Sunday, August 30, 2015

And the Walls Came Tumbling Up

"Walls, then, are built not for security, but for a sense of security. The distinction is important, as those who commission them know very well. What a wall satisfies is not so much a material need as a mental one. Walls protect people not from barbarians, but from anxieties and fears, which can often be more terrible than the worst vandals. In this way, they are built not for those who live outside them, threatening as they may be, but for those who dwell within. In a certain sense, then, what is built is not a wall, but a state of mind." (Costica Bradatan, "Scaling the ‘Wall in the Head,’" New York Times, November 27, 2011.)
The Berlin Wall comes down in 1989 after separating
East from West for 28 years.
Early on the morning of November 10, 1989, I rousted my two sons, aged 11 and 15, out of their beds and parked their sleepy bodies in front of the television so they could see what had been happening overnight. The Berlin Wall was coming down.  It was built in 1961 to prevent citizens from the Communist-controlled East Germany and East Berlin from escaping to the West. Over time it had become a stark symbol of the Cold War, no more so than in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan stood at its foot and demanded that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

To see this wall coming down brick by brick was a slice of history I didn't want my boys to miss. After all, as a naturalized U.S. citizen whose family relocated here from Canada when I was twelve years old, I had been schooled in the inscription appearing on the Statue of Liberty: 
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
So, having lived in a free Canada (though not tired, poor, huddled, or wretched) and in a free United States, I found the notion of a wall along national borders to be somehow incongruous, not to mention impractical.

In fact, walls and fences usually generate negative images. A few years ago a neighbor built a five-foot high wooden fence around their backyard because they had acquired a large dog and needed to keep it penned up. I understood the reason but was saddened by the loss of a clear expanse of land across the lots that covered our side of the cul-de-sac.

The Great Wall of China stretches not only across the miles
but also across the millennia.
I have long read about, and subsequently had the opportunity to visit, the Great Wall of China, which was built in fits and starts over the centuries. What is commonly thought of as the Great Wall today was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and took several hundred years to complete. If you count all sections of the Wall that ever existed, the process took over 2000 years. Obviously, it wasn't a short-term solution to the problem of keeping out the Mongols, Manchus, and other lowlights.

The present election season has ushered in a non-stop volley of nonsense about walls and immigrants that, while it generates both cheers and chuckles, has some serious and troubling issues at the core. Some of it tracks back to the 2012 election when Michelle Bachman proposed a fence to line the U.S./Mexico border and Herman Cain one-upped her by suggesting the fence be electrified. I guess the idea was to hear the hissing sound of illegals hitting the fence, just like mosquitoes make a similar sound when they fly into those bug zappers we put on our decks.

The 2016 candidates are all having to cope with explaining how sealing off a 1900 mile border with a 10-foot high wall is both feasible and affordable. Meanwhile, one of the candidates has now suggested that he would be open to building a wall to secure the U.S./Canada border as well. (Trust me on this, folks, I know a lot of Canadians and none of them have ever expressed a desire to slither on their bellies from Saskatchewan into Montana so as to be eligible for our healthcare system.)

Another candidate was inspired by a FedEx commercial and noted how they tracked their packages so efficiently. Why not apply that principle to immigrants who come in with legal visas but overstay their time limit, he asked? I suppose we could tattoo a barcode on their rump and just have them scan that wherever they go so we can track them down if they're overdue on their visitors pass. Or their library card.

This is great material for the late night comedians, but taking this either too lightly or too seriously has its own problems. I understand that we have an issue with securing borders and I know we are in dire need of immigration reform. But we are dealing with a 1,954-mile border and untold billions of dollars of unbudgeted costs, not to mention constitutional questions, profound issues of land acquisitions, environmental impact statements required by law, and fistfuls of problems that are already known, let alone those not yet known. Simply declaring that it can be done doesn't get it done, no matter how much bravado accompanies the declaration.

There is another deep-seated issue here, one I am not qualified to do anything about other than mention, deferring instead to psychologists and other specialists. But we have learned in school and life that we need to break down our walls. They prevent us from knowing ourselves, keep us from understanding one another, and cut us off from the Source of our being. This is the personal cost being exacted by a national agenda. Soon we will be walling off our cities, enclosing our homes, and locking ourselves in rather than locking others out.

There is something wrong, even slimy, about all this talk of walling ourselves off. It is starting to feel like the kind of society we have deplored, always pointing instead to our freedoms, our cultural melting pot, our respect for others. But now we are demonizing other countries and cultures and buying up bricks and mortar to build walls of exclusion, a fool's errand unlike any I have seen.

