Monday, July 18, 2011

Ugly American(s)

The only blog I subscribe to is by James Fallows. Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, which is how he first came to my attention. What made him stand out from other writers was not only the quality of his writing but the nature of his assignments. During the 1980s he and his family moved to Japan and lived there for several years. More recently, he and his wife (their children are now adults) lived in China for several years. His reports on both countries are among the best I have ever read and his book on Japan, More Like Us, helped shape my views on immigration. He also writes about computer software that helps him as a writer.
His July 18th post,,"This Is Really Lame (CIA Fake Vaccination Dept)", reports how the CIA gave free vaccinations in Pakistan so they could secretly obtain blood samples to test for DNA in their search for Bin Laden and associates. Fallows criticizes the practice harshly. I agree. It's a prime example of how ugly Americans can be. Why don't we ever learn?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Monstrously inhuman or inhumanly monstrous?

I recently listened to a Fresh Air Interview of Diana B. Henriques about Bernie Madoff. Henriques is a New York Times financial writer. She was the first to interview Madoff after he was sentenced to prison. She is also the author of the recently released book, "The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust."

At the end of the interview Terry Gross asks Henriques if she sees Madoff as some sort of sociopath. Henriques replies that she thinks,
 "...we are fooling ourselves if we think he is somehow unique or rare or unique in our market environment....He is not inhumanly monstrous he is monstrously human."

I was struck by the wisdom of Henriques' assessment. We falsely reassure ourselves when we imagine that someone who has caused so much suffering is inhuman or otherwise exceptional, unique, or rare.  Most of the time, such people are all too human, subject to the same foibles, limitations, and moral failings as the rest of us. Madoff's problem was not that he didn't have a conscience. It was that he wasn't able to heed the promptings of his conscience. Henriques suspects the root of his moral failure was his inability to admit failure, i.e. he had to win at all costs. That particular struggle is not uncommon or unique to Madoff. I have struggled with it myself. How one chooses to respond to the pain of failure makes all the difference.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Movie Recommendation: Fair Game

Recently I watched "Fair Game," a movie about Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson.

Valerie Plame Wilson was an undercover CIA operative. British and Italian Intelligence had reported that the African country Niger had an agreement with Saddam Hussein to ship significant quantities of uranium to Iraq. Joe Wilson, a former ambassador to several African countries and acting ambassador to Iraq in 1990, was sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate this claim in 2002. He reported that it was highly unlikely anything was going on.

In his January 2003, State of the Union address, President Bush said, "“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

On March 19, 2003, the President announced the start of the War in Iraq, claiming its purpose is “to disarm Iraq , to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”

On July 6, 2003, "What I didn’t find in Africa," an op-ed by Joe Wilson, was published in The New York Times., In it, Wilson identified himself and wrote, “I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq 's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat"

In a July 14, 2003 column titled "Mission to Niger" in the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert Novak wrote, “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson 's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.”

Leaking to the press the name of a CIA operative is illegal. Eventually Scooter Libby, Vice-President Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators in the probe of the leak. He was sentenced to a 30-month prison term. The prison term was later commuted by President Bush. He was, however, not pardoned.

These are some of the essential facts of the story. The conflict is intense and the stakes, for everyone, are very high.

My favorite movie is "The Insider" which tells the story of how Jeffrey Wigand brought down big tobacco. Again, the conflict is intense and the stakes, for everyone, are very high.

Sean Penn portrays Joe Wilson and Naomi Watts portrays Valerie Plame Wilson. They do a superb job. I rarely watch a movie with the "commentary" turned on. However, in this case Joe and Valerie Wilson do the commentary. The backstory they supply is fascinating.

This story has been thoroughly covered in the press. FactCheck.Org does an excellent job of reporting the essential facts and providing hyperlinks to the sources it cites.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book recommendation

I recently finished listening to "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement" by David Brooks. It was one of the most interesting and thought provoking books I have ever read. Though I disagree with Brooks on many of his political views, I cannot fault the research, creativity, and inspired writing that went into this work.
Brooks has spent years researching the role and effect of what he calls the non-cognitive functions of the human mind. We may think our thinking is what makes us do what we do, but, in fact, more often than not, it is our assessments and responses on a level outside of our awareness that most shape our behavior. Above all, we are a social animal and our emotional connections and responses to one another and the groups we belong to and identify with affect our behavior in expected and unexpected ways.

I highly recommend this book. It's so provocative, I'm going to listen to it again and I may even buy a hard copy just for ease of reference.

