Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Discarded Books

Book Set 1
Originally uploaded by BDegan.
My wife is a library- media specialist in a middle school. One of the things that has to be done in a library is weeding older books to make way for new ones. I consider this a crime against nature.

A few nights ago I went out to her school during the evening to help her with some end of the year culling of the collection. My job was to stamp "Discard" on the covers, the title page, various interior pages, and on page 25. Apparently knowing about page 25 is kind of like a Masonic handshake. It's a secret code among librarians; they know that there are certain pages in a book whereby one stamps it into obscurity. It can be a perfectly wonderful book, even a Newberry Award winner. All it takes is one "Discard" stamp on page 25 and it is no longer in the catalogue that gives it life. Instead, it is cast off, despised, put on a book cart, and made available to anyone who will take it. If no one redeems it the book is then euthanized. I confess to being an accessory after the fact. I cannot bear the guilt. The ink is on my hands.

I cannot throw away books. My attic is a painful testament to that. We have in our house a room with two walls of floor to ceiling bookshelves. We have not read all those books. Not even close. But the thought of throwing them away is just too painful to imagine.

I once had a seminary professor who went blind. He could no longer read the books that had changed his life. He gave lectures on philosophical theology from memory, occasionally reading quotes from large type printouts with the help of a magnifying class. He got to the point of deciding to sell his library because he could no longer use it. I was involved in making the purchase on behalf of an institution for which I worked. He said that he had planned to price out the books individually. He would pick up a book and look at it, knowing that it was a "corner turner" in his own intellectual development. But he also knew it might mean nothing to anyone else. He told me, "It finally became too damn painful." So he slapped one price tag on the library that had shaped his life. The price he was paid was not even remotely commensurate with its value to this one man's intellectual soul.

Books aren't about paper and ink. They are the stuff of one's meaningful existence. To execute them is cruel and unusual punishment. Surely the Constitution protects them and all of us against that? I oppose the death penalty, but perhaps life in prison without books would be a fair punishment? I'm fond of library-media specialists, but someone has to take a stand.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ignorant Wisdom Explained (kind of)

NPR : The Wrong Guy, Take Two

As Todd pointed out in his comment about Tuesday's post regarding the BBC interviewing the wrong guy, there's more to the story than was initially explained. The above link to an NPR piece today also connects to a video from the BBC in which the two "Guys" tell their side of the tale while the anchors walk the thin line between professional embarrassment and off-putting humor.

As is usually the case, explanations tend to drain a story of all its fun. I hate to lose the taxi driver image, but oh well. Guy Goma remains a wonderful unsuspecting character who just bulls ahead, come what may. Just think, if he gets the tech job with the BBC he might suddenly qualify as the expert they mistakenly thought him to be. Boy, would that ever torpedo the dickens out of the cultural significance I tried to wring out of this fiasco.

Whatever the details, it is still a great story that has some truths, both humorous and serious, nested within it. Maybe the truth is personal to me, having sometimes been questioned where my "expertise" was assumed by the interviewer, even though way down inside I knew better. I'm sure I've reacted just like Guy Goma when he displayed that great look of shock and then immediately repressed it. I persuade myself that I've kept the look off my face and let it be written secretly on my innards, but who knows.

In the meantime I shall offer a hearty toast to the silent and forgotten "experts" the world around who never get three minutes on network television to express their opinion on things they know nothing about.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is Ignorant Wisdom Still Wisdom?

Revealed: The identity of the BBC's latest star | the Daily Mail

We're all used to the talking heads that impart their wisdom on the cable news shows every night. Somebody with specialized knowledge responds to questions about the hot stories of the day. Sometimes we mutter to ourselves about these so-called experts who tend to pontificate ad nauseam, knowing that millions of people are watching.

That's why it was so delightful to watch the mess that the BBC got in this week when they interviewed the wrong "Guy" in a story on Internet legal issues. Instead of Guy Kewney, an information technology specialist, the BBC asked questions of taxi driver Guy Goma, thinking it was Kewney. Apparently there was a mix-up in the waiting rooms and Goma, who was there applying for a job, got ushered into the studio for a live interview. Take a look at the video feed--the expression on Goma's face when they introduce him is absolutely priceless.

