Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Five Reasons for My Malaise in 2015

On July 15, 1979, with the country facing runaway inflation and long gas lines resulting from a frightening dependence on foreign oil, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation to discuss the dire issues facing the American people.

"The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways," said Carter. "It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation."

The speech was one of the most significant of Carter's presidency, coming about two-thirds of the way into his term, which would end 16 months later with a defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan. The speech described a flagging spirit in the country and called on Americans to sacrifice in an effort to stem the energy crisis and overcome our economic woes. Initial response was fairly positive, but soon thereafter political miscalculations and international issues started to take hold and the Carter presidency began to unravel, resulting in a humiliating defeat in 1980.

Then and ever since it has been tagged as his "malaise speech," although Carter never used the word in his address. In some respects it was an indictment of the American lifestyle, blaming consumption as a reason for the costly dependence on foreign oil. It was an unusual tone struck by the nation's leader; the president is usually expected to convey optimism and hope, delivering the message that all is well or at least that whatever ails us can be readily fixed.

Carter's speech came to mind as I have been thinking about what is going on in this country, trying to define a sense of unease, a fundamental discomfort, that I am feeling these days. Those words--unease, discomfort, a lack of well-being--are the very definition of "malaise." Maybe that is what I am feeling. If so, is it a justifiable response to the issues facing our American lives?

Here are some of the things that are informing my unease:

1. Money and Politics. This past weekend two billionaire brothers known for political activism around right wing candidates and causes announced that they planned to contribute and raise almost $900 million to support Republicans in the 2016 elections. This staggering sum is made all the more ominous when you realize that in the last presidential election the entire Republican National Committee and its two congressional funding arms contributed a grand total of about two-thirds of what the Koch brothers aim to infuse into the 2016 campaign. It is clear that the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which opened the door to unlimited corporate funding of elections, has been even more disastrous than predicted five years ago. The source of my malaise? Our election process, once a pillar of our democracy, has been bought and paid for. It feels like nothing you or I can do will make a whit of a difference.

2. Income Inequality. Oxfam has reported this month that by next year the wealthiest one percent of the world's population will control over half of the world's wealth. A year ago a similar study demonstrated that the 85 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as the poorest 50%, totaling 3.5 billion people. These numbers are so overwhelming that we mere mortals have no framework with which to understand them. Perhaps this will make it more applicable: data compiled by the AFL-CIO and published in Forbes shows that in 2013 American CEOs earned an average of $11.7 million, 331 times more than the average worker and 774 times that of a minimum wage worker. Current indicators are showing that this gap is widening, sometimes in dramatic fashion. I believe this is perhaps the signature issue of our time and it will lead to severe consequences if it is not brought under control. The source of my malaise? The guiding principle of our constitutional democracy, that all persons are created equal, is becoming a sham; inequality is the norm and division of the economic classes is the dangerous status quo.

3. Beheadings. Let's cut to the quick and blow off the bravado that deems to persuade the world that we are unmoved by these terrorists and religious or political extremists, no matter how horrific their acts may be. I am haunted by these images, terrified by what they mean to our families, to our kids and grandchildren. It is not the question of whether this might happen to someone I know or within some close circle of people or institutions I care about. It is instead the increasing foundation of violence that emerges naturally from a world increasingly defined by such brutality. It means more guns, more children dying in the streets, more crazed teenagers with disconnects in their brains and machetes in their hands. The source of my malaise? They don't just chop off heads in Friday the 13th movies anymore; terrible things are done by people who don't care what happens to themselves, and I don't know that we can stop it.

4. Justice and Fairness. It has been a tough year for justice in the streets of America. The debacle in Ferguson, Missouri, highlighted problems with policing, but even more it pointed to the sorry state of racism in our country. Ferguson, along with similar cases in other cities, demonstrated how fragile black/white relationships really are, despite the progress made over the past few decades. Other issues reinforce that point. Economic disparities, especially unemployment, fall disproportionately on African Americans. Race and economic class have more to do with prison incarceration and capital punishment than do guilt or innocence. And, despite the seriousness of the conflicts, there seemed to be an absence of leadership around these issues. The source of my malaise? Although I may have more hope here than other issues, I still found it deeply disturbing to see a return to riots and looting as a way of protesting inequities. By the same token, some police actions were reminiscent of the racial conflicts of the American South in the 1960's. I thought we were past that.

5. Deflation and Inflation in Entertainment:  If I may be forgiven a bit more whimsical point, I take it with assurance that there is a serious issue at its heart. I am weary of our preoccupation with deflated Patriot footballs and inflated Kardashian bosoms. I am a sports fan, sometimes enthusiastically so, and I can certainly understand the appeal of an attractive woman. I am not a prude nor an advocate of Queen Victoria, of whom it is said she would awaken in the middle of the night, fearful that someone, somewhere, was having a good time. But the fascination with trivialities like "Deflategate" and the obsession with celebrity culture is troubling. I know people who can enumerate the dating partners of obscure Hollywood personalities, many of whom are without talent, character, or ideas. But they walk the red carpet and that is why they matter. The source of my malaise? We are easily diverted from important things by a celebrity culture that often offers neither worthy ideals nor adequate role models. But widespread media coverage of this nonsense gives me little hope that it will change.

I considered other candidates for my malaise list, but some of them give reason for hope, so they don't qualify. Our healthcare system is a mess, but millions of people now have insurance for the first time and health care is on the national agenda, unless it gets derailed by money and politics.

I was tempted to grumble about the ineffectiveness of the church in the midst of these crises of confidence, hanging as many do on mindless Biblical literalism. But more and more we are seeing people of faith discovering fresh understandings within the texts, opening pathways to social justice. We will miss Marcus Borg, who died this month, but left a legacy of scholarship informing faith. And Pope Francis? Wow! I didn't think I'd see the day when I would point to the Catholic pope, especially in this time of ecclesiastical scandal, as a reason for having hope for the Christian Church.

I came of age in the 1960's, not an era of goodwill and harmony to be sure. People died in race riots across the country. An unpopular war in Vietnam put generations in conflict, many thousands perished in the jungles of southeast Asia, and college students emptied the classrooms and protested in the streets. Women defined their status as second class citizens and social, corporate, and family institutions conformed as women's roles evolved. Communitarian experiments vied with traditional family structures to reshape the way we live in relationship to one another.

It was a divisive time, but it was not a time without hope. To the contrary, I felt confident about the future and empowered with friends and colleagues to be agents of change. And we did make a difference. The country changed, especially on human rights issues, and ordinary people made that happen.

I want to believe that is still possible, but I'm not sure it is. This is probably the most pessimistic piece I have ever written and that saddens me.

There is one ray of light, however, and it is a bright and shining one. It is called Ashley and Ayla. They call me Papa. It is their world that we are creating. How can we give up on it?

Begone, malaise. Begone.