Wednesday, July 20, 2016

fundamentalism and the voting booth

I know about fundamentalists.  I'm a Baptist pastor and if any groups is known for harboring fundamentalists it is us.  (It isn't fair or accurate to label all Baptists as fundamentalists... duh look at me... but there is something about this movement that at least allows room for them to develop).

This post is not about religious fundamentalists and their politics (though it may be).  Instead it is about a new brand of political fundamentalists.

Back when Gore vs. Bush happened and Ralph Nader stuck his head into the fray, he spoke at my church in upstate NY.  As I remember it, one of the things Nader said was that voters should choose a candidate purely from their ideas.  If the candidate had no chance of winning... irrelevant.  Idealogical purity was/is the only criteria.  When pressed whether his candidacy might cause Bush to win, Nader refused to even consider any culpability.  Indeed, when after the election Nader was presented with the numbers... if only 30% of those who had voted for him in Florida had gone for Gore, the questions that eventually took the election to the SCOTUS would never have materialized and Gore would have been the clear winner, Nader basically responded that had the Dems presented a better candidate, that would not have been an issue.  Of course, if everyone voted simply on ideological purity, nobody would ever get enough votes to be elected.  Had the Dems presented Nader, Bush still would have won and likely by a much, much wider margin.

This year, we're presented with an interesting political quandary.  Neither of the major candidates is generating a lot of love from their prospective parties.  I can't tell you how many leftist folk I've encountered who have said that it doesn't matter that HRC and Bernie come out the same on about 93% of the issues... it is the other 7% that they cannot abide by and so will never vote for HRC.  (OK the percentages were pulled out of thin air, but HRC and Bernie aren't very far apart on most issues.)   It is easier for me to understand a real conservative saying that he/she would never vote for Trump as at best he has been amazingly inconsistent regarding his stand on just about everything other than the size of his... hands.  On that side of the isle I'm fascinated at the number of folk who are willing to overlook basically everything about him in order to vote Republican.

So the question is at what point does one step away from fundamentalism... and ideological purity?  Anyone who knows me knows that I was a Bernie supporter although he was not my perfect candidate.  I've long ago abandoned any semblance of political fundamentalism as my perfect candidate wouldn't have a snowball's chance in Phoenix of ever getting elected so I have long wrestled with the questions of incremental change and the possibility of winning vs. losing because I backed a horse without a chance and getting nothing I hope for. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

More Guns?

In the aftermath of the horrors of Orlando, the chorus has begun.  "We need more guns."  "If only someone in that nightclub had had a gun..."  "The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  And on it goes.

The cynic in me wants to completely dismiss all of those speakers but I know there are some folk, probably even most, who say those things actually believe they are offering a real solution.  We have a cultural myth that violence can actually solve problems and that responding with violence is the strong, manly, and usually appropriate response to serious problems.

I don't want to address that myth here although it is central to the discussion and challenging it is key to real solutions to the violence in our society.  Instead, I want to look at the practicality of more guns and imagine just what that might have looked like at Pulse.

First, for mass shooters, the possibility of being killed is not a deterrent.  Most end up dead anyway and go into the situation planning exactly that.  In the case of religious crazies, there is often an overlay of martyrdom.  The fear of death simply is irrelevant in those situations or may even be a motivation of the shooter.

So let's play this out in our imaginations - more guns.  The nightclub is going full bore.  There is loud music, flashing lights, and lots of people dancing.  The room is tightly packed and the crowd is moving.  Multiple people present have guns...  They have been drinking and dancing and enjoying themselves.  Suddenly people hear gunshots.  The first reaction is confusion.  Is it the music?  What is going on? Then the crowd panics and is running in every direction.  Joe Smith pulls his gun and in the craziness shoots at what he thinks is the shooter.   Across the club, Bob Doe pulls his gun.  Through the crowd, he sees two people shooting.  He can guess the one with the AR15 is the person who started shooting first but is the 2nd one an accomplice or a good guy with a gun?  He starts shooting as well just as the crowd closes in front of him... and the crowd is panicking even more, running in every direction.  The first person to draw their gun hears shots coming from another direction and turns.  Is that person another good guy or an accomplice?  At whom do I shoot? Third, fourth, fifth guns are drawn and more people are shooting.  None are trained to use a weapon under the stress of a situation like that.  All are making life and death decisions in seconds.  Most have been drinking.  All the while the crowd is panicking and people are moving in and out of the lines of fire.  someone hits the mass shooter and he goes down... but the bullets continue to fly.  Multiple people have been shot... by whom?  Ten minutes after the first shot,  the police arrive at a scene that looks like the OK Corral.  They see guns drawn, bodies on the floor, and people still shooting.  How are they to know who is a good guy and who is not?  Do they respond by shooting as well?