In a global society where our place in the world is more important than it has ever been, we are choosing walls instead of bridges. This is starting to have a deleterious effect on our national psyche. We are applauding crudity, disrespecting cultures, living in false fears, and making a laughing stock of our country around the world.

Walls are symbols of our failures. We talk of building walls because we have been unable to solve our problems with word and deed, and now we build a wall of blame that will become a wall of shame.

If we do this, some day in the not far distant future a Reaganesque leader will stand at this border and in a voice with a rising crescendo declare, "America, tear down this wall!"

And the world will cheer.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Garrison Keillor's America vis-à-vis the Dark Vision of Donald Trump

Saturday night my wife and I attended a stirring program at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City, featuring Garrison Keillor and members of the cast from his long-running radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. It will likely be the last live performance we will witness. Keillor has announced his retirement after a 41-year run. 

Over that time, which began the year our oldest son was born, we have listened to hundreds of his weekly programs, acquired numerous tapes and CDs, attended several live performances, and  in 2006 enjoyed a memorable cruise to Alaska which featured Keillor and his entire cast as the entertainment for the week. (In fact, that was the year I started this blog and here is a link to my post about APHC and that cruise, way back when.)

Keillor is an American original, a genuine folk humorist blessed with a musical capacity that bridges the genres and mixes it lightly with a comedic sense, impeccable timing, and self-deprecating charm. He is a storyteller par excellence. Sometimes when he starts one of his classic tales from Lake Wobegon, the mythical Midwestern town at the heart of his artfully created world, you wonder if the story will find its way back to an ending that is worthy of its telling. But usually, by hook or crook, he traverses the landscape he has imagined and lands adroitly on a moral point that is centered in the America he loves. And we love it too.

There will be a plethora of reviews, tributes, and retrospectives by the time Keillor hangs up his red shoes for the last time. Far be it for me to presume to assess his place in American culture, confident though I am that it will be notable indeed.

But there were some other stirrings in my soul the other night as I began to have a clearer sense of the kind of America Garrison Keillor paints for us each time he sits down on his stool in front of a microphone and begins to spin through skits, songs, and stories, a world that his audience recognizes in its heart, and yearns for in its head.

Unfortunately, my joy in the moment was tempered by an inner dissonance. I found myself contrasting Keillor's America with the one being bandied about in American society these days, led by an egocentric billionaire for whom money is the sole measure of value, force the pathway to security, and ridicule the commerce of diplomacy.  

His is a dark vision. It appeals to our baser selves. It is all prose and no poetry. It is a world without boundaries for those with their own helicopter, their name emblazoned on its side. It is a vision where every humiliating affront is declared as "just boys being boys." It is a vision composed of walls and armies and demagoguery. It is a society where building casinos is likened to building cathedrals. It is a dark and make-believe world that is being created and fueled by fear and empowered by hate. And this traveling salvation show is driven by one who declares there is nothing in his life for which he needs to ask forgiveness.

This is a dark and terrifying vision of America. 

But there is a better way.

Garrison Keillor also skewers American life and all its foibles. He makes fun of his religious upbringing and the strait-laced virtues of small town Lutheranism. Then he leads the audience in singing "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord." No malice here.

He would make fun of the notion of building a gigantic wall to keep “illegals” out, then put a perspective to it by returning us to old, familiar campfire songs like: “So wide you can’t get around it, so tall you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, you gotta go inna the door.” (That’s the way I learned it, anyway.) Somehow, this wall would so much more powerful in its symbolism if it wasn’t accompanied by the list of building supplies to be picked up at Home Depot.

Garrison Keillor lampoons bureaucrats in Washington, DC, with the best of them. His satire is incisive and just as penetrating, but it is not filled with personal loathing, as if every federal worker was stupid and on the dole. There is a difference between criticizing and demonizing.

If one vision of America is centered in personality and ego, Keillor's is self-effacing, his hair windblown but not intentionally so, his wardrobe often unfashionably askew, his ego undoubtedly fluffed by audience adulation but without illusions as to how important that really is.

Garrison Keillor's patriotism is inclusive. His concert tour lifts up the beauty of America, "from sea to shining sea." His audience is not a bunch of different people; it is one people under a canopy of heaven, singing songs we all know, laughing at ourselves, and celebrating the vast community that is America. The other vision is about "just us, not them." It appeals to an American exceptionalism that has winners and losers, and a puppeteer determining which victors get which spoils.