Friday, March 18, 2011

It's easy to be a critic--too easy

There is certainly a lot of room for criticism in our world. I am unhappy that civil marriage is not a civil right for same sex couples. I am unhappy with our country’s policies on trade and immigration. I am unhappy that “enemy combatants” are still being held at Guantanamo.
It would be easy to devote more of my time and energy to criticism. Part of the reason I don’t, is that it’s just too easy.
The 2004 tsunami killed more than 250,000 people in Indonesia alone. In responding to that tragedy, I asked where God was during that disaster. I then devoted several paragraphs to criticizing what I saw as the wrong answers, e.g. God punishing the wicked. But I devoted most of the time to my own answers to the difficult question of why do bad things happen to good people.
I can easily spend more than half of a sermon criticizing the answers of others . What’s difficult is coming up with answers that satisfy me. I have to discipline myself to focus more on my own answers instead of simply criticizing the answers of others.
We are living in a very uncivil and critical time. I think what we need is not more inspired criticism, emotionally satisfying though that may be. What we need are inspired answers, answers to the difficult questions that we are forced to answer by the circumstances of our times.
To paraphrase my colleague Earl Holt, what I am called to do when I deliver a sermon is to pose the questions that life asks of all of us, to answer them the best I can, and to encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t matter if our answers differ. What matters is that we do our best to answer the questions.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hate filled speech and The Patriot Guard

Andy Sadowski is a member of the Rusty Chain Gang, the bicycling group that I most frequently rode with when I lived in Fort Worth. I miss them a lot and whenever I go home for a visit, I try and squeeze in a ride.
Andy and I are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I suspect he may get all of his news from Rush (Limbaugh).
In 2005, shortly after we met, I tried to talk to him about politics. He warned me off. I said something to the effect of, “Oh, surely we can have a civil conversation about our political differences.” He looked me in the eye and said, “Trust me, we can’t.” I took him at his word. We do talk, but we avoid talking politics.
In addition to his bicycle, Andy rides a big motorcycle. One of the uses he puts it to is escorting funeral processions and services. The Patriot Guard Riders are motorcyclists who, with the consent of the affected family, help shield the funerals of military men and women from the disrespectful protesters of Westboro Baptist Church. Westboro Baptist Church members claim that the deaths of American troops are a result of God’s anger at tolerance of homosexuality. The U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that under the 1st Amendment, their protest at funerals is protected speech.
The Guard place themselves between the Westboro church protesters and the funeral and block the protestors from view by holding up large American flags. If it seems appropriate they will drown out the protestors by singing patriotic songs or revving their engines.
I can easily imagine Andy, a vet himself, protecting the families of the fallen by standing against the protestors. It’s a good image. We may not be able to legally silence the ugly speech of the members of Westboro Baptist Church but with the help of men and women like Andy, we don’t necessarily have to see or hear them.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

God did not make the honey bee as big as a horse

God did not make the honey bee as big as a horse.
Had he made it so big, the bee would be stinging people to death.
God does not elevate
People who would ridicule the unfortunate.
God does not give power to those who would be wicked to their fellowmen.
No one gains anything through being wicked
So sing the Yoruba people of Nigeria in one of the songs from their religious tradition.

I’m glad that honey bees aren’t as big as horses. But I don’t believe God acts alone. If god is to be visible in the world, it will be through our actions. 

Some of us believe that depending on God to make things right is part of what has kept things wrong.
God has been replaced, for many of us, with other, non-theistic equivalents.  The notion of progress is one such equivalent.  Just as the people of ancient Israel had faith in God, so the people of the Enlightenment had faith in the power of education and reason and freedom to usher in a golden age.  But the descent of Germany, the most cultured and educated Western nation, into the evils of war and genocide in the 1930's has shaken our faith in the power of the Enlightenment.

Some would put their faith in the invisible hand of the market.  They believe that most of the social ills we are prone to would disappear if we only had enough jobs and the only way to create these jobs is by removing the burden of excessive regulation and taxes. In the best of faith, they tell us, “Trust in the market and we will grow our way out of injustice.”

I don’t believe in or hope for supernatural interventions by God.  But I also don’t believe in progress or the wisdom of the market’s vaunted invisible hand.  I do believe, nonetheless, that goodness will prevail.  I do believe that the wicked and the treacherous will suffer.  I believe that just as time heals all wounds, all heels are eventually wounded. I have confidence in the moral coherence of the world.  I believe that goodness cannot be forever mocked.  I believe that there is a moral order that will inevitably crush all tyrannies and punish all oppressors.

Yet, despite this belief, I often find it difficult to sustain my faith in the moral coherence of the world.  It often seems that the forces of hate and greed are winning and that they have always won.  It too often seems that might makes right, that brutality, intimidation, calculated self-interest and corruption have the upper hand in public life.

At such times, though, I need to remind myself that goodness and justice have prevailed and won against evil.   Or as the Unitarian minster Rev. Theodore Parker observed in 1853, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one….But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”