the context of modern presidential hubris--where appeals to liberty are assumed to be the unquestioned and self-evident trait of high moral character and purpose--the cynic, for all her/his skeptical and nasty assumptions about human nature, helps humans to step back and embrace Porgy's maxim: "it ain't necessarily so..."

Andrew Bacevich demurs from this positive view of cynicism in The Limits of Power, and then proceeds to play the role of the cynic in reviewing the history of American expansionist foreign policy all the way back to Jefferson.  Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase bestowed upon the young republic a vast treasure trove of land and natural resources.  Too bad about the genocidal relocation--or even elimination--of the indigenous native populations.  James Polk's acquisition of California from Mexico gave new life to the republic's economic engine.  Unfortunately, the US acquisition of California was the result of an aggressive war of conquest against our southern neighbor.  Teddy Roosevelt's Panama Canal assured the country's economic preeminence in our hemisphere.  Too bad this was achieved through the orchestration of an "outrageous swindle" (Bacevich, p. 20).  Woodrow Wilson's "making the world safe for democracy" helped end the bloodbath in Europe and shored up our relations with England.  Though he could not have foreseen it--and didn't support it after the fact--Wilson's military hubris helped make the draconian economic oppression of Germany by the provisions of the Versailles Treaty possible. FDR partnered with Stalin to destroy Nazism, and assured the US a pivotal economic role in global affairs.  Unfortunately, that devil's pact also resulted in the oppressive domination of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, and created an unmitigated global mess for the US to manage with blood and treasure.  Nixon astutely clasped hands with Mao Zedung to open up economic opportunity for the US in China and vice versa and hem in the Soviets at the same time (which factored into the latter's ultimate demise).  Too bad it also strengthened Mao's murderous decimation of human rights for millions of Chinese subjects. We could enumerate much the same for St. Ronald, Bush 41, Clinton,  and W.  For those still predisposed to think the current president motivated by goodwill, high ideals, and making a positive difference for others, history will probably pass much the same judgment upon president Obama as upon his predecessors.

The cynic reminds us that all of the events and leaders above were important factors in the promotion of unprecedented American economic prosperity from very early on in the nation's history.  They then turn around and remind us that often that prosperity came about at the expense of others.  While we enjoy notions of providential uniqueness, the shining city upon the hill, the manifest destiny of hemispheric dominance, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the cynic stubbornly jabs us with the reality of death, bondage, and despair for those who were (and are) sometimes on the receiving end of our imperial benevolence and ambitions.

While I do not wish to overstate the value of cynical political commentary, especially because it is often fatal to the goodwill necessary for citizens to be tolerant of each other, Without the cynic, the rose-colored glasses of patriotic nationalism and utopian fervor would quickly envelop the populace, embolden politicians, and loosen the restraints that reality places upon both.  Cynicism, for all its sacred-cow skewering, at least reflects a realistic understanding of human nature as it is, not as our politicians and therapy gurus tell us it is.   My religious tradition tells me that humans suffer from original sin, and that condition motivates and energizes the human tendency to place self before others.  Cynicism tacitly assumes such a notion in its skeptical derision of the self-proclaimed benevolent actions and policies trumpeted by our politicians and legions of political action committees.  No politician--or political group--should be above the cynic's skeptical scrutiny, even though he were honest Abe himself.  And there is this caveat as well: the cynic is not above partisanship, and so healthy political discourse requires the participation of cynics to scrutinize the cynics.  The healthiest criticism often emerges from within.

Finally, our nation is in desperate need of serious moral analysis (see the Bacevich header).  This cannot be accomplished without an honest examination of the darker side of human motive, even the motives of those who take it upon themselves to "stand up for God, country, and family."  It is this understanding and acknowledgment of human darkness that makes those moments when the "better angels" of human behavior emerge seem so remarkable and desirable.  When the likes of Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, King, Teresa of Calcutta, and Romero come along, jaws drop, heads shake, and we wonder why there aren't more of them around. Most of us would think the world a better place if only everyone would share and prefer the needs of others over and above themselves.  Sign me up.  Until that time, the cynic will play a necessary, if unwelcome role, in reminding humans of their collective tendency to engage in actions that promote their own self-interests, usually at the expense of others.   God help us when such self-enhancement is enshrined in law.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Precipitous Imperial Collapse

The collapse of empires in history is rapid, precipitous, and unpredictably predictable.  So says Niall Ferguson in an essay in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs.  Ferguson, the eminent Oxford/Harvard historian, takes on the conventional perspective of imperial-collapse-as-long-term-decay and argues for a historical view that attempts to pinpoint specific crises that function as tipping points for the sudden dissolution of empires.  His is no abstract, insular, ivory-tower theory.  Rather, it is a substantive attempt to alert the United States of its peril as an imperial power, ripe for such a capricious tipping point of its own.