I am not an innocent drawn to quixotic causes, but I am a dreamer. I have been blessed to see a lot of this world, to experience its beauty and its brokenness. I have seen the worst and the best of people. I have seen the world changed by the simplest of persons, and I believe that leadership is a sacred gift proffered to us so as to help us be about good work in the world.

Leaders unite, they do not divide. Leaders respect, they do not ridicule. Leaders sing hymns, not their own song.

Garrison Keillor is not running for president, but his vision of America laughs, cries, and sings its way into our hearts. Sing along, lest we all get swept away into the darkness.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The 17th Candidate

Here are the 17 Republican candidates in alphabetical order, except for Jim Gilmore,
who apparently got in too late to meet the graphic designer's deadline.
I’ve been wondering what it must feel like to be the 17th candidate in the crowd of 17 running for the Republican presidential nomination. They vary from poll to poll — one day it’s Lindsey Graham, the next it’s Bobby Jindal, only to be supplanted by Jim Gilmore or George Pataki. It’s a tight race for the 17th spot, and there are quite a few deserving contenders.

I think too much attention is given to the front runners. Most commentaries focus on the absurdity of Donald Trump leading the pack or the stunning fall from grace of Jeb Bush or Scott Walker. Some zero in on the internecine war between Rand Paul and Chris Christie or the unexpected surge of Marco Rubio or Carly Fiorina. But what about the guys that are polling at 1% or less? They are the ones desperate to find a niche, willing to consider almost any scheme to be discovered. The battle to be dead last may be the most overlooked story of this presidential campaign.

I have heard some cynics dismiss all these Republican candidates as losers. This is grossly unfair to those who have fought hard for that designation and deserve the right to reap the fruits of their labors. Some have crafted carefully-considered position statements on the issues and posted them on their website. This is important, because Americans can go to that source and read what the candidate believes, after which they can then declare with full approbation, “Geeze, that guy is a loser.” It is lazy and unpatriotic to arrive at that conclusion without knowing what stupid positions they hold.

The fight for last place also gets confusing when we hear that some of the contenders have been endorsed by God. Some of us who believe in God tend to think He would go for somebody at least in the middle of the pack, if not the top five. I’m not suggesting God would line up for Trump just because he’s in first place — there are simply too many mixed metaphors in that relationship. And I would understand if He had trouble going with someone named Jeb, although God has worked with Esau and Nebuchadnezzar, so I suppose it’s possible. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve always thought that God looked with favor on teachers, so Scott Walker is probably not going to get the nod.

I could go down the list, but I just think that it is possible that the 17th spot is still in play for God’s support. The word on the street is that there are a number of God-centered Super PACs being formed. Some long-time contributors to Republican causes are murmuring (a biblical form of muttering) about the requirement that a 10% tithe comes right off the top of every political gift and goes straight to God. This has not been expected of Republicans in the past, but some of the candidates vying for the 17th spot are apparently willing to cut the deal.

Off the record, political insiders have said that lining up God’s endorsement brings with it a number of volunteers experienced in going door to door. However, seasoned political operatives are expressing concern that some of those canvassers are wanting to include their own pamphlets listing the social behaviors that will result in one’s eternal damnation to the firey pits of hell. Several of the candidates that the polls list as likely 17th-placers denied that they had agreed to this, indicating that negotiations were ongoing.

The other thing that must be disheartening is the ubiquitous publication of polling results in graphically embarrassing ways. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bar chart, a pie chart, or a line chart. When you are a tiny blip on a chart published on the front page of USA Today, surely you hope like the dickens that the girl you asked to the high school prom isn’t sitting there thinking, “Geeze, what a dweeb you turned out to be, Lindsey.”

Things are surely awkward at Thanksgiving and Christmas if you’re the 17th candidate. “So, what are you doing these days, George?” inquires a favorite aunt, feigning any awareness that you’re running for President of the United States but are trailing Bobby Jindal in the “Looks Presidential” poll on CNN. It’s a tough spot for families. Most want to be supportive, but nobody wants to back a loser and look like a fool. In politics, blood is thicker than water, but only if it’s distilled water.

To be in the trenches with the 17th candidate must be a tremendous head trip, if not a spiritual epiphany. It’s you against the establishment, the nay-sayers, the political pundits, the elites, the donor class, and your own desperation. But onward you go, bottled water in hand, and prognosticators be damned. “The last shall be first,” you declare, citing the Bible or Shakespeare or Judge Judy.