Were lives saved in this scenario?  It certainly doesn't sound that way to me.  Even in a situation where the people are trained for that kind of situation and someone is in charge, mistakes still happen.  Soldiers talk about the fog of war where reason and training go out the window to be taken over by random instinct.  Indeed, part of the design of assault weapons is meant to compensate for the lessened ability to aim, choose targets, and be completely intentional in battle.  The weapon is designed to spray large numbers of bullets in a general direction in the hopes of hitting as many people as possible.  They have a term for soldiers killed by their own in such circumstances - "friendly fire."  We've also seen recent videos of police shootings where multiple trained police officers shoot scores of bullets at a suspect and at least a significant number of the bullets miss the target.  In a setting like Pulse, where would those bullets end up?

No... I can't see a situation where having more guns would lead to a better outcome.  I can come up with scores of situations where it would make things worse.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

a suspension of disbelief & Donald redux redux

Twice before I've blogged about the folk who attend our local megachurches yet tell me that they do not believe what they believe in those churches... here and here.  I wrote about folk who walk into a church and suspend their disbelief... that is they basically acted as if they believed what was being said for that hour in church and then wrote it off as they walked out the door.  Or perhaps they simply don't listen to what is being said.

I've been thinking about this in regards to the Donald Trump phenomenon.  I think that is going on there as well... the folk who are endorsing him are not really listening to what he is saying.  It does go further than that - and perhaps this is true in those church folk as well.  Not only are they not hearing what is said, they are projecting what they want to hear.  For example, Donald has made "Make America Great Again" his slogan.  Not once has he given even the slightest idea how he would do that and even more important, he has not defined what that means.  What are the characteristics that we have lost?  When was the time that we were great?  Those listening can fill in whatever answers work for them... and they do.

That "morals" voters would choose Donald Trump over anyone except Hugh Hefner is almost unbelievable.  That neo-cons would back his economic policies makes me scratch my head.  I guess some folk find his bull in the china shop persona attractive after Obama's measured, cautious, and thoughtful presentation on the world stage but for the life of me, I can't figure out why.  I'm sure there are some who feel so disenfranchised that they want to blow up this entire project called American democracy and replace it with... who knows what... and they aren't presenting a picture any more well formed than Somalia.  And finally there are those Republicans who have decided that since Trump will get the nomination, he must be a real Republican and is therefore worthy of their vote over any Democrat... even one whose policies are well to his right in almost every single way.  And those same Republicans continue to ignore... here is the list from that liberal bastion the Washington Post.   I get that there are folk who really don't like Hillary, the Dems likely nominee and hope that by electing Donald, they'll at least retain control over the SCOTUS and the legislative branches.  That, of course presupposes that anyone can predict what Donald would do with judicial nominees and that there are enough folk out there drinking the Kool Aid to provide shirt tails for Republican candidates down the ballot. 

And the rest of the world looks on in wonder as we Americans continue to suspend our disbelief, project our hopes and dreams, and ignore what is blatantly in front of us.  And they are realistically afraid.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Feelin' the Bern... now what?

Once again... I'm feelin' the Bern.  Bernie Sanders is the first truly progressive Democratic candidate for president in memory (Obama, the Clintons, etc. are essentially center/right politicians - look at their policies).  His views fit with mine more than any other candidate I've had the opportunity to vote for.  And come the California primary, I will vote for him assuming he is still in the race.  And I'm not willing to concede there is no hoe for him to get the nomination at this point. 

But... it does seem pretty likely that Hillary will get the nomination.  Hillary is not my candidate.  She is too cozy with the monied elite for me.  She is too hawkish.  Her economic policies are too far to the right for me.  There are areas where we agree or at least she is much closer to my hopes than not and even on those areas where we are far apart, she is still closer to my dreams than any of the Republican possible choices.  So... if she is the Democratic nominee I will vote for her.  There re two basic arguments why...

First, I think Bernie has begun something important within the Democratic party.  He has re-energized a real progressive movement there that has the seeds of real change in the party.  Since Carter, the Dems have been turning away from working people, worrying more about practicality than what is right, and far too willing to play the role of military strongman in the world.  I felt some hope with the Occupy movement but all too quickly it fizzled out.  This movement has challenged the seat of power in the Democratic party.  Over the next few years, the demographics have shown that the Republicans will have virtually no chance of national offices.  Given that they have doubled down o racism and xenophobia with Donald Trump, this is even more true.  This election will be the last gasp for the Republicans on a national level, we have the opportunity to reshape the only party that will have a chance of electing presidents.  If we pull out of the party, we will lose our leverage.