But the wonderful part of it is that Goma seizes the day and proceeds to answer the questions as if he knew what he was talking about. The comely anchor pressed on, perhaps thinking her guest too deep for her to fully comprehend his meanings on such technical matters. It isn't known if anyone made adjustments to their technology stock portfolios based on Goma's views.

So the question is this. How do we know that the opinions of a taxi driver on music downloads are less worthy of note than those expressed by someone's idea of an expert? Experts make bonehead statements at times. Sometimes they're flat out wrong. Once someone gets labeled an "expert" their views take on an implied stature that may be overblown and perhaps dangerously mistaken.

You could see Mr. Goma suck air when he heard himself being introduced as an expert on Internet technology. But he warmed to the task. What the heck! A guy learns a lot driving people around in a taxi. Might as well share some of that wisdom. Nice of the BBC to ask.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Standing up to "Christianism" My Problem with Christianism by Andrew Sullivan Please read this fine piece by Andrew Sullivan in Time. He is right to the point of several things I've been saying in this Blog. He just says it more eloquently and creatively.

I'm intrigued with his coining of the word "Christianism," distinguishing a political ideology from a faith (Christianity). He has put his finger on why I was so angry with churches and church leaders on the day after the 2004 election. It was not the result of the election that angered me, although I confess to plenty of distress about that too.

But my real problem was the way in which organized religion and its leaders (I was one of those at the time) contributed to the divisiveness and polarization of our society. Instead of being voices of reason, reconciliation, and hope many so-called Christians were in the forefront of demagoguery and name-calling. Christian values of love and respect for the worth of persons were skewered by preachers with a political agenda that equated Christianity with one political party and confused inauguration with ordination.

I know it is unfair to paint all religious leaders with one brush. Many work tirelessly on behalf of peace and justice without embroiling themselves in partisan politics. Those are the ones who are targeted by the Religious Right and marginalized in their own communities. Since when is support for carrying handguns under one's jacket considered a mark of theological faithfulness? Since when does favoring tax cuts for the most wealthy of our citizens demonstrate one's fidelity to Christian values? Since when does opposition to war become heretical and incongruent with religious principles? Sometimes I feel like we're reading different Bibles.

It's time to take back the ground that has been lost. This country is in a tangled mess militarily, economically, and morally. The disparate voices of people of faith need to be heard, not as oracles of heaven but as purveyors of reason. Let those voices be joined by the richly diverse perspectives that are needed if we are to build a national consensus with the wisdom to govern.

The Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution a "wall of separation" between church and state. That was not just to protect religion from the state, it was also to protect the state from religion. With the rise of Christianism we now see how insightful our founders were.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Political Vision and Faith Communities

Optimistic, Democrats Debate the Party's Vision - New York Times: "With Democrats increasingly optimistic about this year's midterm elections and the landscape for 2008, intellectuals in the center and on the left are debating how to sharpen the party's identity and present a clear alternative to the conservatism that has dominated political thought for a generation."

Ever since the 2004 election we've been reading quotes like this one in today's New York Times. It was abundantly clear by then that a central reason we had to endure another four years of the Bush administration was because the alternative party had no clear sense of direction. They were deficient in the "vision thing."

That was particularly true for "people of faith" who were looking for a voice that didn't sound like that of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. There was a hunger in the electorate for someone who understood that the faith community is far more diverse than the Religious Right would have us believe. All that was needed was a candidate who demonstrated a comfort with the language and perspectives of religious folk. Unfortunately, whenever John Kerry tried to address those issues it felt like he was scratching his fingernails across a blackboard.

Progressive people of faith want candidates who demonstrate an awareness of moral/ethical issues without suggesting that they are divinely commissioned to govern. They believe that a "culture of life" isn't limited to abortion or stem cells, but includes capital punishment and deadly wars, not to mention a "quality of life" for those who live in poverty. They believe that a budget is a moral document that speaks to the deepest values of the nation.