For the 17th candidate, there is one big danger. There is always the chance that you will be misquoted or misunderstood, and thereby come off sounding wise and interesting, accidentally setting off an unintended firestorm that catches the attention of Morning Joe or causes Donald Trump to belittle you. Then you will climb up a few points in the polls, lose your claim to the 17th slot, and be lost to history forever.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Five Things That Should Be Undebatable

No one should pay much attention to what I think about the candidates who debated on Thursday night, whether from the prime time stage or the losers table (for those who didn't make the Fox News cut).

There is very little likelihood that I will be voting for any of that group, so disgusted am I with the Republican obstructionist tactics over the past seven years. The disdain for the President is palpable and began the day he took office, thereby negating any argument that their disagreement is principled or policy-based. 

I have a point of view as to what drives the antipathy, but it will take some years for us to see it clearly. History will be generous to Barack Obama. Had the Disloyal Opposition honored the judgement of the voters in 2008 and again in 2012, and simply engaged in a good faith, bipartisan debate on the issues that prevailed in the election, this country and the world would be in a far better place.

But now, seventeen of those naysayers are asking the country to send them to the White House and, if successful, they will undoubtedly be expecting the graciousness and patriotism they denied their predecessor. If one of those aspirants to the Presidency is successful, I will be reaching down deep into my soul to find the wherewithal to give that person the support that any recipient of America's greatest treasure--its vote--deserves, and that Barack Obama was denied. Flawed human that I am, I probably will not be gracious. But I will try.

But in the meantime, we need to take a look at the process that we are now engaged in and speak some truth about what is happening in this electoral season. Here are some brief observations about five things that should be undebatable in a civilized society.

Politics as Theater. None of us should be under any illusion that politics is not, in part, theater. That is how politicians get attention, it is how parties generate enthusiasm, and it is how policies get cooked for human consumption. What we must understand, however, is that theater does not make a leader and, when used improperly, can destroy a leader. Like the Wizard of Oz or the emperor who has no clothes; it is all theater. So far, the Republican campaign has been driven entirely by a candidate who believes his words create reality and his bravado is his message. It's all theater. 

Political Correctness.  Donald Trump, confronted with misogynistic statements he has made about women, declared that he didn't "have time for political correctness." That answer received a raucous applause, encouraging him to repeat that defense in post-debate interviews. In fact, he worsened it by attacking the female interviewer who had asked the question in the first place. How much "time" does it take to refer to someone as a "woman" instead of a "fat pig?" Of course, there are some who take this to extremes, but Trump's name-calling is not about political correctness. It is about being rude, gauche, and demeaning. 

Respect for People. One of the foundational principles of our society is that people have worth, that ideas are fair game, but people are respected. Look back at the memoirs of political leaders over recent decades. Lyndon Johnson was one of the most ruthless legislators when he was majority leader of the U.S. Senate, and his arm-twisting techniques continued into his Presidency. But he also had respect for his opponents, befriended them and their families, and had the most formidable list of accomplishments of any president since FDR. At the same time, he genuinely cared for people and their needs, choosing to help the disadvantaged rather than demonize them. There are many criticisms one could level at LBJ; disrespect of people is not one. How one wishes that it would be so today.

Respect for Culture. In the 911 era, our country has moved from celebrating a rich, multi-cultural, melting pot to a time of distrust of other cultures and religious movements. Some of this is understandable, but it requires more of us in order to distinguish between cultures of hate and cultures of peace. Pride in American exceptionalism often leads to American exclusivism. We see this in the immigration debate, in the suspicion focused on mosques in American cities, and even in attitudes toward allies like France and Germany. Cultural diversity is a central tenet of American society and we should expect our political candidates to articulate and explain those differences rather than exploit them.

Faith and Culture. The Constitution built a wall of separation between church and state. Sometimes we forget that was to protect the state from the church as much as the church from the state. Our task, especially in a political season, is to honor and respect a candidate's faith without being expected to make that faith normative for the entire country. It gets tough when it comes to issues like abortion, but distinctions between personal beliefs and public policy must be made. There are several candidates in this race who believe they are called by God to public service, including running for president.  An anonymous quote I like is, "Seek out the company of those who are searching for the truth. But avoid at all cost those who claim to have found it!" Theological humility serves us all well.

The political year is off to a rough start. In the midst of many issues to be debated, perhaps there are some that ought to be undebatable--separating politics from theater, using words with care, respecting people and culture, and properly using our deepest faith commitments.

With foundation stones like that, we can have an election worthy of the American people and our place in the world.