At the same time, if we remain faithful to the party, Bernie will go into the convention with significant power.  He has already changed the conversation... at the convention and afterwards, he will have power to impact the platform and the agenda the Democrats set for the next few years.  If we stay involved and engaged, which means supporting the Democratic candidate, we have the opportunity to begin significant change in the institution.  If we step back, then like children who've taken their ball and left the playground because we didn't get our way, what happens on the playground will be completely out of our control and we will have squandered the influence this movement has built.

There is a second argument that is equally important: the possibility of a Trump presidency along with a Republican legislative branch and consequently a "conservative" judiciary for another generation.  Trump has built his campaign on racism, xenophobia, sexism, and jingoism.  That is attractive to too large a swath of the American electorate and has energized a group of folk who have been sitting out elections for some time.  If we progressives sit out because we're unhappy with Hillary, Trump just might win.  Let me say that again... if we progressives sit out because we're unhappy with Hillary, Trump just might win.  The same is likely true if we write in Bernie.

Now, I don't think that Trump was the worst Republican possibility... but I still don't think we could characterize a Trump presidency as anything other than a disaster for our country and for the world.  On a personal level, I was embarrassed that George Bush was my president.  I will be mortified if Donald Trump is. He personifies all of the worst things in our culture and I honestly do not see anything of value that he would bring to the job.  Nothing.  Zero.  Nada.

I have heard progressives argue that a Donald Trump is just what we need to push things over the edge and bring about the real revolution.  I find that the most cynical and offensive argument I have heard.  Indeed, it is only an argument that could be made by someone who has life too easy and won't have to endure either the direct fallout of a terrible presidency or the real pains of a revolution.  It is an argument made by a secure middle class white person... not someone whose family is split apart by a president who sends the parents back to El Salvador, a Korean family who are sent off to interment camps because of something done by North Korea, a poor family whose children no longer have school lunches, a woman who cannot make decisions about her own body, a military person sent off to one more unnecessary war only to return home (if he/she returns home) to find inadequate supports provided for their long term needs brought about by participating in war, an individual with a pre-existing condition who suddenly finds themselves without medical insurance,  a retired person who loses medicare AND social security... you get the point.

Like Bernie, I am a Democratic Socialist.  He is my candidate as long as he is a real choice.  If Hillary gets the nomination, I will support her.  I will vote for her.  I will argue for her election.  This election is simply too important to waste with a protest vote or to sit out and allow the Republicans to tear part the social fabric progressives have worked so hard to weave.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Israel & Foreign Aid

Let me begin by saying that I believe in foreign aid.  I think properly used, foreign aid can be a significant tool in our national security in addition to making the world a generally better place. 

We give a significant amount to Israel each year - $3 Billion.  It is the largest recipient of US government aid.  That equals a little more than 1% of their entire GDP and almost 4% of the government budget.  It essentially goes there with no strings attached.  A group of legislators have proposed that we raise that amount to about $3.7 Billion and Israel is hoping to see it raised to between $4 & $4.5 Billion.

To put those numbers in context.  The population of Israel is roughly the same as either New Jersey or Virginia.  New Jersey is the state with the lowest return on its federal tax dollars in the US and actually ends up with roughly a negative $23 Million each year.  That is, NJ sends $23 million more to the federal government than comes back to the state.  Virgnia is the state with the highest amount of return from the federal government.  It receives about $97 million more than it sends in in federal taxes.  Look at those numbers for a second and realize that the state with the highest return on its federal tax dollars gets back less than 1/3 of what we sent to Israel this year... and there are obviously strings on much or most of that money.  Israel, on the other hand, continues to break international law with the building of settlements.  Additionally, 1 of 3 Israeli families receive some kind of government welfare including large numbers of ultra-orthodox Jews who live on state subsidies for religious study.  Some studies show that 65% of ultra-orthodox men do not work but instead spend their time being paid by the government to study torah and scripture. The ultra-orthodox are also the fastest growing Jewish segment of the Israeli population.

Some economists are arguing that the Israeli economy will collapse under the weight of its welfare system.  It is no wonder that they are hoping for a significant increase in our aid... On top of those who are paid to not work, Israeli citizens receive other benefits that US citizens do not.  All universities are subsidized by the state and students pay only a small percentage of the actual costs.  Health insurance is universal and looks to me roughly like Medicare for All.  One could easily argue that we subsidize all of these benefits.

So what do I think we should do?  I think that aid should be tied to real actions that reflect our values.  Should we dictate to Israel how they should live?  No.  But neither should we subsidize their choices when they conflict with our own.   Here are two examples.  We refuse welfare to criminals in the US... tie our aid to the dismantling of settlements and to better treatment of the Palestinians.  We hold as one of our deepest values separation of church and state... tie some aid to the removal of special perks for ultra-orthodox sects.