Feguson's foil is the famous pentaptych The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole; five paintings that capture the long-term-decay historical view of empires, which now hangs in the New-York Historical Society. Cole's working assumption was that just as the rise of an empire is typically slow, so is its fall.  Ferguson cites Gibbon's history of Rome as the quintessential perspective of this cyclic view of empire, but also mentions the Ming dynasty, the Bourbon monarchy of France, the Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires, as well as the British empire, and even the Soviet empire as all subject to the traditional view of long-term decay.

Ferguson's Porgy challenges historians' Bess with a resounding "it ain't necessarily so."  In each of Ferguson's examples, specific and unpredictable crises precipitates a rapid decline, even collapse, and they seem to have at least one point in common: "All of the above cases were marked by sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, as well as difficulties with financing public debt." (Foreign Affairs, p. 30)  The specific trigger of collapse in each case was unforeseen, unpredictable, and when fired, unstoppable.  But the fiscal conditions in place in each assured that once the crisis hit, rapid collapse was inevitable.

Ferguson is a watchman on the wall for the United States empire (only the rose-colored blinders on the collective eyes of populist patriotic nationalism prevent acknowledgment of the existence of the US imperium).  The numbers are ominous: a deficit of 1.4 trillion dollars in 2009 (11.2 percent of GDP), a public debt of $5.8 trillion in 2008 which will double--and then some- to $14.3 trillion in 2019, and interest payments on that debt will also more than double from 8 percent to 17 percent of federal revenues.  It is not the numbers themselves that may be the trigger, but the expectations those numbers raise for future power.  To date, the global community believes the US can weather these numbers and maintain its unitary global hegemony (of course, not all in the community think that hegemony is a good thing).  But at some point, according to Ferguson, a random bit of bad news in the headlines could spell a sudden shift in confidence and precipitate a collapse.  The rapid sub-prime mortgage downward spiral in 2008 is harbinger of the potential for this.

Andrew Bacevich concurs in The Limits of Power.  These hard numbers, future expectations, and the highly-leveraged nature of US internal public obligations, combined with its over-reached, militarized foreign-policy commitments, have the country's adversaries patiently awaiting their main goal: the forced contraction of the US empire through fiscal necessity, or its collapse due to our country's refusal to set its own house in order.  They astutely believe that time is on their side.  And that time--if Ferguson is right--may come sooner than later.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Importance of Speaking Truth to Power

If my readers believe I am a bit too obsessive about the writings and reflections of Andrew Bacevich, they might be right.  But sometimes God, providence, or fate calls a person to a unique place, to speak truth to power when few are listening.  Jeremiah wept as he spoke truth to ancient Israel, and few listened.  Dr. Bacevich, the wounds of losing his son in Iraq freshly remembered this past Memorial Day, speaks through pain to ask questions which confront our rulers with truth, and with profound and disturbing clarity.  In addition to his meditation on the meaning of Memorial Day--see my earlier post--he speaks eloquently and with respect about the meaning of the POW/MIA flags displayed in the town center square where he resides.  He also willingly shared personal reflections about his own Memorial Day observance with the listeners of NPR.

I often wonder if anyone is willing to consider Dr. Bacevich's questions?

Monday, May 31, 2010

One Father's Sober Reflection on Memorial Day

These days, Andrew J. Bacevich has reason to think differently about Memorial Day.  Three years ago this month, his son was killed in action by an IED in Iraq.  I know neither the father, nor his fallen son.  But Professor Bacevich's writing and personal experience have connected with me in some very powerful ways.  Today, May 31st, 2010, Dr. Bacevich reflects upon what Memorial Day has become for his family in an opinion piece in the LA Times.  He respectfully, but inevitably raises troubling questions.  It is worth your time.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Necessary Prophet Among Conservatives

Andrew J. Bacevich refers to himself as a conservative realist.  He's not very optimistic about America's role as the indispensable nation in the world.  Dr. Bacevich questions the wisdom of a global war on terror and forced democratic reform under the guidance of the US military in the greater Middle East.  He criticizes the profligacy of American materialist consumption, which he believes lies at the root of our current foreign policy quagmires.  He wonders at the immoral and unjust character of a nation that insists the country conduct war to secure its own interests, but refuses to pay the bill for the war directly, passing it on to future generations.  He questions the nation's sense of fair play by its willingness to rely upon only 0.05% of the population to actually fight that war, while blithely pursuing its life of leisure.