Some Democrats belatedly show an awareness of the problem and we now see efforts underway to create an identity and vision for the party. I suppose that's a good thing, but it's disconcerting to have politicos trying to whomp up a vision. That should be written into the bone marrow of those who would aspire to lead us. It's not the vision that should be debated, it's the implementation of that vision in policies and platforms that need vigorous discussion. Instead, we have a national political party in search of its own identity. How sad!

Faith and politics make awkward but needed bedfellows. Let us hope that the search for vision will be sufficiently matured by 2008 that the country will be able to dialogue meaningfully about the complex foundational issues we face. Those await clarity and passion from candidates who finally get it. We deserve at least that much.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Dealing With What Comes

Photo originally uploaded by Malingering.
This morning I did my daily three mile walk and was passed by a man in a wheelchair.

Okay, it was admittedly a battery-powered wheelchair, but it gave me pause nonetheless. I thought I was moving at a brisk pace and now this guy leaves me in his dust.

At the very same time I was listening to NPR on a radio strapped around my waist. They were doing a remarkable interview on autism. Suddenly I felt like some force in the universe was ganging up on me. Here I was feeling a little self-righteous about doing a regular exercise routine. I thought about how much self-talk it sometimes takes me to do my daily regimen, especially when my walking partner isn't available to offer the accountability (read "guilt") we provide each other.

Then unexpectedly I'm confronted with the faces and voices of people who really have been dealt a lousy hand, who really do arise each day to challenges I can only imagine. I looked at how they've managed and it shamed me.

Hopefully it also empowered me. I've always been fairly adaptable to new situations, but that is usually in the form of coping with culture shock while traveling, eating different kinds of cuisine, or dealing with road construction detours without denouncing everyone from the guy on the bulldozer to the governor. (I usually just start with the goveror and let the other guys off the hook.)

But sometmes I wonder if I have what it takes if it comes to the truly life-changing disabilites and tragedies that so many people have to deal with. Perhaps we never know until it happens. It seems like it's worth pondering now and then, however.

This morning after the guy in the wheelchair passed me I walked an extra lap and stepped up the pace a bit. Just seemed like the thing to do.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

High Stakes

Badminton Horse Trials 2006
Originally uploaded by paulwoolrich.
As I write this the Kentucky Derby is just an hour or so from post time. I'm not a horse racing fan, but I've long been fascinated by the incredibly high stakes that are decided by a two minute race. The investment in a thoroughbred horse with the potential to win the Triple Crown is tremendous. The breeding, the training, the physical conditioning all build up to one brief burst of energy in a tiny slice of time. So many things can go wrong in that two minute race, and often do.

One wonders what the horse knows. The winner gets a pretty good lifetime gig at the breeding ranch. Seems to me that's an even better deal than a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. I'll bet that fourth place finisher wishes it had laid off that extra bag of oats over Easter.

This reflection was prompted by the horse race, but it isn't really about the Derby or even about horses. It is about how everything can change in a flash. A single decision or unexpected event can have lifelong implications.

It's true in our personal lives. Sometimes we make choices that result in either dire conequences or extremely positive ones. We bemoan the choices that don't work out and wonder how life would be different had we zigged instead of zagged. What if we had gone another road?

There are some high stakes playing out in our nation right now. We're enmeshed in a deadly conflict in Iraq. It was a choice made with inadequate information and the consequences have been horrific. Now the saber is rattling again and Iran is in view. We have a political party in power that has lost the confidence of the people, and an opposing political party that seems to have no message and no viable messenger. But the issues are evident and everything comes down to a moment of decision--one sliver of time when somebody decides go or no go. Once that starting gate is open the race is on and it's two minutes and done.

With horse racing it's only money plus a little ego and reputation at risk. With Iran or Iraq or North Korea it's about life and death, with a generous portion of economic ruin and global disdain mixed in.

Oddsmakers don't "make book" on war--at least I hope not. But these enormous stakes are breathtaking and terrifying. The announcer at the Derby declares, "And they're off and running..." Oh if only the announcer in Washington could proclaim, "And they're off and run...wait a minute--it looks like they're still talking, still thinking, still negotiating. This is unbelievable! Ladies and gentleman, please return to your seats. The stakes are high. This may take a while."

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