Friday, April 08, 2016

An Imagined Reality

Folk who know me know that I'm feelin' the Bern.  I've had some good conversations with friends who definitely don't feel the same and some have raised interesting critiques of Bernie Sanders.  One friend said that Bernie should not be president because he simply doesn't understand how the world works.  I disagreed and responded that perhaps it is not that he doesn't understand how the world works but instead he is offering a different paradigm as to how it should or could work.

Recently I read a really fascinating book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  Of all of the ideas in the book, the one that really caught my imagination is that everything works because of our unique ability to imagine a paradigm and then agree upon it.  Those imagined realities enable large groups of humans to work together, to trade with one another, to form societies.  Basically the author, Yuval Noah Harari, says that there is nothing in human society that does not depend upon those imagined realities upon which we have agreed to agree.  And those imagined realities can be changed.

I was thinking about one of those imagined realities the other day when an editorial in our local paper complained that the problems with the dollar began when its value was cut off from anything real - i.e. gold.  But, the value of gold is also tied to nothing "real."  The book uses gold as an illustration of imagined realities.  While the metal does have some iteresting properties, there is no reason beyond a cultural agreement that it should hold any more value than some other metal, many of which are significantly more useful.  Ineed, when the Spaniards arrived in the new world, searching for gold,  the native people were confused.  Gold is pretty, they thought, but too soft for any important uses.  They imagined much lower value for that soft yellow metal.

Back to Bernie... there is no reason beyond the fact that we have all imagined the world as it is that it should remain that way.  We have decided that some people should be incredibly wealthy while others struggle and even die from want.  We have decided that a freakishly tall, athletic man should make tons of money for entertaining us with incredible feats that we cannot accomplish while the one who picks our food, bent over in the hot sun in a field day after day, struggles.  Why?  The list could go on.

Now Bernie is not calling for crazy changes.  Indeed, many of the changes he envisioned are already part of the imagined reality in much of the world but it is a different reality than the one we've adopted together in the US at this point.  That is why he is revolutionary.  That is why he challenges the powers that be.  That is why I'm feelin' the Bern.  I want to see a new paradigm and the one he is offering is a lot more like the one I believe that God imagines for us than the one we currently have.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016


My spouse becomes eligible for Medicare this year so we've been paying attention.  We've had to pay attention to insurance for a number of years as I have a genetic condition that causes a chronic disease.  It has been under control for me since 1987 but that is irrelevant.  On the open market, I was not insurable at any price.  I had medical insurance available through our denomination but it was nearly $4K a month and was no longer affordable by my employer or my family.  The ACA saved us... me... literally. (This is not about the ACA and I see serious problems there which I have addressed before a number of times).  So paying attention to Medicare didn't feel unusual.

I noticed quickly that while some folk have complaints, few of them are the elderly folk on Medicare... and the complaints that population does have are no different than the general population dealing with any insurance company - costs, restricted access, complexity...  I do hear younger folk who say that Medicare is proof that the government can't run a healthcare insurance system.  They say it is nearly bankrupt and doesn't work anyway.

So, with those thoughts in mind, we went to a two hour seminar yesterday to get a basic understanding of Medicare presented by a non-profit that advocates for the elderly and helps them with issues around Medicare.  I came away with some impressions... Medicare is too complicated.  Negotiating part D and supplemental plans is difficult and clearly a lot to ask of some seniors.  $300-400 a month for a newly retired person in California for part B, a reasonable part D, and an F class supplemental plan is a lot of money, especially for someone on a fixed income... and it will only go up.  The "free market" alternative - Medicare Advantage - may work somewhere, but it requires a population density that we don't have where we live so the choices here are thinning rapidly (there are only three plans available in Santa Barbara county now and only one that covers the entire county) as the companies can't make the level of profits they desire.  Even where it might work, it still has the significant limitations commonly associated with HMO's.  The donut hole is scary for someone with a chronic condition but the way that the ACA is filling in the hole is at least a little heartening.

It seems that making Medicare a single payer system, eliminating the need for Part D and supplemental plans would go a long way to simplifying the system.  Both pieces feel to me like compromises made with the private sector so they can continue to get some portion of income from this group of high consumers of medical care.  We are worried about the realities of paying that much money a month for insurance after having employer provided insurance our entire lives but I am more than glad to know that I will at least have coverage.  I anticipate that at least one of my meds (which is stupidly expensive) may not be covered but that will be what it is.  I have 3+ more years until I become eligible and another year beyond that until retirement so some of those worries are meaningless.  A Republican president and congress could make the entire program go away.  A Democratic one of each might strengthen the programs... time will tell there.

Of course there are the big public policy questions that continue... Is healthcare a right that everyone should be provided regardless of their economic condition? For me as a theologian, what are the theological implications of that question?  How do we control costs while at the same time insuring good care?  And for me a central question, what role should the profit motive have in healthcare?  (I would argue none)