The professor of history and international relations at Boston University is a prophet among today's conservatives.  He is a Jeremiah among the triumphalist Right, and his warnings continue to be largely ignored, dismissed, or regarded with scorn and contempt by the purveyors of populist nationalism pervading much of the modern right wing.

Professor Bacevich is no ivory tower abstract idealist.  A graduate of West Point, he served in combat with honor during the Vietnam War.  Regarded by many as one of the most morally compelling thinkers on current US foreign policy, Dr. Bacevich is sought out by members of Capitol Hill, by academic institutions, and by a wide array of advocacy and policy organizations and institutes across the country.  But even more, Dr. Bacevich is a parent.  A parent who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country when his son Andrew was killed in action by an IED in Iraq in 2007.

Andrew Bacevich's most recent book The Limits of Power, The End of American Exceptionalism will be the basis for several of my initial posts.  I find, that just like Bill Moyers, about every 3rd sentence is worth highlighting in neon yellow (for me it is actually whole paragraphs), and so it will take me a while to get through the book and think about the implications it has for my own thinking.  It is a gripping, compelling, and challenging read.

Here is just a sample of Bacevich's probing prose:

     During the 1990s, at the urging of politicians and pundits, Americans became accustomed to thinking of their country as "the indispensable nation." Indispensability carried with it both responsibilities and prerogatives.
     The Chief responsibility was to preside over a grand project of political-economic convergence and integration commonly referred to as globalization.  In point of fact, however, globalization served as a euphemism for soft, or informal empire.  The collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to offer an opportunity to expand and perpetuate that empire, creating something akin to a global Pax Americana.
                                        The indispensable nation's chief prerogative, self-assigned, was to establish and enforce the norms governing the post-Cold War international order.  Even in the best of circumstances, imperial policing is a demanding task, requiring not only considerable acumen but also an abundance of determination.  The preferred American approach was to rely, whenever possible, on suasion.  Yet if pressed, Washington did not hesitate to use force, as its numerous military adventures during the 1990s demonstrated. (The Limits of Power, p. 2).

     What is remarkable about these observations is that they emanate from within the broader spectrum of American conservative thinking (as distinguished from neo-conservative thinking with its foreign policy emphasis upon military interventionism for the sake of projecting and preserving American hegemony abroad).  Moreover, he lays the country's current converging economic and foreign-conflict crises directly at the feet of her citizens.  We are responsible for allowing the course of history to bring us to this critical point in our history.  That is probably the most stinging aspect of the book.  And yet, his rebukes arise out of a deep love for the American historical experiment, the noble aspirations of the republic, and the positive purpose set forth so eloquently in the preamble of the US Constitution.  Bacevich is clearly a member of the loyal opposition.

His is a much needed voice to check the grand illusions of American hegemonic global dominance; an empire the US can not afford to sustain; nor one that can in anyway, shape, or form, remain true to the ideals of the country's founding.  I recommend this book without hesitation, and I hope to unpack its riches without misrepresenting the sterling integrity of this most unusual of authors.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Seasoned Spoon

OK, I admit it.  I am a spoon.  Have been my whole life. When I was in 4th grade my Aunt Beverly gave me a set of wooden spoons for my birthday.  Puzzled, I asked why.  With a chuckle she replied that I was a spoon, always stirring up trouble.  Ask anyone in my department at work.  They will tell you I am the department spoon.  I have a nose for trouble.  I know how to press hot buttons, root out salacious info, and in general throw either gasoline or cold water onto any situation.

So I have decided to come clean and embrace my inner spoon.  I am going to stir the pot.  Several pots.  Politics.  Religion. Those ought to stir things up. Books. Movies. Music.  Spices stirred into the food of life.  And random spoonings as I see fit.  But I hope these spoonings might make readers think, reflect, respond, and react. 

My name is Jay, and I'm a spoon.  "Hi Jay..."